CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - A campaign is underway in England to honor the conjoined Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, who gained fame as oddities and entertainers in the U.S. decades before finding a final resting place in Charlotte.
The campaign is the second embrace of the sisters nearly 50 years after they died, huddled over a heating grate on a winter day, in their Charlotte home.
The Observer reported the appearance of a long-lost relative in 2014. Now a local historian in Brighton, England, is raising money for a plaque at their birthplace there.
"Their life story is such an emotional roller coaster — from exploitation to independence, from rags to riches and back again," Alf Le Flohic, a senior website officer at the University of Brighton, said by email. "I really felt for them; I guess I kind of fell for them."
The twins were born in 1908 to an unwed barmaid in Brighton, on England's southern coast, who rejected the "monsters." A midwife or landlady took in the children and promptly put them on display in the window of a local pub.
That life of exploitation continued as the girls grew into stars of the stage.
Violet and Daisy were taught to play the saxophone and violin, respectively, and placed on the carnival circuit. Mary Hilton, the woman who had taken over their care as babies, and her husband kept the proceeds, former Observer columnist Mark Washburn recounted in 2014. When Hilton died, her daughter Edith and husband Myer Myers managed their career.
The Hiltons were the toast of vaudeville, at one point making thousands of dollars a week, but at 23 sued the Myerses, saying they were kept penniless. They won and were freed from their contracts but settled for a fraction of what they had earned.
Both women had short-lived marriages and in 1952 starred in the B-movie "Chained for Life." But their stage careers withered as vaudeville died.
Le Flohic said he first learned of the Hilton sisters in another movie that featured them, 1932's "Freaks." Other than a bus named for the twins, he said, they've been largely forgotten in their birthplace.
The film "left a lasting impression on me," he said. "So when I saw an article about the film last year, I started reading it and discovered they were born in Brighton. I've lived here for decades and had no idea."
In the early 1960s, looking for work, the twins contacted Charlotte show-business veteran Philip Morris, the now-late owner of Morris Costumes. Morris tried to find bookings but largely failed. Still, the sisters remained in Charlotte.
The twins eventually went to work at the Park-N-Shop grocery on Wilkinson Boulevard. There they worked, side by side at the produce counter, until the Hong Kong flu then sweeping the nation claimed the Hilton sisters too in 1969.
They were buried in a single casket in Forest Lawn West Cemetery on Freedom Drive, with no known survivors.
There they lay until May 2014, when long-lost niece Shelagh Childs arrived from England to visit their grave. She laid flowers on the grave of Daisy and Violet.
"I want people to know that someone cared about the twins," Childs told Washburn.
Le Flohic said he thinks people in Brighton should care too. He aims to make it so, with the plaque and walking tours that will pass by the Queen's Arms pub, where they were first displayed.