The Two-Headed Nightingale

Work Details

Flute and vibraphone
8 minutes

Programme Note

Sisters Millie and Christine McCoy were born into slavery in 1851 in North Carolina. The girls were joined at the spine. Of little use to their owner, the eight-month-old girls and their mother were sold to a showman, John Pervis, for $1000.

Pervis exhibited Millie and Christine for four years before they were sold to showman Joseph Pearson Smith. However the girls were kidnapped by another rival showman and taken to England. Smith eventually tracked them down in Birmingham and got the law involved. As slavery was illegal in England, the sisters were released into the custody of their mother. She, however, had no idea how to proceed with the girls in a foreign country and as a result returned custody back to Smith.

Smith developed Millie and Christine as a performing act. He and his wife tutored the girls in music and languages, etiquette and social graces. The girls developed impressive singing abilities, performing as ‘The Two-Headed Nightingale’. Millie was a contralto and Christine a soprano. They were able to sing in harmony, perform on instruments and dance, shooting them to instant stardom.

Soon, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect and Millie and Christine were free. However the sisters continued performing around the world until the age of fifty-eight. During the course of their career they earned more than $250,000.

In 1912 they died of tuberculosis at the age of sixty-one.

Past Performances

- Bar Music Hall, Shoreditch, London.
- York Late Music Festival, Unitarian Chapel, St. Saviourgate, York.
Jane Mitchell (fl) and Sarah Cresswell (vib)