During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, circuses and travelling shows were a major form of entertainment. Along with the trapeze artists, the clowns, and the animals, one of the most popular attractions at such an event was the sideshow, which was more often than not, a “freak” show. People with disabilities physical deformities, or otherwise “strange” looking, were paraded on stage, usually on their own terms, several of whom have become synonymous with the freak show concept itself. The Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, were raised on the road, and were an instant hit with the audiences that came out to see the shows - considering they were conjoined and performed everything from vaudeville to tap dancing. However, show biz was not the bright lighted world it appeared to be.
Daisy and Violet were born in a Brighton, England hospital, out of wedlock, to a young woman named Kate Skinner in 1908. While many conjoined twins appear to be “fused” together, sharing limbs and essential organs, Daisy and Violet were joined at the hip, and each had their own separate body, free to control independently of the other. Despite the relatively simple connection, doctors did not choose to attempt a separation out of fear of one twin dying. However, Skinner elected to quite literally sell the girls to Mary Hilton, whom Skinner worked for at the time. Hilton wanted to buy the girls to show them off on the sideshow circuit, knowing that people will pay to see the two - no matter how old they are. By age three, Daisy and Violet were being displayed in an England pub’s small sideshow, where onlookers would approach them and lift their clothing to see how exactly these two girls were joined.
Hilton was abusive in every sense to the girls, forcing them to learn dance, music, and other performance arts - and if they did something wrong, she or one of her several lovers (who the sisters had to call “sir”) would beat the girls or lock them away in a room until they got it right. This was an incredibly common occurrence, and the sisters had no real choice to do anything - at the time, they were still too young to be emancipated. Hilton referred to them as just “property,” which caused the girls to believe this from a very young age, seeing themselves as money makers for their “aunt.” They were not allowed to see any other people beyond the Hilton family, as that could make them want to get out of show business and stop making money for Hilton. Upon coming to America for a tour, the sisters were denied entry due to their condition, but Hilton was able to get them allowed through. While on tour in 1926, Bob Hope discovered the twins and put them on a tour with him, bringing them to superstardom. Mary Hilton died shortly after, and the girls were given to Edith and Meyer Meyers (yes that was his legal name), Hilton’s daughter and son-in-law. They continued the violence, even threatening to send them to an asylum if they didn’t perform their routines perfectly.
They eventually became connected with magician Harry Houdni, who was able to get them in contact with lawyers to help them escape the Meyers. In 1931, after years of abuse and fear, Daisy and Violet bought themselves out of the contract with Meyers, and were legally emancipated. While they reviled in the idea of finally having freedom, they were barely able to live independently - not because of their condition, but because they had never learned how to live without the Hilton family’s iron fist. They found new managers, who treated them as just another act to represent. While mostly retired - they still performed the occasional vaudeville or burlesque routine - the twins were cast in the 1932 film, Freaks, which had real circus freaks. The film was a massive success, but also generated controversy, with several audience members fainting, one woman even sued the studio and director Tod Browning (Dracula), claiming the film caused her miscarriage. Daisy and Violet went back to their small tours, and Violet attempted to marry her boyfriend Maurice Lambert, but the marriage certificate was denied in several states, as several states believed the certificate would cover both girls, and bigamy was against the law. The girls did end up eventually getting married however, Violet in 1936 (to a different man) and Daisy in 1941, but neither marriage lasted long - Violet’s was mostly on paper to help advertise their shows, and Daisy was divorced within ten days. When asked about how they handled the times one sister was having sex with their husband, Violet said "I just turn over and read a book and eat an apple."
As the interest in freak shows became less and less, the Hilton sisters, who had never been given a proper education, continued their public appearances, and starred in one final movie, an exploitation film loosely inspired by their own lives, titled Chained for Life. After, Daisy and Violet attempted to get out of the entertainment industry altogether, opening up a hot dog stand, but this venture did not last long and the girls had no choice but to go back to appearing at events, as if a relic of a pre-World War II time. After a handful of shows during the 1950s, the two made an appearance at a drive-in movie theater in North Carolina in 1961. After they did their show, they were abandoned by their manager - who left with their transportation, leaving them completely stranded. Looking for work, they found themselves a job at a local grocery store, doing promotional material as well as doing regular cashier work. In January 1969, they did not show up to work, prompting their boss to call police to make sure the two were okay. There, they found Daisy and Violet Hilton had died of the Hong Kong Flu, aged 60. Daisy died first, and Violet, too ill to call for help, died just days later.
Despite being one of the most famous sideshow attractions, the Hilton sisters never received a single penny from any of their tours under the Meyer or Hilton control. Unlike many other sideshow performers, such as their Freaks co-stars Johnny Eck, Prince Radian, Schlitze, the Doll Family, and Frances O’Connor, Daisy and Violet Hilton were forced into a life where they would never know anything else other than performing. They died poor, in obscurity, and while they did enjoy their work, the twins’ days of being a hot ticket show were long over. The Hilton sisters stand among the sideshow freaks as some of the most tragic, and one must wonder what kind of life they would have had if not beaten and forced into making money. The freak shows no longer tour the world, but the stories of the performers, be it one of enjoyment and a good living, or one of fear and abuse, will continue to stand the test of time.