Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
When I was a child in Pennsylvania my teacher used SRA reading cards, a self-determined reading comprehension program that allowed students to progress from one reading level to the next at their own pace which appealed to my competitive nature and delivered up information on many topics which appealed to my unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
One of those cards was about Chang and Eng Bunker, the original ‘Siamese Twins.’ I was fascinated by them. For me, an only child at the time, the thought of never being alone was incomprehensible. Today, a 50-something grandmother of four, I still can’t get my head around the idea.
As I lead tours through the museum and into our ‘Home Town Heroes’ gallery on the second floor, I hear many others wonder about it as well. Living where the famous twins made their home, most of us know at least one member of the family. Of their 21 children, all but two grew to adulthood and 14 of them had at least one child, some had many more. It is estimated there are 1,500 descendants strewn across the country.
We know the basic story: The boys were born in Siam (today’s Thailand) in 1811 where the village elders feared their birth foretold ill luck. They were brought to the West as teens, and exhibited in ‘freak shows.’ They fell in love with North Carolina, and with two Wilkes County sisters, bought land outside of Mount Airy and some slaves and settled in to raise tobacco and families. If they had never fathered children, they would have had a lasting impact on society.
Their very existence is remembered in the phrase conjoined twins are commonly referred by, Siamese Twins. They are also responsible for the original scientific term given for the study of their condition; teratology, “the study of monstrous formations.”
Even in death, their autopsy was considered essential in better understanding the human condition even if it didn’t clearly identify the cause of death. After Chang died in his sleep, Eng died two-and-a-half hours later. Some doctors believed he died of a heart attack or fear. Others that he slowly bled to death as blood flowed into but was not returned from his deceased brother.
The men also exhibited a remarkable sense of honor and work ethic in their personal lives. Even though they realized the man who brought them to America cheated them, the twins fulfilled the terms of their contract with him.
As it is, many of their multitude of offspring have added to the positive impact the Bunkers have had on the world. The family has produced members involved in their communities, states, and nearly every profession.
To name a few with no slight to any others: Carolyn Regier Moomaw, a research specialist who’s worked with such organizations as St. Jude’s Research Hospital and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has published dozens of on a wide range of medical topics; Jim Haynes who served in the Air Force, worked with NASA and became an engineer and VP with Uniden Corp, an early leader in wireless communications;
Dozens of veterans from Stephen “Dock” Bunker, and Oliver Wendell Bunker in WWI to the present; Jo Allen, a professor’s wife who successfully battled the disease of alcoholism and spent the rest of her life helping others fight it;
Jessie Bunker Bryant who was a nurse and constant volunteer for a number of projects, not the least of which was the Walburg Home Delivered Meals Program of which she served as president — her body of work earned her the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service in 1993 — and her cousin Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council followed, who earned the award in 1998.
The list goes on from the humble beginnings on a farm in the Kingdom of Siam more than 200 years ago.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228