Record-settersRonnie and Donnie Galyon

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Born in Beavercreek, Ohio, the boys’ mother wasn’t expecting twins. And she certainly wasn’t expecting conjoined (previously often called “Siamese”) twins: they were joined at the torso, facing each other. As they shared several organs, doctors determined it was unlikely both would survive if they were separated, so their parents refused any attempts. With nine children in the family, father Wesley Galyon needed a better income to support them all, so the Galyons took Ronnie and Donnie on the road by the time they were 4 years old, to perform at circus sideshows across the U.S. and Canada. Most loved the cute, lively boys, rather than consider them freaks, and they made enough money to support the entire family.

Ronnie (left) and Donnie in an early family photo.

Though their younger brother Jim recalled some of the stupid questions he’d hear. “They’re twins …aren’t they?” or “Y’all born that way? Y’all brothers?” With a laugh, Jim called such questions “Fascinating,” noting that sometimes his brothers would be laughed at, and other times strangers would pay for their meals at restaurants. “You see the warmest of hearts, and you see the coldest of hearts,” Jim said — “and a little bit in between.” Sideshow acts became taboo in the 1970s, so to make a living Ronnie and Donnie traveled to Central and South America, and were featured by circuses there. “They were treated totally different down there,” Jim said. “They were treated like rock stars.”

About 75 percent of conjoined twins born alive are female, so “Siamese” boys were an even greater sideshow attraction.

Ronnie and Donnie retired from sideshows at 39, but still made occasional appearances, such as on The Jerry Springer Show in 1997, and a 1998 documentary on Discovery Channel. They lived in a house in Dayton, purchased with their earnings. “We’ve had a nice life,” Donnie said. And they were healthy: in 2014 they became the oldest surviving conjoined twins in recorded history, surpassing Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Thailand in 1811; at the time, the country was known as Siam. They were also sideshow performers, and billed as “Siamese Twins” — that’s where that term came from. The Bunkers retired in North Carolina, and lived for a total of 62 years, 251 days. As they approached the Bunker’s record, Donnie and Ronnie would mark the day off on a calendar. But there was another contender: Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci, born in Italy on an unknown date in 1875, were thought to have lived 63 years.

Ronnie and Donnie as adults, still on the circuit.

Ronnie, pointing at his abdomen, said “When [Jim] was a little boy, he sat there where we’re joined at.” The twins and Jim developed a close bond early on. In 2009, Ronnie developed a lung infection, which obviously threatened both of their lives. Once recovered, Jim and his wife Mary insisted Ronnie and Donnie come to live with them — sparking another documentary. “That’s kind of giving it back right now,” Jim said in 2014. “I don’t do it because of that, but I feel that way. They paid for us all growing up. They were the breadwinners.” That was despite the schools where they grew up refusing to educate the twins: they would be “too distracting,” school officials said. Ronnie and Donnie died in a Dayton hospice on July 4, at 68 years, 250 days old, firmly setting the record for the oldest conjoined twins ever.

From This is True for 5 July 2020