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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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