'The Two Headed Nightingale' portrait photograph, Plymouth, England, 1872
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.