FEATURE: Commemorating the Brighton United Twins

Alf Le Flohic July 9, 2018

Violet and Daisy Hilton were huge stars in America in the 1920s and ‘30s but have lapsed into obscurity in their home town of Brighton.

THEY were petite, attractive, could sing, dance and play musical instruments, but their unique selling point was the fact that they were conjoined twins, or Siamese twins as they were called then. The Hiltons are most well-known for their appearance in the film Freaks, but let’s start at the beginning…..

The Queen’s Arms
Henry and Mary Hilton took over running the Queen’s Arms pub in George Street in 1893. Mary was also a midwife so it was not unusual to see pregnant girls working behind the bar, in exchange for Mary assisting when they gave birth.
One such barmaid was 21-year-old Kate Skinner, unmarried and living with her family at 18 Riley Road. Mary attended on February 5, 1908, when Kate gave birth to first Violet and then Daisy. Kate couldn’t cope with her daughters being joined at the hip and refused to feed them.

Initially Mary Hilton was praised as an angel for taking the unfortunate twins into her family home above the pub. However it soon became apparent she saw their financial possibilities. One newspaper reported “Local interest is so great that Mrs Hilton is willing to let people see the babies any day between 11am and 7pm, and twopenny postcards can be bought in the bar.” Mary made Kate sign a legal document setting out the amount of money Mary would demand for the care of the children if Kate ever tried to reclaim them.

The Hiltons moved across town in 1910 to run the larger Evening Star in Surrey Street, taking the ‘Brighton United Twins’ with them. The following year Mary took the twins around the UK, exhibiting them in circuses and fairs. They proved very popular and for the next two years they toured Europe before sailing to Australia, followed by America in 1915.

American fame
Violet and Daisy were almost never allowed out – why would people pay to see them if they could be seen in public? They were home schooled and taught to sing and play assorted musical instruments. If they could entertain rather than just appear in travelling circuses, they could earn more money, for Mary and her daughter Edith.

Mary had always been clear with the twins that she was not their mother and they had to call her Auntie, “…and when we displeased her she whipped our backs and shoulders with the buckle end of her wide leather belt”.

Mary died in 1919 and in her will she bequeathed not only her jewellery but also the twins to Edith and her husband, Myer Myers. At the funeral, aged only 11, the twins tried to run away but were restrained by Myers; “If we ever ran out on him, if we ever refused to perform at his command, we would be put in an institution”.

Over the next decade the twins became big stars of musical variety. A young Bob Hope toured with them in the early years and, along with another partner, they performed a four-person synchronised dance routine which never failed to wow the crowds.
The escapologist Harry Houdini was another performer who befriended them. He taught them how to mentally separate from each other; “Live in your minds girls. It is your only hope for private lives”. A very useful skill as Myers forced the girls to share a bedroom with him and Edith, so he could keep an eye on them.

The twins were earning thousands of dollars a week, but seeing none of it. Myers had bought himself a huge estate in San Antonio in Texas, and the girls were forced to clean it.

In 1931, the twins became involved in a public scandal over a card they had signed ‘with love’ to a married man. Myers took them to lawyer Martin Arnold who insisted on speaking to the girls on their own. While Myers was out of the room the sisters explained their plight and with Arnold’s help they set about suing Myers. They successfully gained their freedom but settled for just a fraction of the money they had earned over the years.

As you can imagine, after years of cruelty and confinement, Violet and Daisy hit the town, big time. Drinking, smoking and kissing boys was all new to them. And not just boys… there were rumours at the time that Violet preferred the ladies, or as a carnival operator who knew them put it; “Too bad only one of them went for boys”.

To earn money they formed the Hilton Sisters Revue and kept performing. In 1932 horror film director Tod Browning released Freaks – a drama set in an American sideshow. Instead of actors in make-up for the ‘freaks’, Browning employed real people with real disabilities and very unusual bodies. Violet and Daisy were two of the big names in the film, but it proved too shocking for most audiences. There was a public outcry with cinemas refusing to show it, and it was pulled from release. It was banned in the UK for 30 years.

Possibly in an effort to put Freaks behind them, the twins spent most of 1933 on a UK tour. This included four sell out shows at Brighton Hippodrome. Violet and Daisy were also hoping to reconnect with their birth family on this trip but it wasn’t to be. They discovered their mother Kate had died when they were just four years old, resting in an unmarked grave in the cemetery up Hartington Road.

Love and marriage
In 1936 the twins were convinced to stage a massive celebrity wedding at the Dallas Cotton Bowl. Before a paying crowd Violet married dancer Jim Moore. Jim Moore was known to be ‘gay as a rag’ and it very quickly became apparent that the whole event had been a publicity stunt. The American public felt cheated and the popularity of the twins declined even further. In 1941 Daisy got married to Buddy Sawyer, another dancer whose sexuality has since been questioned. The marriage lasted a mere ten days.
With the decline of vaudeville they decided to give burlesque dancing a go but it wasn’t a success. They tried Hollywood once again in 1952, investing all their money in a film called Chained For Life. Whilst the premise is interesting (a court tries to decide how to punish one half of a pair of conjoined twins for murder) the resulting film is an exploitation b-movie. It was supposed to be a sure-fire hit – it wasn’t. It ruined them financially.

After the short-lived Hilton Sisters Snack Bar in Miami, they resorted to making appearances at venues showing either of their films, signing photographs for cash. They were on one such trip in 1961, to a drive-in showing Freaks in Charlotte in North Carolina, when they became stranded there with no money to move on.

The people of Charlotte took pity on the twins, feeding, housing and clothing them. They eventually got a job at the local Park-N-Shop, became part of the small community and decided to stay.

There was an American pandemic of Hong Kong flu during the winter of 1968. When Violet and Daisy didn’t turn up for work in the new year, people went to investigate. They were found dead, slumped together. It was apparent that Daisy had died a few days before Violet. They were buried together in the local graveyard in Charlotte.

Blue plaque
Violet and Daisy Hilton have been successfully nominated for a commemorative plaque on their birthplace here in Brighton. As a city that embraces people who don’t necessarily fit the norm, they are definitely ‘one of us’ and deserve to be more widely known in Brighton. There is a fundraising campaign currently underway to pay for it, all donations gratefully accepted. Find out more on a fundraising walking tour round Brighton this summer: One of Us: The Violet and Daisy Hilton Story, with tales of giants, midgets and even more conjoined twins.

To donate or book on a tour visit:

All photos © Wellcome Collection