Originally published on Torontoist on April 1, 2015.
The Leader, September 28, 1853.
Unfortunately, based on the press of the day, we cannot tell you what Torontonians who paid their seven-and-a-half pence to see the novelty of conjoined twins in October 1853 thought of the spectacle. Apart from ads such as this one, there was no coverage.
Not that Chang and Eng Bunker would have wrested much space in the city’s main four-page newspapers, the Globe and the Leader. Beyond ads, the papers devoted most of their space to hyper-partisan political coverage, foreign dispatches, and agricultural items. For example, the day after the twins’ visit ended, feature-length space was dedicated in both papers to a speech given by a British professor in Montreal on a topic the Globe described as “exceedingly interesting and instructive.” The stirring speech’s subject probably appealed to farmers who subscribed to the papers: the history and industrial uses of flax.
What we did determine was that after their engagement at St. Lawrence Hall, the twins moved on to a three-day appearance in Hamilton.
The first conjoined pair to be dubbed “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng (1811-1874) were first displayed for the public to gape at in 1829. When they reached their age of authority in 1832, they cancelled their performing contract, having tired of being treated as second-class citizens compared to their managers. They moved to rural North Carolina in 1839, giving themselves the last name “Bunker” after their banker in New York. The brothers became perfect southern country gentlemen, owning 28 slaves and supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Their visit to Toronto in 1853 was among their periodic returns to touring, necessitated by supporting their 21 children. Note that today’s ad presents the brothers with a degree of dignity; rather than scream “look at the freaks!” the Bunkers appeared at a “levee” within the civilized confines of St. Lawrence Hall. It’s a better approach than shown in a dispatch the Globe published in 1869 while the brothers toured England. British writer Frank Buckland seemed relieved that London’s drought of freak exploitation had ended. “For the last two or three years,” Buckland observed, “there has been a lamentable dearth of exhibition of extraordinary people and things.”
While sailing back from Europe in 1870, Chang suffered a stroke while playing chess with the ship’s captain. Eng helped his brother move around for the next four years, until both died on January 17, 1874. The autopsy revealed that the brothers never could have been separated, due to a shared liver.
Additional material from American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005); the October 5, 1853, March 13, 1869, and December 1, 1870 editions of the Globe; and the January 20, 2001 edition of the Globe and Mail.
The Globe, March 19, 1869.