By Mark Hurwitz
Abel Hale Coffin, Jr., a senior warden at Old North for ten years and owner of pew #18 in the mid-1800s, is connected to the story of Eng and Chang, the famous “Siamese twins” of the 19th century.
Abel Jr. was the son of Captain Abel and Susan Ames Coffin and born on August 20, 1821, in Newburyport, MA. He settled in Boston where he went to sea as a supercargo until about age 28. Then for many years, he served as a wharfinger for Grand Junction Dock and Warehouse Company. For the last ten years of his life, he served as a fuel agent for Eastern Railroad. During his interesting life, he owned and used pew #18 with his family. Abel Jr. moved to Medford in his later years and died in June 1883 at the age of 62 from Bright’s disease. He was buried in Newburyport at the Coffin family plot.
His father, however, is the person of interest in this story and the direct connection to the Siamese twins who became a cultural curiosity. Capt. Abel Coffin Sr. and Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant, traveled to Thailand in 1829, returning home to Boston with Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined twins born in 1811 in the village of Samutsongkram, Siam (now Thailand). Eng and Chang were connected at the chest by a cartilaginous band of flesh. When they arrived in the United States, the American press referred to them as Siamese twins. Eng and Chang became so popular that their promotion as “Siamese Twins” were terms that became synonymous with connected or conjoined twins.
Eng and Chang earned themselves and their managers, Robert Hunter and Capt. Abel Coffin, quite a bit of money by making appearances throughout the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. In 1832, they fulfilled their contracts with Hunter and Coffin and declared their independence from them. By the late 1830s, they decided to retire from show business and pursue their own lives. Both men married after moving to North Carolina and buying a farm, fathering 22 children between them. They died in 1874 at the age of 62. Currently, their conjoined liver is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Most people don’t know about their random connection to Old North Church!