When Slaves Become Strange

by Chanina Wong

Conjoined since birth, twins Millie and Christine garnered mass interest and attraction from when they were even ten months old.

Millie and Christine McKoy were twin sisters conjoined at the lower spine born into slave family in North Carolina, 1851. Even at birth, they were considered a spectacle as many onlookers sought to see their deformity themselves with many visitors going to their owner’s home , causing him to sell them to another white couple. It was under Joseph Pearson Smith and his wife, that they felt they were treated kindly; the Smiths even made an effort to locate and purchase Millie and Christine’s entire family. They contribute their Christian beliefs from their “white ma”, Mrs. Smith, who they revered who also taught them how to dance, sing, read, and speak different languages (19):

“None can mistake our determination in remaining under the guardianship of Mrs. Smith. Our object is two-fold: We can trust her, and what is more, we feel grateful to her and regard her with true filial affection” (16).

The History of the Carolina Twins: “Told in Their Own Peculiar Way” by “One of Them” was sold by the twins’ agents, written directly to their audience they perform for and “skeptics” of their deformity, as seen by a medical testimony placed at the end by doctors who observed the twins themselves and the detailed explanation of their lives. Their entire history is present from when they were born shocking their family, to when they were kidnapped from their “kind master and guardian”, to the publication’s present when they performed and traveled as a show (8). The publication almost acts as a form of advertisement, for skeptics to visit the Carolina Twins’ show and see for themselves the oddity of their body. Reviews are placed in the publication further enhancing its goal of persuasion.

It is crucial in narratives of enslaved persons to consider how the speakers view themselves, especially when “one’s self” is arguably, two separate minds connected in one body. It is difficult to tell if the narrative actually stems from the twins’ own words or if it was twisted, despite referring to themselves in first person. At the end of their published pamphlet, the author placed lyrics of their popular songs they sing when performing, which many have requested a copy of:

“Two heads, four arms, four feet, All in one perfect body meet, I am most wonderfully made…I’m happy, quite, because I’m good; I love my Savior and my God. I love all things that God has done, Whether I’m created two or one”(21).

Millie and Christine consider themselves according to the publication as one, or “Millie-Christine”, one with the same thoughts, ideas, opinions, despite two different brains and heads. Even on trains they were required only one ticket, considered only one person. One train ticket, of course, makes more sense economically, but being constantly portrayed as one person, “Millie-Christine”, demonstrates how the twins viewed themselves as a singular person and a unique creation that should be displayed.

How the public viewed Millie and Christine is similar to their own perception, as an odd, but beautiful demonstration of “God’s creation”. They were presented like a sort of circus act as  the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, pleasing many crowds intriqued with their uniqueness:

Millie-Christine, the “Caroline Twin”, are photographed in the center, advertised as one of the “Eight Wonders of the World”, revered as a spectacle and a “freak of nature”.

“The editor of the Louisville Journal said, ‘The exhibition of these remarkable twins is characterized by the peculiar delicacy, modesty and ingeniousness of these young girls themselves. Nothing occurs nor can occur offensive to the most fastidious sense of propriety, or refined taste’” (17).

Their deformities were not only placed as entertainment for many to enjoy, but their songs and dancing were of “exquisite taste and sweetness”. “Christine [had] a soprano voice. Millie a contralto”, and their harmonic duets were paired with graceful dancing that is seen as even more impressive with the uniqueness of their four legs (16).

Christine and Millie were sold like products between owners through transactions, and were kidnapped for someone to gain a profit. They were of course, not treated with the dignity of that era’s white person. But the twins were so marveled and revered that their skin color, which was a large contributing factor to how one was categorized in 19th century America, was not the reason for their “oppression” as profitable products that traveled and entertained. There is an alternative situation to consider. If Millie and Christine were white, would perhaps they be treated differently, or if their deformity been taken advantage the exact same way?

Millie and Christine’s life raises the conversation discussing whether the twins were placed under the same oppression as black enslaved persons in America, even being born within a family under slavery. The twins were not set to work in the fields or care for their white masters as exploited labor. They traveled as commodities, displaying their talents as exhibitions for an audience. There are connections to be made, however, to the practice of slave traders commodifying their slaves as “products” to appear their fittest and most healthiest to gain a large profit. Such practices by slave traders included shaving men’s beards, plucking gray hairs and blackening them with dye, exercising slaves so their muscles stay toned, amongst other techniques “by which the traders turned people into things and then into money” (Johnson 119).

The twins do not speak much about slavery in their publication, considering it was for their audience, not abolitionists. Slavery is spoken more as a given fact of that time’s culture instead of a horrifying one, like financial transactions between owners instead of terrible exploitation. There is no incident spoken that is recalled to be graphic or violent that is usually described in an enslaved person’s experience, and they revere and compliment their white owners. According to their narrative, it appears that Mrs. Smith truly loved and appreciated the twins, but her efforts in educating the twins could be considered grooming them to perform for profit. It must also be mentioned that this publication was sold by their “agents”, who were their owners.

The twins were of course viewed as some sort of product with services to sell, but they were differentiated from black enslaved persons, perhaps more “worthy” of white people’s attention and admiration. Practically celebrities, they even were gifted jewelry from Queen Victoria, and lived under seemingly caring owners who extensively strived to unite their family and provide an education for the twins. Their unique circumstance presents questioning if their deformity saved them from a lifetime of oppression, a different type of oppression, under typical enslavement. Did the twins even percieve themselves as oppressed at all? It may not be entirely clear, but perhaps Millie and Christine were very fortunate to have been bought under the “very giving” Smiths, who appear to have loved and worked hard for Mille and Christine and their family. Millie and Christine’s circumstances cannot be understood without the backdrop of slavery, however, where they were still considered products and not breathing, meaningful people.

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