Contrary to popular belief, outright exploitation was not very common in sideshow. The majority of human marvels displayed themselves for their own reasons and quite often reaped massive financial and personal rewards for doing so. However, of the few performers who were exploited against their will, the tale of Daisy and Violet Hilton ranks as one of the worst.
Their birth name was Skinner however their impoverished and unmarried mother, Kate, could not fathom the responsibilities involved in raising a pair of girls joined. She sold the twins to her boss and midwife Mary Hilton.
Williams instantly saw potential profit in the twins.
According to many sources, including the autobiography written by the Hilton sisters in 1942, Mary Hilton was a strict, physically abusive, exploitive and corrupt human being. The twins were ‘trained’ and ‘groomed’ to sing and dance in the vaudeville tradition. While this training was in progress the horrific abuse and dehumanizing continued. When the girls finally began touring, they were seen as little more than possessions by the Hiltons.
The twins proved to be hugely successful and the toured extensively beginning at the age of three. On stage, the pair likely looked like dolls, their blond hair in curls and bows on their shoes. Violet played the piano while Daisy played the violin.
Billed as ‘The United Twins’, their tours of Germany, Australia and the USA often saw record crowds. The twin brought in enormous amounts of money. Mary Hilton kept every penny.
When Mary finally died in Birmingham, Alabama, the guardianship of the twins fell to Mary’s daughter Edith and Edith’s husband, Meyer Meyers. They were even worse than Mary as they controlled every movement the twins made. They also proved to be poor agents as they insisted on keeping the girls ‘dolled up’ as little girl well past the age it was acceptable. Critics took notice and the twins were allowed to grow up, but only a little.
The mistreatment and corruption continued under the dictatorship of Edith. Edith purchased a mansion in San Antonio with the money the twins earned as a headquarters as the twins spent much of the 1920’s touring the United States on vaudeville circuits. It was on these circuits that they met Bob Hope and their dear friend Harry Houdini. Their popularity, at this point was near its peak and as a result they became subject to scandal.
The twins had befriended their advance agent, William Oliver. Oliver’s wife Mildred was suspicious of the relationship and accused William of improper acts. A postcard from the twins signed to William ‘with love’ prompted Mildred to file for divorce and sue the twins for $250,000. Oddly enough, this frivolous lawsuit was the catalyst for the Hilton’s freedom.
During a visit to San Antonio lawyer, Martin J. Arnold, the truth came out. As the Meyer’s were out of the room the Hilton sisters told the lawyer of their life of abuse and captivity. The lawyer was flabbergasted and immediately took on the twins’ case. He took the twins into protective custody.
In April of 1931 Judge W.W. McCrory awarded a large sum of money – some reports say as much as $100,000, to the sisters and granted the pair their freedom.
The girls had spent 21 years in abject slavery.
Daisy and Violet became citizens of the United States and returned to show business. They hosted their own show, ‘The Hilton Sisters’ Revue’, and stared in the 1932 film Freaks.
Everything seemed to be perfect in the life of the Hilton sisters; however the pair soon began to self destruct. Due to too many years of solitude, suppression and deprivation the girl wallowed in excess. They had numerous affairs, legal problems, clashes with that media and a couple of short publicity marriages. Their popularity nosedived. In 1950, the sisters appeared in their final film Chained for Life. It flopped and the pair further failed in an attempted food franchise. By the 1960’s the pair were nearly penniless.
The Hiltons’ last public appearance was at a drive-in movie theater in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1962. Their tour manager abandoned them there, as the tour was a failure and he was tired of losing money. He left them without any money or transportation and the twins simply decided to settle in Charlotte. A kind grocery store manager hired the sisters to work in his shop, where they checked and bagged groceries.
On January 6, 1969, the twins failed to report for work and were found dead in their pious home. They had no surviving family.
Despite the sad end to their lives, the memory of the Hilton sisters still lives on. In 1997, a Broadway musical loosely based on the sisters’ lives, Side Show, with lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, received four Tony nominations.
image: still from the 1932 film Freaks.
Excerpts of the above taken from the book Very Special People.