Exceptional Ability and Wondrous Disability: The Marketing of the Swedish Nightingale and the Two-Headed Nightingale, Millie-Christine McCoy”

Born into slavery, the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy (1851–1912) made their living as performers in freak shows, a popular form of American entertainment that thrived between 1840 and 1940. They traveled the U.S. and abroad as living curiosities under the name of “The Two-Headed Nightingale”—in reference to Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, who had taken America by storm just a few decades earlier—and impressed viewers with their singing, dancing, intelligence and affability.

Starting from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (1999) premise that freak shows reinforced the “normal” identity of the spectator by encouraging a shared act of looking at the anomalous body of the Other, our paper investigates how the marketing of the twins responded to mid-nineteenth-century conceptions of normal vs. “freakish” personhood. Using the polysemic image of the “nightingale” as our touchstone, we compare the rhetorical strategies deployed for both Jenny Lind and Millie-Christine McCoy to reveal the interchanges between the ideas of virtue and virtuosity, and exceptional ability and disability in the nineteenth-century musical marketplace.


Dana Gorzelany-Mostak is an Assistant Professor of Music at Georgia College. Her research explores various facets of American musical culture—the role of popular songs in presidential campaigns, the reception of music prodigies in the age of reality television, and the untold history of music performance on the “freak” show stage in the 19th century. Additional research interests include opera and popular culture, public musicology, and music entrepreneurship. Gorzelany-Mostak has received the Mark Tucker Award from the Society for American Music and the Peter Narvaez Memorial Award from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-Canada for her work on the intersection of politics and music in the 2008 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Her research will appear in forthcoming issues of Music & Politics and the Journal of the Society for American Music, as well as the volume Voicing Girlhood in Popular Music (Routledge).

Remi Chiu is the assistant professor in musicology at Loyola University Maryland. He specializes in the intersections between early music and medicine. His book on Plague and Music in the Renaissance is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.