For two guys who lived during the 1800s when the modes of travel didn’t include jet planes or bullet trains, Eng and Chang Bunker certainly managed to get around.
That was a theme emerging Friday afternoon during a presentation by the author of the latest book on the pair who lived in Surry County, “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History.”
Yunte Huang was speaking at the Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy in conjunction with the 29th-annual Bunker Reunion Weekend in which descendants of the twins are celebrating their legacy through a variety of activities. Some of those folks were in the audience Friday afternoon to hear Huang, an English professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, discuss his book.
The travels of Eng and Chang provided much of his focus, including the departure from their native Siam, and an ocean voyage late in their lives between Liverpool, England and New York City which included an eventful chess game.
To help illustrate the author’s talk Friday afternoon, copies of a handwritten contract were distributed to audience members detailing how the Siamese Twins — who like Huang actually were Chinese — left their homeland now known as Thailand. The original contract is in the possession of the Surry County Historical Society.
Eng and Chang, who were born in 1811, were “discovered” when they were 13 years old by Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant who saw them swimming in a river and thought it was some kind of sea monster.
After realizing they were conjoined at the bases of their chests by a small band of flesh, Hunter — along with Capt. Abel Coffin Sr. — realized money could be made off the twins by exhibiting them in “freak shows” as curiosity pieces, the author related.
Hunter and Coffin bought Eng and Chang from their mother for $500, essentially making them slaves, the author says. That arrangement also apparently required striking a deal with the King of Siam. The contract was signed on the day of the twins’ departure from their homeland, April 4, 1829, when they 17.
After arriving in America, they were exploited at numerous shows around the country in which people would pay 25 or 50 cents to see the brothers do tricks such as somersaults and backflips in addition to witnessing their physical oddity.
Eng and Chang broke away from this bondage at age 21 and toured on their own, becoming rich enough to retire and eventually settling in Mount Airy in 1839.
The two gained U.S. citizenship and married Quaker sisters in 1843, Huang detailed, and although they had been enslaved before becoming farmers, bought slaves themselves after initially receiving one as a gift from their father-in-law.
Later slavery link
The brothers, who each amassed large families, were true Southern patriots who supported the cause of the Confederacy by sending two of their sons to fight in the Rebel army during the Civil War while also investing heavily in Confederate bonds.
When the North emerged victorious, it cost them heavily, including the loss of slaves who represented a large chunk of their wealth.
“So they were financially wiped out,” Huang said during his presentation.
This led the twins to go back out on the road to rebuild their fortune. In 1870, Eng and Chang embarked on a trip to Europe with two of their sons, which was cut short by a desire to avoid the approaching Franco-Prussian War.
This coincided with the main theme of Huang’s talk Friday, “A Game on the High Seas,” which detailed their voyage from Liverpool to New York aboard the Cunard Royal Mail steamer the Palmyra.
Ocean travel at that time was a long and tedious affair, and the twins sought a way “to kill the boredom,” Huang explained.
This led to a chess game that other Siamese Twins authors have reported included either Frederick Douglass or a Liberian leader as the opponent.
Huang said he was extremely excited about the irony of former slave owners playing chess against Douglass, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist.
“Unfortunately, it ain’t so,” the author said of that scenario.
But verifying the identity of the true opponent, then-Liberian President Edward James Roye, proved just as noteworthy, added Huang, who showed a slide of the ship’s passenger manifest during his presentation.
“I thought that was as dramatic as if they had been playing the chess game with Frederick Douglass.” Roye also had been born in the U.S. and was the son of a fugitive slave before migrating to Liberia, where the Founding Fathers endeavored to establish a colony of free blacks.
Writing about one particular aspect of Eng and Chang Bunker’s lives proved to be emotionally draining for the author, he admits: their passing in 1874.
Chang had a reputation as a heavy drinker and suffered a stroke in 1870. He eventually died on a cold January morning in 1874.
Huang said this left his brother facing a terrible predicament.
“Suddenly Eng realized his shadow is gone — and is experiencing being alone for the first time,” the author said during a recent interview with the C-SPAN television network in which he discussed his book. “Those were horrifying hours.”
Eng lingered for some time before dying.
“It’s kind of hard to fathom that existential crisis in some ways,” Huang said in the C-SPAN interview regarding Eng’s final hours, “the depth of horror and the feeling of loneliness.”
The author told his audience Friday that he spent much time in Mount Airy while researching his book. This included a cold night in 2005 when Huang stayed at a local campground where one of the twins’ farms was located, not in a camper but a rented Jeep Cherokee.
Huang wanted to be in such a spot as part of a belief of Oriental culture in which “the spirit of a place still lingers” from those who were there before.
“This is truly a great American story,” he said of the Siamese Twins saga.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.