Chang and Eng: The Bunker Twins

Grave of Chang and Eng Bunker, White Plains Baptist Cemetery

Having left Wytheville, Virginia before the sun was up, I was headed to Winston-Salem to spend the day. It had been years since I had last visited the region and I wanted to make the best of the day at historic Old Salem.

However, I had a planned stop that morning on my journey to the historic village. Following Interstate 74 southward, I skirted the town of Mount Airy and exited south on Route 601 and found my way to old Route 601. I had driven a short distance on the older road when I noticed a white North Carolina historical marker on the left side. Just past it I turned left onto the lot of the White Plains Baptist Church, and parked in front of the older of the two church buildings.

I walked over to the historical marker and read the information presented about the two brothers buried nearby. After I finished reading the historical marker, I followed the roadway to the rear of the cemetery where an information stand offered pamphlets to visitors. I picked one up before turning my attention to the resting place of the cojoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, which was close to the front of the cemetery.

The brothers were born May 11, 1811 in Siam, which is now known as Thailand. The twins were born attached to each other by a four-inch wide piece of skin . Named Chang and Eng, the brothers were the sons of a Chinese fisherman. When their father died in their pre-teen years, the brothers began selling duck eggs to provide for their mother and siblings.

When Chang and Eng were thirteen, they were noticed by Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant, who wanted to take the twins to Europe. The king of Siam refused to allow the brothers to leave with Hunter. Hunter and Captain Abel Coffin, offered Chang and Eng’s mother $3000 to allow the boys to go with them. Their mother would only receive $500 and the boys were spirited out of the country when the king gave permission for them to go with Coffin.

At the age of eighteen, the brothers signed a touring contract with Hunter and Coffin. The brothers would tour America to be displayed for the curious. They were paid ten dollars a month plus expenses. At the height of their tours, the brothers were making $1000 a month. Note: The brothers toured under the promotion of “The Siamese Twins,” due from originally being from Siam. Sadly this headline they toured under caused many cojoined twins to be inappropriately referred to as “Siamese twins”

The brothers proved to be extremely intelligent and quickly learned the English language and by 1832 they left Coffin and took charge of their own touring. They toured public halls, where they gave speeches and performed acrobatics. To help promote their performances, the brothers allowed the local doctors to examine them – the word of mouth from these doctors helped promote their tours.

In 1839, the brothers met Dr. James Callaway from Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Callaway invited Chang and Eng to visit his home for a break from their tour schedule. The brothers accepted, fell in love with the area and soon bought land in North Carolina.

That same year, the brothers were naturalized as American citizens. As a part of the naturalization process, they needed to provide a last name and they choose the name Bunker. Note: the origin of their last name differs. The most common one I found states they took the name after a friend from New York. However, the pamphlet from the White Plains Baptist Church states they took the name after Fred Bunker, who was in line behind them, offered the brothers his name for their own.

In North Carolina Chang and Eng would meet Adelaide and Sarah Yates, the daughters of a wealthy farmer. Chang fell in love with Adelaide and they soon wanted to marry – Sarah agreed to marry Eng. Although the brothers were well-liked, the parents of Adelaide and Sarah objected. The brothers would eventually gain permission and on April 13, 1843, the double marriage was performed at the Yates’ home.

The brothers moved their families to Surry County, where they purchased a thousand acres. Both families lived in one house for nine years, but in 1852, living conditions changed. Due to conflicts within the family, Adelaide and Sarah would live in their own houses. Chang and Eng agreed to live in one house for three days, before living in the other for three days. Whichever brother’s house they were in, that brother made all the decisions without the other questioning – this arrangement would be upheld by the brothers for the remainder of their lives.

Between 1849 and 1870, the brothers returned to touring, mostly to support their large families. Chang and Adelaide had ten children, while Eng and Sarah had eleven children. The brothers had to increase their touring at the end of the Civil War, when their slaves were set free and they were no longer able to operate their farms. At the end of the 1870 tour, Chang suffered a stroke, leaving his right side partially paralyzed.

On January 17, 1873, Chang passed away in his sleep at the age of sixty-two. Several hours later, Eng joined his brother. The brothers were sent to Philadelphia to be autopsied and have a body cast made. The cause of death for Chang was a blood clot in the brain and Eng’s death was never determined. What was discovered was the brothers had a shared a liver.

The fear that somebody might steal their bodies, the brothers were initially buried in the basement of Chang’s house and later were reburied in the front yard. In 1917, after the death of Adelaide, the brothers were reburied at the White Plains Baptist Cemetery, on land sold to the church by the Bunker Twins. Note: Although Sarah is listed on the tombstone, she was not buried with her husband. Instead, she was buried on the family homestead when she died in 1892 and her body was not reburied with Eng.

I finished paying my respects to the brothers who left their mark on the world stage and left them to rest in the shadow of the church building.

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