Over the past four years, “American Horror Story” has introduced viewers to a cluster of creepy scenes. Haunted houses, loony bins, murderous witches, and most recently, a 1950s freak show. And while its writers certainly have developed these scenes through an imaginative lens, we can’t say they are entirely original.
“American Horror Story: Freak Show” has introduced us to a number of new icons to gawk act. There’s “lobster boy,” the “bearded lady,” even a woman who has what she describes as “three titties and a dingaling,” (we’ll let you decipher that one on your own). But perhaps most pronounced are conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, played by actress Sarah Paulson.
The first episode reveals that the sisters share “one bladder, three kidneys, two on the left, and one on the right, four lungs, two hearts, with a shared circulatory system.” We know — it’s a lot of organs to stuff into one torso. But that’s what fiction is for, right, designing the unimaginable?
It’s a perfectly constructed Hollywood creation, one born for the big screen. But maybe we shouldn’t always trace the sensational back to show business. Isn’t it possible for something truly awe-inspiring to be birthed by something other than the tip of a pen?
Yes, Dot and Bette’s condition exists outside of the “AHS” universe. Just turn to Abigail “Abby” and Brittany Hensel for proof.
The 24-year-old twins each have their own head, spine, heart, set of lungs, gallbladder, small intestine and stomach. But they share a lot else, like a ribcage, two arms, two legs, two breasts, one bladder, one pelvis and one set of reproductive organs. They were born with a third “rudimentary” arm protruding from their back, but this was surgically removed when they were very young.
Conjoined twins occur only once every 200,000 live births, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and 40 to 60 percent of them arrive stillborn. About 35 percent survive only one day. The overall survival rate of conjoined twins is between just 5 and 25 percent.
Abby controls the right side of the twins’ body while Brittany controls the left — much like in the case of Dot and Bette on “AHS.” They’re coordination is impressive and allows the twins to partake in everyday tasks like dressing themselves, typing on the computer and even driving.
But while Dot and Bette’s appearance may have been based on Abby and Brittany’s body, there is another pair of conjoined twins that hit the “Freak Show” circuit long before either duo entered the scene.
Meet Violet and Daisy Hilton
The sisters were born in Brighton, England, in February of 1908, fused together at the pelvis. Unlike Abigail and Brittany, these sisters shared no organs.
To say Violet and Daisy didn’t have an easy start to life would be an understatement. When they were born, the doctor remarked they wouldn’t survive past a month. Then their mother abandoned the girls, selling them to a woman named Mary Hilton, or “Auntie” as the girls would later call her.
It didn’t take Hilton long to realize the commercial potential of the twins. She placed them in the back room of a British pub where onlookers could examine them — for a price.
Under other circumstances, this is maybe where we would have said, “And a star was born.” And it’s true, to a certain extent. But the Hilton sisters wouldn’t be introduced to the world of glitz and glamor for some time, and they were far from “stars.” And before they would reach anything that resembled that title, they would go through years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their guardians.
But in 1915, Violet and Daisy finally hit the American market. A few years later, after landing in San Francisco, they would share the stage with some vaudeville legends like Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope. By the 1920s, the girls were bringing in up to $5,000 per week.
And what goes best with money, fame and freedom? Men, of course … and probably a little bit more money. Maybe that’s why the twins got involved with a number of different men connected to show business and took part in a string of weddings for publicity. The sisters even gave birth while on tour, though the child was given up for adoption. They would later star in two feature films, “Chained for Life” and “Freaks.”
But fame is a cruel game, and people tend to outgrow the unusual. As their career slowed, the twins’ fortune began to as well. After a series of unsuccessful performances, they were reduced to weighing produce for Park N Shop grocery store in Charlotte, N.C.
In 1969, Daisy fell ill with the “Hong Kong Flu.” While a doctor did come to the house, Daisy continued to deteriorate. She eventually called her boss at the Park N Shop to tell him the condition was worsening, but insisted he not call a doctor this time around.
Based on the decomposition of the twins’ bodies, Daisy died before Violet. After her sister’s death, Violet made the decision to not to call for medical intervention. In the documentary, “Bound By Flesh,” one insider shared that “Those last couple of days must have been nightmarish for Violet. With her sister there, I think she drank a lot, smoked a lot, and then ultimately, just slipped away.”
Another insider insisted that one of the twins’ greatest fears was to be separated. In fact, it’s reported that the twins refused a surgery that could have separated them. In archival footage, one of the twins can be seen saying, “We’ve always stayed together, and we’ll be that way forever.”
Daisy and Violet are buried in one grave in a quiet Charlotte cemetery.
Though it seems the sisters didn’t experience the angst and hostility their onscreen counterparts show, their condition didn’t make life easy. And while the fictional “Freak Show” will eventually draw to end, it’s not like the Hilton sisters ever got a chance to hang up their title. People paid the twins for a moment’s entertainment. For the Hilton sisters, that moment seemed to last an awfully long time.
Carrie Weisman is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.