"I think it's an incredible, inspiring American immigration story," Alex Sink said of her forebear, Chang Bunker. "America was always the beacon of the place where somebody could come and build a successful life, and they came here with nothing."
If the names Chang and Eng Bunker don't ring a bell, they are the famous conjoined brothers who were the original Siamese twins. You might have heard of them, or seen their picture, but their story is much more than a medical case study.
Born on a houseboat in 1811 in Thailand (called Siam at the time), the boys set sail for America at the age of 17 with a Scottish merchant, Robert Hunter, and an American ship's captain, Abel Coffin. When they arrived at their new homeland, the twins became instant stars touring across the country, in a show of acrobatic feats.
"These included somersaults or lifting weights or playing badminton [with] each of them holding a racket and hitting the birdie back and forth," said University of Wisconsin Eau Claire professor Joe Orser, author of "The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth Century America."
But the conjoined twins weren't just gawked at; they were also funny and engaged their audience. During one show, they noticed a one-eyed man in the audience and told him they'd refund half of his admission fee because, after all, he'd only seen half of the show.
After touring for more than a decade, at the age of 28 the twins decided to settle down in rural North Carolina, and this is where the tale really gets interesting.
In the latest episode of the CBS News/Simon & Schuster podcast "Mobituaries," Mo Rocca traveled to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Mount Airy, North Carolina, to learn of the Bunker twins' amazing story of grit and courage, with many surprising twists and turns, at a family reunion of descendants of Chang and Eng Bunker.
They are, as one T-shirt reads, the family that "sticks together."
For more info:
- "Mobituaries" (Simon & Schuster)
- Follow @MoRocca on Twitter
- "The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth Century America" by Joseph Andrew Orser (University of North Carolina press), in Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History" by Yunte Huang (Liveright/W.W. Norton), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- Surry Arts Council, Mount Airy, N.C.
- The Chang and Eng Bunker Project at the University of North Carolina