Our two most famous citizens

If I asked you to name our state’s best-known citizen, living or dead, whom would you suggest?

Hint: What if I said to think of people of who lived in Mount Airy?

I bet you would then say Andy Griffith. After all, his still popular TV show was set in Mayberry, which was based on his hometown, Mount Airy.

But, long before Griffith was born, long before television, two world-famous men moved to Surry County farms near Mount Airy.

They were known all over the world as Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins. Still, today, more than 140 years after their deaths, people all over the world know about the two brothers, who were joined together, from their birth in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811 until their deaths near Mount Airy in 1874.

Lots of people can tell you the basic facts. After growing up in Siam, they came to the U.S. and were displayed throughout the country and Europe before settling in North Carolina, marrying sisters, and having all together more than 20 children.

Most people do not know many more details.

But scholars and storytellers are still digging up new facts about our state’s most famous citizens. For instance, Joseph Andrew Orser’s “The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America,” recently published by UNC Press, reexamines the basic facts of the twins’ lives. It challenges earlier understandings of the meaning and lessons of their experience for today.

Orser’s “Chang and Eng” is more than a standard biography. Using the reactions of 19th Century Americans and Europeans to the twins, it becomes also an examination and evaluation of social attitudes about race, ethnicity, slavery, immigration, citizenship, and the exploitation of the unusual and deformed.

Orser also recounts a host of interesting facts about the twins that his readers might have forgotten or never knew.

For instance, the twins, though born in Siam, were really of Chinese origin. Their father was certainly Chinese and their mother may have been partially Chinese. So why weren’t they, and therefore all other conjoined twins who came afterward, called Chinese Twins? One of their managers, James W. Hale, explained one reason. They were “more likely to attract attention than by calling them Chinese.”

I have always wondered why the twins, after traveling all over the U.S. and Europe, chose to settle down in rural North Carolina, first in Wilkes County and later in Surry.

Their 1839 decision to settle in Wilkes Country was, Orser writes, “well orchestrated: it was not spur of the moment.”

In the big cities, he explains, the twins “were too closely linked to their public exhibition and their foreign origins; there was little room in the North for them to settle down to lives of quiet respectability.”

Amazingly, they did settle down, acquiring separate farms and families and dividing their time between them. They became U.S. citizens, acquired and managed slaves, and when the Civil War broke out, they supported the South, each of them supplying a son to serve in the Confederate Army.

The twins were joined at their chests by a relatively small band of tissue. Why didn’t they have a surgeon separate them? Certainly such an operation would be possible today. But the doctors of the time were uncertain. There could have been other reasons. As one of these doctors explained, “Those boys will fetch a vast deal more money while they are together than when they are separate.”

After their deaths, when the bodies were examined, some doctors concluded that one or both of the twins would not have survived an attempted separation.

If they had been separated, they would probably never have made their way to North Carolina and would have never become our most famous citizens.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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