The Amazing Life Story of Mille Christine McCoy
An Unusual Birth
Conjoined Negro twins Mille and Christine McCoy were born July 11, 1851, on a plantation in Southeastern North Carolina to slave parents Jacob and Monemia. They, and the plantation they worked, were owned by blacksmith Jabez (some accounts list his name as Alexander) McCoy. Monemia's labor and delivery was attended by "Aunt Hannah", a slave midwife. Christine was born first, and was larger than Mille, who, according to Hannah, was so small that she seemed little more than a bump on Christine's back. The babies were joined at the coccyx, and shared one pelvis, but had two heads, two upper bodies, and two full sets of arms and legs. Together, their birth weight was seventeen pounds. It was estimated at the time that Christine weighed approximately twelve pounds and Mille, five. The twins had a total of fourteen siblings (not counting each other), seven born prior to their birth and seven who were born afterward. Although the girls were clearly two personalities, with different brains, they referred to themselves in the singular, and their mother simply addressed them as "Sister."
An Unusual Childhood
The story of Mille and Christine's childhood is both colorful and murky. The children are said to have grown normally, with Mille nearly catching up to Christine in size, although she would always remain slightly smaller. They reportedly learned to walk at twelve months and to talk at fifteen. Christine was always stronger than Mille. They played a game as children in which Mille would lift her feet up off the ground and Christine would backpack her about. Both girls' front legs were stronger than their rear, and they could lift their rear legs off the ground and walk about, each using one front leg.
The birth of such unusual babies was surely the talk of such a small and rural community. No doubt there were frequent visitors who came to gawk and who interfered with work on the plantation. At this point in history, it was considered normal for people with anomalies to be exhibited to the public, and what were initially "freak" museums were gradually absorbed into traveling "shows" such as P.T. Barnum's circus.
It's difficult to ascertain exactly what transpired regarding the twins in terms of ownership as even "official" and newspaper accounts conflict. The children were definitely placed with a side show "promoter" (along with their mother) and then changed hands several times. They were reportedly twice kidnapped and recovered. One account says they were sold at birth for a thousand dollars, another that they were given as babies to a South Carolina promoter in return for a 25% share of their exhibition proceeds. They were apparently sold and resold, their value rising each time. The New York Times reported in an article published upon their death that they once sold for as high a price as $40,000.00.
Also lost in the whisperings of time is the original spelling of Jabez, Mille and Christine's surname. I have chosen to use McCoy in this account of their lives as McCoy is the name on Mille and Christine's grave, and McCoy is the name given to Jabez in the Raleigh, NC newspaper account of their life and death, published upon their death.
What is clear is that they spent most of their childhood with one Joseph Pearson Smith, and his family. It was from Smith they are said to have been kidnapped and recovered. They were exhibited privately to the medical community and publicly to all and sundry. When interest began to wane in their conjoined uniqueness, Smith and his wife groomed the twins as a performing act. Both girls had beautiful voices. Christine was a soprano and Mille, a contralto, and they were known for their beautiful harmonizations and renditions of Negro Spirituals. Smith's wife also tutored them in languages. While their siblings worked as slaves on the plantation, Smith's wife was teaching Mille and Christine to read, write, sing, dance, and play musical instruments. Smith took the twins on tour up and down the East Coast as well as to Canada and Europe, all before the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence. They were presented in such billings as "The Carolina Twins," "The African Twins," "The Two Headed Nightingale" and "The Carolina Nightingale."
An Unusual Life
When Mille-Christine was twelve, the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, and the girls were freed. During the War they were kept in a well hidden location near Spartanburg, South Carolina. (They would not be considered free in the South until after the War as Lincoln's Proclamation did not affect the Confederacy.) When the War ended, they continued to travel and perform all over the United States and Europe. Their unusual appearance, beautiful voices plus their ability to play two musical instruments at one time, (one twin played the guitar while the other played the piano) made them a popular and sought after act. They spoke fluent German and French in addition to English, and sang, danced and recited poetry, some of which they wrote themselves. Over the course of their career they performed in nearly every state in America, and in nearly every country in the world with the exception of Australia, and those in Asia and Africa. They performed four times for English royalty, for Queen Victoria, who presented them with jewelry as a gift, three times for the Prince and Princess of Wales, and also for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
They chose to remain with their promoter's son, Joseph Jr., who had taken over his father's business upon his father's death in 1862. The younger Smith remained their manager for the remainder of their 30 year career. Mille and Christine must have been fond of the Smith family, for they used part of their earnings to care for Joseph Smith's widow.
Mille and Christine made a great deal of money, a reported 25% of their total sales, and as much as $750.00 a week, a tremendous sum in those days. With their aid, their father was able to purchase neighboring land to the plantation where they were born after the War. (Versions regarding this purchase vary: some say Jacob purchased the very plantation upon which the family had always lived and worked, and others, that he purchased only a portion of the original plantation. Still others say Mille and Christine purchased the plantation themselves, and resided there between tours.)
Mille and Christine were known for their kind hearts. They were good friends with Anna Swan and Martin Bates, P.T. Barnum's most famous giant and giantess. They were also friends with Giuseppe and Ernesto Magri, midget brothers from Italy, whom they enabled to come to the United states. Although they earned a great deal of wealth, they died owning little, having given most of their money away to the poor and needy.
After a long and successful career in show business, Mille and Christine retired to their birthplace in Columbus County in the late 1880s, where they had built a comfortable ten room home.There they were able to display the treasures they had collected in their travels ... diamond hairpins and broaches presented to them by Queen Victoria, a curious chair made of cow horns, etc. This home, and all of their possessions, burned in 1909, and was replaced by a six room cottage, where they resided until their death, three years later.
An Unusual Death
Mille and Christine McCoy lived to be 61 years old, the oldest conjoined twins on record. Mille suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) for the last two years of her life. Mille-Christine had even spent several months in a tuberculosis sanitarium, to no apparent avail. Mille died October 8, 1912. Dr. W. H. Crowell, of Whiteville, consulted with physicians at John Hopkins Medical Center about the possibility of postmortem separation surgery, but was recommended not to pursue such a path. Instead, it was suggested that Christine be heavily dosed with morphine to deliberately end her life, and following a petition to the governor of North Carolina for approval, this recommendation was apparently followed. Christine survived Mille by seventeen hours, and then she, too, went home to be with her Lord on October 9, 1912.
Unusual in life, they were also unusual in death, as Christine was quite possibly North Carolina's only doctor assisted death.
Today the twins are buried in the quiet Welch's Creek Community Cemetery in Columbus County, NC. Their unique gravestone reads McCOY in the center, above which is written, "A Soul With Two Thoughts" and "Two Hearts That Beat as One." To one side is engraved: "MILLE-CHRISTINE: Born July 11, 1851, Columbus County NC. A child of Jacob and Monemia McCoy. She lived a life of much comfort owing to her love of God and joy in following His commands. A real friend to the needy of both races and loved by all who knew her." The other side reads, "CHRISTINE-MILLE: Died October 8th and 9th, 1912. Fully resided at her home, the place of her birth and residence of her Christian parents. They that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. Psalm 92:13."
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