The phenomenon of conjoined twins was poorly understood until the twentieth century. Though even the earliest medical journals contain reports of many cases, the predominant tone is one of horror and even fear rather than compassion or detached interest. Right up until the end of the nineteenth century, words such as ‘monster’ or ‘monstrosity’ were commonly used to describe them, and the infants described as ‘it’ rather than given a sex. An 1872 edition of the Medical Times and Gazette contains one particularly interesting example, contributed by the English surgeon Dr Wasdale Watson. He describes the twins he was asked to deliver, without much sensitivity, as a ‘double monster’:
On the morning of June 10, 1872,1 was requested to visit Mrs. D., the wife of a hairdresser in this town; she was stated to be in labour of her ninth child. I arrived at the house at 8.30 a.m., ascertained she was taken ill at 3 a.m., but being a month before her proper time, she did not think at first it could be labour.
Her waters broke at 6 am; three hours later she was fully dilated and an apparently normal delivery began at 11 am when a child’s head finally appeared.
At least twenty minutes elapsed before any further expulsive power occurred, but when it did it was continued and very violent, the result being the birth of the double monster, which had the appearance of eight-months children; total weight, eight pounds and a quarter; length from top of head, A, to top of head, B, twenty-two inches.
It’s curious that this language of monstrosity persisted as late as 1872. There is little sense in the doctor’s report that he was dealing with two human children. Both babies soon began to breathe, and to cry loudly – usually a good sign. The letters below refer to labels on the drawing which accompanies the article:
A was born first; the double leg, C, was under its right arm, the two legs, D and K, were doubled up across and above the umbilicus, n; r and o represent the position of two very distinctly formed vagina;—urine frequently passed from the urethra of the one marked o; the double leg, c, had ten toes blended together, two tibia, two fibidie, and two patella upon it, but only one femur, as will be seen delineated in the drawing of the pelvic bones, to which I will presently refer. The placenta was thrown off immediately, it was single, but very large, and the post-partum haemorrhage was so profuse as to produce fainting twice. In the course of an hour the uterus contracted firmly, from which time the mother has gone on uninterruptedly well.The doctor examined the babies and found to his surprise that there was no sign where one body ended and the other began: they were perfectly conjoined at the hip.
They both took some spoon food, and from the first A was the strongest. In about three hours B began to show signs of dissolution, and, as they seemed to be distinct beings, but united, they were baptised. The most remarkable and almost incredible part of the story remains to be told. Six hours after birth, B to all appearance died; respiration ceased and the heart’s action stopped, the half of the body (including the left half of the leg, c) became livid, the jaw dropped, was tied up, and that part was for six hours covered over as dead.
Though B appeared dead, Baby A continued to take food.
The chance of separation occurred to my mind, but the two seemed so inseparable (added to which the anus was imperforate) that I banished the idea. B at this time was dead to all intents and purposes, bat, watching it for a short time, I discovered the fact that it had again commenced to move, and imperfect respiration was set up. It soon passed into a state of tranquillity again. About every fourth hour, after the same thing occurred in a greater or less degree: the muscles of the face acted and produced distortion of the features, the tongue protruded and was retracted several times, vigorous attempts at breathing, and visible pulsation in the carotid artery upon both sides. About twenty-six hours after birth A began to show indications that she must succumb, and her breathing became gradually more impeded until an hour before death, when, after a violent and loud cry, the nervous force seemed so immediately communicated to B that it struggled violently, most of the livid hue passed away, respiration continued regular for twenty minutes or more, and it cried with considerable sound; but the action of the heart not being re-established, the efforts were futile—a severe and very well marked convulsion definitely put an end to B, and about half an hour afterwards A had three fits successively, and then ceased to breathe, the heart’s action continuing for some ten minutes later, when it died, as nearly as possible thirty hours after birth… My assistant and a practitioner of the town witnessed the astounding phenomena to which I have just alluded with equal, if not greater, surprise than myself.
A sad case; and there was nothing the physician could have done. Separation of conjoined twins had been successfully performed before, notably by Joseph Fatio in 1689; but that was a much simpler case. These twins shared a liver and other abdominal viscera and were connected at the pelvis; even today they would pose a formidable challenge to an experienced surgeon.
The case had one other curious feature. The mother was convinced that she knew why the twins had been born conjoined.
I cannot comment much upon this remarkable case, only to mention that the mother was most desirous to see the “Twoheaded Nightingale” who was in the town some time ago.
The ‘Twoheaded Nightingale’ was – or rather, were – the famous conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy. Born into slavery in Carolina in 1851, they were stolen from their parents and repeatedly bought and sold by unscrupulous promoters as a fairground attraction. They spoke several languages, were accomplished musicians and sang beautifully – hence their nickname. Although they were pitilessly exploited in early life, they led long and fulfilled lives and died within a few hours of each other in 1912.
She did not see her, but was much interested in looking at one of the large placard drawings of her, which she saw in the early part of March.
It’s striking that this woman – like many of the thousands who paid to see them on stage – regarded Millie and Christine as a single person.
On June 10 she was confined—a month before her time; so in March she would be just five months gone. I question the possibility myself, but she is very positive about the effect she felt at the time and ever since. On my telling her the child was deformed, she asked immediately if it was like the “Two-headed Nightingale.”
The mother really believed that just thinking about these conjoined twins had caused her own abnormal pregnancy. It seems strange today, but the belief that imagination could so influence a pregnancy was widespread at least until the turn of the century. I’ve previously documented a few on this blog – see, for instance, the boy who behaved like a snake, and the woman who rashly read about a murder during pregnancy.