The Great Assimilationists

Wilson Special Collections Library/University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
A lithograph of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, along with their wives and children, 1860

A “monster” debuts in a tent show and becomes an overnight sensation. Gawkers jostle for a viewing, journalists angle for takes; in the crowd, expressions of reverent fascination vie with cynical dismissals and racist prurience. The monster says little, but the multiplying chatter tells its own story about the country where, certainly not for the last time, a sui generis American star has been born.

Chang and Eng, eighteen-year-old boys fresh from the Kingdom of Siam, faced their first audience in the ruins of Boston’s Exchange Coffee House in August 1829. Spectators marveled at their long queues and “Oriental” physiognomies, their charm and skill at chess. But the center of attention was the flexible ligament conjoining their breastbones—a nearly six-inch band of flesh that would serve throughout their lives as both tether and passport. Examining it shortly after their arrival, John Collins Warren, later the first dean of Harvard Medical School, pronounced Chang and Eng “the most remarkable case of lusus naturae”—sport of nature—“that had ever been known.”

The Siamese Twins would go on to become their century’s most famous human oddities, eliciting the enduring fascination—along with the pokes, pinches, tickles, and punches—of multitudes. Doctors sounded the mysteries of their union by needling each brother at random, or feeding one of them asparagus and smelling the other’s urine. People called them impostors, tried to convert them to Christianity, asked to examine their genitals; in London, physician Peter Roget, future author of Roget’s Thesaurus, ran an electric current through Chang and Eng to test the passage of “galvanic influence” between their bodies, placing a zinc disc in one twin’s mouth and a silver spoon in the other’s.

The attention must have been similarly shocking. But unlike so many nineteenth-century “freaks,” Chang and Eng parlayed celebrity into a private and prosperous American life. Quickly dispatching their exploitative management, they had earned enough by 1839 to stage a Jeffersonian second act, establishing themselves as gentlemen farmers in Traphill, North Carolina. Quite a distance from their hardscrabble origins in a Chinese-Siamese family of fishermen, Chang and Eng would live to see themselves landowners, husbands, fathers, citizens, slaveholders, and honorary whites.

They were pioneers in every sense of the word: Asians in America before the 1848 California Gold Rush; famous performers in a rural democracy yet to be “Barnumized”; and respected patriarchs of interracial families more than a century before Loving v. Virginia. Marrying two white sisters, they adopted the surname “Bunker” and fathered an impressive twenty-one children, two of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. As cultural figures, Chang and Eng were yet more prolific, begetting no end of scientific studies, metaphysical conundrums, Broadway burlesques, political cartoons, and scandalous exposés. They weren’t always in…

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