Guest blogger Amy Zamarripa Solis continues the series of 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex with the little known story of African-American twins Millie and Christine McCoy, who spent time as performers in Brighton in the 1870s.
It was only by a stroke of luck that I recently learned about conjoined African-American twins, Millie and Christine McCoy, thanks to a local researcher. The McCoy twins experienced an extraordinary life, one of many tragedies but also a few remarkable highlights including performing at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and the Aquarium and meeting Queen Victoria.
Millie and Christine (the “Carolina Twins”) were born on a farm in Columbus County, North Carolina on 11 July 1851 to Jacob and Monemia McKoy, who were slaves. The twins were conjoined at the lower spine and stood at an approximately 90-degree angle to each other.
At 10 months old, they were sold into the entertainment business, by blacksmith Jabez McKay who owned their parents. Through a convoluted series of business deals and cons, the twins were bartered and exhibited at various fairs and freak shows around America and Canada before ending up in Britain.
In 1857, Millie and Christine were rescued by an American businessman backer who held their ownership through a promissory note. He traveled to Britain along with their mother, Monemia, to collect them. After that, Smith and his wife provided the twins with an education and taught them to speak five languages, dance, play music, and sing.
Millie and Christine enjoyed a successful career as “The Two-Headed Nightingale”, performing song and dance around the world. The twins’ motto was ‘As God decreed, we agreed.’ They were celebrities and even appeared with the Barnum Circus. To overcome their mobility issues, which caused them to fall over, they developed a sideways walk that turned into a crowd-pleasing dance style. They were able to master keyboard duets with one soprano and one alto voice and learned to harmonize.
Local researcher Alf Le Flohic writes, ‘They visited Brighton a number of times in 1870s, both on holiday and working. They had amazing singing voices and were known as the Two-Headed Nightingale. I have found local newspaper articles that show them appearing at a number of local venues including the Royal Pavilion (with the Brother Magri, musical Italian dwarves) and at the Aquarium where people were roller skating. They even appeared at the Aquarium on roller skates themselves on one occasion. They met Queen Victoria on three occasions. She wrote about them in her journal and even gave them jewellery. Millie-Christine were also photographed by the Brighton-based French photographer Louis Bertin on one of their visits.’
On 1 January 1863, Millie and Christine were freed as slaves when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed.
In their 30s, the twins moved back to the farm where they were born, which their father had bought and left for them.
On 8 October 1912, Millie and Christine died at age 61 of tuberculosis. Christine died 12 hours after her sister. They were buried in unmarked graves but in 1969 they were moved to a cemetery in Whiteville.
Several books were written about the twins’ experience. Biography History and Medical Description of the Two-Headed Girl (1869) was sold during their public appearances. Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (2000) was part memoir and sourced material.
Written by Amy Zamarripa Solis, author, artist and producer.