Long-lost relative finds the Hilton twins decades after their death
05/24/2014 2:08 PM
05/25/2014 10:05 AM
If you’re not from around here, you may not know about the Hilton twins, Daisy and Violet.
Siamese Twins they were called in their day; conjoined twins is the modern term. They were born in England in 1908, displayed in a pub as infants, brought to the United States as performing oddities and were stellar entertainers in vaudeville until their careers flickered out. They spent their final years in the embrace of Charlotte, working side-by-side in the produce department of the Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard.
“They led a hummingbird’s life,” Observer wordsmith Dot Jackson wrote in their obituary in 1969. “Color and glitter, and always on the move. For a time they knew glamor and wealth. But both preceded them in death.”
Two days after they were found dead from the flu, both The Observer and The Charlotte News reported that their mother had died when they were born. No surviving heirs could be found.
And that’s the way the story has been told around here for 45 years.
OK. I had to tell you that to tell you this.
On the morning of May 1, a British couple entered the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room of the public library uptown and asked Shelia Bumgarner, part of the team that preens, prods and preserves the region’s history, for the file on the Hilton twins.
“That’s the first time in a long time anyone’s asked for it,” Bumgarner says. “So, nosy me, I struck up a conversation.”
Shelagh Childs, 69, with her husband Bruce in tow, told her an unusual story:
About 9 p.m. on Feb. 24, her ex-husband rang her up (they’re still friendly). Some genealogy fellow called me trying to find you, her ex told her. He has information on your grandmother, and her siblings.
That was a shocker. Childs’ mum never knew anything of her real family because her own mother died of complications after childbirth. Childs’ mother was adopted, never knowing her birth family or the fact she had any siblings.
Childs called the man, Jeremy Pender. He had been doing research that involved the family of the Hilton twins and told her that she had a family connection.
Here’s what she found out:
Kate Skinner was the unwed mother of the twins, who were born in 1908. Contrary to what the Charlotte newspapers reported, Skinner lived to have two more children. She had a son in 1910 named Fredrick who her parents raised, and a daughter in 1912 named Ethel Kate.
A month after Ethel Kate was born, Kate Skinner died at age 25 of complications from childbirth.
Ethel Kate gave birth to Shelagh (pronounced “Sheila;” it’s Gaelic) Childs in 1945, making her niece to the twins.
“All I knew was my mother was adopted at birth because of her mother’s death,” Childs says. “My mother went to her grave thinking she had no family, no siblings. Now all this is dropped in my lap.”
Twins had cloudy history
Many stories are told of the Hilton twins. Some are maybe true, some are myth, some probably crafted for publicity.
This much seems to be so. They were born Feb. 5, 1908, in Brighton, England. Kate Skinner rejected the “monsters,” as children with severe birth defects were often called in England then.
But the midwife, Mary Hilton, took an interest. Within days, Hilton agreed to adopt the twins (or bought them, often said and maybe true), then put them on display in the Queens Arms, the Brighton pub she ran with her husband. Business bloomed.
When the girls got too big for the window, they were moved to a back room. Mary Hilton charged two pennies to view them.
“If they wanted to touch them where they were joined, which people liked to do, she’d charge them a bit more,” Childs says.
“Though I find it a bit gross.”
On to show business
As the girls grew, they were taught to dance and play instruments – Violet the saxophone, Daisy the violin. They went on the carnival sideshow circuit. Hilton and her husband pocketed the proceeds. At age 8 they were brought to tour in the United States.
Their early years were marked by abuse by Hilton, who wore a menacing belt around her waist, the twins said in a 1950s memoir.
“When we displeased her, she whipped our backs and shoulders with the buckle end of that belt,” they wrote.
When Hilton died in 1919, the girls were 11. They were given (or inherited in the will, as is often said and maybe true) to Hilton’s daughter, Edith, who managed their show business careers with her husband, Myer Myers. Violet and Daisy’s careers in vaudeville soared. They were in a revue with a young comedian named Bob Hope. At one time the twins were making thousands of dollars a week, all kept by the Myerses.
In 1931 at age 23, the twins sued the Myerses, telling a judge they were kept in penniless servitude. Because of the twins’ fame, the trial in San Antonio was a national sensation. A judge freed them from their contracts and ordered the Myerses to pay them $100,000. They continued their careers and sought to add something new to their lives: romance.
Unlucky in love
Violet went first. She wanted to marry a musician. Their application for a license was turned down in 21 states on the grounds of gross indecency.
“Moral reasons,” ruled the city clerk in Newark in 1934. “Quite immoral and indecent,” said the corporation counsel of neighboring New York.
But the twins eventually prevailed and both had short-lived marriages to other entertainers – publicity stunts, it is often said, and maybe true.
In 1945, they played the Carolina Theater in Charlotte. In an interview then with The Observer, they talked about other odd dilemmas that went with being conjoined twins.
“We may seem like one, but everything costs us for two,” Daisy explained. “We pay insurance for two, but could only collect for one. The only bargain we get is our weight for a penny.”
What a penny scale revealed: Together they weighed 166 pounds, or 83 each if you’re not handy at math. They stood 4-foot-9.
In 1951, the twins starred in the B-movie “Chained for Life.” It was about a Siamese twin destined for the gas chamber for murder, but what to do with the other? It flopped. Promising plot, poor execution.
Vaudeville collapsed and their careers dried up. They went to sunny Miami and opened a burger stand, which failed.
In the early ’60s, they started calling the dwindling number of agents who represented live theatrical acts in the era of TV. One they reached was Philip Morris in Charlotte.
Their Charlotte chapter
Morris, now 79 and the patriarch of the Morris Costume empire, checked with his senior partner, T.D. Kemp, a vaudeville veteran.
Hilton sisters? They’re huge. Huge. Book them, Kemp told Morris.
Morris called the twins back in Miami. He said they’d see what they could line up.
“On the very next day,” Morris says, “a cab driver came up to our office, and he said, ‘I have a couple ladies in my car. I have to get the cab fare.’”
Morris paid the driver and went to the top of the stairway where he first laid eyes on the twins, then 54 years old.
“They were coming up the steps, like spiders – you know, four legs coming up the steps, but they were lovely girls,” Morris says.
He told them they hadn’t had time to line up any bookings. Then the twins told him their sad story. They had ridden the train up from Miami all night and had nowhere to go. They were broke.
Morris put them up at the Clayton Hotel, Fifth and Church streets, where entertainers passing through Charlotte all stayed. They appeared harmonious – he never heard a cross word between them – and when they stood or sat, they did so with a synchronicity that seemed to come, Morris says, from a common telepathic command.
He tried to find them bookings, but there were few takers – an appearance at a shopping center in Greensboro to bring in customers, a couple national sales meetings, as guests on WBTV’s “Dr. Evil’s Horror Theater,” which Morris hosted every weekend.
He booked them at the Fox Drive-In Theater in Charlotte for a showing of “Chained for Life.”
“About half a dozen people showed up,” Morris says.
Back on their own
Another agent got them booked at a drive-in theater in Monroe, then took the money and stranded the sisters there. They eventually came to live off Wilkinson Boulevard. They asked Charles Reid for a job at his Park-N-Shop market, which still stands today, abandoned and boarded up, at 3512 Wilkinson Boulevard.
They would work as two, but he could pay them as only one, they told Reid. He hired them, and paid them as two.
Reid redesigned the produce counter so they could work side by side, weighing and checking out produce.
“Hundreds of people went through there and didn’t realize they were conjoined,” says Morris, who remained friendly with the twins.
They died alone
Around Christmas 1968, the twins came down with Hong Kong flu, then sweeping the nation. On Jan. 5, 1969, after the twins hadn’t been heard from in a few days, friends got the police to force open the door of their cottage.
They were dead on the floor over the heating grate, possibly huddled there for warmth in their final hours.
They were buried in Forest Lawn West Cemetery on Freedom Drive in a friend’s plot. They rest in a single casket under a small stone. “Beloved Siamese Twins,” it says.
They left estates of $1,400 each. “An intensive search for survivors failed to turn up any,” The Observer reported.
Now, 45 years later, a survivor has found them. This month, Shelagh Childs, their long-lost niece, crossed the ocean from her home in Grove, England, to visit their grave.
She had been studying up on her new-found relatives since that phone call in February. One story she heard, maybe true, was that the twins had been shunned by relatives when they returned to Brighton to visit.
“I want people to know that someone cared about the twins,” Childs says.
“That’s why I went to their grave. I know my mother would have.”
She left flowers, poppies and crocus, for Daisy and Violet.
“And I had a bit of a cry.”
Observer researcher Maria David contributed.
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