From the very beginning, Daisy and Violet Hilton were doomed to a heartbreaking end. As conjoined twins, their rise to fame was synonymous with exploitation and prejudice. Poked, prodded, and called "freaks" by audiences everywhere, they grew up in a world void of love. But that's not the saddest part. Just when the tide began to turn, the Hilton twins faced their most disturbing chapter of all.
Kate Skinner was a simple barmaid in Brighton England, but in 1908, she found herself in a bit of a pickle. Unmarried and alone, she received some disturbing news from her doctor: She was pregnant—and with twins, no less. But this was no time for celebration. This pregnancy shouldered Kate with a world of economic and moral dilemmas. Her babies' futures were terribly uncertain.
Fast forward to the delivery day, and Kate found herself facing a problem she could never have imagined.
After giving birth to her twin daughters, Daisy and Violet, Kate looked down and saw something she couldn’t make sense of. She had expected to see two writhing babies—but instead, she made a disturbing discovery. Her darling daughters were attached. The doctors were shocked, but this wasn't exactly unheard of: Kate had given birth to conjoined twins.
Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
The doctor who helped deliver the Hilton sisters had to make an agonizing decision: leave them conjoined, or risk their lives by cutting them apart. He decided to play it safe and left them as they were. Even though he did the cautious thing, it didn’t stop him from giving Daisy and Violet a chilling prognosis. He told Kate that her babies wouldn’t last more than a month.
Daisy and Violet Hilton seemed destined to be close siblings. After all, they came out of their mother’s womb in a remarkable way: joined at the hip and buttocks. It was the early 20th century in England, and their mother was an unmarried barmaid. To put it mildly—it didn’t look like these girls had even a slim chance of anything but a grim future.
Daisy and Violet’s mother wasn’t at all prepared to deal with conjoined twins. What’s more, she harbored a horrible belief: Because she'd had her babies out of wedlock, Kate believed her twins were a punishment for her sins. More than anything, she wanted to escape her maternal responsibilities, and so, she looked to someone she trusted—her employer, Mary Hilton. But this was a huge mistake.
Kate's boss agreed to take Daisy and Violet under her wing. But if you’re imagining a kind-hearted lady adopting these adorable girls in a charitable way, think again. You see, Mary Hilton didn’t adopt the girls at all. Instead, she did something much darker than that: She bought them. Yes, Kate saw her babies as a pair of freaks and sold them. However, the horrors didn't end there.
Mary Hilton took one look at Daisy and Violet, and all she saw was a money-making machine. She quickly moved the twins into a room above her pub and didn't waste her precious time: She exhibited the girls immediately. If you had your two pennies to pay, you could gawk at these conjoined twins. And the money? Well, every cent went straight into Mary's very own pockets.
Unfortunately, some of the gawkers wanted to do more than just look.
While the Hiltons were ushering customer after customer into their rooms to see the twins, they weren't paying close attention to what was actually happening. Some of the curious customers went a little further than they should have in order to see the “freaks” up close. They actually reached into the bed and lifted the baby clothes.
Once Mary saw what was happening she put a stop to it—but this wasn’t an act of mercy. No, no, no. She had even more evil plans for the twins.
Mary Hilton saw that paying customers wanted to do more than just look at the girls. Instead of protecting them from the hands of grabby viewers, she decided to capitalize on the situation. So, in addition to the two cents customers paid to see the girls, you could pay a little extra to touch the place where their bodies met.
Daisy and Violet say they remember three things from this period: the smell of smoke, brown ale, and strange hands pulling at their baby clothes. But it wasn’t just the strangers these youngsters had to worry about.
When it wasn’t customers manhandling the twins, it was Mary Hilton herself. If the girls made her unhappy for any reason she whipped the girls with a belt, and not just the soft leather part. Hilton had cruelty flowing through her veins, often using the buckle of the belt to punish Daisy and Violet. And if Hilton wasn’t around to mistreat the twins, there were plenty of others on hand to take over.
Daisy and Violet watched from the sidelines as Mary Hilton betrayed her husband, entertaining numerous male suitors on the side. This did not bode well for Daisy and Violet. These strange men often tormented them just as much as Mary, causing the twins to live in constant fear of everyone they met. It wasn't long, however, before Mary decided to take her money-making twins on the road...
By the time the twins were three, Mary had already paraded them around Germany, and even Australia. Mary was raking in the dough hand over fist, but she wanted more. So, she set her sights on the ultimate prize—success in the United States. Their first destination was the slightly seedy San Francisco. The year was 1915, and the girls had just turned eight.
However, there was something about Daisy and Violet that Americans just did not like.
Hilton and the twins showed up at the port in San Francisco, where they confronted a shocking situation. Hilton had assumed Americans would be more than happy to see her incredible display. I mean, how often do you get a chance to see conjoined twins in real life. Well, America was having nothing of it. In fact, the border guard denied them entry for one surprising reason.
At the border, the guard said that Daisy and Violet were “medically unfit” to enter the United States. But Mary Hilton wasn’t about to take “no” for an answer. She was desperate to get her twins onto the American stage, hungry for all the money they would earn her. Unsurprisingly, Mary turned to manipulation, calling up several newspapers and raising quite a stir.
The authorities didn’t want a scandal on their hands, so they did the obvious thing: They let the Hiltons into the country. As soon as she got the green light, Mary put the girls to work—practically feeding them to the wolves.
Once Mary got Daisy and Violet into the states, she didn’t hold back. She wanted her girls everywhere. But Hilton wasn’t content with just showing the girls, she wanted them to perform. Think about it, if you had your twin sister attached to your hip, what would be the most difficult talent to master? I’d say tap dancing would be up there in the top ten.
Sure enough, Mary forced them to learn tap dancing—and it let them straight to utter humiliation.
Poor Daisy and Violet busied themselves with learning how to tap dance. When legendary comic Bob Hope found out what was going on, he did something completely heartless: He put them in his comedy routine. So, not only were the girls trying their hardest to put on an entertaining show, but they also faced a crowd of jeering audience members.
To the twins' dismay, no matter where they turned, not a single person had their best interests at heart. At this point, there was only one thing that could save the girls from their sad predicament—and it was just around the corner.
While they were still in America, the twins' lives changed forever: Their owner, Mary Hilton, passed. While it was certainly bad news for Mary, it was good news for the twins. They’d been under Mary's complete control since they were born, and—as they were teenagers—were probably desperate for some much-needed independence. But instead of independence, the girls just got more bad luck.
You’d think that the passing of their owner would set the girls free—but that didn’t happen. Like any other possession, Mary Hilton had included Daisy and Violet in her estate. So, the twins ended up in the hands of Mary’s daughter and son-in-law. If the twins had hoped for a better life, they were in for a rude awakening. Edith Meyers and her husband were just as bad as Mary, if not worse.
Edith and her husband Meyer Meyers didn't have an ounce of compassion for their living, breathing inheritance. The girls were still held captive and brutally mistreated. The Meyers family flayed the girls mercilessly whenever they misbehaved. There was a silver lining, however. The girls noticed that there were fewer public performances. But there was a bizarre reason for this—and it only led to more resentment.
When it came to capitalizing on Daisy and Violet, Edith Meyers came to a stunning revelation: Having tap-dancing conjoined twins on the payroll wasn’t enough. So, she stopped the performances and made the girls learn something new—music. The Meyers family forced Daisy and Violet to practice the violin and saxophone for hours each day. The music lessons were bad enough, but the threats began to reach an all-time low.
Edith had complete control over the girls. She kept them mostly in confinement and rarely let them out. Maybe you're wondering why they didn’t try to escape. Well, if they did try to leave the house, or defy her in any way, Meyers would lay down her ultimate threat: She threatened to place them in a mental institution. The girls were most definitely stuck, but as long as they were earning money for the Meyers, there was no way out.
By the 1920s, when Daisy and Violet were teenagers, they were raking in about $5,000 a week with their vaudeville show. This was a heck of a lot of money back then, but once again, the twins didn't have any control over their finances. Not only did the Meyers take all of their hard-earned money, but the girls had no idea how popular they’d become.
It didn’t seem like Daisy and Violet could catch a break—until they met a mysterious stranger.
Through one of their acts, Daisy and Violet met the world-famous magician, Harry Houdini. Houdini was the one celebrity who had compassion for the girls. He saw that they were working hard, and not getting a cent for it. The notorious magician took the girls aside and gave them some much-needed advice. What Houdini told the girls changed everything.
What Houdini did for Daisy and Violet was quite simple: He told them to open their eyes. The girls had no idea how famous they were, and Houdini showed them newspaper after newspaper that extolled their popularity. With Houdini’s advice and support, the twins—now in their early twenties—saw what they were and, more importantly, how much they were worth.
It was finally time for the girls to spread their wings and fight for their freedom.
Daisy and Violet hired lawyer Martin Arnold in order to win their freedom from Edith and Meyer Meyers. The twins brought a lawsuit against their “managers” and demanded immediate emancipation. The judge didn’t waste any time: He awarded them their freedom and something more—a whopping $100,000. In today’s money, that’s about $1,500,000.
The girls could finally start a healthy and independent life, but it wasn't as easy as it seemed.
Free from their unscrupulous captors, Daisy and Violet surprised everyone by returning to the stage. Well, I guess it was the only thing they knew how to do, but at least this time they would keep the money they earned. They hit the scene with The Hilton Sisters’ Revue and even tried to differentiate themselves from each other. Daisy dyed her hair, and they both started wearing clothes that didn’t match.
The twins were getting their first taste of independence—but they still had some hard lessons to learn.
Freedom was obviously the best thing for the Hilton sisters, but there was a devastating downside: They now had to take care of themselves. Under the constant care and oversight of first Mary Hilton and then her daughter, the twins had never learned the basic skills for everyday life. Managing their money, keeping themselves well-fed and healthy were now left totally up to them, and them alone.
With their dwindling finances, the girls needed to find a way to keep themselves afloat. Adulthood and independence were far more difficult than they ever imagined—but this was only the beginning.
The public’s interest in Vaudeville shows (the twins’ only source of income) was waning. In search of money, the Hilton Sisters turned to a still burgeoning form of entertainment—films. In 1932, horror filmmaker and circus performer, Tod Browning, began searching for what most people called “circus freaks” to appear in a film about love and mystery under the big tent.
The movie was Freaks and it was: ready, set, controversy!
Some of the controversies with Freaks started long before it hit the theaters. It seemed that other actors at MGM didn’t want to eat with some of the stars from the film. To keep things calm at the studio, they built a table outside so the “freaks” could eat away from the other performers. For some reason, Daisy and Violet didn’t receive the label “freak” and got to eat inside with the so-called "normal" performers.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t any problems in the lunchroom.
Since Daisy and Violet were eating in the lunchroom with other MGM employees, it was inevitable that they’d run into a few celebrities. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, wandered into the lunchroom one day and stopped abruptly in his tracks. His jaw dropped as he watched something disturbing take place right in front of him.
What Fitzgerald saw in the lunchroom was none other than the Hilton sisters. But it wasn’t just their appearance that made the celebrated author choke, it was what they were doing. As far as Fitzgerald could make out, it seemed that one Hilton was reading the menu, but somehow the other one was also taking in the information. Fitzgerald later said that the sight made him nauseous.
Eventually, the film wrapped—but what would moviegoers make of this very controversial film?
Once filming was complete, the Hilton sisters had to wait on pins and needles to see themselves on the big screen. Well, it almost didn’t happen. Because the film depicted a side of life that film-goers didn’t feel comfortable looking at, the movie received a complete ban in Australia, the UK, and in several US states. Strangely, some of the bans lasted a really long time.
In the UK, audiences couldn’t see the Hilton sisters’ performance in Freaks because authorities banned it not once, but twice. It received a ban when the film first came out, and then again in 1952. Authorities didn’t lift the ban until 1963, which made it the longest ban on a film in UK history. In fact, in some US states, the ban is still in effect. Despite all the controversy, however, the twins' hard work paid off.
It turns out that the Hilton sisters had found themselves in a movie that would solidify their place in pop culture history forever. In spite of all the bans, Freaks went on to receive praise. Premiere Magazine said it was one of the “25 Most Dangerous Movies" Entertainment Weekly pegged it at number three of the “Top 50 Cult Films Of All Time.”
Unfortunately, the praise for Freaks wouldn’t surface until many years after its release. In the meantime, the Hilton sisters faced a daunting new challenge.
Now that the twins were young women and free from their managers, something inevitable came up that proved to be completely awkward: romance. Daisy was the first of the two to take a lover, but how does that work when your sister is always going to be along for the ride? Violet later said that when her sister was being amorous with her boyfriend, she’d simply "turn over, read a book, and eat an apple."
Eventually, it was Violet who wanted to make an honest woman of herself. Her boyfriend was musician Maurice Lambert, and the two were more than happy about getting married. They applied for a marriage license but—to their shock and dismay—they got a big fat “no.” Judges across the country called their love indecent and immoral. Once again, the sisters faced extreme prejudice, and it doomed them to immeasurable heartbreak.
In lieu of this rejection, Violet and Lambert eventually broke up. But Violet wasn't ready to give up on marriage altogether.
The state finally came around and gave Violet the right to marry. However, when she decided to tie the knot, it wasn't for love. Most people considered her wedding to actor James Moore to be more of a publicity stunt than true love. They believed this for two reasons: the couple charged their guest a 25 cent admission fee, and moreover, the groom was gay.
Unsurprisingly, Violet and Moore had the marriage annulled ten years later. But wedding bells would soon peal again. This time, it would be Daisy's turn.
Violet’s first taste of marriage had been more than a little sour, but that didn’t stop sister Daisy from giving it a try. Unfortunately, there were red flags everywhere. Her groom was the dancer Buddy Sawyer...and he just happened to be gay. This was recipe for disaster, and only 10 days after the couple said "I do," the marriage was already over.
The twins' love lives were messy from top to bottom—but what about their professional lives?
By the 1950s, both Daisy and Violet had failed marriages at their backs—and they were in short supply of cash. They were actually pretty desperate and even tried selling fast food for a living. The twins bought a hot dog stand and hoped that their celebrity status would draw customers. The other vendors in the area weren’t keen on competing with conjoined twins, but they needn’t have worried. The business failed spectacularly.
Following the failure of their hot dog business, the Hilton sisters finally got a big break. The 1952 film Chained For Life actually used the story of the girls’ lives as a starting point. The rest of the film was pure fiction, turning their story into a conjoined twin noir thriller. Daisy and Violet thought that they were finally on the right track—but they were so, so wrong.
Unfortunately, critics weren’t buying Chained For Life. Changing the sorrowful and often harrowing life story of Daisy and Violet into a thriller didn’t impress critics or entice audiences into theaters. Critics and moviegoers agreed that this exploitative movie was in poor taste. Later, Chained For Life even received an unwelcome accolade; it was included in the “Worst of the Worst Film Festival.”
Yes, the film was a failure, but that didn’t stop Daisy and Violet from throwing themselves into the spotlight.
With a disastrous film behind them, the Hilton sisters did what they could to earn money. Instead of trying to remove themselves from any association with the failed film, they did the opposite; they toured the country promoting it. Daisy and Violet happily appeared at double-billed screenings of Chained for Life and their first film, Freaks.
These appearances paid, but they didn’t pay well. Life was getting harder and harder for Daisy and Violet, and soon, they were circling the drain.
The Hilton sisters barely managed to get by on the money they earned from public appearances. In 1961, they pulled into Charlotte, North Carolina for an appearance at a drive-in theater that was showing Freaks and Chained For Life. After the appearance, Daisy and Violet just wanted to get their money and leave. When they looked around for their manager, however, they made a chilling discovery.
At the end of the appearance at the drive-in theater, the Hilton sisters couldn’t locate their manager. It turned out he’d taken off while the two were performing. The heartless reason? The twins weren’t bringing in good money anymore. This was a huge loss for the twins as they relied on a manager to find them jobs. There was, however, something even more devastating about this turn of events.
Not only was the manager a source of income for Daisy and Violet, but he was also their ride home. The twins had no money and no wheels, so they had to get resourceful and pragmatic. Instead of returning to show business, the twins ended up getting jobs as cashiers at a local grocery store. It felt like a long way to fall for the once-famous Hilton sisters—but there was one silver lining.
Once Daisy and Violet had won over the heart of the grocery store owner, he did something rather touching: He designed a counter that would accommodate the two sisters working side by side. Daisy and Violet could sit at the counter and work, and most customers had no idea that the two sisters shared a hip. This anonymity afforded them a rare slice of normalcy.
Unfortunately, fate had another cruel twist in store for them.
In 1968, there was a bad case of influenza that ripped across the United States. By Christmas time, both Daisy and Violet had caught the virus and suffered a great deal—but it was so much worse than anyone realized. In the new year, the twins didn’t show up for work at the grocery store. The store owner became alarmed and called the local authorities who broke down the Hilton sisters’ door.
Once inside, they came upon a horrible sight.
The officers entered the twins’ apartment and found their lifeless bodies. It turned out that they had been lying lifeless in their apartment for between two and four days. But that wasn't the worst part. A forensic examination helped determined the details surrounding their demise—and it revealed a grisly surprise.
An autopsy confirmed what had actually happened during Daisy and Violet's last days on earth—and it wasn’t a pretty picture. It turned out that the twins hadn’t passed at the same time. Daisy went first, and Violet second. And the most heartbreaking fact of all? Violet laid beside her deceased sister for up to four agonizing days before she too fell victim to the flu.
Daisy and Violet Hilton continue to live on in popular culture. In their hometown, the mayor named a bus in their honor and mounted a plaque on their birth home. There have also been two musicals produced based on the twins’ lives: 1989’s Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes, and 1997’s Side Show. In 2012, Leslie Zemeckis made a documentary about the twins called Bound by Flesh, which The Hollywood Reporter said was “a masterful film.”
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