Twin sisters Millie and Christine McKoy were conjoined twins born into slavery, who later became one of the most notable “human oddities” attractions in the world. Billed as the “Two-Headed Girl” and also the “Two-Headed Nightingale,” the sisters delighted crowds with song and dance performances, as well as reading aloud poetry they wrote together.
Millie and Christine McKoy were born into slavery in Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1851. Conjoined at birth, Millie and Christine were connected at the lower spine and shared one pelvis, but each sister had two arms and two legs. Both sisters—as well as their parents, Jacob and Monemia—were owned by a blacksmith named Jabez McKay.
McKay, aware of what the girls could command from traveling circuses and sideshows, sold the twins for $1,000 to an agent when they were just 10 months old. Before too long, they landed in the possession of merchant Joseph Pearson Smith. Smith hired the girls out on various road shows, giving them the billing of “The Carolina Twins.”
They were presented primarily as medical curiosities and were frequently examined by local physicians. While still infants they were examined in Edinburgh by Dr. James Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform.
At just 3-years-old, they became a featured attraction in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York. A showman who worked there kidnapped them and shipped them to England where they toured between 1854 and 1855.
While there, the girls were subjected to embarrassing public examinations during the exhibitions in order to prove they were truly joined. This invasion of their privacy continued until they reached their teen years. During this period, Smith’s father and Monemia searched for them for three years, the trail leading from New Orleans to Scotland and then finally England.
Smith, along with their mother, went to England in 1856 to retrieve the girls and sued to regain custody. Smith won and returned the girls to North Carolina where they rejoined their family on Smith’s farm. While the rest of the McKoy family worked as slaves, Smith managed the twins’ stage career.
Smith’s wife taught the girls how to read, write, sing, dance, and play the piano; she also taught them to deliver recitations in German and French. The twins used these skills when they were again exhibited, this time as the “Two Headed Girl” or the “Two Headed Nightingale.”
They earned as much as $600 a week – a near fortune at the time and enough money to buy their father a farm in North Carolina. For the next three decades, Smith managed the McKoy twins’ career. They continued to draw huge crowds and increased their notoriety by publishing an autobiography in 1869.
Throughout their career and retirement, Millie and Christine gave financial support to black schools and churches.
After Emancipation, the twins decided to remain with the Smiths. They continued to appear widely for nearly thirty years.
Their fans included British royalty like Queen Victoria, who invited them to Buckingham Palace to perform in 1871 after their performance the Queen presented the pair with diamond hairclips.
The twins rejoined P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus until their health began to fade. They retired to Columbus County in North Carolina and continued doing charity work for Black schools and churches in the South. They lived the rest of their lives out of the spotlight.
When Millie died of tuberculosis in October 1912, doctors gave Christine morphine to help end her life quickly and painlessly. Still, some accounts say that Christine outlived her twin by as many as 17 hours.
The twins were buried in a double coffin. The grave marker is inscribed: “A soul with two thoughts. Two hearts that beat as one.”
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