Before I saw Side Show on Broadway, which chronicled the based-on-true-life story of conjoined twins, I’d never heard of Daisy and Violet Hilton. In the 1920s and 30s, these conjoined twins from Brighton, England were the highest-paid vaudeville act in America. Their story is harrowing and heartbreaking, and I got to read about it all in the well-researched and sensitive biography written by Dean Jensen, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Daisy and Violet were born in Brighton, England in 1908, to an unmarried mother who promptly gave them up when she saw their imperfection: that they were born fused at the bases of their spines. Their mother sold them to a woman named Mary Hilton who, along with her daughter and son-in-law, exploited the girls’ handicap and capitalized on their fame. Daisy and Violet were beaten in their youth and had their riches stolen from them by their guardians, and when they finally won emancipation in their early 20s, fell into lives of extravagant spending and wild extramarital affairs. But these women had true talent: given a rigorous education and taught to sing and play multiple instruments, even without their audiences’ perverse interest in their conjoined bodies, Daisy and Violet delivered an amazing vaudeville act that often drew audiences to tears:
What was it about the twins that left the public and the press so smitten? They were uncommonly comely, vivacious, and talented. But there was another explanation why they were able to hold their audiences in thrall: Daisy and Violet were cursed with a gross physical anomaly more horrific than most people could imagine. Yet the sisters had not only come to terms with their condition, they had fully triumphed over it. Who could come to the theater feeling sorry for himself and then, after seeing Daisy and Violet, not feel his burdens taking on a smallness?”
One thing that struck me most about Daisy and Violet’s story is how often they were exploited. Countless managers and peers took advantage of their fame and money for their own gain. Another aspect of their life that breaks my heart is how much of their fame was built on their draw as “freaks.” Daisy and Violet were born into a world obsessed with carnivals and circuses, where “midgets” and people born with deformities were seen as casual entertainment. This created an environment where those on the margins of society could earn a living and find community, but it also fostered the belief that these people were “untouchables” and disgusting.
Daisy and Violet earned their fame by capitalizing on the fact that people did have a perverse interest in viewing their conjoined bodies, and when they ultimately descended into poverty and obscurity, their physical condition became horrifying rather than interesting, a reaction that still regarded the twins as “Other” because of their physical appearance. It speaks volumes about human nature that the twins’ physical appearance both catapulted them into fame and was the cause of their descent into obscurity. What is it about people who are different that causes perverse interest or disgust in us? Has that changed? I like to think that it has, but it makes no difference in the lives of Daisy and Violet, who died poor and largely friendless.
Their story deserves to be told more. I’m so grateful I was able to read their story and learn about a forgotten part of American history, and learn more about these brave, beautiful women who defied all the odds.