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The Sad Tale of The Dionne Quintuplets

Nobody could have known, not even Elzire Dionne, that she was going to give birth to quintuplets. Already a mother of five, the shock of giving birth to five more baby girls—Annette, Émilie, Yvonne, Cécile and Marie—knocked her out for two hours. “What will I do with all them babies?” she reportedly screamed.

Elzire suspected she was carrying twins, but the possibility of quintuplets didn’t cross her mind. And why would it? Doctors say that the odds of naturally occurring quintuplets is about one in 55 million, but the odds of identical quintuplets is incalculable. The Dionnes are the only identical quintuplets ever recorded and the first ever quintuplets known to survive infancy.

Dionne Quintuplets

The five baby girls were born on May 28, 1934, two months prematurely, near the village of Corbeil in northern Ontario, Canada. Together they weighed only 13 pounds, six ounces (just over 6 kg), with the largest weighing 2-and-a-half pounds, while the smallest was 1 pound, 8-and-a-half ounces. They were barely alive, with serious respiratory problems, and the conditions of the farmhouse, without heat and electricity, were not helping their survival. 

Local doctor Allan Roy Dafoe, who was present for the births, did an amazing job keeping the five premature babies alive under difficult circumstances and with no access to medical equipment. He sterilized the farmhouse, kept the babies warm in a wicker basket using hot water bottles or the open oven, and recruited nurses to massage them with olive oil. Before supplies of breast milk could be organized, Dafoe ordered the babies to be fed cow’s milk, sterilized water and corn syrup, mixed with one or two drops of rum for a stimulant.

As news about the miraculous birth spread across North America, reporters and photographers poured into the small town, followed by spectators in thousands. They gathered outside the farmhouse and peeped through the windows for a glimpse of what was already becoming a freakshow. Some ridiculed the parents for creating a litter of humans. Others provided monetary assistance. One couple offered to buy the bed where the girls were born for a thousand dollars. A hospital sent two incubators.

Dionne Quintuplets

Elzire Dionne with her five girls shortly after their birth.

Eventually, an exhibitor at the Chicago World’s Fair contacted the father, Oliva Dionne, seeking to put the babies on display. Oliva was desperate and needed the money, but he despaired. He approached the village priest for guidance. The priest not only advised Oliva to take the offer, but offered himself as his business manager.

Oliva regretted signing the deal almost immediately. He tried to get out of the contract but the Chicago Fair promoters refused. On the advice of his attorney, Oliva and Elzire Dionne signed custody of the quintuplets over to the Red Cross for a period of two years to protect them from exploitation. In return, the Red Cross built a nursery just across the street from the farmhouse for the girls to live.

Inside the house, the girls were treated like princesses. But Elzire and Oliva never felt welcome. They were shadowed wherever they went, and they were never allowed to be alone with their babies.

Months later, the government passed a bill that stripped the parents of all custody making the girls wards of the state, until they turn eighteen. Pretty soon, their nursery had became a veritable baby zoo. An outdoor playground was designed surrounded by a covered arcade, which allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens while they played. The girls were taken care of by a staff consisting of three nurses, a housekeeper and two maids. Three policemen guarded them at all times. The entire property was surrounded by a seven-foot tall barbed wire fence. Disquieting signs hung all around:

“Please Cooperate; Silence Is Requested.”

“No Photographs Allowed To Be Taken Of The Children.”

Dionne Quintuplets

Dionne Quintuplets

The girls were raised with strict discipline. They woke up at 6:30am, had orange juice and cod-liver oil, and then went to have their hair curled. They then said prayers and ate breakfast. After breakfast, they played in the sunroom for thirty minutes, took a fifteen-minute break, and at nine o'clock had their morning inspection with Dr. Dafoe. Dinner was served at precisely six o'clock. Before bed, then went into the quiet playroom to say their evening prayers.

As the girls became older, they began to appear in ads endorsing all sorts of products—Heinz ketchup, Quaker oats, Lifesavers candy, Palmolive soap, Lysol, typewriters, bread, ice cream, sanitized mattress covers, and more. Souvenir shops sold framed photographs, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, and dolls. Oliva himself ran a souvenir shop opposite the nursery. The girls also appeared in three Hollywood movies. In the nine years they spent in “Quintland”, the quintuplets brought in more than $50 million in total tourist revenue to Ontario. During this short period, Quintland was Ontario's biggest tourist attraction, surpassing Niagara Falls.

In 1943, after a nine-year-long legal battle, Oliva and Elzire Dionne got back the custody of their children. But the reunion was not a happy one. Wealth had transformed the family. Elzire treated them harshly, screamed insults and hit them. Their father started abusing them sexually.

Dionne Quintuplets

The Dionne Quintuplets accompanied by their father, Oliva Dionne, right, aboard a New York Staten Island Ferry boat on Oct. 21, 1950.

“They didn’t treat us as children,” Annette and Cécile told The New York Times in 2017. “[We were] their servants, slaves. It was not human.”

Once they turned 18, the five girls left for school in Quebec and settled there. Émilie died young, at the age of 20, when her untreated epilepsy gave her a lethal seizure. Marie died in 1970 from a blood clot in her brain. By then the sisters had received their share in their trust— $183,000 each (equivalent to $1.3 million today). In 1998, the three remaining quints, sued the government for their exploitation and received $4 million Canadian dollars.

Yvonne died in 2001.

In 2012, Cécile’s son emptied his mother’s bank account and disappeared, leaving her once again a ward of the state and now lives in a state-run nursing home. Annette lives in Montreal.

Dionne Quintuplets

Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe with the quintuplets.

Dionne Quintuplets

Dionne Quintuplets

Dionne Quintuplets

The Dionne quintuplets in 1943, a few weeks before their ninth birthday.

Dionne Quintuplets

Dionne Quintuplets

The Dionne quintuplets in 1952.

Dionne Quintuplets

The last two remaining Dionne quintuplets, Cécile and Annette. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

References:
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets
# New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/canada/ontario-dionne-quintuplets.html
# NY Post, https://nypost.com/2019/08/24/how-the-worlds-first-quintuplets-were-exploited-in-a-human-zoo/
# Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/11/03/dionne-quintuplets-exploitation-five-girls-raised-baby-zoo/

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