Before Paris and Niki graced the tabloid headlines, it was the siamese sisters of Vaudeville – Daisy and Violet Hilton – who were the talk of the town.
Are you in for some glamour? Deception? Love scandals? Intrigue? The original Hilton sisters had it all…
Daisy and Violet were born in Brighton, England, in 1908. Their mother had them out of wedlock (which was quite the scandal at the time). When she learned that her daughters were attached by the hip, Kate Skinner saw it as God’s punishment for her indiscretions. She sold the twins to Mary Hilton, for whom she worked as a barmaid. Mary immediately recognised the marketability of the girls and allowed people to come and see the twins for money.
Up until then, Siamese twins had rarely lived past a few weeks, so the girls were not expected to live very long. But since the Hilton sisters didn’t share any major organs or arteries, they grew into pretty young girls who would eventually reach the ripe old age of 60.
Unfortunately, their long lives would not be filled with joy and sunshine…
Evil (step)mother Mary Hilton kept the girls under forceful supervision, trained them and took them on tour from the age of 3.
Images via: Wellcome Library
Hoping to get her share of the American dream, Mary Hilton decided to take her “act” to America. Although they were initially denied access to the United States because they were considered “medically unfit,” Mary Hilton was able to put pressure on authorities by creating major uproar in the media.
They toured with circuses and performed at theatres and Vaudeville venues around the country.
When Mary died, Daisy and Violet were bestowed unto Mary’s daughter, Edith, and her husband Meyer Meyer’s. Like her mother, Edith thought of the girls as a business venture, and they were isolated, abused and exploited by the couple for years.
They made about $5,000.- a week at the height of their fame, but they never saw a penny of their earnings.
Of this time, Daisy said, “we were [lonely], rich girls who were really paupers living in slavery.”
The girls weren’t allowed to interact with anyone without their guardian’s permission, and Meyer Meyers threatened that if they were ever to leave, he would have them institutionalized.
By age 23, the girls got smart. At the advice of their good friend Houdini, the sisters took their Edith and Meyer Meyers to court. They were released from their contract and received $100,000, as compensation for their woes.
They went straight from abusive isolation into a limitless celebrity lifestyle….
The girls dyed their hair, splurged on the newest fashion and they started smoking, drinking and partying the nights away.
Images (c) Karen Collyer / Susan kerns
They were involved in some scandalous love affairs, and Violet was even engaged to Maurice Lambert for a while, although they failed to secure a marriage license due to her conjoined state. This led to so many arguments that her fiancé eventually left.
With Maurice Lambert (Violet’s fiancé)
Violet and Maurice being told they can’t get married by high government official of Illinois, Robert Sweitzer.
Daisy was later married to actor Harold Estep, but the marriage was annulled after only a week and a half. One of the sisters is even rumored to have birthed a child, which was given up for adoption.
The sisters both claimed not to have been bothered by each others love affairs.
Houdini (who kept looking out for the girls) taught them to retract into a private mental space where they could “get rid of each other” when needed. They also installed a special phone booth where they could call their flings and exchange sweet nothings as the other sat on the other side reading or painting her nails.
Besides putting on a mean Vaudeville show, Daisy and Violet also made some appearances on the big screen.They starred in the 1932 production of Freaks: a story about love and deception, starring a large group of sideshow performers.
In 1952, Daisy and Violet starred in the movie Chained for Life, which was autobiographically inspired. The movie included a crime of passion plot where one of the sisters killed her husband and the courts were faced with the dilemma of convicting a woman who would inevitably take her innocent sister to prison with her. Unfortunately, Chained for Life was not very well received (and even now it only has a 4.2 on IMBD).
Violet and Daisy enjoyed the high life during their vaudeville years, but they also squandered their money. As the economy plummeted and Vaudeville went out of fashion, the girls struggled to keep afloat.
All they had known was the entertainment industry and so they kept trying to market themselves as performers in a world that lost interest in who they were and what they could do. They shortly ventured into burlesque performances and went on tour to promote their movies at drive-in theaters.
In 1941, their PR manager Terry Turner arranged a highly publicized public wedding between Violet and dancer James “Jim” Moore at the newly opened Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. Although the event attracted some publicity, it quickly came out that Jim was homosexual and the marriage was a sham and a cry for attention. The marriage ended two weeks later.
“Siamese twin Violet Hilton seems happy talking with Democratic Leader Cicero Yow while her twin Daisy Hilton (a Nixon supporter) stands by disgusted.” Wilmington, N.C.
In 1955, the sisters opened a hotdog stand in Miami, which was moderately successful until competitors began complaining about the “freaks” stealing their business.
Middle-aged and ditched by their manager at a North-Carolina drive-in theater without means to go home, Violet and Daisy were forced to find a way to support themselves. They got a job at a local grocery store in a small town called Charlotte, where they promoted Twin Pack potato chips. They remained in the grocery store as cashiers, and they lived a comfortable and modest life in Charlotte until they died in 1968 (but they never stopped rocking their Vaudeville make-up and hairdo’s!).
The story of the twins’ passing is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking (and a bit gruesome). Violet had died from a heavy flu, but unwilling to be separated from her sister, Daisy didn’t call anyone and died alone a few days later. True to their wishes, they were buried together in a custom-made coffin.
Despite all trials and tribulations, Violet and Daisy had an unconditional love for each other and embraced their uniqueness to the very end. If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is!
The lives of the Hilton sisters inspired several biographies and two musicals: a 1999 Broadway version called Side Show received four Tony Nominations. An award-winning documentary “Bound by Flesh” is also available for viewing on Netflix. The movie Chained for Life is also available for viewing on YouTube.
About this Contributor
Inge Oosterhoff is a Dutch graduate of North American Studies, currently living in the Netherlands. With a love for the odd and the unexpected she is on a never-ending search for new stories, new people and the very best coffee in the world.