A Tale of Two Sisters
Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, once showbiz legends, spent their final days in Charlotte
The sky is gray today. A small crowd of sixty or so—mostly employees and customers of the Wilkinson Boulevard Park 'n Shop grocery store—are gathered around a small plot in Charlotte's Forest Lawn Cemetery. They have come to bid farewell to their friends and co-workers, Violet and Daisy Hilton.
The date is Wednesday, January 8, 1969.
It is a particularly turbulent time in American history. Just months prior, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy met their demise from assassins' bullets. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson has been replaced in the White House by Republican Richard Nixon, and the nation is struggling with the issue of public school desegregation. Amidst the hoopla of the holiday season, the country is caught in the grips of an epidemic known as the Hong Kong flu.
The strange illness, a virus thought to be transmitted through poultry products, will kill more than 34,000. In Charlotte the Hilton twins are among the victims.
Most longtime Charlotte residents know at least a little about the history of Violet and Daisy Hilton. Among westside natives, they were something of a legend.
"They were good people," recalls John Sills, a former minister at Purcell United Methodist the Hiltons' church. "I visited them often at Park 'n Shop and at their home. We had some pleasant conversations, but they didn't want to talk much about the past and their careers."
Sills also presided over their funeral.
Heralded vaudeville and sideshow performers, the Hilton sisters performed around the globe with the likes of Bob Hope and appeared in the films Freaks (1932) and Chained for Life (1950). The latter, in many ways, was patterned after several of the struggles and experiences the women faced in their own lives.
They captured worldwide acclaim for their singing, dancing, and clarinet playing. They attracted attention because they were conjoined twins, or Siamese twins, as they were popularly referred to at the time. Attached at the hip and fused at the base of the spine, they shared some blood vessels but maintained predominantly separate circulatory systems.
Their life before Charlotte, while adventurous, was not pleasant.
Born ninety-four years ago this month to an unmarried barmaid named Kate Skinner in Brighton, England, Violet and Daisy were reportedly sold to bar owner Mary Hilton, who exhibited them at carnivals and fairs as early as age three. At the age of eight, their charge took them first to Australia and then brought them to the United States, where the sideshow market was in full swing.
Mary paraded around the twins, and stories abound that she abused them both physically and mentally. After eight years of this treatment, Mary died, and Violet and Daisy had escape in mind. Unfortunately, Mary's daughter Edith Hilton and her husband Meyer Meyers, a sideshow producer, were waiting in the wings.
The two took over the twins' career and held them in virtual slavery, pocketing nearly all of the girls' $5,000-a-week salaries. In 1931, at the age of twenty-three, Violet and Daisy won a court battle against Hilton and her husband and finally gained their freedom.
They talked about their experience in an autobiography—The Lives and Loves of the Hilton Sisters—published in 1942.
"We [were] lonely, rich girls who were really paupers living in practical slavery," Daisy recalled. A lawyer they eventually confided in took them on as clients, and smuggled them away from Hilton and Meyers and into a San Antonio hotel. It was the first time the two women had a chance to be themselves.
"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," explains Violet. "I wanted to smoke a cigarette," Daisy chimes in. "We did."
But that wasn't all the controversy that followed the legendary Hilton sisters. While touring in vaudeville, Violet became engaged to an orchestra leader known as Maurice Lambert, but was denied a marriage. Lambert finally gave up, but Violet eventually married James Moore at the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. Her husband filed for annulment seven weeks later.
Never one to be outdone, Daisy was married—amidst public controversy—to a dancer named Harold Estep in 1941.
She summed up public response to their desires for marriage in 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. 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."
Daisy's marriage to Estep ended in divorce later that year.
Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, they continued to perform at theaters and nightclubs around the country—even appearing at Charlotte's own Carolina Theater in 1945.
It was late July of 1962 when the Hiltons returned to Charlotte. This time they were traveling around the South promoting a re-release of the film Freaks. The movie had sparked major controversy—it was even banned in some areas upon its initial release—because of a cast that included real circus sideshow performers, or "freaks" as they were called at the time. Violet and Daisy were two of the more noteworthy cast members.
"They were here for a screening at a drive-in," recalls Brenda Scott, an owner and manager at Park 'n Shop and the daughter of Charles Reid, the now-retired president of the company who would hire the Hiltons in September of that year. "Their manager left and promised to return for them. He never came back."
Stranded at a motel in Monroe, they eventually made their way to Charlotte's westside and the Huffman Trailer Park on Wilkinson Boulevard. The trailer park's owner contacted Charles Reid about work for the Hiltons.
"Violet and Daisy came in here for their groceries a few times before they inquired about a job," recalls Reid, now eighty-two. "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."
Reid paints a picture of two wildly untamed show people who found their way to his doorstep that September day. Both standing less than five feet tall, they were decked out in somewhat disheveled stage wear and open-toed sandals that exposed nails painted crimson red, and they sported dye jobs of opposing hues (at the time Violet was brunette and Daisy was blond). They spoke in clipped Northern accents and were articulate, but the two captured more attention for their fashion sensibilities than their unique physical state.
Reid promised he would consider their offer and would contact them the following day.
"I went home that night and thought about it quite a bit," Reid says. "I thought, ‘What can I do with these two women?' I wanted to help them, but I wasn't quite sure what kind of job I could offer them. I didn't know how well my customers would take to the sight of the two of them together cleaning the floor."
Reid eventually agreed to hire the women to work as produce checkers, but there were a few issues they had to discuss first. "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 also made it clear that he would pay them both.
The Hiltons meshed quickly and quietly into the local population. They developed bonds of friendship with fellow employees and customers, as well as members of Purcell United Methodist, but their involvement with the community beyond that was next to nil.
"They did very little outside of work, home, and occasionally going to church," Reid says. "I think they had led a very active life and they just wanted to be left alone."
Reid's favorite recollection of the Hilton sisters was their response to neighborhood children. "They didn't really like kids too much because they would stare," Reid chuckles. "Sometimes they would get right up next to Daisy and
Violet to try and see where they were connected. Some even tried to look under their dresses. "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."
After a few months in the rundown trailer park off Wilkinson Boulevard, the two women grew weary of their living situation. Reid approached his church about a house that was owned by Purcell United Methodist adjacent to the property. The sisters rented the two-bedroom house immediately.
Moving into the small house on the corner of Weyland and Greenland Avenue proved to be the highlight of the Hiltons' time in Charlotte. Reid convinced a friend to provide the sisters with some donated furniture and Violet and Daisy settled happily into their new digs, along with a mixed-breed lab and a pet bird.
For the most part, they led intentionally anonymous lives. Sometime in February of 1967, however, their quiet existence was dramatically interrupted by the arrival of Dr. George B. Callahan, an expert on the study of conjoined twins.
It isn't exactly known how Callahan tracked the two down, but he was insistent about talking to and examining Daisy and Violet. This was just the kind of attention the sisters no longer desired in their lives.
"We've been prodded and examined like guinea pigs since the day we were born," Violet told Charles Reid. "All they're going to want to do is talk about separating us, and that's not something we're interested in doing."
Violet and Daisy turned Callahan down flatly and sent him packing.
Eventually things returned to normal and Daisy and Violet picked up where they left off with the usual routine of work, life at home, and occasional visits to church. Though they were never going to reach the level of wealth they had achieved earlier in their careers, they found satisfaction in a calm, secure life and never hesitated to share what they had with those around them.
For a time, life was just fine for the sisters Hilton. Then came the Christmas of 1968.
Sills and Reid recalled the events. "Every Christmas they would buy expensive gifts for some of the customers of the store," Sills said in a 1968 interview with The Charlotte News. "Even this Christmas when they were sick, they sent their presents to the store to be passed out."
According to Reid, the Hiltons had a stellar attendance record at their job with Park 'n Shop. "They were very rarely sick and hardly ever missed work," he emphasizes. "So we were worried when they were so sick they couldn't come to work.
"Violet was the first to get sick," Reid continues. "Just as she started to get better, Daisy caught it."
It was the Hong Kong flu—a particularly nasty virus that could wreak havoc on a body by inflaming all the internal organs. Although it didn't have a very high mortality rate and most people who caught it recovered, individuals sixty and over were at higher risk. Daisy and Violet were just about to turn sixty-one.
"We called just about every day to check on them," Reid recalls. "Sometimes when they didn't want to be bothered they wouldn't answer the phone, but that Saturday morning we tried calling every hour and 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."
With the aid of Sills and the Charlotte police, Reid had the front door forced open. Inside, lying still on the furnace grate in the hallway, were Violet and Daisy. In an apparent attempt to stay warm in the final throes of the Hong Kong flu, the two had managed to drag themselves over to the vent.
Reid handled the details that followed. Hankins and Whittington Funeral Home recovered the bodies. Both were buried in a single oversized casket in a plot owned by Reid.
An attempt to find any survivors to claim the $1,200 or so they had left behind proved to be fruitless. After the bills were paid Reid donated the remaining cash to the Charlotte- Mecklenburg school system.
The house contained very little, just the furniture they had acquired years earlier. In one of the bedroom dressers Reid and Sills discovered a handful of old photos from the Hiltons' film and stage careers, as well as a few letters detailing the difficulties they had experienced.
"From the letters, it seemed the sisters were constantly being duped by managers who couldn't find jobs for them," Sills said. "They were always ending up in hotels without any money in a strange town, with the hotel manager growing more and more impatient.
"They weren't exactly treated very well in the entertainment business. That's why I think they were so happy here because they were able to live quiet, normal lives, and people accepted them the way they were."
In death, their passing was marked simply, as their final days were lived. A marker at their gravesite bears their name and a legend that captures the sentiments of all whose lives they touched—"Beloved Siamese Twins."
The words they spoke at the close of the film Chained for Life summed up their feelings about each other and the world around them.
"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. We learned that most of our problems—sleeping, eating, living together—could be solved amiably. There were no adjustments in our relationship we couldn't make."
"We've always said we were like other people, yet different," Violet continued. "From the moment we started to crawl and the leg of the table came between us and we couldn't pass, we knew."