The Lives of Chang and Eng

Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America

By Joseph Andrew Orser

272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4233-8
    Published: February 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-1831-9
    Published: November 2014

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Connected at the chest by a band of flesh, Chang and Eng Bunker toured the United States and the world from the 1820s to the 1870s, placing themselves and their extraordinary bodies on exhibit as "freaks of nature" and "Oriental curiosities." More famously known as the Siamese twins, they eventually settled in rural North Carolina, married two white sisters, became slave owners, and fathered twenty-one children between them. Though the brothers constantly professed their normality, they occupied a strange space in nineteenth-century America. They spoke English, attended church, became American citizens, and backed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet in life and death, the brothers were seen by most Americans as "monstrosities," an affront they were unable to escape.

Joseph Andrew Orser chronicles the twins’ history, their sometimes raucous journey through antebellum America, their domestic lives in North Carolina, and what their fame revealed about the changing racial and cultural landscape of the United States. More than a biography of the twins, the result is a study of nineteenth-century American culture and society through the prism of Chang and Eng that reveals how Americans projected onto the twins their own hopes and fears.

About the Author

Joseph Andrew Orser teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
For more information about Joseph Andrew Orser, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

“A massive feat of archival and cultural research that humanizes Chang and Eng.”--WNC Magazine

“This story of two individual men is one fascinating book.”--Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Meticulously researched. . . . Orser is an expert on his subject.”--The Journal of Southern History

“Orser’s well-crafted and meticulously researched account of the lives of Chang and Eng makes a wide-ranging contribution to U.S. history, touching on everything from race and sectionalism to international relations and the politics of family and sexuality. As such, it will be of broad interest to antebellum social and cultural historians and will likely stand as the definitive biography of Chang and Eng Bunker for years to come.”--Journal of the Early Republic

"With patient research, artful writing, and a sure sense of the cultural and historical contexts where Chang and Eng Bunker performed and lived (all the while skirting sensation and avoiding condescension), Joseph Andrew Orser delivers a humane and ultimately moving portrait of the twins and their families. His book gives us a compelling account of the changing racial and cultural landscapes of the United States in the nineteenth century but reminds us that the twins have yet to finish their cultural work. The Lives of Chang and Eng lets them perform once more for us."--Ann Fabian, Rutgers University

“Joseph Andrew Orser’s history of Chang and Eng Bunker sensitively illuminates the social contexts in which they traveled and the many shifting representations of them in American culture. Through careful research in previously untapped archives, Orser gleans fresh details about their work and reception as they toured, helping us understand the decisions they made and what they endured as self-promoting curiosities in a commercially driven, racialized culture.”--John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York University