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The wonders of technology mean that you can go to YouTube and watch a clip of Daisy and Violet Hilton singing a number from their film, Chained for Life. They are a little stiff in their movements, but have sweet voices and perform well. Their story was unknown to me before I read Dean Jensen's well-written and poignant biography.
The Hilton sisters were born in 1908, in Brighton, England, to Kate Skinner, an unmarried twenty-one year old. The twins were pygopagus, that is joined back to back at their lower spines by flesh and bone; they did not share major organs, but apparently some aspect of their circulatory systems. They were adopted into the family of Mary Hilton, her husband Henry and daughter Edith. Mary Hilton was the midwife who had helped them into the world. But from the beginning it was apparent that she recognized the potential earning capacity of the conjoined sisters. She started by selling two-penny postcards of the newborns at the pub she ran, the Queen's Arms.
It seems doubtful that the sisters felt really loved by either Mary Hilton or her son-in-law, Myer Myers, who became extraordinarily wealthy through his shrewd management of the girls' appearances. They were treated harshly, threatened with abandonment and the asylum if they rebelled, and made to work extremely hard and long hours. They were also isolated from other children and adults, and Myers even made them sleep in the same bedroom with he and his wife until they were nearly twenty years old, so he could keep complete control of them. It was only when he tried to sabotage Daisy's relationship with a man she loved and the sisters physically attacked him that he realised he had to give them some freedom.
But Mary Hilton did care for her charges. She and her daughter, for example, spent many years massaging Daisy's leg back into alignment, as she had been born with it twisted outward, probably due to crowding in utero. It seems difficult to know just how much true affection the Hiltons had for the girls, as everything they did essentially increased their chances of making money from them.
From a young age, the girls were taken on tour around the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and finally, to the United States, where the family settled. Nearly everywhere they went, they were examined by doctors to prove that they were really conjoined, and not fakes. So much exposure to poking and prodding by strangers engendered in them a fear of all things medical.
Dean Jensen gives a highly readable and lively account of the girls' lives, charting their enormous successes as entertainers, as well as their declines. As mercenary as Hilton and Myers were, they did at least enable them to have an education, and to be trained as singers, musicians and dancers. These talents combined with their naturally effervescent personalities to make them loved and admired wherever they went.
Love, sex, marriage and motherhood were desired by Daisy and Violet, just as they were by most other women. For obvious reasons, there were difficulties to overcome. I think Jensen manages to be frank about this without descending into unnecessary luridness. Indeed, he comments upon the salacious details that were sought after by certain sections of the media and the public concerning the sexual lives of the sisters.
The sisters died in 1969, in reduced and rather sad circumstances, almost forgotten by the wider world. It was only the care of a few kind people in the last years of the sisters' lives that enabled them to retain some dignity. They are remembered today mainly for their appearance in the film Freaks by Tod Browning in 1932. Unfortunately, the film they underwrote themselves in 1952 (at the behest of yet another dreamer who bled them of their money), Chained for Life, was a disaster.
What struck me about the trials that the sisters endured was how little support they could call upon when they were no longer able to earn sufficient income, or any income, through the entertainment industry. If it hadn't been for those Good Samaritans, they would have starved.
The point is made early in the book that children born with deformities during earlier eras often ended up in institutions, forgotten and neglected, perhaps to die an early death. The circuses and carnivals and 'freak' shows that used to draw huge crowds at least provided somewhere for them to be employed, and a community of fellow deformed who could provide camaraderie.
Conjoined twins are rare, but human behavior in response to them provides much insight into ourselves, and Dean Jensen has done this admirably in his biography to produce a thoughtful and entertaining book.
© 2007 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia.