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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Millie-Christine McKoy and the American Freak Show: Race, Gender, and Freedom in the Postbellum Era, 1851 - 1912

  • Author(s): Gold, Sarah E
  • et al.

Recent historical research has focused on a few popular acts of late nineteenth-century American freak shows, such as the “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng Bunker, in order to understand how notions of inherent racial and physical difference continued to be institutionalized in the absence of slavery. Although the conjoined twin sisters Millie-Christine McKoy enjoyed a similar level of celebrity and financial success as the Bunker twins, they have not received nearly the same amount of attention from historians. As black women born into slavery, Millie-Christine illuminates different aspects of nineteenth-century culture than Chang and Eng. Her life complicates our understanding of the intersections between race, gender, and the meaning of freedom in the post-Civil War period. In this paper, Millie-Christine’s life is reconstructed through a variety of primary sources, including contemporary circus pamphlets, medical journal studies, newspaper articles, and advertising broadsides, as well as the twins’ autobiography, letters, and will. Although Millie-Christine’s experience confirms some previous analyses of the American freak show, she ultimately departs from the assumptions that freak show performers were passive victims, that women were defined by their children and husbands, and that conjoined twins were physically and metaphorically unable to experience freedom. Millie-Christine McKoy’s unusual body lands her on the freak show’s often exploitative stage, but it also gives her the kind of wealth, success, and agency virtually unknown to black women in postbellum America.

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