On 24 November 1829 over thirty surgeons and physicians crowded into the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. There was Astley Cooper and Anthony Carlisle, previous Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), and Honoratus Leigh Thomas the current President. There was also a cohort from the Royal College of Physicians: Francis Hawkins, Charles Locock and Henry Halford, the President of the College. These learned gentlemen had come to pay homage to the exceptional bodies of Chang and Eng The Siamese Twins, eighteen years old and joined below the breastbone by a band of flesh 2in thick and 4in long.
They were giving a private performance in an exhibition space dubbed the Home of Mystery, marked with hieroglyphics and fronted by the giant statues of the Egyptian Gods Isis and Osiris. The surgeons and physicians watched in amazement as the twins performed acrobatics with somersaults and backflips. They even played a form of badminton with each brother holding a miniature racket and hitting the shuttlecock to and fro. On account of their connecting ligament the twins stood a mere 4–5in apart, so this fast-paced hitting of the shuttlecock was a spectacle of agility, harmony and speed.
After the show, the surgeons and physicians were at liberty to poke, prod and inspect the twins. The surgeons made straight for the connecting ligament which contained the mystery of their body, and they fondled the flesh while musing on the possibility of surgical separation. Not being able to comprehend fully the nature of the twins’ abnormality made the groping so enthralling: the enigma of their exceptional physiology engendered excitement and debate.
The medical gentlemen subsequently signed a statement testifying to the integrity of Chang and Eng’s performance, praising the ‘remarkable and interesting youths’, the reliability of the performance, ‘in no respect deceptive’, and emphasising the respectability of the show, ‘nothing whatever, offensive to delicacy’. This statement was published on the first page of the twins’ exhibition pamphlet, which was sold when the public poured into their freak show. A personal statement by Joshua Brookes, a leading London anatomist, was included on the first page:
"Having seen and examined the two Siamese Youths, Chang and Eng, I have great pleasure in affirming they constitute a most extraordinary Lusus Natuare; the first instance I have ever seen of a living double child; they being totally devoid of deception, afford a very interesting spectacle, and are highly deserving of public patronage. "
A reciprocal relationship between medicine and freakery had been established. On the one hand, the managers of Chang and Eng benefited from these medical endorsements. At the time, medicine was slowly modernizing and becoming more professional, gaining social respectability and cultural authority, so these attributes were transferred onto Chang and Eng’s freak show. The display of deformity was often associated with low- class itinerant fairs, so this backing from medicine helped elevate the twins’ show. Indeed, from the 1840s the freak show would become a respectable family affair attracting everyone from Queen Victoria to working-class men, women and children.
On the other hand, medicine benefited from associating with Chang and Eng. The public were still sceptical of surgeons, so the medical endorsements were an exercise in public relations: surgeons were associating with the popular freak show and demonstrating an ability to view and inspect, not steal and dissect, the exceptional body (important when surgeons were renowned for relying on the dreaded body snatchers). And a relationship with the freak show meant access to the ‘freak’ body. There was a long tradition of surgeons getting their hands on the corpses of freak performers: the cadavers of the so-called Irish Giant Charles Byrne and the Sicilian Fairy Caroline Crachami found their way to the RCS, while the managers of Chang and Eng carried embalming fluid to preserve their corpses in case of sudden death.
Such was the friendliness between the medics and the managers that the surgeon George Bolton, a member of the RCS, could examine the twins intimately during their seven-month stay in London. Bolton delivered a report to his colleagues in April 1830, relaying how he had tested the sensitivity of the twins’ connecting band by poking it with a pin; he fed Chang an asparagus and sniffed the twins’ urine to decipher their ‘sanguineous communication’; and he even examined the twins’ genitals, which they particularly resented. Nonetheless, Bolton could praise their ‘owners’ (merchants who had effectively purchased the twins) for ‘the liberal manner in which they have uniformly afforded the means of investigating so curious an object of philosophical inquiry’.(4) The medical world and the freak show were happily united.
But fast forward towards the end of the century. Chang and Eng had transitioned from freak performers to American farmers, fathers and slaveowners in the South (they had 21 children between them and were committed slaveowners). They continued to tour intermittently, displaying their offspring to gawping crowds, but the twins remained more concerned about their plantations in North Carolina than they did about their freak show careers. In 1874 the twins died aged sixty-two and, despite protestations from the family, the men of science finally got their sweaty palms on the
corpses: Chang and Eng were dissected and their conjoined livers were displayed at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, where they can still be seen today.
Medicine was increasingly colonising and controlling the ‘freak’ body. Indeed, Joseph Merrick, famously known as The Elephant Man, was taken from the freak show and contained within the London Hospital from 1884 until his dying days, under the careful watch of the eminent surgeon Frederick Treves. He condemned the freak show and Merrick’s London manager but, paradoxically, the surgeon became the showman: Treves exhibited Merrick at the Pathological Society of London; he controlled who saw, photographed and examined Merrick; and he capitalised on his association with The Elephant Man. When Merrick died in 1890, his body was handed over to Treves who dissected Merrick and arranged his skeleton for display in the Pathological Museum which, according to a contemporary surgeon, was ‘little better than a freak-museum’.
By the twentieth century, the rise of eugenics and social Darwinism led to a medical condemnation of freak shows which, it was increasingly believed, peddled physical deformity that threatened the nation’s health. The enigma of exceptional bodies was uncovered by the discovery of the endocrine system, ductless glands that regulate growth and secondary sexual functions; the X-Ray further exposed the inner realities of outward deformities.
Science was pathologizing the freak, killing the onstage mystique that had once been an essential part of the freak’s appeal. And freak performers increasingly went from the circuses and music halls to the laboratories and asylums as science gave the freak show a kiss of death.
However, with shows like Embarrassing Bodies and documentaries peddling unusual bodies, the relationship between medicine and freakery lingers. Reality TV and programmes like The Undateables continue to rely on spectacle, titillation and voyeurism. Science might have marginalised the freak show in popular culture but remnants remain.
This article first appeared in our Medicine & Surgery issue which is available from our online store.