Chang and Eng Bunker were Thai-Americans, co-joined twins who were born in the Kingdom of Siam and inspired the very term “Siamese twins”. Though their co-joined bodies are interesting enough, it’s the fact that despite their physical limitations they managed to live wonderful lives and prosper that’s even more fascinating. They owned and farmed land, married two sisters, had as many as 22 children and were held in high regard by their neighbors. They were the original Siamese twins, and this is their life story.
Chang and Eng Bunker were born on May 11, 1811, in the Kingdom of Siam, now Thailand, with fused livers and a bridge of cartilage. When they were eighteen, a Scottish merchant named Robert Hunter paid their parents to allow him to exhibit the twins as a curiosity.
The Bunker twins were born to a Chinese Thai fisherman man and a Chinese-Malay woman in the province of Samutsongkram, near Bangkok. Apart from their fused livers and being joined at their breastbones by a small piece of cartilage, their bodies were independently complete. After their death, their liver was preserved and can be found in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1829, Robert Hunter, who was living in Bangkok, paid their parents to let him take the twins around the world and be presented as an exhibit.
After finishing their contract with Hunter, Chang and Eng Bunker purchased an 11-acre farm in North Carolina, bought slaves, and on April 13, 1843, married two local women. Chang and his wife had twelve children, and Eng and his wife had ten.
Deciding that they wanted to live a normal life, the twins bought themselves a farm near Traphill while visiting Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1839. They settled on their plantation and bought slaves for the work they could not do on their own. They also became naturalized American citizens and married Adelaide and Sarah Anne, who were also sisters. Though they had a bed built for four, years later the sisters moved out and moved to separate houses arranging for the twins to stay at each house for three days.
With the defeat of the Confederate Army, in which both Chang’s son and Eng’s son served during the American Civil War, the twins lost most of their money. They had to resort to public exhibitions but had little success. However, despite their financial situation, they were well-known for their honesty and integrity and were held in high regard by their neighbors.
The Bunker twins died on January 17, 1874. Chang died first during his sleep due to an injury he sustained after a fall from a carriage which resulted in subsequent bronchitis. Eng woke up to find his brother dead and died three hours later.
Four years before his death, Chang suffered a stroke and his health declined steadily afterwards. He also took to drinking heavily. However, Eng was never affected by it as they didn’t share a circulatory system, and he remained healthy. Sometime before his death, Chang and Eng fell off a carriage injuring Chang. He later developed severe bronchitis which led to his death when still asleep.
Eng woke up to find his brother dead and reportedly said: “Then I am going.” Though a doctor was summoned to perform an emergency separation, it was too late for Eng who died three hours later. The cause of Eng’s death is unknown and there have been many theories that have tried to explain it. While the doctors at that time said it was shock, modern neurologists say it was probably fluid accumulation in lungs and heart failure.
Chang and Eng Bunker now have over 1,500 descendants who continue to reside near Mount Airy, North Carolina. Many of them hold prominent positions, and one of them Caroline Shaw even won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.
Among Chang and Eng’s prominent descendants was Caleb V. Haynes who was a Major General in the United States Air Force; his son Vance Haynes who served as a professor at several universities and was known for his foundational field work in human migration; Alex Sink who was the former chief financial officer of Florida and 2010 Democratic nominee for governor; George F. Ashby who was the president of Union Pacific Railroads; and Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Chang and Eng Bunker were buried in Mount Airy where many of their descendants still often meet for reunions. In July 2011, around 200 of them met to celebrate the twins’ 200th birthday which was also their 22nd annual reunion.