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Erik Visits an American Grave (II)

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In my seemingly constant travel (thanks to academic stuff and a wife working in a different state, not because I am actually traveling for fun, mostly) around this great land, I look for new things to do. In the last couple of years, I have taken to visiting the graves of famous Americans. There is no real reason to do this. I just do it. My wife is thrilled by side trips to cemeteries, as you can imagine. I’ve only talked about one of these trips, my visit to the grave of Henry Clay Frick, arguably the most cartoonishly super-evil villain in American history.

So it’s time for a new series, chronicling these visits. So we’ll call Frick number 1 in that series. This will be occasional, except at first when I get through my pretty long backlog. There’s only one logical choice for the 2nd part of this series. And that’s the grave of Eng and Chang Bunker.

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Eng and Chang have one of the weirdest stories in American history. They were, of course, Siamese twins. Born in 1811 outside of Bangkok, they were only connected by cartilage and were pretty independent given the circumstances. A Scottish entrepreneur saw the benefit of exploiting them and in 1829 convinced them to be shown at circuses and sideshows around the world. The brothers agreed, eventually managing themselves. In 1839, they were visiting western North Carolina and decided to stop and buy a farm there.

Now, if you are in North Carolina in 1839 and you own a farm and have a little money, what do you do? You buy slaves. So Eng and Chang became slaveowners. Taking the name “Bunker,” they then married a pair of white sisters from the area. They combined to have 21 children. Now, I don’t want to poke fun here really and I’m glad they lived relatively normal lives except for the whole slaveowning thing. But the sex? I have to say, I’m really curious about how they managed that. On top of that are the social mores of the early 19th century, with the interracial sex and the close naked intimacy such an arrangement would have caused. Of course the first can be explained away by the fact that as Chinese-Thais they were so exotic that they weren’t seen as a threat like black slaves. And the second can be explained to some extent by the fact that our stereotype of 19th century Victorian Americans as unsexed and uptight is way too simplistic. But still. There was some national outrage at the news, but they seem to have more or less accepted by their neighbors.

Both couples had a son who served in the Confederate Army. Both Chang and Eng were very pro-Confederate and were angry over the money they lost during the war, including their human property. Over time, the sisters grew to dislike each other. So they set up separate households and the brothers switched every three days. Toward the end of their lives, Chang began drinking heavily. Because their blood vessels were not connected, this did not affect Eng’s health, at least his physical health. Although they did have a fused liver, and I have trouble seeing how this could not have played a factor, but I’m not going to do the research to get this all figured out. In 1874, Chang died in his sleep. The doctors attempted an emergency separation of the two, but Eng died soon after. It’s not entirely clear why, but the obvious problem of being connected to a dead body would likely have ended his life quickly anyway.

Alex Sink, who lost the 2010 race for governor of Florida, is Chang’s great-granddaughter.

I found this grave in January 2014 when I was in North Carolina. There was a museum exhibit at the University of North Carolina on them and I realized I was heading through Mt. Airy on the way out. I mentioned this to my wife who dismissed it, probably with hope I would forget about it. But the day we went to Mt. Airy, which is of course Mayberry, we were going to go to the Andy Griffith Museum. But everything in that town was closed that day because it was 15 degrees outside. It wasn’t icy. There was no snow. It was 15 degrees. And North Carolina freaked out. So there was only thing to do. And that’s visit the grave.

Eng and Chang Bunker are buried in the White Plains Baptist Church Cemetery in White Plains, North Carolina, just outside of Mt. Airy.

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  • Hogan

    “I believe they prefer to be called ‘conjoined twins.'”

    “And hillbillies want to be called ‘sons of the soil.’ But it ain’t gonna happen.”

  • Turkle

    This is amazing. That is all.

  • Malaclypse

    If you are interested in Frick, somewhere I have pictures of the remains of Eagle Rock (basically just the entrance is left). The tour guide described Frick as “someone with great success in labor negotiations.” Since I was was only a few feet away, I was personally glad that he was neither struck by lightning nor swallowed whole by the earth, but from a divine justice standpoint, I remain disappointed.

  • Karen24

    Thank you for this. I love stuff like this. It’s not really significant in the sense that there are no modern repercussions from their lives, but still. Cool.

    And yes, our image of uptight Victorians is, um, incomplete. (Google “Ether parties” for another example.)

    • Linnaeus

      Much like our image of the Puritans is an oversimplification of what they were like.

    • JonH

      Actually, they have quite a few descendants. In addition to Alex Sink, noted by Erik, “Composer Caroline Shaw is a great-great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker [20] and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.”

      • Karen24

        Cool! (I’m guessing that with 21 kids they’re very likely to have a large number of descendants around.)

        • Honoré De Ballsack

          Yes. According to Wikipedia, US population in 1840 was 17,069,453 (of which 2,487,355 were slaves.) Now, immigration has obviously had a significant effect on United States population growth–but still, geometrically increasing from 14.5 million people to ~330 million basically means that anyone who was good at breeding in 1840 is gonna have a fuckton of descendants.

          • The Dark Avenger

            One of my ancestors had 11 children by 2 wives, the last time I checked , he had over 1,000 descendants from 1870 onwards to today.

      • rm

        Wikipedia also lists an Air Force Major General. That should be noted on this blog.

    • Warren Terra

      And yes, our image of uptight Victorians is, um, incomplete.

      Indeed. I remember hearing at some point a discussion about how at those “house parties” we’re always hearing about involving a bunch of Victorians spending the weekend or the week at some landed gentleman’s country pile containing several dozen bedrooms it was a fine art to house all the guests in such a way as to best facilitate the vast number of extramarital affairs everyone knew were going on but did not openly talk about or record in writing.

      • ajay

        This is about the least surprising thing ever to anyone who’s read any Golden Age detective stories.

  • JonH

    You can visit their liver at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

    • I really need to visit that museum. Unfortunately, I have only been to Philadelphia once and my wife is not exactly up for a visit to a museum of freakish bodily history.

      • Linnaeus

        I love Philadelphia, but I think I’ll pass on that.

        • The Temporary Name

          It’s awesome.

        • JonH

          Where else can you see a dead woman whose body turned into soap, *and* buy a bar of soap shaped like her?

          • medrawt

            “There’s also a butter Elvis and a butter Last Supper which has, I swear to God, Toby…”

            “Butter on the table?”

            “It’s got butter on the table right there between butter James and butter Peter, an almost mind-blowing vortex of art and material that dares the viewer to recall Marcel Duchamp.”

      • They took us there in fourth or fifth grade. I don’t remember any livers, or soap women, but there were a lot of fetuses.

        • Malaclypse

          Wow, all we got was endless trips to that giant heart in the Franklin Institute.

  • They were conjoined twins who owned slaves and supported the Confederacy. Eventually, a man descended from slaves figured out the surgical techniques for successfully separating conjoined twins. That man went in to politics. And many people whose politics today are as racially enlightened as were theirs when they lived in the 19th century support that black man to be president, and he generally supports their politics, even if he doesn’t understand the implications.

    Sometimes knowing American history and making connections to today is enlightening. Other times it just makes you aware of the rampant stupidity that’s always around us.

    • JonH

      Carson didn’t figure out anything noteworthy related to conjoined twins. The first conjoined twin separation occurred in 1955, and that was a pair joined at the head, just like the twins Carson later separated.

  • Quehashecho

    That is seriously awesome. Thanks for that.

    And you are hereby invited to the grave of Joseph McCarthy in St Mary’s Cemetery in Appleton, WI. I visit there about once a year to see my dad. Dad grew up on the adjoining quarter section to Tailgunner Joe’s farm, was embarrassed by him all his life, and ended up buried about 50 feet away. Saturday afternoons are best if you want to meet the people who still come out nearly every day to visit the Last Pure Man in America, and relight the Kinda Sorta Perpetual Propane Fueled Flame of Freedom.

    • Seeing someone actually visiting McCarthy’s grave in mourning and remembrance would be really disturbing.

      • Coconinoite

        A relative taught at the law school McCarthy attended and held parties to which students were invited. McCarthy was apparently a regular. My relative’s wife always told the rest of our gang that neither her nor her husband could stand McCarthy. My condolences to Quehashecho’s dad for his proximity to the creep.

    • Hogan

      If I ever get out there, I’ll bring a pint of cheap whiskey to pour on the plot.

      • DrS

        Filter that through your body first.

        • Missed it by that much!

        • Quehashecho

          I did. With Stroh’s in cans, not whiskey. The cemetery is 200 yards from the high school…..

        • rea

          ‘Posterity will ne’er survey,
          A nobler grave than this:
          Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
          Stop, traveller, and piss.’ — Lord Byron

      • Filtered through your system, I hope.

        • Hogan

          In that case I’ll make it good whiskey.

  • prufrock

    Man, Alex Sink is a terrible politician.

    She managed to lose to Governor Voldemort, then the Florida Democratic Party parachuted her into Pinellas County to run for the seat vacated by the death of Bill Young. She lost that one to an Annapolis ring-knocking moron (as a Largo resident, I got to cast two losing ballots for her).

    She’s the Floridian version of Martha Coakley.

  • Paul Campos

    “The best-selling and multiple-award-winning 2000 novel Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss was based on the life of the famous Bunker twins. The film rights to the novel were purchased by award-winning filmmaking team Gary Oldman and Douglas Urbanski. Oldman is currently working on the screenplay and will also direct.”

    OK I want to see this now.

    • JonH

      I wonder which white guys will be cast to play them.

      • Time to get McConaughey and Harrelson back together. Chang and Eng can be the characters in True Detective 3.

        • medrawt

          The mind reels at what Nick Pizzolatto would do with Chang and Eng going to bed with their sister wives.

        • JonH

          “He’s a conjoined twin from Siam. He is also a conjoined twin from Siam. Together, they fight crime.”

  • CaptainBringdown

    More of these, please!

  • Barry Freed

    More dead hoss blogging, please.

      • Warren Terra

        That really was the weirdest, right? Horsemeat is proverbially undesirable and cheap, the source of dog food and fodder for frauds upon consumers who think they’re getting better, even think they’re getting better in bargain supermarket store-brand frozen pasta dishes.

        I can imagine such an act being a form of aggression against the horse’s owners, even up to the culinary aspect, a form of symbolically consuming your enemy’s prize possession. But that’s a lot of meat, and an awful lot of trouble.

  • Bruce Vail

    Gravesites of terrible people?

    In Baltimore, we have John Wilkes Booth. People leave Lincoln pennies on the headstone.

    • A lot of these so far are either Gilded Age capitalists or union leaders, but there are some others as well.

      Booth isn’t a bad idea.

      • Bruce Vail

        Down in the DC burbs we have the house where Mother Jones died. I think they moved the body though…

        • She’s buried in Illinois.

          • efc

            Yeah, it’s Mount Olive IL between Springfield and St. Louis. It’s part of a larger Union Miners Cemetery. Worth checking out if you are ever on I-55.

        • ajay

          Down in the DC burbs we have the house where Mother Jones died. I think they moved the body though…

          Well, one would hope so, certainly.

      • Bruce Vail

        Don’t miss Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

        They have Jefferson Davis, and a bunch of Confederate generals and other officers.

        Also John Tyler, one of the most terrible US Presidents.

    • Thlayli

      The Rosenbergs are in the same cemetery as my grandparents. I’ve tried to find their graves before, but haven’t succeeded.

  • joe from Lowell

    We had a mini-Frick in Lowell named Kirk Boott. Among other things, he refused to let a bunch of socialist agitators make him put a railing around the pit where the drive shaft came up through the floors in his mill. There was a death toll among young women over the years.

    They say that when he fell down with a stroke on Merrimack Street, passersby applauded.

  • Bruce Vail

    That Chang and Eng embraced slavery surprises me not at all. As world travelers in that era they would have seen slavery in many different forms around the word. It may well have seemed commonplace, even natural, to them.

    What does surprise me is the Wiki statement that Siam did not abolish slavery till 1905!

    • LeeEsq

      They grew up in Thailand before Rama IV, of the King and I fame, and Rama V began their very slow modernization of the country. Thailand’s society was feudal; complete with a dazzling Court, rich and powerful monasteries, aristocrats and various forms of serfdom and slavery.* The Chinese like Chang and Eng were either middle men types or the urban working class.

      *Most Thai farmers were small-holding peasants though rather than tenant farmers, serfs, or slaves. Siam had an abundance of fertile land and very small population base by South East Asian standards.

  • LeeEsq

    More than a few Chinese immigrant men in the United States ended up marrying Irish immigrant women because of the dearth of Chinese immigrant women. The racists didn’t really like it but they complained much less than about Black and White marriages because of the low number of Chinese immigrant men and because Irish immigrant women weren’t exactly the same as White Protestant women in the social hierarchy of the time.

  • advocatethis

    If you’re ever in Santa Rosa you should visit Robert Ripley’s grave…it seems a necessary part of this series…

  • West of the Cascades

    If you are ever near St. Rose, Louisiana, please please please visit the American grave of Hitler’s horse. http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/11839

    Please.

    • You didn’t mention Zachary Taylor’s bathtub.

      • Malaclypse

        The same tour with Frick’s summer estate also went to Taft’s summer White House, now condos. Apparently , during conversion, they arranged for the local historical society to take possession of the infamous bathtub.

        Unfortunately, they left it outside for pickup, and someone unknown just made off with it.

  • Pseudonym

    When are you going to start visiting the graves of famous American horses? Or maybe you could have Farley do it, being in Kentucky and all.

  • ajay

    Both Chang and Eng were very pro-Confederate

    It would have been awkward if only one of them was.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Warning to Andy Griffith fans who visit Mt. Airy: Yes, you can eat at the Snappy Lunch. Yes, they still serve the pork chop sandwich they’re famous for.

    The problem is, it’s shitty. Blander than hell — and I’ve got a white bread, bland palate. Just… blah.

    That is all.

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