Daisy and Violet Hilton. Conjoined twins, born in 1908. They shared a common blood and nervous system. They were sold as slaves by their impecunious mother to a midwife, who greedily took advantage of their misfortune; while they sang, danced, played instruments in circus sideshows, their veritable slave-owner kept all their earnings and forbade them from socializing. Eventually a lawyer helped them escape their proverbial shackles and even reacquire the money they were swindled out of. They went on to do movies (including 1932’s Freaks) and earned as much as $5000 at the height of their showbiz careers.
This is a gorgeous song by Marissa Nadler about Daisy and Violet, the Hilton Twins, who performed with Bob Hope and starred in Todd Browning’s infamous 1932 film Freaks.
I’m reprinting the amazing story of their life below, taken from the text accompanying this video by Leonard Winters from old footage of the sisters.
I didn’t know the sisters were born in Brighton, UK - quite close to where I live - 106 years ago today (5th Feb). Marissa Nadler is playing Brighton, whilst touring the UK later this Spring (2014).
“The Story of Daisy and Violet Hilton: Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in Brighton,England, on February 5th 1908.Their mother was Kate Skinner, an unmarried barmaid.The sisters were born joined by their hips and buttocks,they shared blood circulation and were fused at the pelvis but shared no major organs. Skinner’s boss, Mary Hilton,who helped in childbirth,saw commercial prospects in them, bought them from their mother and took them under her care.The midwife, "Auntie Lou” as she ordered the girls to call her, and her husband, “Sir” (they also had a daughter, Edith) taught them to sing, dance, and play the saxophone, piano and clarinet. They exploited the girls from the time they were 3 years old, making them tour circuses, fairs and side-shows, and kept all the money for themselves. When Mary Hilton died, the twins were around 15 years old,her daughter and her husband took over. They kept the twins from public view for a while never letting the girls out of their sight, and trained them in jazz music.Eventually, the girls were taken from the circus shows, and brought into vaudeville.
When the girls were 23 years old, they were falsely named in a divorce case,so “Sir” drove them to meet the lawyers, who instructed “Sir” to step out of the room. The twins saw this as their chance.The twins begged for help from the lawyer. They told him in their meeting that they were treated like slaves, and begged him to help get them free of their “owners.” In their own words, “We’ve been lonely, rich girls who were really paupers living in practical slavery.” The lawyer took them on as clients, sneaked them out of their music lesson, and smuggled them into a hotel. Again, in their own words, “We had dresses sent up, and selected no two alike, and all the silly hats we wanted. We could dress and act our age, and no longer be made up as children, with bows in our hair. I, Violet, had always wanted to drink a cocktail. I, Daisy, wanted to smoke a cigarette. We did.” They took Edith and “Sir” to court, and came away with their freedom and $100,000. They left the sideshows and went into vaudeville as “The Hilton Sisters’ Revue”. Daisy dyed her hair blonde and they began to wear different outfits so they could be told apart. Harry Houdini taught the girls to use their mind power to separate themselves emotionally, giving each of them an individuality. They had to be together physically, but could block the other out totally. In 1926 Bob Hope formed an act called the Dancemedians with the Hilton Sisters, who had a tap dancing routine.In 1932 they appeared in the movie Freaks, which dared to pose the question of whether or not conjoined twins can have a love life. Over the coming decade, it would become quite clear that the answer was yes. They had numerous affairs, Violet, the more outgoing of the pair, had a string of celebrity boyfriends, including the musician Blue Steel, boxer Harry Mason, and guitarist Don Galvan, before becoming engaged in 1933 to bandleader Maurice L. Lambert. She and Lambert began a nationwide search for a clerk who would issue them a marriage license. Each of her requests - in 21 states - was denied .Unable to get married, Violet and Maurice split. Eventually, two years later she got married to James Walker “Jim” Moore,it was a fake marriage arranged by the twins’ agent. Daisy, too, got to experience wedded bliss when she married vaudeville dancer Harold Estep, stage name Buddy Sawyer, at Elmira, New York, on September 17, 1941. Their marriage lasted two weeks.
In 1951 they starred in Chained for Life, an exploitation film loosely based on their lives. The film was a colossal failure, banned in many places due to its lurid subject matter. Having spent nearly all of their fortune and struggling to survive, the twins opened a hotdog stand, The Hilton Sisters’ Snack Bar, in Miami, in 1955, but the business failed in part due to the objections of fellow vendors who didn’t like a pair of freaks stealing their business. Short on cash, having been unable to manage their showbusiness earnings responsibly, the sisters decided to bank on the cult revival of their first movie, Freaks. In 1962 they arranged to appear at a drive-in movie theater in Charlotte, North Carolina.It was their last public appearance, their tour manager abandoned them there, and with no means of transportation or income, they were forced to take a job in a nearby grocery store where they checked and bagged groceries. On January 4th 1969, after they failed to report to work, their boss called the police. The twins were found dead in their home, victims of the Hong Kong flu.Daisy and Violet were found dead lying on a heating grate, on the hallway floor. They were probably trying to stay warm. According to a forensic investigation, Daisy died first, Violet died between two and four days later.“