Monday, December 5, 2011

James Rush and the Siamese Twins

Recently, I was preparing a display of materials for a visitor who had a particular interest in Shakespeare.  Library Company benefactor James Rush (1786-1869), son of Declaration of Independence signer and famed doctor Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), created a work that I thought might be of some interest: Hamlet, a Dramatic Prelude; in Five Acts (Philadelphia, 1834).  The work was most vociferously panned upon publication, but was clearly a labor of love for Rush, who was better known for his more well-received Philosophy of the Human Voice.  In our collection of Rush Family Papers, we have several of Rush’s volumes of notes, drafts, and printer’s proofs for his Prelude, and it was one of these that I pulled for our visitor: a blank leather-bound volume that Rush apparently used to make notes from the inception of his idea for the Prelude in May 1827 until at least September 1829.

On the last page of this volume, I found a drawing of two males in profile under the manuscript caption “The Siamese boys exhibited in Philadelphia October 10th 1829.”  The “Siamese boys,” of course, were Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous conjoined twins who first came to the public’s attention in 1829, when they left Siam for a tour of Europe and North America.  

The drawing immediately produced in my mind an image of James Rush sitting in the audience as the Bunkers were first exhibited.  Perhaps he found himself so taken by them that he immediately created this drawing on the only paper he had ready to hand, the volume he had used for two and a half years to create the work that would still take him another five years to complete.  The original Siamese twins were a true sensation when they first came to America, and to stumble upon a piece like this, which puts us in the audience the very first time they were seen by Philadelphians, creates a vivid connection to the history we strive to preserve.

Currently two pieces from our collection that relate to Chang and Eng Bunker are  included in the  Through the Weeping Glass exhibition at the Mutter Museum, where they are displayed with several other items relating to the Siamese twins.

Rachel A. D'Agostino
Curator of Printed Books

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