As a boy in the second grade, my favorite reading outside of Mad Magazine came from the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, where I first discovered Chang and Eng Bunker.
There they stood: brothers connected at the chest, immaculate in matching coats and vests, arms around each others’ shoulders. I knew their lives 30 years before I saw their grave in Surry County or read their biography. More than a century past their deaths, they remain the world’s most famous conjoined twins.
Which puzzles me.
Two hours south of Raleigh, sisters Millie-Christine McCoy lived a life that equals and even rivals the Bunker twins for its dignity, adventure and triumph over ugly profiteering. Born slaves, attached near the tailbone, they learned to speak at least five languages. Sold to traveling showmen, they sang and danced for audiences around the world, including Queen Victoria, earning the stage nickname “The Two-Headed Nightingale.”
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But I’d never heard their names until last week. They’ve gotten one brief mention in this newspaper since 1984. As far as I can tell, they’ve merited one modern biography – not a big seller compared with Chang and Eng’s turn as a critical favorite. Mayor Terry Mann of Whiteville, nearest town to the McCoys’ remote Columbus County grave, said interest in the McCoys is rare.
“Every once a while, something pops up,” Mann told me.
So I made a pilgrimage to Welch Creek, 103 years after the “Carolina Twins” died together in the same bed. I hope they didn’t regard me as a gawker, the same sort of rubberneck who paid pocket change to see them at the N.C. State Fair. I just think that notoriety is flighty and arbitrary, and I wanted to scribble a few notes to help turn its attention.
I’m guessing that Columbus County counts as the largest obstacle to the McCoys’ greater fame. Chang and Eng had a farm in Traphill, which enjoys a wider reputation thanks to the neighboring folklore. Tom Dula and poor Laura Foster. Andy Griffith and Aunt Bee.
Welch Creek, by comparison, makes Mayberry look like a neon circus. I don’t imagine much has changed since the McCoys’ birth in 1851. In the 10 minutes I spent at their graveside, I heard nothing but birds and a single cow.
I’d read what I could in advance so as not to feel such a stranger. I knew they’d been bought and sold multiple times. I knew they’d outlived the Civil War and slavery, returning to their home as free women. I knew they considered themselves one person, always saying “I” rather than “We.”
I’d read the freak show posters:
“In partaking of food, she EATS WITH BOTH MOUTHS; she SINGS DUETS and BALLADS, one voice being a CONTRALTO, the other a SOPRANO,” read one flyer entitled “A Human Miracle.”
I’d read the condescending newspaper reviews:
“They sing well, in fact excellent; and dance divinely, considering the manner in which their limbs and body are constructed. They know they are a curiosity, and feel anxious that the public should appreciate their attractiveness. We have no hesitation in declaring them to be the most extraordinary exhibition of a peculiar and ‘indissoluble union’ we have ever witnessed,” read one from Wisconsin.
And I read this passage from a 19th-century history, sold for 25 cents at their shows, purported to be told by “one of them”:
“One thing is certain,” it said. “We would not wish to be severed, even if science could effect a separation. We are contented in our lot, and are happy as the day is long. We have but one heart, one feeling in common, one desire, one purpose.”
It’s said they died 17 hours apart in 1912, Millie of tuberculosis, Christine singing hymns and weakening while still attached to her dead sister. Their gravestone, one of the nicest epitaphs I’ve read, tells the rest:
“A soul with two hearts that beat as one.” Put that in your Guinness book.
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Sign vanishes; more conjoined twins
▪ A historic sign stands at U.S. 74/76 at Red Hill Road in Columbus County honoring Millie-Christine McCoy. At least, it stood until recently; a family member called the state to report it was gone. A new one has been ordered and delivered, but it is unclear to the state and to this columnist, who arrived at the cemetery from the opposite direction, whether it has been erected.
▪ Ansley Wegner, a research historian with the N.C. Office of Archives and History, notes that North Carolina was home to a third set of conjoined twins: Daisy and Violet Hilton, who appeared in the 1932 film “Freaks.”