The Carolina twins had two strikes against them from the start. Born in 1851, Millie and Christine McKoy were joined at the lower spine, and their parents were slaves. Yet their life turned out to be an astonishing victory over adversity.
The twins' early years were a travesty of childhood. They were wrenched from their mother at age 2; sold three or four times; stolen, retrieved and stolen again; put on public display at fairs and freak shows from New Orleans to Montreal; then spirited across the ocean to Britain. At each new venue, impresarios called in physicians for exhaustive medical probes to appease scientific curiosity and prove to skeptics that the "two-headed girl" was no fraud. It took three years for a private detective, hired by the McKoy family's last "rightful" owner, Joseph Pearson Smith, to track the twins down in Birmingham, England. By the time they returned to Smith and their family in North Carolina, they were almost 6.
From that shaky foundation the sisters built a long, full life -- they died within hours of each other in 1912 -- and an international name for themselves as entertainers. But their extraordinary story faded into obscurity. It might have stayed unknown, had former court reporter Joanne Fish Martell not stumbled on a pamphlet about the twins in the Whiteville, N.C., library. Martell, '49, had to know more. The result is the exhaustively researched 294-page Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (John F. Blair, 2000; $12.95).
What really inspired Martell was a quote from a grandnephew of the twins: "I often wish I could have lived the life she lived." How, Martell wondered, could anyone envy enslaved, conjoined twins?
To find out, she combed through medical accounts, showbiz periodicals, circus histories and playbills. She pored over British, French and American newspaper stories about "The Two-Headed Nightingale" and dug up items about their later life from the local paper's archives. She discovered a memoir the sisters wrote when they were 17.
Martell has painstakingly mustered these widely scattered sources to piece together a life story as impressive as the grandnephew intimated. Mentally, spiritually, even physically, there was much to admire about Millie-Christine. (Though the U.S. Census on at least two occasions listed the twins as two people, their mother considered them one child and chose the name accordingly.)
The sisters' motto was "As God decreed, we agreed," and they strove to turn impediments into assets. As toddlers, they were clumsy and fell down frequently. Before long, though, they developed a graceful sideways walk -- and a crowd-pleasing dance style. They mastered keyboard duets. Endowed with one soprano and one alto voice, they learned to harmonize.
Martell cites a raft of medical reports noting the twins' above-average intelligence. Once the 6-year-olds returned to North Carolina in 1857, Smith and his wife undertook to educate them as well as manage their budding career as performers. Martell marshals strong evidence that the Smiths were reluctant slaveholders who treated Millie-Christine as family.
Certainly, Mary Smith broke the law by teaching slaves to read and write, and, as Millie-Christine's chosen managers after slavery ended, the couple arranged their own lives around the twins' career.
All of those efforts paid off. Martell quotes extensively from the twins' autobiography, poems and letters, to demonstrate their literary bent. In the course of a seven-year European tour in the 1870s, Millie-Christine became fluent in German, Italian, Spanish and French. Gushed a New York Times reviewer: ". . . she is a perfect little gem or gems, or a gem and a half, we don't know which. Great care and attention must have been bestowed upon her education."
The sojourn in Europe completed the twins' metamorphosis from -- in their own words -- "poor little monstrosities, and black babies at that" into independent, affluent young women who could command $25,000 for a season on the county fair circuit. They bought the plantation on which they had been born slaves and turned it over to their father, providing homes and livelihoods for at least nine siblings. Later, they founded a school for black children and supported a number of colleges -- always anonymously.
The book's strengths and its flaws seem to spring from the possibilities and constraints of biography itself. Martell is a skillful writer who takes pains to illuminate the times in which her subjects lived. She especially succeeds in capturing the oddball characters and flamboyant promoters who peopled the 19th-century sideshow world. But readers looking for deeper analysis will be disappointed, as Martell mostly adheres to factual narrative.
Still, overinterpretation can turn biography to fiction. Once or twice Martell attributes motives or emotions to her subjects with no real evidence, and the attempts fall flat. It may be better to let readers draw their own conclusions. The mere facts of Millie-Christine's life are more than enough to reflect on.