A couple of weekends ago, I visited a friend across town (near this hidden gem) and I spotted a blue plaque which read: ‘Violet and Daisy Hilton nee Skinner 1908 – 1969 conjoined twins, stars of stage and screen were born here.’
Obviously I came home and had a Google. I also found a documentary about the twins to watch with a creepy title called Bound By Flesh which I thought would be second-rate, but was actually interesting!
Violet and Daisy were huge vaudeville stars in America in the 1920s and 30s. They were born at 18 Riley Road, joined at the hip and buttocks until they died in their sixties – funnily enough in the Hong Kong Flu pandemic which swept America in the 1960s (I’m writing this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic). They worked with big names like Bob Hope and counted world-famous escapologist, Harry Houdini, as a close friend. Yet despite their incredible lives, they seem to have fallen into obscurity here in Brighton and deserve more attention than they get.
Weeks after they were born, they were put on display in a local pub. Three months later – at their own christening no less – they were shown under their first stage name: The Brighton United Twins. This would explain all the pictures I unearthed of them dressed up, with big smiles on their faces, ready to perform. As it turns out, this glamorous appearance was just a facade because behind the scenes they were being abused and exploited by their owner.
The their mother was a poor unmarried barmaid called Kate Skinner, who worked at a Kemp Town pub called the Queens Arms, run by Henry and Mary Hilton. Mary was also a midwife and often hired pregnant girls to work behind the bar in exchange for her help when they gave birth. When the twins were born, apparently Kate was so shocked to see them conjoined, she disowned them. Mary then took them in as her own; an act initially seen as one of kindness, then opportunism when she changed their name to The Brighton United Twins and exhibited them for money, according to a local news story quoted in this article:
Local interest is so great that Mrs Hilton is willing to let people see the babies any day between 11am and 7pm, and twopenny postcards can be bought in the bar.”
By the time they were five years old, The Brighton United Twins had toured Britain, Germany and Australia, appearing at various circuses and fairs. Hilton then trained them to sing, dance, and play the clarinet, violin and piano at which point she took them across the pond to perform to American crowds – where they made their fortune, although they hardly saw any of it.
When Mary Hilton died, her daughter, Edith and her husband Myer Meyers, both of whom lived in Australia, became the twins’ new owners. Like her mother, Edith too saw the girls for their financial potential; merely freaks fit for nothing other than exploitation and abuse. When they weren’t performing, they lived a life of isolation from the outside world; forbidden to make friends or have romantic relationships.
Apparently, they earned thousands of dollars a week, but didn’t get to see a penny of it as Myers spent it on a huge estate in San Antonio, Texas, he forced the twins to clean.
Somewhere down the line they found the strength to get away from their abusers. When they were 23, on advice from their friend Houdini, they fought back. Violet and Daisy took Edith and Myer Meyers to court, and won. They were released from their contract and life of isolation, given US$100,000 and wasted no time establishing the celebrity lifestyle they deserved.
Obviously this involved socialising and dating. Harry Houdini is said to have given them advice on how to zone out from each other when they needed to. “Live in your minds girls. It is your only hope for private lives,” he’s quoted in the documentary as having said to them. They also apparently installed a special phonebox in their home with two sections, so they could call their boyfriends in private.
None of their relationships led to long-term happiness though. At one point, Violet was engaged to an actor called Maurice Lambert, but due to her conjoined state couldn’t secure a marriage license which caused friction and Maurice eventually left. Daisy later married an actor called Harold Estep, but it was annulled soon after. I also read rumours that one of the sisters gave a child up for adoption.
The twins’ career hit its peak in the 1930s, but their popularity started to decline shortly after this. In 1932, they tried to hold on to their success by taking a role in a horror film called Freaks, which shocked audiences so much it was pulled from release. In 1933, they toured Britain again, which included four sell-out shows at Brighton’s now abandoned Hippodrome. While back home, they also tried to find their mother, Kate Skinner, but discovered she’d died when they were four, and was buried in a cemetery on Hartington Road.
They returned to America after their UK tour, as vaudeville was on the decline. They ploughed most of their savings into making a film of their lives, called Chained for Life, only for it to bomb. In the 1960s, they tried again to succeed and opened a hamburger stall in Miami called “The Hilton Sisters’ Snack Bar”, which failed.
The town of Charlotte in North Carolina is where they spent the rest of their days. They lived in seclusion, working as checkout girls in a local supermarket. It’s thought they died of Hong Kong flu in the American pandemic during the winter of 1968. They left no will, no diaries and no relatives and are buried together in the local graveyard in Charlotte.
As well as the documentary I watched, Bound by Flesh, which you can see on Netflix, and Chained for Life which you can find on YouTube, the lives of the original Hilton sisters of Brighton have also inspired several biographies and two musicals including a 1999 Broadway version called Side Show which received four Tony Nominations.