The Guinness Book of World Records supplies many engaging facts about conjoined twins, such as the identity of the first doctor who successfully separated a pair (that would be Jac S. Geller, who executed the groundbreaking surgery at Cleveland’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 1952). But the only photo you’re likely to see is that famous, pained portrait of the brothers whose Siamese heritage gave their condition its nickname. Born in 1811, Chang and Eng Bunker would eventually become wealthy North Carolina plantation owners — both married, and with an alarmingly large brood of children between them.
Now, a Sandhills, N.C.-based writer seeks to distinguish another pair of North Carolina twins — Millie-Christine McKoy, who were born in Columbus County, conjoined and enslaved, in the summer of 1851.
“Although we speak of ourselves in the plural, we feel as but one person,” Millie-Christine was fond of pronouncing. In the introduction to Millie-Christine, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2000), Joanne Martell notes that “whether to speak of Millie-Christine as ‘she’ or ‘they’ posed a problem. [Her mother] Monemia McKoy said ‘my baby’ or ‘my child.’ Family members called her ‘sister.’ But most people outside the family looked at Millie-Christine and saw twins. … I handled the problem the same way Millie-Christine and people who knew her did — by using either form, as seemed appropriate to the context.”
In a recent phone interview, the snowbound author further pointed out that: “In their poetry, they talk about themselves as one person, and so many people that knew them well do, too. It’s interesting: [During exhibitions] they [would speak] to two different people on two entirely different subjects; you knew there were two of them — and yet they really felt like one.”
Publicists working on Martell’s current regional book tour tout Millie-Christine as “one of the strongest black women you’ve never heard of.” And indeed, Millie-Christine — as famous as the Bunker twins during her lifetime — was largely forgotten after her death in 1912.
The author has not yet formed a precise theory as to why: “In their own time, they were truly well-known,” she notes, preferring to emphasize the twins’ undeniably remarkable life.
“When you first hear about Millie-Christine, you think, ‘Oh, how awful, how sad.’ But when you learn how wonderful she turned out, how satisfied she seemed, the people that I speak with end up thinking, like I do, that they were just terrifically brave women.”
When she was still a baby, Millie-Christine was sold to Joseph Pearson Smith, a Wadesboro merchant who contracted with a man named Brower to exhibit the twins. After showing her off at North Carolina’s first state fair, Brower traveled with Millie-Christine to New Orleans — where she was kidnapped by an unidentified Texan. In subsequent years, the twins turned up at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City — among other venues — before being rescued in England by Smith and Millie-Christine’s mother, Monemia, in 1857.
After securing Millie-Christine’s return to the states, the Smith family undertook to manage her “career” themselves. Even the end of slavery in 1863 had little impact on her singular situation: “To Millie-Christine, legal freedom meant no more in her daily life than it ever had,” Martell writes. “She’d been ‘free’ early on, in Philadelphia and Boston and New York, ‘free’ when she crossed into Canada … ‘free’ in England even after Smith arrived to claim her back.”
But the Emancipation Proclamation did allow the twins one measure of control: “Millie-Christine insisted on one big change. Now that she was her own mistress and free to set her own rules, there’d be no more intimate examinations by curious doctors in every town. … Surely, there was nothing new to see or feel that countless doctors hadn’t already reported in graphic detail.” The twins were joined through the pelvic region, and examinations, ostensibly performed to establish her validity as a “freak of nature,” had heretofore preceded her public debut in every town. But the twins’ declaration of privacy had some troubling repercussions: More than a few peevish doctors answered it with a public announcement of fraud.
Nonetheless, Martell’s research indicates that the deeply religious Millie-Christine was largely content with her life. Under the Smiths’ management — and through a constant regimen of touring — she became an international star, learning to speak five languages fluently and play the piano (or rather, two pianos, appropriately angled). Millie-Christine was also a prolific composer of songs and poetry and an accomplished dancer, if the effusions of newspaper reporters of the day ring true.
By middle adulthood, she was able to purchase the plantation on which she’d been born.
In chronicling Millie-Christine’s stint with a traveling outfit called the Great Inter-Ocean Railroad Show, the author paints an intriguing portrait of 19th-century circus life. “Generally, [circus people] were in their own special kind of world. The twins were living at a [relatively] good time. Later, people began to talk about ‘freaks’ in a different way. But [in those days], people were pretty respectful of them being a wonder,” Martell revealed in our interview.
There were exceptions, of course. In 1881, the twins published this delightfully acerbic retort to a rival showman who had maligned them as “repulsive”: “I cannot refrain from expressing to you my gratitude, after seeing the good taste (something no one else has ever given you credit for) displayed by you, in speaking of repulsive people … that you do not mention yourself as one of them, for we of education and refinement, Mr. Uffner, would seriously object to having one classed with us who is so devoid of [the] traits by which a gentleman is characterized as yourself. If people lived to as great an age in these days as some of them did in olden times … no doubt you would grow to be a more monstrous monstrosity than you are, but sir, you would never be a gentleman.”
Martell says her own life is enriched daily by her knowledge of Millie-Christine: “Any time you hear about somebody who really has the odds against them, and turns out as well as [she] did, it’s really inspiring. When something little is wrong, I think, ‘What am I complaining about?’ [Her story] has really stayed with me.”
Millie-Christine’s own great-great-grandnephew, Lloyd Inman, calls his aunt “one of the greatest black women of her time” — a sobering distinction, for her. Explains Inman: “She said that, when God made her, he gave her two heads and two brains, because her responsibility was so great.”