Daisy and Violet Hilton

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Daisy and Violet Hilton
Hilton twins c. 1927
Born(1908-02-05)5 February 1908
Brighton, Sussex, England
DiedJanuary 1969(1969-01-00) (aged 60)
  • film actresses
  • vaudevillians
  • sideshow performers
Known forFreaks, Chained for Life
Spouse(s)Daisy's: Harold Estep (1941-1941, 10 days)
Violet's: James Moore (1936-1946)
  • Kate Skinner (mother)

Daisy and Violet Hilton (5 February 1908 – early January 1969) were English-born entertainers, who were conjoined twins. They were exhibited in Europe as children, and toured the United States sideshow, vaudeville and American burlesque circuits in the 1920s and 1930s. They were best known for their film appearances in Freaks and the biographic Chained for Life (1951).

The twins were born at 18 Riley Road, Brighton, England, on 5 February 1908.[1] Their mother was Kate Skinner, an unmarried barmaid. The sisters were born joined by their hips and buttocks; they shared blood circulation and were fused at the pelvis but shared no major organs.

They were variously called or referred to as The Siamese Twins, The Hilton Sisters and The Brighton Twins or The Brighton Conjoined Twins and in the United States as the San Antonio Twins. The sisters performed alongside Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin. After years of being managed professionally by their legal guardians, in the early 1930s, on the advice of Harry Houdini, they were legally emancipated. [2]

Early life[edit]

Daisy and Violet as children
The Hilton sisters, aged four

A medical account of the birth and a description of the twins was provided for the British Medical Journal by physician James Augustus Rooth,[3] who helped deliver them. He reported that subsequently the Sussex Medico-Chirurgical Society considered separation, but unanimously decided against it as it was believed that the operation would certainly lead to the death of one or both of the twins. He noted these twins were the first to be born in the UK conjoined and to survive for more than a few weeks.[3]

Their mother was unmarried.[4] Kate Skinner's employer, Mary Hilton, who helped in childbirth, apparently saw commercial prospects in them, and effectively bought them from their mother and took them under her care. The girls first stayed above the Queen's Arms pub in Brighton where they were exhibited.[4] They later moved to the Evening Star pub. According to the sisters' autobiography, Mary Hilton with her husband and daughter strictly controlled the twins by means of physical abuse; they had to call her "Auntie Lou" and her husband "Sir". They trained the girls in singing and dancing.[citation needed]

Performing career[edit]

Aged eight
Daisy and Violet with Mr. and Mrs. Meyers c.1927

The Hilton sisters toured first in Britain in 1911 (aged three) as "The United Twins".[5]: 125  Mary Hilton took them on to a tour through Germany, then to Australia, then in 1916 to the US. In true sideshow manner, their performance was accompanied by an imaginative "history". Their controllers kept all the money the sisters earned. In 1926, Bob Hope formed an act called the Dancemedians with the sisters, who had a tap-dancing routine.[6] When Mary died in Birmingham, Alabama, the girls were bequeathed to Mary's daughter Edith Meyers, and Edith's husband Meyer Meyers, a former balloon salesman.

The couple took over management of the twins. Held mostly captive, the girls were beaten if they did not do as the Meyers wished. They kept the twins from public view for a while and trained them in jazz music. Violet was a skilled saxophonist and Daisy a violinist. They lived in a mansion in San Antonio, Texas.[7]

In 1931, the sisters sued their managers and were legally emancipated, gaining freedom from their contract and awarded US$100,000 in damages[8] (equivalent to $1,600,000 in 2023). They went into vaudeville as "The Hilton Sisters' Revue". Daisy dyed her hair blonde and they began to wear different outfits so as to be distinguishable from Violet. After vaudeville lost popularity, the sisters performed at burlesque venues.

Shortly after gaining independence from the Meyers, the Hiltons sailed to the UK on the Berengaria in December, 1932. They spent most of 1933 in the UK and returned to the US in October, 1933.[citation needed]

Violet began a relationship with musician Maurice Lambert, and they applied in 21 states for a marriage license, but it was always refused.

In 1932, the twins appeared in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Freaks. Afterwards, their popularity faded, and they struggled to make a living in show business.

Later life[edit]

In 1936, Violet married actor James Moore as a publicity stunt. The marriage lasted ten years on paper, but it was eventually annulled. At the time of the wedding, Daisy was visibly pregnant. Her child was given up for adoption. In 1941, Daisy married Harold Estep, better known as dancer Buddy Sawyer. The marriage lasted ten days.[9] In 1952, the twins starred in a second film, Chained for Life, an exploitation film loosely based on their lives. Afterwards, they undertook personal appearances at double-bill screenings of their two films.

The Hiltons' last public appearance was in 1961, at a drive-in theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. Without warning, their tour manager abandoned them there with no means of transportation or income. They applied for a job in a nearby grocery store, offering to work for one salary.[10] The owner hired them at two full salaries and designed a discreet two-person cashier station so that customers could not tell the sisters were conjoined.[11] The Hiltons rented a small two bedroom home courtesy of the shop owner's church, Purcell United Methodist, and settled into a quiet life, involving work and church.[11] During the holidays they remembered fellow employees and favorite customers with Christmas gifts.[11]

On January 4, 1969, after they did not report to work and attempts to reach them by telephone failed, the police were called to investigate. The twins were found dead in their home, victims of the Hong Kong flu. According to the autopsy, Daisy died first; Violet died between two and four days later.[12] Violet had not called for any help.[11] They are buried in Forest Lawn West Cemetery in Charlotte. They share a grave with a Vietnam veteran Troy Thompson whose father was an acquaintance, since they didn't have enough of an estate to pay for their own plot. Visitors to the site often leave two pennies, as that was the price of admission to see the twins in the side show when they were children.

Media legacy[edit]

In 1989, a musical based on the Hilton twins, Twenty Fingers Twenty Toes, with book by Michael Dansicker and Bob Nigro and music and lyrics by Michael Dansicker, premiered at the WPA Theatre and ran for 35 performances. The script can be found in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It began as an accurate portrayal of the twins' early life, but then included a wholly fictitious plot by their keepers to have them surgically separated as adults. [citation needed]

Side Show, a Broadway musical loosely based on the sisters' lives, with lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger,[13] opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater[14] on October 16, 1997. It starred Emily Skinner as Daisy and Alice Ripley as Violet, and received four Tony nominations, but closed after 91 performances.[14] In 2014, a substantially rewritten version of the musical was mounted at the Kennedy Center and moved to Broadway, where it opened at the St. James Theater on November 17, 2014, starring Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padgett as Daisy.[15] Although well-reviewed, the revival closed on 4 January 2015.

In 2012, Leslie Zemeckis filmed a documentary, Bound by Flesh, about the sisters' lives. The Hollywood Reporter called it "scrupulously researched" and a "masterful film".[16] The film won Best Documentary awards at both the 2012 Hollywood Film Festival and the 2013 Louisiana International Film Festival.[17]

Brighton & Hove no. 708 has been named in their honour

Other legacy[edit]

Brighton & Hove 708 (YP58 UGH), a 2009 Scania OmniCity DD bus that currently operates on the 27 (Westdene Park & Ride – Saltdean) in their home town, was named in their honour.[18]

In May 2018, it was announced that Brighton and Hove City Council and the current owner of the house in which the twins were born had agreed that a commemorative blue plaque could be erected at the property.[4]

Blue plaque at 18 Riley Road

On 26 May 2022, a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled at 18 Riley Road, dedicated to Violet and Daisy Skinner: The Hilton Twins.



  1. ^ Background of the sisters, mybrightonandhove.org.uk. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
  2. ^ "The Tragic Life Story of the Conjoined Hilton Sisters". 27 December 2022.
  3. ^ a b Rooth JA (September 1911). "The Brighton united twins". Br Med J. 2 (2647): 653–54. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.2647.653. PMC 2332195. PMID 20765808.
  4. ^ a b c "Bid to honour Brighton's 'forgotten' conjoined Hilton twins". BBC News. 29 May 2018.
  5. ^ Nickell, Joe (2005). Secrets of the sideshows. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-7179-2. OCLC 65377460.
  6. ^ Herbert, Ian (18 February 2006). "Old-time variety returns to Blackpool, with a new face". The Independent. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  7. ^ Hayward, Susana (18 August 2013) [First published in print 1997-10-16]. "S.A.'s Hilton twins lived for celebrity, longed for normalcy". Mysa. San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  8. ^ Jensen, Dean. The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins, Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2006; ISBN 978-1-58008-758-2
  9. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (10 March 2018). Vaudeville old & new: an encyclopedia of variety performances in America. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415938532 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ Washburn, Mark (25 May 2014). "Long-lost relative finds the Hilton twins decades after their death". Charlotte Observer. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  11. ^ a b c d "Violet and Daisy Hilton, San Antonio's conjoined twins. Their uplifting story facing the odds and adversity". Memories of San Antonio. 5 February 2021. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  12. ^ https://web.csulb.edu/colleges/cota/theatre/documents/ShowDocuments/11-12/SideShowAudienceGuide.pdf [permanent dead link]
  13. ^ Gans, Andrew (15 October 2004). "York's Daisy and Violet Hilton Musical, Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes, Plays Oct. 15-17". Playbill. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  14. ^ a b Lyman, Rick (23 December 1997). "Defeated, 'Side Show' Is Closing Jan. 3". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  15. ^ Isherwood, Charles (21 June 2014). "A Grandeur That Eclipses the Grotesque". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Byrge, Duane (24 October 2012). "Bound by Flesh: Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  17. ^ ""Bound By Flesh" a film by LESLIE ZEMECKIS". "Bound By Flesh" a film by LESLIE ZEMECKIS.
  18. ^ "Names on the buses - 708 Daisy and Violet Hilton". Brighton and Hove Bus Company website. Retrieved 29 May 2018.

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