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Fifty Years On: The Hilton Sisters Remembered

Stumbling on the joint grave of the first conjoined (and British-born) twins to survive more than a few weeks, Matt Roper tells a sad tale of the showbusiness exploitation, abuse and greed that marred their already difficult lives

It’s mid-afternoon in the lazy neighbourhood of Toddville Road – a sleepy corner of suburbia in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Forest Lawn Cemetery, vast and sprawling, sits beside the Paw Creek River and on this afternoon, the air is warm and still.

In Section M, Row 6, of the cemetery lie the bodies of sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton, born in Brighton in 1908. Said to be the first pair of twins born conjoined and to survive for more than just a few weeks, they became stars of the American burlesque, sideshow and vaudeville stage for over two decades. Today, they’re long forgotten. But just how it was they ended their days in a town such as Charlotte is a story worth remembering.

Joined at the hip and the buttocks, sharing blood circulation but no vital organs, Daisy and Violet were born to an unmarried Brighton barmaid whose employer, Mary Hilton, bought the twins for a sum of cash and took them under her charge raising them, isolated and physically abused, in the living quarters at the Evening Star pub – allowing people every now and then to come and ogle at the girls for cash.

As the twins grew, they were taught to dance and play instruments (Daisy the violin, Violet the saxophone) and found themselves performing in several sideshow circuses. Soon enough, their adoptive mother had her eye on the American Dream. Though the girls were initially denied visas having been deemed medically unfit for work, Mary Hilton initiated a media outcry and eventually got her own way.

By the age of eight, Violet and Daisy Hilton were taken to the United States and became stars of the sideshow stage.

Mary Hilton died when the twins turned 11-years-old, leaving them under the control of her unscrupulous daughter Edith and her husband Meyer Meyers. Under the management of Meyers himself, the girls became stars of the vaudeville stage alongside such luminaries as Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin. It is said that at one point Violet and Daisy were making five thousands dollars a week – every cent of it pocketed by the Meyers.

This continued until the girls decided to sue the couple in a Texas courtroom, causing a national sensation and prompting the judge to free the twins from their contract with the Meyers and order a compensation payment of $100,000 to the twins. They were finally free to earn their own money – on their own terms.

For a time the twins starred in their own touring show, The Hilton Sisters Revue, before moving into burlesque. For a while, they had it all; the handsome salary, splurges on the latest fashions and shindigs which went on until sunrise at which they’d smoke, drink and party the night away.

A friendship was also formed with Houdini, who was said to have trained the girls to retract into a private mental space where they could “get rid of each other” if they felt the need to.

The twins made two films; the now-legendary cult horror film Freaks among a cast of fellow sideshow performers, and the Fifties exploitation film Chained For Life. But when the work dried up with the decline of the vaudeville circuit – and the girls having squandered all their money living the high life – they were suddenly plummeted into poverty.

The sisters travelled the States, taking on a series of agents and managers with whom their careers went nowhere. One venture was to tour American drive-in cinemas, making personal appearances at screenings of their films. It was after one such poorly attended screening here in the town of Charlotte that they were ditched by their manager and left penniless, forced to search for employment at a local grocery store. They would work as two, they told the manager, but he could pay them as one. He hired the struggling sisters – and paid them as two. They died here in 1968 from the Hong Kong flu. According to coronary reports, Daisy died first and Violet a few days later.

“We were lonely, rich girls who were really paupers living in practical slavery”, they wrote in their autobiography, The Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters.

We remember these sisters and honour them 50 years later, all these miles away from Brighton, in a quiet corner of a cemetery in North Carolina. Two gentle souls exploited for other people’s greed. The twins are buried in one specially made coffin, in keeping with their final wish – to remain together, always.

 

Matt Roper is a British comedian touring America. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.     

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By the age of eight, Violet and Daisy Hilton were taken to the United States and became stars of the sideshow stage

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