The Unusual & Unwanted Life of the Original Hilton Sisters

Violet and Daisy Hilton were THE Hilton sisters long before the famous heiresses Paris and Nicky were even born. But not many people know about these twins, conjoined by the hip, who lived the most unusual – and undesirable – lives.

The Hilton sisters / Daisy and Violet Hilton / Daisy and Violet
Source: Getty Images

They were unwanted by their own parents and practically forced into vaudeville and sideshow performances. After traveling the world with the likes of Bob Hope and appearing in famous films, they became famous in their own right. But life was never kind to them, not even in their final days, when they struggled to make ends meet.

Surgical Separation Wasn’t an Option

Daisy and Violet were born in 1908 in England. In those days, they were referred to as Siamese Twins, having been born connected at the hip and buttocks. At the time of their birth, separating them wasn’t an option as it was feared it would cause either one or both of them to die.

Daisy and Violet as toddlers.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The obstetrician said he believed they would die within a month of the birth. Miraculously, they lived until the age of 60. Had they been born in the 21st century, however, the Hilton sisters would likely have been surgically separated seeing as they only shared blood circulation and each girl had her own organs.

A Life of Pain, Fame, and Ultimate Suffering

Nonetheless, the girls remained together, destined for a life of pain and suffering. It wasn’t all depressing, though. Their lives did get sprinkled with the glitter of fame that they got to experience for many years. That is, until the novelty wore off and their “15 minutes of fame” were up.

A portrait of the Hilton twins.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The twins’ final years were sorrowful, just as their early existence was. It began with the tragic detail that their mother, Kate Skinner, a barmaid who wasn’t married at the time, rejected her abnormal babies. It was a time when children with birth defects were called “monsters.”

Their Mother Sold Them to a Bar Owner

Skinner was convinced that her babies’ condition was punishment for her actions, so she abandoned them, selling them – yes, selling them – to a bar owner named Mary Hilton. Skinner had two more children: a son in 1910 and a daughter in 1912, but the 25-year-old died a month after her daughter was born, due to complications in childbirth.

Daisy and Violetare cooking in the kitchen.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It was Hilton who decided to display the “freaks” in sideshows, carnivals, and fairs when they were as young as three years old. The twins referred to her as “Auntie,” and before long, she realized she could capitalize on their disability.

Two Pennies for a Peep

Hilton didn’t see the twins as a burden. Instead, she saw opportunity. She started to display the girls in the back room of a British pub in what became her own sideshow. For the price of two pennies, people could get a look at the peculiar twins and even examine them.

Daisy and Violet pose for a studio portrait.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some of their first memories were people lifting up their dresses to see their connected bodies. Their memoir reads: “Our earliest and only recollections are the penetrating smell of brown ale, cigars and pipes and the movements of the visitors’ hands which were forever lifting our baby clothes to see just how we were attached to each other.”

They Were “Medically Unfit” to Enter America

At only three years old, Hilton was already taking Daisy and Violet on the road. By eight, they were in Germany and Australia, making Hilton money. But the businesswoman wanted more. So, she set her sights on the United States, where the sideshow market was in full swing.

immigration inspector administers an oath to co-joined twins Violet Hilton and Daisy Hilton.
Photo by FPG/Getty Images

In 1915, they flew to San Francisco but were initially denied entry and deemed “medically unfit.” Hilton was shrewd and knew how to get what she wanted. So, she involved the local media and got them to intervene on her behalf. Eventually, the twins were allowed entry into the country.

Abused by Auntie and Her “Sirs”

Hilton continued to parade the girls around, and as you probably assumed, Hilton was indeed abusive to them, both physically and mentally. Hilton liked to have men in her life, and all of them were called “Sir” by Daisy and Violet.

A portrait of the Hilton Twins in fancy dresses.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

It wasn’t just “Auntie” who abused them; her “Sirs” were equally as cruel. Over the years, Hilton made sure the girls knew they had to perform for her. After all, their sole purpose was to make her money. If they didn’t do as they were told, they were hit and slapped.

Auntie Died, but Escape Was Impossible

In their autobiography, The Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters, the twins wrote: “When we displeased her, she whipped our backs and shoulders with the buckle end of that belt.” After eight agonizing years in captivity, Auntie Hilton finally died. Naturally, Violet and Daisy wanted out.

Daisy and Violet are playing the ukulele.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What they didn’t know was that Hilton’s daughter, Edith Hilton, and her husband Meyer Meyers, an Australian sideshow producer, had been waiting in the wings for the right time to pounce. With no hope of escape, the husband-and-wife team took over the twins’ sideshow career and held them as virtual slaves.

Enslaved by Their New “Owners”

The twins became famous in the 1920s as teenagers. They were showing up on the same stage as icons Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope. Their earnings were quite impressive, too, with their shows raking in $5,000 a week.

A portrait of Daisy and Violet Hilton with the Meyers.
Source: Progress Studio, New York/CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

However, Edith and Meyer pocketed nearly all of the girls’ salaries. The twins referred to them as their “owners,” as they weren’t allowed out of their sight, knowing the girls wanted to escape. The Myers didn’t let anybody near them out of fear that something would ruin their money-making scheme.

Forced to Perform for Hours

“We were lonely, rich girls who were really paupers living in practical slavery,” Daisy wrote. They were forced to practice their vaudeville act, where they played the saxophone and violin for hours. This traveling act was in place of their education.

Daisy and Violet are performing on stage.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Meyer would threaten more than just beatings; he insisted that he would send them to an institution if they ever tried to leave. But one particular famous face took an interest in the traveling twins and happened to be a beacon of light in their dark existence.

Harry Houdini Changed Their Lives

The famous illusionist, Harry Houdini, saw the twins’ act and took an interest in them. He advised them to learn more about their situation and not just passively do as they were told. Daisy and Violet didn’t even realize how famous they were, only discovering their fame through newspapers and other media.

A portrait of Harry Houdini.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1931, at 23, Violet and Daisy fought back and won a court battle against Edith and Meyer. A lawyer by the name of Martin Arnold took them on as clients and managed to keep them away from the Meyers.

Finally, a Taste of Freedom

Arnold helped liberate the 23-year-olds, and in 1931, they were awarded emancipation and the sum of $100,000. Finally, Violet and Daisy were given their freedom. Arnold put them in a San Antonio hotel, and it was the first time they had a real taste of freedom – and a chance to be themselves.

The Hilton sisters are playing tennis.
Photo by Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

“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 had always wanted to drink a cocktail,” said Violet. “I wanted to smoke a cigarette,” Daisy added.

The Subtle Art of Living a Conjoined Life

After their emancipation, the world opened up for Daisy and Violet. The young women were now able to engage in relationships, discover romance, and, of course, learn about sex. (You can imagine the awkwardness of that part).

The Hilton Twins are applying their makeup.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

So, how did they handle it? Violet recalled, “Why, I just turn over and read a book and eat an apple.” Believe it or not, they made it work. Each sister even got married at one point, albeit it at different times. While touring in vaudeville, Violet met an orchestra leader known as Maurice Lambert.

Marriages or Publicity Stunts?

Lambert proposed to Violet, and she applied for a marriage license only to be denied in 21 states. Why the rejection? It was considered “immoral and indecent.” Lambert eventually gave up, but Violet wasn’t lonely for long. She married a gay actor named James Moore at the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936.

Lambert embraces Violet as Daisy stands beside them.
Photo by FPG/Getty Images

Seven weeks later, however, Moore filed for annulment. It’s been said that the marriage was merely a publicity stunt. As for Daisy, she married a dancer named Harold Estep – also gay – in 1941. Their marriage lasted for 10 days and may have also been a stunt.

Chained for Life

Daisy spoke of the public response to their desire for marriage in the 1951 film Chained for Life. “Mentally we have found a way to live separate and private lives, but it’s almost impossible to convince other people of that.”

Daisy and Violet sit at home.
Source: Imgur

She continued: “We were denied marriage licenses in twenty-seven different states because they saw it as bigamy. All our lives we’ve had to bury every normal emotion. I’m not a machine; I’m a woman. I should have the right to live like one.”

“Freaks” and a Hot Dog Stand

Violet and Daisy went on to appear the 1932 film Freaks, which shot them a bit higher into fame. A decade later, in 1942, the women published an autobiography, The Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters. Throughout the ‘40s and early ‘50s, the twins continued to perform at theaters and nightclubs around the United States.

A poster for the film Freaks.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

After their final film, Chained for Life, making a living became more and more difficult. They opened a hot dog stand, but other vendors were irked by these “freaks” taking business away from them. In the end, their business failed.

Stranded and Penniless

By the time the 1960s came, the novelty of their act had waned. In 1961, their tour manager quit, and they found themselves in an impoverished state. Without a manager, who apparently abandoned them in a motel, the women made their way to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Daisy and Violet dance while taking studio portraits.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around the same time, their film Freaks was re-released, so the sisters decided to travel around the South to promote it. The movie happened to spark some controversy. In fact, it was banned in some areas when initially released since the cast included real circus sideshow performers, aka “freaks,” as they were referred to at the time.

Opportunity at a Grocery Store

In September of 1962, at one screening at a drive-in, a man named Charles Reid, then president of the Park ‘n’ Shop and owner of the Huffman Trailer Park, hired the Hiltons. “Violet and Daisy came in here for their groceries a few times before they inquired about a job,” recalled Reid when he was in his 80s.

Daisy and Violet are working in a store.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“They told me they could mop my floors and stock my shelves and do just about anything I needed around the store, and I’d only have to pay for one of them.”

The Blonde and the Brunette

Reid remembered them as two wild show people, standing less than five feet tall, decked out in disheveled stage wear. They wore open-toed sandals that exposed their red toenails. They had completely different hair color – Violet was a brunette and Daisy was blond.

Daisy and Violet are cleaning at home.
The Siamese Twins Take Their First Dip Of The Season.

Reid also remembers how they spoke in clipped Northern accents, but they were articulate. Violet and Daisy captured more attention for their fashion sense than their unusual physical state. It actually took Reid some pondering before he decided to take them on as employees.

Produce Checkers at the Park ‘n’ Shop

When they asked him for a job, he promised he would consider the offer and let them know the following day. “I went home that night and thought about it quite a bit,” Reid said. “I thought, ‘What can I do with these two women?’”

A portrait of the Hamilton Sisters.
Source: Imgur

He wanted to help them but wasn’t sure what kind of job to offer them. “I didn’t know how well my customers would take to the sight of the two of them together cleaning the floor.” He ultimately hired them to work as produce checkers.

A Special Counter for Their Special Needs

There were some issues that had to be discuss first, however. “I told them their hair had to be the same color and that they would need to get rid of the long nails and their stage clothes—they couldn’t wear them to work,” Reid explained.

Daisy and Violet sit on the couch.
Photo by Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

He also made it clear that he would pay them both. He even redesigned one of the counters in order for them to work together.

Getting Comfy in the Community

The Hiltons got comfortable quickly in their new environment. They developed friendships with fellow employees as well as the regular customers. They even became members of Purcell United Methodist, but they weren’t involved in the community beyond that.

A portrait of the Hilton Sisters.
Source: Imgur

Sticking to old habits, Daisy and Violet would perform for their co-workers in their spare time. “They did very little outside of work, home, and occasionally going to church,” Reid related. “I think they had led a very active life and they just wanted to be left alone.”

The Kids Would Stare

One of Reid’s favorite memories of the Hilton sisters was their reaction to the neighborhood children. “They didn’t really like kids too much because they would stare,” Reid laughed as he recalled it. “Sometimes they would get right up next to Daisy and Violet to try and see where they were connected.”

The Siamese Twins Take Their First Dip Of The Season.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Some kids would try to look under their dresses, just as the adults did in their earliest days on display. Naturally, it turned them off. Both Daisy and Violet would react harshly to the children who crossed those boundaries.

The Kids Would Get Slapped

Reid recalled: “I’d be in another part of the store, but I could still hear it — that slapping noise as Daisy or Violet would pop some little boy on the head because he got too close. You’d just hear that pop and some kid would take off running.”

Daisy and Violet as little girls.
Source: YouTube

Eventually, their time at the trailer park grew old and the women grew weary of their living situation. Reid asked his church about a house that was owned by Purcell United Methodist. Soon enough, the sisters rented the two-bedroom home.

The Quiet Life Lasted a Little While

Moving into that small house proved to be the highlight of their time in Charlotte. Reid got one of his friends to give the Hiltons some donated furniture and before long, Violet and Daisy settled into their new place.

Daisy and Violet are working with a sewing machine and a typewriter.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

They welcomed a Labrador and a pet bird into their home, too. On the whole, they led intentionally anonymous lives. But come early 1967, their quiet existence was radically interrupted by the arrival of Dr. George B. Callahan, an expert on conjoined twins. Somehow, he tracked them down.

The Doctor Who Wanted to Separate Them

Callahan tracked the two down (how isn’t really known) and he was adamant about talking to and examining Daisy and Violet. It was exactly the kind of attention they no longer wanted in their lives. They came to a point where they were happy with the anonymity.

Daisy and Violet are at home reading.
Source: Imgur

“We’ve been prodded and examined like guinea pigs since the day we were born,” Violet once told Reid. “All they’re going to want to do is talk about separating us, and that’s not something we’re interested in doing.”

Get Lost, Dr. Callahan

At the suggestion to separate them, Violet and Daisy turned Callahan down immediately and told him, in other words, to get lost. With time, they managed to get themselves back into their quiet routine – work, church, home.

Daisy and Violet are performing on the street.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Sure, they were never going to reach the level of wealth they had achieved earlier in their lives, but this was a calm they never attained before. And then, another change happened around Christmas of 1968. “Every Christmas they would buy expensive gifts for some of the customers of the store,” John Sills, the local priest, said in a 1968 interview.

The Hiltons Get Sick

“Even this Christmas when they were sick, they sent their presents to the store to be passed out.” Then, one day in early 1969, the twins didn’t show up to work. It was unlike them, who, according to Reid, had a stellar attendance record at their job.

A portrait of the Hilton Twins.
Source: YouTube

“They were very rarely sick and hardly ever missed work. So, we were worried when they were so sick they couldn’t come to work.” It was Violet who got sick first. And just as she started to get better, Daisy caught it…

Coming Down With the “Hong Kong Flu”

It was the Hong Kong flu, apparently, a nasty virus that takes its toll on the body by inflaming all the internal organs. The flu didn’t have a high mortality rate and most of the people who caught it tended to recover. But those who were over 60 were at higher risk.

Daisy and Violet in their old age.
Source: Imgur

Daisy and Violet were about to turn 61 when they came down with the Hong Kong flu. “We called just about every day to check on them,” Reid shared. “Sometimes when they didn’t want to be bothered, they wouldn’t answer the phone.”

Found Lifeless in Their Home

On that Saturday morning, when they didn’t show up to work, Reid tried calling every hour, but nobody answered the phone. “I knew they hadn’t gone out of town or anything because they didn’t know anybody to go visit, so we decided to go over to the house and check on them.”

A portrait of the Hilton twins.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

With the help of Sills and the police, Reid got the authorities to check in on the Hiltons. It meant having to break down their door. Inside, Daisy and Violet were found lying still on the furnace grate in the hallway.

Daisy Died Days Before Violet

It looked as though the two had dragged themselves over to the vent in an attempt to stay warm in the final throes of the flu. Tragically, it was deciphered that Daisy died first, whereas Violet had to live for the next few days with her lifeless sister by her side.

Violet and Daisy pose together in matching outfits.
Photo by FPG/Getty Images

Violet only died several days after Daisy. According to the doctors, Violet was likely too ill to call for help. It was Reid who handled the funeral arrangements. They were buried in a single oversized casket in a plot that Reid owned. Their tombstone reads: “Beloved Siamese Twins.”

The Truth Is in the Letters

The Hilton’s home contained very little other than their donated furniture. In one of their dressers, Reid and Sills found a handful of old photos from the sisters’ film and stage careers. Also in the dressers were a couple of letters detailing their experiences.

Daisy and Violet pose for a photo.
Source: YouTube

“From the letters, it seemed the sisters were constantly being duped by managers who couldn’t find jobs for them,” Sills recalled. “They were always ending up in hotels without any money in a strange town, with the hotel manager growing more and more impatient.”

Everything Was Solved Amiably

At the end of the film Chained for Life, the twins’ words summed up their feelings about each other and the world they lived in. “We decided our physical form would never be our cross,” Daisy explained. “We have shared our lives without quarreling, but there were many rules that had to be followed.”

Daisy and Violet in a poster for Chained for Life.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Classic Pictures Inc.

Daisy added that they learned that most of their problems — the sleeping, eating, and essentially living together — “could be solved amiably. There were no adjustments in our relationship we couldn’t make.”

Bound by Flesh

Violet added: “From the moment we started to crawl and the leg of the table came between us and we couldn’t pass, we knew.” The Hiltons led a legacy after their death. In 1989, a musical was made based on them, called Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes.

Daisy and Violet are resting in bed.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Side Show was a Broadway musical loosely based on their lives, which opened in 1997. Emily Skinner starred as Daisy and Alice Ripley as Violet; the musical earned four Tony nominations but closed after 91 performances. In 2012, Leslie Zemeckis made a documentary called Bound by Flesh, referred to as a “masterful film.”

No Longer That Rare

It may come as a surprise, but conjoined twins aren’t as rare as they once were. Just in terms of the growing population, statistics show more cases of such twins. Also, thanks to advanced medical procedures, conjoined twins are more likely to survive the tricky birth.

Nurses are giving a set of conjoined twins their bottles.
Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of course, calling them “freaks” is no longer acceptable. Yet only decades ago, twins like the Hilton sisters were subjects of freak shows. If you’re curious to see other sets of such twins, here are some stories about sets of twins, like the Hiltons, who lived the most peculiar of lives.

The Byzantium Brothers

A long, long time ago, in the 10th century, a pair of conjoined twins somehow survived both birth and infancy as was documented by several authors at the time. It was considered a bad omen in the ancient world. Yet these boys, born in Armenia, came to Constantinople as adults.

A medieval drawing of conjoined twins.
Source: Tumblr

Known at the royal court, they also wandered the countryside exhibiting themselves in an early iteration of a traveling carnival show. Sometime in the mid-900s, during the reign of Constantine VII, the boys returned to Constantinople. One died and surgery was attempted to separate them. It was the first known separation attempt. The surviving twin lived three more days.

The Hungarian Sisters

Helen and Judith were born in 1701 in Hungary, and it’s said that they were born three hours apart. The girls’ pelvises were fused together, back-to-back. From two to nine, the girls were shown all over Europe and examined by doctors. Along the way, they learned many languages and sang together in their performances.

A drawing of Helen and Judith.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Judith, the second to be born, was the weaker of the two. Sadly, she suffered a stroke at age six, leaving her paralyzed on her left side. At age nine, they entered a convent, where they lived until the age of 22. Alexander Pope wrote a poem about them.

The Bunker Twins

Chang and Eng Bunker were born in Thailand in 1811 (but it was called Siam back then). Their being born was so alarming that the King ordered them to be killed. Their mother, however, refused to hand the boys over, and so the order wasn’t carried out.

A portrait of Chang and Eng Bunker.
Photo by E. and H. T. Anthony & Co/Archive Photos/Getty Images

They became the first-ever “Siamese twins.” A British merchant named Robert Hunter met them as teenagers and took them to England. They toured England and America for years, exhibiting themselves. At 21, Chang and Eng managed their own affairs and began to make serious money. In 1839, they bought a farm in North Carolina. They married two sisters and raised 21 children between them! They died in 1874.

The McKoy Sisters

In 1851, Millie and Christine McKoy were born to a slave family owned by Jabez McKay. McKay sold the girls and their mother to a showman named John Pervis. Pervis then sold them to Joseph Pearson Smith. The twins were kidnapped and found three years later, in England.

A photo of Millie and Christine McKoy.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After returning to the States, the girls learned to sing in harmony at their shows. Instead of being shown as conjoined twins, they were marketed as one girl with two heads (and four arms and four legs). They were dubbed “The Two-Headed Nightingale.” They lived to age 61, when they died in 1912, 17 hours apart.

The Tocci Brothers

Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci were born in Italy in the late 1870s. Their father was so disturbed by their appearance that he was sent to a mental asylum for a month. The twins looked like one boy from the waist down. Doctors all over Europe examined them.

A photo of Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Each twin felt and controlled only one leg. They never were able to walk upright but were able to crawl. They eventually came to America in 1891 but in 1897, Giacomo and Giovanni returned to Italy to live private lives. They died sometime in 1912.