The Hilton Sisters were English-born conjoined twins forced into the entertainment industry by their caregivers. Subjected to abusive and exploitive behavior, they toured across Britain and the US before fading into obscurity and dying in the same way they entered the world: together.
The Hilton Sisters were sold shortly after their birth
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born on February 5, 1908 in Brighton. Joined at the hip and buttocks, they had the same circulatory system and a fused pelvis, but did not share any major organs. They were given a few weeks to live, but surpassed expectations. According to reports, the Sussex Medico-Chirurgical Society considered surgically separating them, but there were fears the procedure would kill one or both of them.
Their mother, Kate Skinner, was an unwed barmaid and believed their birth was God’s punishment for her indiscretions.
Kate’s employer, Mary Hilton, saw commercial promise in the twins and purchased them from their mother. They were put on exhibition in pubs around Brighton, with Mary charging spectators two pennies to ogle at them and touch the place where they were conjoined. She also sold postcards with their pictures.
Mary was physically and emotionally abusive toward the girls. She forced them to call her “Auntie Lou” and her husband “Sir,” and whipped them with a belt when they misbehaved. She also made them spend the majority of their time singing and learning dance routines.
Forced into show business by their caregivers
Mary first took the Hilton Sisters on tour in 1911, parading them around Britain as “The United Twins.” After touring Germany and Australia, she decided to bring them to the United States. While they were initially denied entry for being “medically unfit,” media pressure forced authorities to allow them into the country.
Mary paired Violet and Daisy’s performances with an imaginative “history” of their upbringing. She also took full control of their earnings, meaning the twins never saw a penny for their efforts. In 1926, Bob Hope formed the Dancemedians act, with the twins performing a tap-dancing routine.
Mary’s daughter, Edith Meyers, and her husband, Meyer, took over control of the Hilton Sisters after Mary’s death. Their poor treatment continued, with the Meyers holding the twins captive and threatening to institutionalize them if they considered escaping. They were subjected to frequent beatings and forced to constantly practice their routines.
Before long, Daisy was a skilled violinist, while Violet could play the saxophone.
The Hilton Sisters emancipated themselves
While they were largely kept from the public, Daisy and Violet managed to strike up a relationship with magician Harry Houdini, who learned about their situation and urged the twins to emancipate themselves from the Meyers. In 1931, they did just that, gaining freedom from their contract and being awarded $100,000 in damages. Sadly, this was just a mere fraction of what they’d earned over the years.
On their own, the sisters performed on vaudeville as “The Hilton Sisters’ Revue.” Daisy dyed her hair blonde and the pair began to wear different clothes, so it was easy for spectators to distinguish between them. When vaudeville declined in popularity, they moved to burlesque venues.
During this time, Violet entered into a relationship with musician Maurice Lambert. The pair tried to apply for a marriage license in 21 different states, but each time were refused “on the grounds of gross indecency.”
The Hilton Sisters appeared in two films during their lives. The first was 1932’s Freaks and the second was the biographic and exploitative Chained for Life (1951). The latter was loosely based on their lives. The two frequently appeared at double bill screenings of both movies.
Fading into the limelight in their later years
Following their appearance in Freaks, the Hilton Sisters’ popularity began to wane. In what many believed to be a publicity stunt, Violet married actor James Moore in 1936. The couple charged 25 cents for fans to attend the ceremony. While the marriage lasted 10 years, it was eventually annulled.
Daisy, too, ended up getting married. In 1941, she wed dancer Harold Estep, better known by the stage name Buddy Sawyer. The marriage only lasted 10 days.
Daisy and Violet eventually connected with Philip Morris of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Morris Costume empire. He housed them at the Clayton Hotel and tried to arrange shows for them at theaters and other public venues, but there was little interest.
Their last public appearance was in 1961, at a drive-in in Charlotte. Not long after, their tour manager abandoned them and, with no money or transportation, they were forced to take produce clerk positions at the local Park-N-Shop, where they worked for the remainder of their lives.
On January 4, 1969, police discovered the twins dead in their home, after they failed to show up at work. They were found huddled over a heating grate. A forensic investigation found they’d died of the Hong Kong flu – also known as the 1968 flu pandemic – that is estimated to have killed around 100,000 Americans. Daisy was first to perish, followed by her sister two to four days later.
The twins were buried at Forest Lawn West Cemetery in Charlotte.
The Hilton Sisters’ legacy
A number of musicals have been written about the Hilton Sisters’ lives. The first debuted at the WPA Theatre in New York City in 1989. Titled Twenty Fingers Twenty Toes, it began as an accurate portrayal of their early lives, before moving into a fictitious account of an attempt by their managers to surgically separate them. It ran for 35 performances.
The four-time Tony nominated Broadway musical Side Show premiered at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the mid-1990s. It closed after 91 performances, but a rewritten version later opened in November 2015. While it was well-reviewed, it, too, closed shortly after its revival.
In 2012, Leslie Zemeckis released the documentary film Bound to Flesh. Detailing Daisy and Violet’s lives, it won Best Documentary honors at both the 2012 Hollywood and 2013 Louisiana film festivals.
The Brighton home where the twins were born was commemorated with a blue plaque in 2018. The plaques have been installed at a number of public locations across the United Kingdom, as a way of denoting a link between a location and a famous figure.