Indivisible: Chang and Eng Bunker

  • By Philip Gerard

Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker tour the world fascinating audiences. After a life in the limelight, they settle in Surry County and join their fortunes to those of the South. (Volume 2, Part 11)

Chang-and-Eng-Bunker

War comes to the ordinary citizen: the yeoman farmer, the tradesman, the tenant farmwife who works the fields, the child born into slavery. But it also overtakes the wealthy and famous.

Robert Todd Lincoln, the U.S. president’s eldest son, escapes Harvard University and his mother’s protective custody and serves on the wartime staff of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Col. Paul Revere, grandson of the famous rider who rallied the farmers of Middlesex to resist an incursion of redcoats in 1775, is wounded and captured at Ball’s Bluff in 1861. Repatriated, he leads the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers — the Harvard Regiment — into the debacle at Gettysburg, where he is mortally wounded and dies on the Fourth of July 1863. The regimental surgeon writes of him, “Brave, chivalrous, self sacrificing, gentle and generous, he set a noble example of private virtues.”

His brother, assistant surgeon Edward Hutchinson Robbins Revere, is killed at Antietam while dressing another soldier’s wounds on September 17, 1862.

Sampson Decatur “Sam” Sweeney is the last survivor of the famous Virginia Minstrels from Appomattox. He toured the United States and Europe along with his brothers, Joe and Dick. Now he enlists in Company H, 2nd Virginia Cavalry, in early 1862. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart recruits him to be his personal banjo player, and he accompanies Stuart on his daring campaigns until 1864, when he succumbs to smallpox.

Robert Livingstone, son of the famed missionary Dr. David Livingstone who was the first European to discover Africa’s Victoria Falls, enlists in the United States Army using the alias Rupert Vincent and is shot to death during a prisoner uprising at the notorious Salisbury Prison.

In rural Surry County, the war comes to a pair of world-renowned celebrities living quietly out of the spotlight on their farms: Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese twins.

Shared independence

Discovered at age 18 by an enterprising sea captain named Abel Coffin in the village of Meklong, Thailand, the twins are conjoined at the diaphragm by a ligature of skin and cartilage. For $500 Coffin secures permission from their mother to take them abroad until they are 21. He senses opportunity. Thus the twins embark on their first theatrical tour.

Both are quick studies. They pick up rudimentary English from deckhands on the voyage and learn the game of checkers well enough to beat any man on board.

They speak and write in the singular first person, “I, Chang Eng.” But they are distinct individuals. Chang, 5 feet 2½ inches tall — an inch shorter than Eng — is quick to anger, impetuous, and dominant. Eng has a more congenial personality. They achieve remarkable physical prowess: walking, running, swimming, rowing, even chopping down trees in tandem. To amazed onlookers, their movements seem almost miraculously synchronized, as if they can sense each other’s every muscle contraction in advance. In truth, they rarely speak to one another, yet the precision of their communication is uncanny.

Only once in childhood did they ever come to blows. Their mother rescued them from one another, warning that because they are inseparable, they cannot harm either without harming both. Chang and Eng must live in perpetual harmony with one another.

Soon they are seasoned world travelers feted by royalty and high society, at home in Boston, New York, Paris, Berlin, Antwerp, Dublin, Edinborough, and London — where 100,000 people line up to see them, and they are presented to the Duke of Wellington. At P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York, they entertain Albert, Prince of Wales. They perfect their English and banter with audiences, mimicking local accents, performing feats of acrobatics, and defeating local checkers champions. They pose for photographs, sign autographs, and shake thousands of hands.

In their off hours they develop a fondness for the outdoors: hiking, fishing, and hunting.

Convinced they have been exploited by Captain Coffin’s management, they engage a variety of new managers, growing ever more famous. Always they strive to maintain their dignity. They refuse to participate in carnivals and “freak” shows, presenting themselves onstage as they are in life: intelligent, thoughtful citizens of the world, each with a lively personality, a ready sense of humor, a keen sense of self-respect, and a great capacity for compassion.

They grow ever more individual in their tastes, demeanors, personalities, and opinions, yet they remain indivisible.

In New York they are admired for refunding the 50-cent admission price to patrons missing arms or legs. In Philadelphia a man squeezes Chang’s hand too hard, and Chang decks him but avoids jail because Eng is innocent. In Alabama when a doctor dares to examine them on a public stage, Chang and Eng simultaneously punch him; both pay a fine.

Everywhere they travel renowned doctors turn out to examine them, always in private, at the brothers’ insistence and usually in advance of a performance in order to drum up curiosity and interest. Dr. John Collins Warren, professor of anatomy and surgery at the Harvard Medical School, determines that Chang and Eng share exactly the same respiration and pulse: 73 beats per minute.

Another doctor experiments with poking one to learn if the other feels the stab; he does. Another attempts to strangle the cord between them and succeeds in making both twins sick. Part of the public’s enduring fascination with them resides in the question of whether they can ever be separated and survive.

What exactly is connected through that two-inch-thick, sinuous cord? Just how vital is the link? Can each survive on his own, a loving brother but physically separate? Or are their fortunes inextricable, their lives inseparable from each other’s, their bond truly indivisible?

The answers are contradictory and inconclusive. The doctors cannot agree.

Early in life neither twin can bear the thought of physical separation. On several occasions they almost dare it, but they always back off, reasonably afraid that any attempt to cut their bond might kill them both.

A place to call home

At last the Bunker twins tire of the endless travel and yearn for a permanent home. In their dressing room at Peale’s New York Museum they meet Dr. James Calloway of Wilkesboro. “The doctor told them that Wilkes County was replete with clear streams teeming with fine fishes; that the hills and mountains abounded with deer and wild turkeys,” an acquaintance records in his private memoir. “He invited them to come to Wilkesboro on their next vacation, assuring them the abundant courtesies of the town and country.”

In 1839, they take the doctor up on his offer. In Wilkes County they find both welcoming neighbors and the privacy they crave. Here they can make a life free of gawkers and the constant fatigue of travel. Before long they have made the area their permanent home, and on October 1 they swear allegiance to their adopted country in state superior court.

They are now Americans. And they join their fortunes to those of the South.

Ten years of constant touring netted them $10,000 — a modest fortune. They invest in farmland and purchase Trap Hill House. They install an extrawide stairway, so they can navigate the second floor.

Settled at last, they turn their thoughts to companionship and family. It is not long before love finds them and they begin to yearn for separation to pursue romance, but the surgery is still out of the question. So in 1843 their double wedding to the Yates sisters from nearby Wilkesboro provokes a minor sensation. Adelaide, 19, becomes the bride of Chang, and Sarah, a year older, marries Eng. For a wedding present, their in-laws present the twins with a Negro slave named Aunt Grace Yates. The unlikely marriages will last more than 30 years, and between them the twins will father 21 children.

As the families grow, so does the need for space. The Bunkers move to a large farm in Mount Airy in nearby Surry County, divide it into two farms with two houses, scarcely a mile apart and separated by Stewarts Creek. They donate land for the White Plains Baptist Church, a community-minded gesture since neither of them is known to be especially devout. They set up a rigid schedule of alternating their lives between the two homes. In each, one of the twins is absolute master. Every three days, they switch houses.

They farm the profitable bright leaf tobacco, corn, beans, peas, potatoes, and fruit. They raise cows, sheep, and chickens; keep bees; press their own chewing tobacco; and invest much of their profits in slaves. By the eve of war, they own 28 slaves, from small children to 40-year-old field hands, with a total net worth of almost $30,000.

They thoroughly adopt the culture of the region and record no sense of irony at owning slaves, although they remain bitter at being sold away from home for the profit of a sea captain. Some report that Chang and Eng routinely whip their slaves, but this information is countered in a testimonial signed by 13 neighbors in the local newspaper.

Fighting for the South

Chang’s eldest son, Christopher Wren Bunker — just 16 years old at the outbreak of war — is a slender, confident young man with a shock of dark hair combed back from his forehead and a rakish, neatly trimmed moustache. His features are a handsome blend of Chinese and European: a strong nose and chin below steady, intelligent eyes.

As soon as Christopher turns 18, he slips across the nearby state line and enlists in the 37th Virginia Cavalry. He is joined by his cousin Stephen Decatur Bunker — Eng’s eldest son — smaller in stature, with a rounder face and a plain, friendly countenance. Both are accomplished riders after long practice roaming the rural hinterland of Surry County.

Like other Confederate cavalry volunteers, they must supply their own mounts.

Christopher recounts to his younger sister, Nancy Adelaide, affectionately called Nannie, the details of hard duty in Tennessee in autumn 1863 in a letter:

“About two weeks ago we all went out on a scout and was gone about five days we travelled three nights and days before we made a halt. The seccond night got me it rained all night as hard as it could pour and we had to travell over the rockyest and the muddyest road that I ever saw and the next morning we ran up on the Yankee pickets and captured them and went on to a little town call Rogersville and there we saw a little fun catching Yankees, we captured about 150 Yankees and started back about twelve o’clock and travelled all night that night and in the whole scout we did not take our saddles off of our horses but once or twice and did not feed but once or twice a day and when we got back to camp every horse in the battalion had the scratches so bad that they could hardly travel.”

Winter is coming on, and the Confederate quartermaster has mostly run out of uniforms and other necessities. So, like other troopers, Christopher requests them from home, where things are hardly better. “You must knit me two or three pare of socks and a pare of gloves,” he writes. “I lost my gloves in that charge after the Yankees … you must make them and try and send them out here if you can for I do not think I will come home this month and you must send me another blanket for the weather is getting very cold out here.”

And they have run their horses into the ground with constant skirmishing and scouting in rugged country: “We had a hard time running of them and they running of us. My horse corked himself and became very lame and I had to leave him with a gentleman who lives five miles this side of Lexington … and if I should get killed or captured on this raid you can send and get him.”

The following summer, the 37th moves across the Potomac into Pennsylvania under the command of Gen. John McCausland and captures a quiet crossroads called Chambersburg. McCausland’s aim is to retaliate for Union Gen. David Hunter’s sacking of several towns in Virginia. McCausland demands a ransom of $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency, but the citizens cannot produce such a fortune. McCausland then orders the burning of the city.

McCausland’s own outraged subordinate, Brig. Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, reports what happened then: “At Chambersburg, while the town was in flames, a quartermaster, aided and directed by a field officer, exacted ransom of individuals for their houses, holding the torch in terror over the house until it was paid. These ransoms varied from $150 to $750, depending on the size of the habitation. Thus the grand spectacle of a national retaliation was reduced to a miserable huckstering for greenbacks.”

Johnson records numerous instances of robbery and theft of civilians: “Every crime in the catalogue of infamy has been committed, I believe, except murder and rape.”

The Confederates fall back on Moorefield, West Virginia, confident they are safe from any pursuing Yankees. But they underestimate the resourcefulness of the Union commander, Gen. William V. Averell, who is determined to avenge Chambersburg. His troopers disguise themselves in Confederate gray and move in pretending to be a relief column. The unwary Confederates are ambushed and routed. Christopher is shot out of his saddle.

His letter to Nannie proves all too prescient, although she does not need to journey to Lexington to claim his mount. A friend escorts Christopher’s horse, still spattered with his blood, home to Mount Airy. It takes some time before his family receives assurance that he survived the fight and is a prisoner of war.

Struggle and survival

In 1864, Christopher Wren Bunker finds himself at Camp Chase on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. The tract of flat, muddy ground collects rain in standing pools. Uncovered sinks funnel rainwater to the cisterns that contain the drinking water for more than a thousand prisoners of war. He shares a barrack with 200 other prisoners, who sleep on straw mats crawling with lice and endure periodic outbreaks of typhoid.

Early in the war, Camp Chase housed Confederate officers, who were allowed to swear a parole — their word of honor not to escape or commit violence. This privilege allowed them to come and go at will in full uniform, attending shows in town, even carrying sidearms and swords. They frequented the best hotels, and more than a hundred of them were attended by the slaves they took with them to war.

By the time Christopher arrives, such scandalous practices have been stopped. The officers are gone to special camps, lest they organize their captive troops into an uprising.

Likewise, the regulation daily ration has dwindled. In 1861, it included three-quarters of a pound of bacon or a quarter-pound of beef per day, augmented by bread, beans, potatoes, coffee, sugar, molasses, vinegar, and even a candle. But Camp Chase becomes notorious for the gristly slop provided by corrupt Army contractors.

To stay alive, Christopher and his fellow prisoners catch and roast rats. Chang Bunker sends his son money, and with it Christopher buys rations and a pocketknife. To pass the endless hours of captivity, he carves boats and musical instruments. His other solace is reading from a small Bible.

Smallpox sweeps the camp, and Christopher, already wounded when he arrives, is stricken along with several hundred others. He survives — as did his father and uncle when smallpox ravaged the twins’ Thai village during childhood.

On October 12, he writes a plaintive letter home. The penmanship is carefully penciled on lined paper, limited to a single page as prescribed in prison regulations: “I was captured the 7th of last August and brought to [t]his place. I have no news of interest to write to you as there are none allowed to come in prison. … I see no chance for an exchange. I have not seen many well days since I came to this place. I have had the smallpox and now got the diareea but I hope that I wil be well in the course of a week. … We are drawing very light rashions here just enough to keep breath and body.”

Stephen Decatur Bunker escapes the ambush at Moorefield, but he, too, is later wounded at Winchester. A surgeon cuts out a .44-caliber ball from his shoulder.

Meanwhile in April 1865, Gen. George Stoneman raids North Carolina from the mountains at the head of 5,000 cavalry troopers. After the war, locals will recount the story of how General Stoneman sought to bolster his ranks with conscripts chosen by a lottery wheel from a roster of local men older than 18. Officers draw Eng Bunker’s name, but not Chang’s. And Chang refuses to go. The befuddled troopers leave both twins behind as they gallop toward Salisbury, intent on liberating the Union prisoners there.

The event makes a wonderful tale, and reinforces the inseparability of the twins — no matter their differences of opinion, or politics, or luck. It is such a good story that a Philadelphia newspaper prints it.

But the tale is a fabrication. Stoneman has all the troopers he needs to burn Salisbury and ravage Virginia, and no authority to conscript anyone.

Until death

A few weeks later, the war finally comes to a close.

Christopher and Stephen return to Mount Airy to a joyful reunion, tempered by the painful reality that Chang and Eng are all but financially ruined. Their land remains, but their investment in slaves is gone, and their combined savings now amount to just $2,100. The state’s economy is wrecked, its currency worthless, its markets in chaos.

Aunt Grace and some of the former slaves remain, working for wages.

Chang and Eng, seasoned troupers, set out to recoup their fortune. At age 54, the Siamese twins go back on tour, sometimes taking along their wives and some of the children and returning home for brief respites. But age and life on the road take their toll. Chang starts drinking heavily. Eng likes to play poker at all hours of the night when Chang wants to rest.

Their lives, once harmonious, now tug against the bond that unites them. No longer do they share the same rhythm of breathing, the same pulse. One night in a drunken rage, Chang grabs a knife and threatens to cut their bond himself.

Chang suffers a stroke in 1870, and their show-business days end. Now both are preoccupied with mortality. If one should die, the other will be doomed. They make a pact with the local doctor that in the event of one’s death, the other will immediately be cut free. Whatever the risk.

Alas at 4 a.m. on the frigid morning of February 17, 1874, Chang dies in his sleep. Eng awakes in a cold sweat, terrified, and complains of excruciating pain. His wife rubs his legs and arms, but nothing she tries assuages his pain or dulls his terror. Before the doctor arrives, Eng utters his final, agitated words: “May the Lord have mercy upon my soul.”

Then he slips away.

Doctors from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia persuade the family to allow them to perform an autopsy. They determine that what the twins always knew in their hearts was true: They could not have been separated in life without fatal hazard. Their livers were connected through the band that held them no more than five inches apart for 63 years. Thus they remained inseparable unto death.

Their livers are preserved in formaldehyde for exhibit at the Mutter Museum.

Amid wild speculation that the bodies of Chang and Eng will be sold as medical curiosities, Christopher Wren Bunker and Stephen Decatur Bunker demand that the bodies be shipped home to Mount Airy. The Philadelphia surgeons honor their request.

But the family cannot run the risk of “resurrection men” looting the grave for profit. So they place the bodies in a single walnut coffin, and hide it in the cellar of Eng’s house for a year before carrying it across the creek and burying it under a holly tree in the front yard of Chang’s house. Forty-seven years later, in 1917, their coffin is dug up and reburied on the grounds of White Plains Baptist Church, the church that was the twins’ gift to their neighbors.

Christopher Wren Bunker and Stephen Decatur Bunker recover from their wounds and live long, full lives. In writing his colorful, vivid letters home, Christopher created the only known account by a Chinese-American veteran of the war.

For more information about the lives of Chang and Eng, including photos and family heirlooms, visit the “Hometown Heroes” exhibit at:

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History
301 North Main Street
Mount Airy, N.C. 27030
(336) 786-4478
northcarolinamuseum.org

Selected Sources

The author acknowledges with gratitude, the contribution of Tanya Jones, great-great-granddaughter of Eng Bunker for providing letters and family lore; thanks also to the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill; and the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. Published sources include William Best Hesseltine’s Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964); Irving and Amy Wallace’s The Two (Simon and Schuster, 1978).

Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was recently published by Hub City Press.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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