Mark Twain’s ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’: Challenging Constructions of Abnormality, Conjoinment and Disability

Sarah McFee is a MA English graduate from Teesside University. Her research focuses primarily on disability in the Victorian Gothic and representations and constructions of gender and race in Neo-Victorian fiction. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Certain representations of disabled characters within fiction exist to challenge the tenuous scientific categories of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ bodies. Events within Mark Twain’s ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’ (1894) reflect how categorising ‘freaks’ within the nineteenth century provided feelings of certainty in a world of emerging industry. However, Twain also mocks narrow perceptions of disability and ensures that those with ‘abnormal bodies’ can transcend social categories.

In the 1700s and early 1800s the categories of ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ people did not exist and instead the concept of an ‘ideal’ was conventional. As a deeply religious society, many Victorians believed that ideal bodies were ‘God-like’, and that all people should aspire to this ‘ideal’. The term ‘able-bodied’ referred to physical fitness for military service, and categorising disabilities only began when injured, returning soldiers were compared to impaired poor people.[1] By the mid-1800s, disablement had evolved from a source of fear into one of fascination, though the ability to categorise people became more unstable and insecure.

The industrial revolution meant that rapid technological changes caused anxiety and discontent to ripple through society. People craved security in the fast-paced world they were inhabiting, and the rise of the middle classes also resulted in more leisure time and a market for entertainment. With the perspective of medical professionals being the dominant mode of thinking about abnormal bodies, the extensive categorisation of individuals became further embedded. A differentiation was made between those with disabilities and ‘freaks’, which served a desire for more entertaining acts to satisfy the public. Because those with abnormal bodies might struggle to find work, freak shows also provided individuals with the ability to earn money. ‘Freaks’ gained control of how they were perceived by the public and used their ability to fascinate and repulse to make their ‘acts’ more entertaining. Medical professionals added their own witness statements to the displays which asserted their authority, medicalising and categorising any ‘deformities’ even further. ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’ was published amidst these changes which most likely influenced the comedic scenes in Twain’s novella. 

Twain conforms to David M. Turner’s perspective that “the best way to survive being disabled or ‘deformed’ […] was to embrace its more ‘freakish’ aspects, to ease the fears of the non-disabled by presenting oneself as accepting of one’s condition and joining in the laughter”.[2] However, Twain’s text mocks the public’s perceptions of ‘freaks’ and emphasises the humanity of the characters of the conjoined twins. The characters themselves were likely based on Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci, Italian conjoined twins who toured America in 1891.[3] The influence of the freak show’s popularity on Twain’s text is evident when Rowena discusses the twins with her mother:

They’re so fine and handsome, and so high-bred and polite, so every way superior to our gawks here in the village; why, they’ll make life different from what it was – so humdrum and commonplace, you know – oh, you may be sure they’re full of accomplishments, and knowledge of the world, and all that, that will be an immense advantage to society here. Don’t you think so ma?[4]


Book cover from Amazon

According to Robert Bogdan, many ‘freaks’ revelled in their power and success as performing artists: 

Those in the industry referred to themselves as ‘with it’ – they were superior, more worldly, more interesting, and free of the humdrum life they judged was typical of small-town America. They categorised those outside their circle with such derogatory terms as townies, suckers and rubes. Freaks were part of the amusement industry world. They sat on their platforms looking down on those who came to see them and not just in a literal sense: they shared a contempt towards the audience.[5]

The twins allude to travelling in a freak show with disdain, but Twain still ensures his twins are perceived as well travelled and educated as well as providing them with the fascinating ability to understand each other’s needs without speaking: “We are always helping each other that way. It is a great economy for us both; it saves time and labour. We have a system of signs which nobody can notice or understand but ourselves”.[6] Disabled people and ‘freaks’ were encouraged to exaggerate their disabilities, not just for entertainment but to showcase their superhuman ‘capabilities’. Interestingly, Twain also complicates our perception of conjoinment as a challenge to individuality when the twins go on trial for assault and are ultimately hanged: 

“No – Count Angelo is innocent; we mustn’t hang him.”

“Who said anything about hanging him? We are only going to hang the other one.” 

“Then that is alright – there is no objection to that.”[7]

Twain succeeds in exposing both society’s confusion regarding the treatment of individuals with abnormal bodies, but also how people with disabilities can challenge the categories that are forced onto them. The twins cannot be easily categorised, therefore transcending limitations and highlighting how each person with an ‘abnormal’ body must be treated as an individual with their own needs and necessary adaptations. 

Angelo does ponder what life would be like if he was not joined to Luigi: “He had known no life but a combined one; he had been familiar with it from his birth; he was not able to conceive of any other as being agreeable, or even bearable.”[8] Ultimately, Angelo and Luigi are not limited by their unusual anatomy and Angelo even describes other men as ‘monstrosities’ with “strange and unsocial and uncanny construction”.[9] Though Twain is entertaining his readers here by destabilising established conceptions of ‘normal’, he is also highlighting how ‘abnormality’ is an opinion, and how each person views everyone else differently. It is other people that make the twins abnormal; abnormal is ‘normal’ to the twins and ultimately, neither concept exists objectively.

Even current perceptions of disability are destabilised by events within ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’. Petra Kuppers argues the following:

Disability is a deeply contested term used to describe individuals (or a people?) that are in a position of difference from a centre. Already, even this vague description is problematic: how the centre is defined, how centre and periphery interact, what fantasies they hold of one another, is different in different contexts.[10]

Within the modern era, perceptions of disability are built on unreliable notions of ‘abnormal’ and ‘normal’ bodies, which stem from the inaccurate views held within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, we cannot define the ‘centre’ so ultimately we cannot define anything that does not fit into it.

Twain’s novella ultimately challenges dominant modes of thinking about disability as he mocks the other characters’ narrow-minded views of those with abnormal bodies, and also exposes the tenuous perceptions of individuality using the events of the trial. Twain also challenges modern medical perceptions of conjoined twins by providing readers with the perspective of conjoined twins themselves; Angelo’s perception of his conjoinment can be interpreted as the voice that is not provided to conjoined twins and many individuals with disabilities today.


[1]  David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England. Imagining Physical Impairment (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2012) 21.

[2]  Turner 71.

[3]  Helen Davies, Neo-Victorian Freakery (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) 67.

[4]  Mark Twain, “Those Extraordinary Twins,” Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales, Mark Twain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 160.

[5]  Robert Bogdan, Picturing Disability (2012), qtd. in Davies 9.

[6]  Twain 163.

[7]  Twain 207-8.

[8]  Twain 168-9.

[9]  Twain 169.

[10]  Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance. Bodies on Edge (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2003) 5.

3 responses to “Mark Twain’s ‘Those Extraordinary Twins’: Challenging Constructions of Abnormality, Conjoinment and Disability

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