Born on May 11, 1811, in what is present-day Thailand, the sons of an impoverished Chinese fisherman were quite possibly the most unlikely candidates to become Mount Airy, North Carolina’s most famous residents and plantation owners of the 19th century.
Fused together at the sternum, Chang and Eng were conjoined twins who garnered a reputation in their community as being fiercely independent, despite literally being connected at the hip.
Lacking any technology that would have the capability of revealing how dependent the brothers were the organs of the other, doctors agreed that separating the twins would be too risky and therefore the brothers were sentenced to an inseparable lifestyle.
In their childhood, the boys quickly learned to run and play with other children and even helped support their family by gathering and selling duck eggs in their Thai village, where they were known as the “Chinese Twins”.
In 1829, a Scottish merchant who was living in Bangkok at the time saw the twins swimming and realized their potential. He paid the boys to permit him to exhibit them as a curiosity on a world tour. When their contract with Hunter was over, Chang and Eng went into business for themselves.
Having just wrapped a tour of Europe that netted them a fortune, the duo’s travels brough them to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1839.
There, at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, the brothers instantly fell in love with the hills of western Carolina and purchased an 110-acre farm in the nearby town of Traphill.
Determined to live as normal a life they could, Chang and Eng settled on their small plantation and bought slaves to do the work they could not do themselves. Using their adopted name “Bunker”, they married local women on April 13, 1843. Chang wed Adelaide Yates, while Eng married her sister, Sarah Anne. The twins also became naturalized American citizens.
The couples shared a bed built for four in their Traphill home. Chang and Adelaide would become the parents of twelve children, while Eng and Sarah had ten.
During the American Civil War, the slave-owning family would support the Confederate States of America and by war’s end had lost a significant proportion of their wealth.
Compounding their troubles, being married to a pair of brothers joined together proved far more taxing than the Carolina sisters could have imagined and their lives soon denigrated into endless quarreling.
The 1900 edition of Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, stated, “They lost a part of their property, which consisted partially of slaves, by the war, and were very bitter in their denunciation of the government in consequence. After the war they again resorted to public exhibitions, but were not very successful. Their lives were embittered by their own quarrels and the bickering of their wives; and they returned home, with their tempers much soured and their spirits depressed, after a decision by the most eminent European surgeons that the severing of the band (which both desired) would prove fatal. Notwithstanding this, they always maintained a high character for integrity and fair dealing, and were much esteemed by their neighbors.”
With their wives and odds, vying for control of their home, the brothers made the decision to separate their households, and homes were purchased west of Mount Airy, North Carolina in the town of White Plains. The brothers would alternately spend three days at each home.
After touring Liverpool in July 1870, Chang suffered from a stroke during the return trip and in the years ahead, his health would dramatically decline.
Further worsening their problems, Chang became a heavy drinker (Chang’s drinking did not affect Eng as they did not share a circulatory system).
Interestingly, despite his brother’s ailing condition, Eng remained in good health.
Sadly, on the morning of January 17, 1874, Eng awoke to find his brother dead. Terrified, he screamed out, “Then I am going.”
A doctor was summoned to perform an emergency separation, but the physician was too late – Eng died later that morning.
Though gone, the Bunker Brothers’ mark upon American society remains even unto this day.
Together, the men fathered a total of 21 children, and their descendants now number to more than 1,500.
Prominent descendants include:
- United States Air Force Major General Caleb V. Haynes
- Alex Sink, former Chief Financial Officer of Florida, and 2010 Democratic nominee in the 2010 Florida gubernatorial election
- George F. Ashby, was President of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1940s
- Composer Caroline Shaw, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013
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