Do you know how Chang and Eng Bunker met their wives? 

At the end of this month, from July 27 to 29, over 1,000 people, all related to each other, are expected to gather in North Carolina to celebrate one of the most fascinating love stories in American history.

And none of this may ever have happened without an Irish immigrant.

This story begins way back in 1811, in the part of the world then known as Siam.  It was in May of that year that two twins were born to a fisherman and his wife. They were named Chang and Eng.

Chang and Eng would go on to become famous the world over.  They were born conjoined, the duo that would give us the phrase “Siamese Twins.”  They spent their entire lives physically connected to each other, all the while managing to make a fine living off of the public’s fascination with their condition.

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That fascination really has never ended.  Earlier this year, scholar Yunte Huang published the latest book about Chang and Eng, entitled "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History."

And later this month, when many of the descendants of Chang and Eng gather in North Carolina for the 29th annual family reunion, a camera crew from CBS will chronicle the event.

Obviously, much of this story is disturbing, even unsettling.  It could be argued that the Scotsman who noticed the brothers swimming one day and saw dollar signs exploited Chang and Eng. 

On the other hand, Chang and Eng eventually went into business for themselves and were able to more or less run their own affairs.  Either way, the brothers traveled the world as a fascinated public gaped and gawked. 

Eventually, however, Chang and Eng decided that they wanted to settle down in America—North Carolina, to be specific.

It was there they met an immigrant from Ireland named Charles Harris, who earned his living as an accountant. He also became something of a manager for Chang and Eng.

It was at Harris’ wedding to Fanny Baugus that Chang and Eng were first introduced to Sarah and Adelaide Yates.  The sisters were not yet 20, but they were both smitten by Chang and Eng, so much so that the Yates sisters eventually married the Siamese Twin brothers.  And so began this extraordinary love story. 

Family portrait c. 1865. Image: Public Domain.

Family portrait c. 1865. Image: Public Domain.

One might suspect there would be various concerns about intimacy and other matters, given that Chang and Eng always had to be present whenever the other did anything.  If there were issues these two couples overcame them, because the Yates girls eventually gave birth to over 20 children between them.

Aside from the Irishman who brought these families together, there is so much more about Chang and Eng that raises complex questions.  Despite their own status as racial minorities, they were sympathetic to the Confederacy during the Civil War and even owned slaves. The duo was even counted as “white” when it came to the complex racial categorizations required in the South at the time.

In this sense, like so many immigrants before them, Chang and Eng actually provide a fascinating insight into the American experience.

But in the end, it is hard not to be most fascinated by the long lives—and many children—the brothers and Yates sisters produced.  And not merely the more lurid aspects of the story.

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Many locals were not exactly happy that the Siamese Twins were marrying the daughters of a well-respected Southern family.  A band of angry men even got together and broke windows at the Yates home, calling on the family to end the potential marriage.

But the foursome persevered.  They established separate homes and lived in each house every other week.  And though the Yates sisters never publicly revealed much about their private lives, several of each couple's’ children were born within days of each other.

And so, when all of those distant relatives gather in North Carolina later this month—thanks to twins from Siam, two Southern belles and an Irish immigrant—they will do so as a quintessentially American family.

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