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Who were Southeastern North Carolina’s most famous conjoined twins?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Millie and Christine McKoy gained worldwide fame in the 1800s, performing in Paris and appearing before Queen Victoria in London. During their lifetimes, they were almost as well known as Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese Twins,” who settled in Wilkes County, N.C.

Sometimes billed as “The Two-Headed Nightingale” or “The Carolina Twins,” the sisters were generally referred to as “Millie-Christine.” In their own writings, the twins always referred to themselves in the first person plural but added, “We feel as but one person” with “but one heart, one feeling in common, one desire, one purpose.”

Born July 11, 1851, in the Welches Creek community, about six miles from Whiteville, the sisters were the daughters of Jacob and Monemia (or Monimia — sources rarely agree on the spelling), slaves belonging to a blacksmith named Jabez McKay (or maybe it was McKoy). After emancipation following the Civil War, the couple adopted the surname of McKoy, from the last name of their former owner, a common practice at the time, and Millie-Christine seem to have followed their lead.

Their parents had already had seven children, but Millie and Christine were different — joined at the lower spine and sharing a single pelvis. Some sources claim they shared a single uterus, vagina and anus, but in other respects, they appeared normal, with separate hearts, lungs and digestive systems and two sets of fully functional arms and legs. (The twins could walk on two legs, some accounts claim, but preferred to use all four.) One story says that Christine weighed 12 pounds at birth, while Millie, the weaker twin, weighed only 5. Some accounts say Millie “looked like a knot” on her sister’s back.

On May 18, 1852, McKay sold the infant girls to John C. Pervis (or Purvis) of the Chesterfield District of South Carolina, for $1,000 and a 25 percent share of any proceeds from exhibiting them. McKay waived this last interest, on Sept. 30, 1853, in return for $200 cash.

Pervis then sold the twins to Joseph P. Smith of Wadesboro, who began to groom the little girls as entertainers. They had not been on tour long, however, before they were kidnapped in New Orleans. At some point, they appeared in Barnum’s Museum in New York; in 1855, they were sold to a “Professor Miller,” who exhibited them throughout New England and Canada.

Smith, accompanied by Monemia, searched for them for four years, before they were located in Birmingham, England, being exhibited by Miller & Thompson as “the United Twins of Africa.”

After a tearful reunion with their mother, the girls returned with Smtih to the United States, where they were tutored by Smith’s wife. Apparently, the relationship was a fond one; in their memoirs, the twins referred to Mrs. Smith as their “white ma.” It must have been a fairly good education. In later years, they spoke several languages — by some accounts, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Italian, Russian and German — and they sang well enough to perform professionally. (Sources say Christine was a soprano and Millie a contralto.) Reportedly they harmonized very well. In their shows, they even danced a little.

The twins were credited with composing a number of song lyrics and poems, and they wrote at least one account of their lives. “The History of the Carolina Twins, Told in ‘Their Own Peculiar Way’ By One of Them,” is on deposit in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After Joseph Smith’s death, shortly before the Civil War, the twins’ management passed to his son, Preston Smith, and they toured extensively between 1865 and 1874. They gave a command performance (some sources claim two command performances) before Queen Victoria, who presented them with jeweled brooches; they also performed for the Prince of Wales.

The twins continued to tour with circuses and traveling shows, earning considerable money. Bill Reaves, in “Strength Through Struggle,” puts their 1888 income at $750 per week, an enormous sum for African Americans at the time. Millie-Christine poured much of their money into charity, with contributions to a number of schools and churches. Reaves reports that they underwrote the whole budget of a school for black children in Welches Creek until their deaths. By the time of their retirements, they were able to afford a 10-room house in the Welches Creek community, which burned in 1909.

Millie died, reportedly of tuberculosis, on Oct. 8, 1912; Christine died the following day, surviving her sister by 17 hours. They were buried in a double-sized coffin in a small cemetery not far from their home; reportedly, a guard had to be posted for a month after their funeral to deter grave robbers.

Since 1969, a state highway historical marker honoring Millie-Christine McKoy has stood off U.S. 74/76 near Red Hill Road in Columbus County, pointing out their gravesite some 5 miles away. In 2000, John F. Blair of Winston-Salem published “Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” a full-length biography by Joanne Martell. In May 2009. Linda Frost published “Conjoined Twins in Black and White,” a dual biography of Millie-Christine McKoy and the early 20th century twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.

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5 Responses to “ Who were Southeastern North Carolina’s most famous conjoined twins?”

  1. On August 22, 2009 at 5:31 pm Bella Parola wrote:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard this story before.

    The constant mixing up of McKoy and McKay is distracting and irrelevant. And “$750 per week, an enormous sum for African Americans at the time,” is a ridiculous thing to say. It was an enormous sum for ANYONE at the time!!! That’s more than probably 2/3 of the labor force in the StarNews region makes today – $18.75 an hour for a 40-hour week. Check the offers in your own Help-Wanted ads.

  2. On August 22, 2009 at 8:43 pm Yorke Haynes wrote:

    I have always wondered what Chang-Eng thought of the “Carolina Twins”, especially in light of their own slave holding past , as well as the exploitaion of their condition by others. Nice article, very informative. Yorke Haynes, great-great grandson of Chang Bunker.

  3. On August 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm Oscia Smith wrote:

    Millie – Christine were relatives of mine. Throughout our childhood, the children of our family were told the story of their lives and how when Millie died, Christine agreed to drink a “concoction” that a Dr. mixed up that ended her life. Millie – Christine were my grandmother’s aunts and my mother(now deceased) was named after them, Millie Christine Freeman Burney.
    There is a single picture (the only one in existance) of the twins in there later years and I have it! It is about 12×13, in an oval antique frame and a family keepsake that has been passed from generation to generation.
    Oscia Smith

  4. On September 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm Debbie Weeks wrote:

    I am not related, however, I have a photo of a unnamed female ancestor of mine posing with Millie-Christine. The girls appear to be about 12 years old. This must be a Civil War era photo, based on my ancestor’s dress & approximate age of the girls.
    Back of photo says: Hughes & Co. Photographers, Troxel’s Old Stand, S.W. cor. 4th and Locust, St. Louis.

  5. On September 16, 2009 at 8:54 am perry parks wrote:

    I have an old account of my GG grandfather, William Henry Brower and his wife Francis P Patrick taking custody of the twins and keeping them until age 3. They were then lost to a texas salesman who traded them an oil well (turned out to be worthless) He supposedly named them the Golden Throated Mockingbirds and took them to Europe.

    Thanks for your post. My grandfather lived in Wadesboro, a town not to far from Chesterfield.

    Thanks, really enjoyed the article.



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