Enslaved conjoined twins, Millie-Christine McKoy, would be sold at least three times from infancy to 6 years of age. They were forced into freak shows in the US and UK and endured a traumatic childhood. Their life took a dramatic turn at the age of 14 when freedom allowed them to take control of their career and made them one of the most beloved performance duos of the 19th century who are rarely talked about today.
Throughout history they have been referred to as the Carolina Nightingales, the Two Headed Nightingale, the 8th Wonder of the World and the Carolina Twins. To Millie and Christine McCoy, they were Millie-Christine, two hearts that beat as one.
The McCoy twins were born into slavery in the town of Welches Creek, North Carolina on July 11, 1851. Their parents, Jacob and Monemia, were enslaved by plantation owner, Jabez McKay. On the night the twins were born their mom was assisted by a nurse known as Old Aunt Hannah who had assisted her during the birth of each of her seven children (five boys and two girls).
Hannah explained to Jabob and Monemia that, unlike their previous children, the twins were in “questionable shape”. They were conjoined twins. Their bodies were fused together at the lower back with a joint pelvis. The twins each had two arms and two legs. Apart from their unique form, the twins were healthy.
Jacob and Monemia celebrated the birth and, in their words, celebrated that a child was born. They referred to the twins as Millie-Christine, a singular name which the girls would prefer in their later years.
The twins owner, Jabez McKay, offered special care that would lead to a unique journey for a black, disabled woman who was a slave in the south. From infancy, Millie Christine did not live in the slave quarters on the plantation. She lived in the big house where she received specialized care.
Millie-Christine’s presence in the house drew curious onlookers from the time word began to spread that “Siamese twins” had been born in Welches Creek.
Conjoined Twins are genetically identical. They develop from the same egg and more often than not, share vital organs and limbs. In the 19th and early 20th century, conjoined twins were more often referred to as Siamese twins, after Chang and Eng Bunker. Conjoined twins born in 1811 in Siam, which is modern day Thailand.
Chang and Eng toured the world as entertainers. When their manager brought them to America in 1829 to be displayed in freak shows, they made a lot of money. Within three years they took control of their career and livelihood which was no small feat for those who were malformed or stood out from the rest of society. Freak shows were often their only means of income.
The Siamese Twins toured in “freak shows” until 1839 when they settled down in Mount Airy, North Carolina. They became US citizens, married sisters and fathered 21 children. The men also owned slaves which accounted for part of their wealth in the antebellum south.
After the Civil War, they lost a majority of that wealth and died within hours of one another at the age of 62.
All conjoined twins faced challenges in this era before there was a greater understanding and acceptance of those who are physically unique.
Millie-Christine’s challenges would prove unique due to the fact that they were enslaved which meant they were controlled by whoever “owned” them. This led to Millie-Christine being displayed in freak show exhibits, being leased and sold several times to men who saw her as a means to an end. She would even be kidnapped and swept away to another country.
In the 1800s, conjoined twins were considered medical freaks of nature. Anyone “Born a freak” as they were referred to in the 19th century, would be sought out by freak show managers who were in constant need of performers who deviated from the norm. Freak show performers were given an opportunity to earn a living, which proved otherwise challenging due to physical limitations or misconceptions about their abilities.
People would pay to simply look at conjoined twins, giants, little people, bearded ladies. Anyone who was considered different.
Freak show managers and showmen would meet the subject that was being considered for their show and would require a medical examination to prove the person had physical abnormalities and was not what organizers called humbugs. Humbugs were people who tried to fake malformations in order to gain a place in the show and earn money.
Once a doctor authenticated a freak, they would be added to the shows and exhibitions that traveled the country.
There were often performers and people exhibited in these shows who had no wish to take part and no option to walk away . The enslaved men and women in America who were born disabled or viewed in that way by their owner, would often be forced into the shows. They had no say in the matter. No rights or freedom to simply walk away.
In 1841, the showman P.T. Barnum, realized that people were paying a lot of money to see those who had been born freaks and those who were freak performers, such as fire breathers and sword swallowers. He decided to establish a permanent freak show in his American Museum in New York City and expand the shows to other major cities.
Millie Christine McCoy would be forced into exhibition at a Barnum show in Philadelphia after they were kidnapped and sold to several showmen.
For the first fourteen years of her life, Millie-Christine would be controlled by the men who claimed to own her. In 1865, she gained freedom that empowered her to use her physical appearance and uniqueness, to show the world the beauty of who she was and the gifts she had to offer.
It would be a long hard road to get to that place.
The History of the Carolina Twins: “Told in Their Own Peculiar Way” by “One of Them.” Millie-Christine, 1851-1912. 22 p. Buffalo Courier Printing House
Conjoined Twins. Mayo Clinic
Millie-Christine McKoy and the American Freak Show: Race, Gender, and Freedom in the Postbellum Era, 1851 – 1912. Berkeley Undergraduate Journal. Gold, Sarah E (2010)
From ‘Monsters’ to Modern Medical Miracles. History of Medicine.
Conjoined Twins: An Historical, Biological and Ethical Issues Encyclopedia
By Christine Quigley Retrieved from https://books.google.com/
The Two-Headed Nightingale. May/June 200. Stanford Magazine.
***Additional Music: Peace of Mind, Almost in F Tranquility, Echoes of Time, Organic Meditations Three by Kevin MacLeod; Tupelo Train by Chris Haugen; I Need To Start Writing This Stuff Down and There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriske Licensed under Creative Commons.