“A Characteristic Group, Representing Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, with Their Wives and Children
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art/The New York Public Library
book excerpt / culture

Just Like Us

Boston and Providence meet the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.
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To construct such a perspective, to tantalize the audience’s deep psychic complex without turning them off, was a delicate balancing act, a lucrative art that P.T. Barnum and his ilk would practice to perfection in the coming decades. A widely publicized report on the twins ended with a reassurance to the viewing public: “Let me add that there is nothing unpleasant in the aspect of these boys. On the contrary, they must be viewed as presenting one of the most interesting objects of natural history, which have ever been known to scientific men.” According to the Boston Bulletin, the twins “are taught no tricks to enhance the foolish part of an exhibition, but are allowed to conduct as they please, naturally and easily, according to the momentary dictates of their feelings.” Their exotic and abnormal appearance was shocking enough, and letting the twins act like a “normal” human being further intensified the sense of the uncanny: The monster is just like us, and yet so different.

After their sensational debut in Boston, the twins were then taken to Providence, only fifty miles to the south. New to the country and still struggling with the English language—newspapers reported that the twins would “master three or four English words every day”—they knew little about American geography. Traveling in an enclosed carriage, the twins arrived in Providence, a city of about seventeen thousand people, where they were greeted by thousands of curious gawkers. By this time, the twins had added new routines—somersaults in tandem, quick backflips, and occasional challenges to members of the audience for a game of checkers or chess. Once, to amuse the spectators, the twins, weighing together no more than two hundred pounds, carried a 280-pound man around the exhibition hall.

Barely a month into their debut, the twins had already provoked intense debates over matters of religion, soul, and individuality. The fact that they were simultaneously two and one had provided not only a rare specimen for the medical professionals but also ample food for thought for theologians, philosophers, and amateur thinkers. 
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