Fifty years ago, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the most famous Siamese twins of the 20th century failed to report for their shift at the grocery store where they had worked for most of the previous decade. On January 4th 1969, the door was forced, and Violet and Daisy Hilton were found dead from the Hong Kong flu. Daisy died first, and for two to four days Violet, sharing the same circulatory system, lay next to her conjoined sister, until the influenza consumed her too. They were sixty years old, and had lived a helluva life.
Violet and Daisy weren't Siamese, of course, but English, born in a room above the Queen's Head pub in Brighton in 1908 to an unwed barmaid, and delivered by the landlady. The Hilton sisters went on to star in a memorable film by Tod Browning (director of the Bela Lugosi Dracula) and to inspire in the 1990s at least two stage musicals. The first, 20 Fingers, 20 Toes, opened off-Broadway in 1990 and was full of lines like "When it comes to dancing, you girls got four left feet." The second musical, Side Show, came and went on Broadway a few seasons later and featured a lot of noisy three-legged tap-dancing.
How'd they get from Brighton to Broadway? Well, Daisy and Violet were pygopagus twins, conjoined at the buttocks. And, having delivered the babies, the pub landlady saw her opportunity and more or less bought the kids from her employee. Shortly thereafter, they were entrusted to the management of Ike Rose, impresario of Rose's Royal Midgets, who arranged to "exhibit" them with Josefa and Rosa Blazek in a show-business first: never before had two sets of Siamese twins appeared on a single bill—the Hilton babies and the grown-up Blazek sisters, who were then about 30. They weren't Siamese, either, but rather Bohemian—although Rosa, the alleged nymphomaniac of the pair, was considerably more bohemian than Josefa, who disapproved of her sister shagging like a minx, even though, according to rumor, she experienced her sister's coital sensations simultaneously in her own vagina.
The Siamese angle derives from Chang and Eng, who were born in Siam and made so famous by P T Barnum that ever after all "conjoined twins" were Siamese. As it happens, Chang and Eng were three-quarters Chinese and known in their native village as "the Chinese twins". But, in global media terms, it was Barnum's designation that prevailed. They were joined at the sternum and, even in the 19th century, could easily have been separated. But they were able to stretch the tissue and stand side by side, looking like two Thais joined at the thighs. That image came to define Siamese twins in popular culture. Chang and Eng married the daughters of a North Carolina minister, kept them in separate homes and divided their time between the two. Chang had 10 kids, Eng nine, and their descendants can apparently still be found scattered throughout the Piedmont.
That's what every Siamese-twin manager in the early 20th century was shooting for: a slice of the Chang & Eng action. The pub landlady died and "bequeathed" Violet and Daisy to her daughter, and they all wound up in a big house in San Antonio, with the sisters touring in vaudeville as singers, dancers and musicians. By 1926 they were part of an act called the Dancemedians, with another up-and-coming British-born performer, Bob Hope. The gals' three-legged tap routines didn't leave a lot of room for him. "They're too much of a woman for me," said Hope.
The high point of their fame was Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, which is no more or less than what it says: a portrait of the "freaks" in a traveling circus. Daisy and Violet played themselves, a novelty act who appear mainly in scenes with their two fiancés: when Daisy is kissed by her betrothed, you can see the sexual charge on Violet's face. Today, such a film would use computer technology, or some Hollywood A-lister augmented by Oscar-bait prosthetics. But in 1932 Freaks had no option but to use one hundred per cent bona fide freaks—not just the Hilton twins, but Martha the Armless Wonder, Koo Koo the Bird Girl and all kinds of visually arresting people missing various combinations of body parts. There's a bearded lady in childbirth, and a handsome fellow with no legs or lower torso walking around on long arms and feet-like hands. There's another chap dragging around the grounds who's just a head and about 18 inches of fleshy lump.
It ought to be cruel and exploitative, which is why it was immediately banned in Britain. But, by the time Browning's wrapped it up, it doesn't seem that way. The plot's simple. Cleopatra, a blowsy Teutonic bitch of a trapeze artist, is putting the moves on Hans the midget in order to get his money. Hans disregards the warnings, attributing them to jealousy: "Let them laugh, the swine!"
In this world, the regular full-sized circus folk are corrupt and conniving and emotionally stunted, and the genuine human warmth is found among the misfits. In that sense, Browning must rank as an early pioneer of the now conventional Hollywood thesis of the self-defined "alternative family". Given that several of the startlingly truncated characters are black, Freaks is also a very early example of integrated casting. Browning's direction is so skilled that, although you never quite lose your awareness of their physical deformity, he does succeed in shifting your point of view to the freaks' perspective - literally, in fact, since most of the smaller creatures spend much of their time under the wagons rather than up inside them - and making Cleopatra and her violent drunken lunk Hercules seem like the real deformations of the human spirit.
By this stage, the twins were, well, not exactly stars, but certainly celebrities. They posed for cheesecake shots, crouched on the beach in artfully conjoined bathing suits. Violet had a run of B-list boyfriends—boxers and musicians—before announcing her engagement to the gals' bandleader Maurice Lambert. Twenty-one states denied them a marriage licence. "The very idea of such a marriage is quite immoral and indecent," pronounced William C Chanler of the Manhattan licence bureau. Violet, her betrothed and her sister crossed the Hudson to Newark, N.J. "Nothing doing!" said town clerk Harry S Reichenstein. "Moral reasons." Reporting the story, Time magazine explained to its readers that "Daisy-&-Violet Hilton are a pygopagus, a double-monster joined at the buttocks." Violet had to wait till 1936 to wed some other fellow entirely in a quiet ceremony on the 50-yard line of the Cotton Bowl at the Texas Centennial Exhibition.
By 1950, their exploitation movie, Chained for Life, had bombed and they were broke. By 1955, their hot-dog stand was run out of Miami by other vendors resentful of their unique marketing gimmick. By 1962, they were bagging groceries in Charlotte, taken in by a kindly store manager who bought them some work clothes: all they had in their closet were specialty costumes from obsolescent routines for long-shuttered vaudeville circuits. And then one January morning half-a-century ago, they failed to show up at the store.
Hilton-wise, I'll take Daisy and Violet over Paris. Unlike her, they had a modicum of talent—instrument-playing, tap-dancing, even acting—and their sex lives are more original, too. I said that Siamese twins have waned in pop culture, which is certainly true compared to the Chang & Eng era. But the phenomenon waxed quite impressively during the Nineties. We don't have films like Freaks and Chained for Life anymore, but this century we've had Twin Falls Idaho and Stuck On You, which is almost enough to count as a trend. In 2006, Dean Jensen published a full-blown biography of Daisy and Violet, not bad for a couple who were an almost parodic definition of has-been—grocery baggers with a vaudevillian wardrobe. Side Show in 1997 attempted to raise them to the level of art and tragedy: "Come look at the freaks/Come gaze at the geeks," sang the creepy carny boss, introducing us to his parade of attractions. The stark directness of that couplet was, alas, diluted as the song proceeded and the lyricist found himself encumbered with that "-eek" rhyme scheme: "Come explore how they fascinate you/Exasperate you/For weeks." Also, they have the "best physiques" and they "flush your cheeks".
As for the music, the composer was utterly incapable of evoking the rowdiness of the era, either in its vulgar energy or its casual cruelties. In his worst strategic error, the director first showed us Violet and Daisy not as Siamese twins but as detached individuals. Yet, if we're to understand their predicament, we have to try and imagine what it must be like never to be alone—when you're asleep, when you're taking a shower, when you and your husband want to go on your honeymoon... Unable to separate physically, Violet and Daisy were given exercises by Harry Houdini, one of their celebrity chums, to help them separate mentally.
What they really felt about life, we can only guess. But Todd Browning's Freaks remains a compelling glimpse of a lost tradition, and would have a place in movie history if only because the exhausting scroll before the titles is longer than many full-length screenplays. Yet, if you get beyond that, the wedding-feast scene is one of the best examples in movie history of a fully realized, self-contained world existing on its own terms. And there's nothing anywhere else quite like the film's climax in a lashing rainstorm as the freakshow freaks come slithering through the mud to take their revenge. Freaks starts off feeling like weird, over-specialized porn but, by its closing, is both touching and moral. Violet and Daisy Hilton were born too late for the Chang & Eng big-time, but their one great contribution to Hollywood history is unique and unforgettable.
~If you like freaky double-acts, why not try Dennis Miller and Mark Steyn, not exactly conjoined but together on stage for the first time. Next month they'll be hitting Reading, Pennsylvania and Syracuse, New York - and with VIP tickets you not only get premium seating but the chance to meet Dennis and Mark after the show.
Much of our content at SteynOnline is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time, and a live music club (see The Mark Steyn Christmas Show, our Christmas Eve Song of the Week and tomorrow's Twelfth Night edition of On the Town). More details here.