Thursday, February 4, 2016

Secret Origins

The Amalga-Mates: The World's First (and Second) Siamese Twin Superheroes!
Part 4
by Terence E. Hanley

In his review of May 15, 2012, comic book writer, collector, and fan Tony Isabella wrote:
My specific quibble on the second issue [of Five Star Comics] revolves around the Amalga-Mates. Beside being pretty sure "Siamese twins" is now considered an insensitive/offensive term, the story was poorly done and seemed to mock its heroes. The [Five Star] collective should be a bit more choosy in what it publishes in this anthology.
Mr. Isabella isn't the first and won't be the last to assume that Siamese twins is an insensitive or offensive term. If you ask the question on the Internet--"Is the term Siamese twins offensive?"--you'll find plenty of people who say, "Yes." There are, of course, people who are looking everywhere for offense, especially in regards to racial, national, and ethnic categories. They are determined to be offended. Their determination is certain to pay off. There are also people who have fallen into political correctness. They're afraid of making any untoward reference to race, nationality, or ethnicity. Phrases like "getting your Irish up" or "Welshing on a bet" are verboten. They have probably decided that the term Siamese twins, because it refers to nationality--thus indirectly to what they call race--falls into the same category, like calling someone with Down syndrome a "mongoloid" or referring to people from East Asia as "Oriental." They don't understand the origin of the term and that it has nothing to do with any particular group--unless you consider a pair of brothers who became internationally famous simply because their bodies were congenitally joined to be a group. (1)

Chang and Eng Bunker (they adopted the surname while in the United States) were born on May 11, 1811, on a houseboat in the river village of Meklong, west of Bangkok in what was then called Siam. Their father, Ti-eye, was Chinese, while their mother, Nok, was three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Siamese. The twins were born entangled in each other. When they were untangled, it was discovered that they were bound at the breast by a fleshy ligament between them. Neither the locals nor the people of the greater part of Siam had seen such a thing before. Because of the nationality of the twins' parents, Chang and Eng were first referred to as "the Chinese twins."

Chang and Eng grew up strong and able. They learned to walk, run, play, swim, and handle a boat together. Chang, the twin on the twins' own left, was an inch shorter but "was the dominant member of the two and the more quick-tempered," wrote their biographers, Irving and Amy Wallace. "Eng," on the twins' own right, "was more agreeable, compliant, and docile." (The Two: A Biography, 1978, p. 24) Nonetheless, the two fought, though only once in childhood, until their mother "reasoned with them, [explaining] that their condition made any more fights impossible." (p. 24)

In 1824, Robert Hunter, a Scottish trader, met the boys while they were engaged in selling duck eggs in Meklong. He became acquainted with the whole family and conceived of the possibility of taking the Chinese twins on a tour of the West, where he would exhibit them as a curiosity to paying crowds. Finally, after seven years' delay, on April 1, 1829, Chang and Eng embarked on the American vessel Sachem for Boston. They arrived four and half months later, on August 16, 1829. Thus their careers and lives in the West began. They would never again see their mother or their homeland.

In their shared career, Chang and Eng traveled throughout the United States and in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, and Cuba, drawing large crowds and earning large receipts. On June 1, 1832, having reached majority, they went out on their own as performers and exhibitors. Called "the Siamese Double Boys," "the Siamese boys," or "the Siamese youths," Chang and Eng called themselves "Siamese Twins" in a letter written in 1832. If the term is offensive, then the offense began with the original Siamese twins.

In 1839, the Siamese Twins traveled to Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Then only twenty-eight years old, they had been on the road for more than a decade. It was time, they decided, to retire from the public eye and settle down. They bought a store and a farm and on April 13, 1843, married a pair of sisters, Sarah "Sallie" Yates, wife of Eng, and Adelaide "Addie" Yates, wife of Chang. From those marriages issued twenty-one children. Chang, the dominant brother, bested his twin by one.

Although they were Whigs, Chang and Eng kept slaves, twenty-eight in all by 1860. "The Siamese Twins were rumored to be hard on their slaves," wrote the Wallaces, "sometimes whipping them." (p. 192) Christopher Bunker, Chang's oldest son, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was captured by Union forces in August 1864. (2) Eng's son, Stephen Bunker, also served and was supposed to have been a prisoner of war as well. Both men survived the war.

Having lost a good part of their wealth (i.e., their slaves) in the war and its aftermath, the Siamese Twins went on tour again beginning in November 1865, traveling in the United States and Europe. They returned to North Carolina in 1870 knowing they would never travel again. By then they had lived in Mount Airy for many years, and that's where they died, at home, on the morning of January 17, 1874, Chang first, followed by Eng about two hours later. Although physicians thought them to have been surgically separable in life, a postmortem examination determined that "the twins' lives would unquestionably have been endangered from shock and subsequent inflammation" had they been so separated. (Quoted in Wallace and Wallace, p. 324) Their headstone reads, in part:

Siamese Twins - Chang and Eng
Born in Siam

Again, if the term is offensive, then the makers of the twins' own headstone, and the twins' own families, are among the offenders.

Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace closed their 1978 biography of Chang and Eng Bunker with a list of artifacts remaining from their lives. "But something more significant remains," the Wallaces wrote. "In the dictionaries of the world lies their immortality:
Siamese Twins. 1. congenitally united twins . . . 2. any twins joined together in any manner."
The Wallaces concluded with words that the habitually offended and politically correct might consider:
     They have become a part of the language, every language. With the birth of any Siamese twins anywhere, the Siamese Twins are resurrected in memory.
     In North Carolina, they sleep their eternal sleep together. In the world, they live, perhaps forever. (p. 339)
(1) None of this is to imply or suggest that Tony Isabella is looking for offense or is politically correct. It's obvious that his reference to the supposed offensiveness of the term Siamese twins is only an aside and was not his main point. I met Mr. Isabella at PulpFest in 2014 and in the short time I talked to him, he impressed me as a regular, down-to-earth, friendly kind of guy. I also don't want anything I have written here to lead anyone to think that we at Five Star Comics have any bones to pick with Mr. Isabella because of his review. He made a legitimate criticism of "The Case of the Nutcase," and it's something we take seriously. The story has its problems. We hope we will be more careful in our choices in the future, just Tony Isabella advised.
(2) Christopher Bunker served under Brigadier General John McCausland in his invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1864. As a prisoner of war, Bunker was held at Camp Chase, now partly a cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, the city in which the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (S.P.A.C.E.) and PulpFest are held every year. After the war, General McCausland retired to a large farm, "Grape Hill," near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, which, as we all know, is the home of Mothman and a family named Gibeaut.

Further Reading
  • The Two: A Biography by Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).
  • The Mystery and Lore of Monsters by C.J.S. Thompson (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1968).
  • A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural by Maurice Bessy (Feltham, Middelsex, UK: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1964), "Conjunction of Opposites," etc., pp. 119-124.

The original Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang, in a portrait by Larry Blake.

Art copyright 2016 Larry Blake
Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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