'The Two Headed Nightingale' portrait photograph, Plymouth, England, 1872
This carte-de-visite is a souvenir of a trip to see Chrissie Millie McKoy. Their skill in music they were billed as ‘The Two Headed Nightingale’. The reverse of this card shows a printed signature from Chrissie Millie showing how they were regarded as one person rather than two. Millie is the slighter shorter twin. The twins were conjoined at the groin area. The existence of a carte de visite shows there was not only money to be made from exhibiting the twins but also from merchandising. Queen Victoria was said to be a fan of Chrissie Millie McKoy. Chrissie Millie McKoy were African American conjoined twins born into slavery in 1851 in North Carolina. As conjoined twins they were referred to as one person rather than two separate people. In the 19th century conjoined twins were seen as medical ‘oddities’ and ‘freaks’ and were frequently part of travelling shows. Chrissie Millie McKoy were sold three times between the age of six months and six years. By 1856, they were owned by Smith who taught them how to read, write, speak five different languages, sing and play the piano to a high standard. They toured England, Europe and America. After the Emancipation Act in 1863, which abolished slavery in the United States, the twins chose to remain with the Smiths. After a thirty-year career, they retired to North Carolina where a fire in 1909, left them in financial ruin. They died of tuberculosis in 1912 They are unusual not purely due to their bodies. As African Americans and as women they achieved a high standard of education, rare for the late nineteenth century. Conjoined twins Chrissie Millie McCoy (who sometimes referred to themselves as one person) were remarkable women by any standards. But can we simply celebrate them as successful women or is there a tale of exploitation lurking beneath the surface? Enslaved from birth, the women eventually became so successful that they were able to buy the plantation where they were born. They gained money and fame through their singing career as the small visiting card in this picture testifies. But to what extent were they in control of their destiny? As enslaved workers, they were bought and sold numerous times (even stolen on one occasion). They had little or no choice about the way in which they performed or were displayed. Even when they became famous singers, medical men were still able to examine them as ‘medical curiosities’. After the emancipation of slaves in the 1860s, the sisters were free women. Yet they chose to remain with the Smith family, their previous owners. Would they have done this if they felt exploited? Without more evidence, it's hard to know why the McCoys made this decision. The sisters wrote an autobiography describing their lives, but can we trust it as reliable evidence? They used the autobiography to promote their singing, so may not have wanted to say anything negative. The story of Chrissie Millie McCoy is a reminder that when we try and imagine the lives of people of the past, there are always limits to what we can know.
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A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.
Glossary: conjoined twins
Identical twins physically joined together at birth, formerly known as ‘Siamese’ twins. The location of the join can vary. Where possible, conjoined twins are often now separated through surgery.
Portrait photograph mounted on cardboard. Used as calling cards from the 1860s.