Skip to content
Politics & Current Affairs

The Bunkers, the Hensels, and the Conjoined States of America

If conjoined twins are forced to get along and share… so can a divided America.
Chang and Eng Bunker, Siamese twins, 1836. Oil painting by Edouard-Henri-Théophile Pingret. Creative Commons and Wellcome Images.

Many might remember the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker—the original Siamese twins born in 1811 who hailed from Siam but moved to the U.S. and eventually became slave-owners (gulp). Notwithstanding the obvious challenges of being joined at the hip, almost quite literally—technically they were joined at the sternum—they also shared inoperable, connected livers. They otherwise had all their own parts and lived relatively normal lives… all things considered.

Chang and Eng went on to marry a pair of physically normal sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates, respectively. Our voyeuristic instincts and obsession with oddities left little to the imagination on how the four of them procreated but they certainly had it down, fathering a few shy of two dozen children between them. Chang and Eng got along quite well, but unfortunately, the sisters they married did not. They forced Chang and Eng to have separate households: ultimately leading to the brothers splitting their time between their estranged wive-sisters. Three days here, three days there.

The Bunkers died in 1874 within three hours of each other. One might speculate whether they had lived in today’s world of medical miracles if they could have been successfully separated surgically. 

Another pair of famous conjoined twins are very much alive today. Brittany and Abby Hensel face a more daunting set of anatomical issues stemming from a very different but more medically challenging configuration: two heads, two arms, two legs, two hearts, three lungs, three kidneys, one liver, two stomachs, one bladder, one vagina, and one urethra. They would like to get married one day, like Chang and Eng, and have kids. Our imaginations start to run wild considering all the obvious challenges, obstacles and possibilities.One could easily see them having their own reality TV show on TLC.

The Conjoined States of America

Fast forward to our last set of conjoined twins. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly right when he proclaimed: “there is no red America and blue America; there is only the United States of America.” Well, that’s not exactly the case if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately. Perhaps he should have suggested that rather than united, we are the “Conjoined States of America.”

Had he tried this conjoined metaphor it is doubtful that he ever would have ascended to become President of the United States. But it would have been more insightful and accurate. The Hensels have their own passports, licenses, and buy their own tickets to the movies. They can eat what they want as individuals, but to walk, drive, urinate, defecate and one day, procreate, requires one a hell of a lot of cooperation.

Chang and Eng simply set up different houses to smooth things out between their fighting wives. But what would have happened if Chang and Eng got into similar fights themselves? And what if one day Abby and Brittany stop getting along?Any counselor worth their salt could only have one conclusion: “I don’t know, kids, but you better figure it because you’re not going anywhere. You’re stuck together with nowhere else to go.”

Chang and Eng ultimately figured it out… but are no longer with us.And facing an even more challenging and complex set of issues and problems, Abby and Brittany also seem to have figured to it out.Maybe they should run for President. Or President and Vice President?It seems there is a lot that can be learned.One lesson to be sure: even if you don’t like each other, you somehow better learn how to get along.


Up Next