The world’s oldest set of conjoined twins, Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon, 68, died on July 4, in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Ronnie and Donnie Galyon have been turning heads since they were born on October 28, 1951 to parents Eileen and Wesley Gaylon, who were not expecting twins, much less conjoined twins.
They were born healthy, weighing 11 pounds, 11.5 ounces, but they spent the first two years of their life in the hospital as doctors struggled to figure out a way to safely separate them. When they were told there was no guarantee that both boys would survive the surgery, Wesley and Eileen refused to operate on their sons.
For 68 years, the brothers lived face-to-face, fused from the sternum to the groin with one set of lower digestive organs. They were each born with separate hearts and stomachs and had their own set of arms and legs.
When the boys turned three, their father made the decision to take them on the carnival circuit as a way to support his growing family of nine children. They were managed by Ward Hall, the legendary carnival impresario, and traveled around Canada and the United States in Hall’s infamous ‘World of Wonders’ sideshow under the marquis: ‘Alive in person – Galyon Siamese twins!’
According to Ward Hall’s biography, the twins mother rejected them when they were born – leaving them primarily to be raised by their father, Wesley and later their stepmother Mary.
Burdened by colossal medical bills that racked up from the twins first two years spent in the hospital and pressure to raise his family, Wesley decided to enter Donnie and Ronnie in the carnival where they had a lucrative career until they retired in 1991.
‘That was the only income. They were the breadwinners,’ said their youngest brother Jim, who was born when the Donnie and Ronnie were aged 11.
The twins learned to walk when they were 29 months, learning to take turns on who would walk backwards. Their parents hired occupational therapists to teach them everyday tasks such as tying shoes, using the toilet and learning how to work with each other as both brothers were born right handed – another complexity that required intense coordination.
Donnie and Ronnie were denied from attending the local school because officials said they would be too distracting to other students. ‘It was a different era,’ said their brother Jim.
Their IQs were determined to be in the average range, but according to J. David Smith’s book, Psychological Profiles of Conjoined Twins, they seemed slower due to a lack of formal education.
The twins exhibited themselves in an air-conditioned trailer for most of their carnival show careers. They lounged about watching television while spectators paid to peer in the window to observe them conduct daily life. Old advertisements read: ‘Still a sensation! The Gaylon Siamese twins, the U.S.’s most visited attraction on any Midway.’
Ronnie and Donnie found a community among the sideshow performers and workers who ran the concession stands. Their friends included Johann the Viking Giant; Little Pete, who was billed as the smallest man in the world, and Margaret Pellegrini, an actress who starred as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.
‘When we were on the road, it was all like one big family,’ said Ronnie to MLive in 2014.
As freak shows and carnival acts became taboo in the United States during the 1970s, the ‘Sensational Siamese Twins’ took their act to Central and South America where they performed as the headlining act in the circus doing magic tricks.
‘They were treated totally different down there,’ said their brother Jim. ‘They were treated like rock stars.’
Though Donnie and Ronnie mastered the art of compromise over the years, it wasn’t always easy. Some arguments even escalated to fisticuffs, especially when they were teenagers. At the age of 14, one twin broke his foot after kicking a trailer in a fit of anger.
The physical blows stopped when the brothers began taking blood thinners and realized that a fight could easily turn fatal.
‘They get into it verbally, of course,’ said Jim to MLive in 2014. ‘But that’s understandable when you got somebody right there 24-7, seven days a week, year after year after year.’
The brothers always insisted they were best friends. They both shared a love for fishing, camping, collecting baseball cards, the Dallas Cowboys and the Cincinnati Reds.
Never married, Donnie did most of the cooking, dishes and laundry while Ronnie cleaned the bathroom and did most of the talking, reported MLive. The brothers cast two votes, had two Social Security numbers but traveled under only one passport.
The survival rate for conjoined twins can be anywhere between 5-25%. For the Gaylon twins, the biggest health scare they suffered happened in 2009 and 2010. Ronnie developed blood clots in his lungs as the result of a viral infection. Donnie too was infected and both were left weak.
They also began to suffer from debilitating arthritis that made it difficult and unsafe for them to live alone in their Dayton home.
After the twins were released from the hospital, they required constant medical care which saw the community of Dayton, Ohio come together to build them a specialized home that accommodated their two-person wheelchair and was closer to their brother Jim who took the responsibility of caring for his brothers full time.
‘That’s kind of giving it back right now. I don’t do it because of that, but I feel that way,’ Jim told MLive.com in 2010. ‘They paid for us all growing up.’
In 2014, Donnie and Ronnie celebrated their longevity when they became the oldest living set of conjoined twins in the Guinness Book of World Records. The prior record holders were Chang and Eng Bunker, Chinese brothers that were born in Thailand in 1811 and lived to the age of 62.
Of the milestone, Ronnie told the Dayton Daily News in 2014: ‘It’s what me and Donnie’s always dreamed about, and we hope to get the ring, because we’ve dreamed about getting this since we were kids.’
Despite their unconventional life, Donnie and Ronnie were clear that they lived their life with no regrets. ‘We had fun when we were growing up,’ said Ronnie. Donnie echoed the sentiment, ‘We’ve had a nice life.’