In the town known for Andy Griffith, she Found Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
On a cold winter night in 1874, Eng Bunker knew he was going to die. Lying next to him in bed was his dead brother Chang. “Then I am going,” Eng cried in anguish.
A doctor was summoned. “But the doctor arrived too late,” says Tanya Jones. “Eng Bunker died shortly after his brother.”
The brothers were 62 years old. Cause of death for Chang was pneumonia. For the relatively-healthy Eng, the cause was given as “fear.” The world’s most famous conjoined twins died as they had lived – together.
When I was a child, I thought the name “Siamese Twins” was used to describe all conjoined babies. I didn’t know there actually were two brothers born in Siam with a band of flesh connecting them at the chest.
Mount Airy NC
I also didn’t know the brothers ended up in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where they attended the Baptist church, married sisters, fathered 21 children, died on Jan. 17, 1874, and are buried in the local church cemetery.
Each year, descendants gather for a family reunion in Mount Airy on the last weekend in July.
My reason for visiting Mount Airy was to write about native son Andy Griffith so I was surprised to learn about the twins. Tucked away on the lower level of the Andy Griffith Playhouse is a fascinating exhibit on the Bunker brothers.
But the real treasure, I discovered, is the director of the Surry Arts Council – Tanya Jones, great- great- granddaughter of Eng Bunker, and a wealth of information about her ancestors.
Surviving the odds
Born on a fishing boat in an impoverished village in Siam (now Thailand), Chang and Eng entered this world on May 11, 1811. “They were born face to face but their mother worked with them, stretching the band until they could stand side by side,” Tanya says.
One day, an American sea captain saw the brothers swimming and decided he could make money charging the public to see the twin oddities. “He offered their mother what would have been a large sum of money to take the twins for four years,” Tanya says.
“He told their mother that they would return at the end of their four-year contract. Chang and Eng never did return to Siam.”
Leaving their home on April 1, 1829, the Siamese Twins traveled the world. “They weren’t kept in cages where people paid to see them,” Tanya says.
“People would pay to come into a room where they could see and talk with Chang and Eng. The twins were tutored because the more entertaining they were, the more money people paid to see them.”
Charming and intelligent, the twins became popular celebrities. Doctors requested to examine them and the brothers always sought advice on how they could be separated, how the 5 ½-inch bond about the width of a child’s arm could be severed.
“At the time, it was thought such a surgery would be too dangerous. They probably both would have died,” Tanya says. “Today, it could be safely done.”
At the end of their four-year contract, the 21-year-old twins declared independence from their agents and set off on a life of their own. A North Carolina doctor who had become their friend invited the brothers to visit him.
“Chang and Eng liked to hunt and fish,” Tanya says. “They were tired of traveling and one-night stands and thought it would be nice to have a home and that North Carolina would be the perfect place.”
In 1939, the twins applied for U.S. citizenship and took the last name of Bunker in honor of a friend and became farmers. “That was a big deal,” Tanya says. “Chang and Eng were the first Buddhists to enter this county and the first Asians to become citizens of this country.”
Settling down, starting a family
The brothers married two sisters – Adelaide and Sarah Yates, daughters of North Carolina Quakers. “The big concern at that time was not that they were conjoined but that they were Asian,” Tanya says. “Interracial marriages were very frowned upon.”
The brothers and their wives lived in one house for 12 years until the family outgrew it. Building another nearby house, Chang and Eng alternated spending three days in one house where Chang would be master, then three days in the other house where Eng would be boss.
To earn money to support their families after their assets were lost in the Civil War, the Siamese Twins went back on the road.
It was on returning from Liverpool that Chang suffered a stroke partly paralyzing his right side. Eng’s health seemed unaffected by his brother’s declining body the last two years of their lives.
Museum photos taken after Chang’s stroke show Eng seeming to support his brother’s slumping body.
With Chang’s multiplying health problems and affinity for alcohol, an arrangement was made for a local doctor to separate the two if Chang died.
But things didn’t go as planned. Chang and Eng are buried in White Plains Baptist Church Cemetery near Mount Airy.
One of the interesting museum items is the twin’s will. “I encourage people to look at their will to see the essence of what they were,” Tanya says.
During their lifetime, the brothers made sure their daughters were educated which was unusual for the times. In their will, they also left money for Chang’s two deaf children to attend a special school for the deaf.
“The Siamese Twins may have been famous and unusual,” Tanya says, “but they worked very hard to maintain their dignity and live good lives. They loved their families just like other fathers.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Mount Airy Visitors Center at (800) 948-0949, visitmayberry.com