With the birth of Émilie, Yvonne, Cécile, Marie, and Annette Dionne in 1934, the province of Ontario, coupled with Canada, discovered a “human goldmine”.
From the moment the Quints were born, they were subjected to awful living standards and were abused by the Provincial government for financial gains. But, why were the Dionne Quintuplets and their parents, Elzire and Oliva, manipulated into such a horrible fate?
During an era that was struggling economically, the Ontario government took advantage of a very rare event to make short-term financial gains.
The small Franco-Ontario hamlet of Corbeil, the birthplace of the Quintuplets, became a booming tourist attraction that generated massive crowds and huge sums of money. This is the story of these five girls that were raised in a “baby zoo”.
Dionne quintuplets wew born prematurely on May 28, 1934, near Callander, Ontario, Canada, to Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The parents had 14 children, 9 by single births.
Elzire was 24 when she gave birth to the quintuplets. She suspected she was carrying twins, but no one was aware that quintuplets were even possible
. Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe is credited with ensuring the successful live birth of the quintuplets. Originally, he diagnosed Elzire with a “fetal abnormality”. He delivered the babies with the help of two midwives, Aunt Donalda and Madame Benoît Lebel, who were summoned by Oliva Dionne in the middle of the night.
The quintuplets’ total weight at birth was 13 pounds, 6 ounces (6.07 kg). The highest weight was 3 pounds 4 ounces and the lowest weight was 2 pounds 4 ounces.
Their individual weights and measurements were not recorded. The quintuplets were immediately wrapped in cotton sheets and old napkins, and laid in the corner of the bed. Elzire went into shock, but she recovered in two hours.
The “quints” were remarkable in being the first medically and genetically documented set that survived; not one member of any other quintuplet set had previously lived more than a few days. The Dionne set had a sixth member that aborted during the third month of pregnancy
The University of Toronto conducted biological, psychological, and dental studies of the quintuplets. The biological study established that the set originated from one fertilized egg.
The Dionne quintuplets arose through repeated twinning of the early single embryo; therefore, six embryos were produced, and the five infants surviving birth inherited the same genetic material.
News of the unusual birth spread quickly, sparked by Oliva’s brother’s inquiry to the local newspaper editor about how much he would charge for an announcement of five babies at a single birth. Before long, people from all over North America were offering assistance.
Individuals sent supplies and well-meant advice (a famous letter from Appalachia recommends tiny doses of burnt rye whisky to prevent diarrhea); one hospital sent two incubators.
Assistance was also offered by women who donated their breast milk to the quintuplets. The women were compensated for their donations, receiving ten cents per ounce of milk donated. This allowed women to help with household income during the Great Depression.
Once the milk was received, it was preserved and sent by train to the quintuplets. Dr. Alan Brown of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children ensured that a train with twenty-eight ounces of breast milk was delivered to the quintuplets each morning.
After four months with their family, custody was signed over to the Red Cross who paid for their care and oversaw the building of a hospital for the sisters.
In February 1935 the Dionnes traveled to Chicago as “Parents of the World Famous Babies” and made stage appearances.
The Premier of Ontario at the time, Mitchell Hepburn, used the Dionne vaudeville trip as an excuse to extend the guardianship. He claimed that they must save the babies from further exploitation and, in March 1935, pushed the Dionne Quintuplets Act through government that officially made the girls wards of the Crown and extended guardianship to the age of eighteen.
Although Oliva Dionne had a seat on the Board of Guardians, he rarely attended meetings as he felt his vote wouldn’t matter against the other three guardians: Dr. Dafoe, Joseph Valin and Minister of Welfare David Croll.
These three guardians met once a month and had full control over business matters involving the quintuplets. They were involved in caring for the girls, managing money, and creating contracts for business opportunities such as appearances in films and commercials.
The stated reason for removing the quintuplets from their parents’ legal custody was to ensure their survival and protection from promoters.
The government realized there was an enormous public interest in the sisters and proceeded to engender a tourist industry around them. The girls were made wards of the provincial Crown, planned until they reached the age of 18.
Across the road from their birthplaces, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers. The girls were moved from the farmhouse to this nursery on September 21, 1934, and lived there until they were nine years old.
The compound had an outdoor playground designed to be a public observation area. It was surrounded by a covered arcade, which allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens.
The one-way screens were installed to prevent noise and distraction. The facility was funded by a Red Cross fundraiser. The sisters were brought to the playground two or three times a day in front of the crowd.
The Dionne sisters were constantly tested, studied, and examined, with records taken of everything. While living at the compound, they had a somewhat rigid lifestyle. They were not required to participate in chores and were privately tutored in the same building where they lived.
Cared for primarily by nurses, they had limited exposure to the world outside the boundaries of the compound except for the daily rounds of tourists, who, from the sisters’ point of view, were generally heard but not seen. They also had occasional contact with their parents and siblings across the road.
When visits first started, the visitors watched the quintuplets through a window in the hospital. The hospital quickly realized that this was not good for the quintuplets as they were excited when visitors came and became irritated when they left.
Telling visitors not to make loud noises was not enough to prevent them from doing so. They were displayed four times a day. The observatory opened on Canada Day in 1936. Thousands of tourists came to see the sisters and hundreds of cars flooded in.
The visitors were told to stay silent and not speak to the girls, continue moving to avoid blockages, if the weather was bad the girls would not be shown, and no photographs were allowed to be taken.
The girls knew they were watched as they could hear screams and laughter. The one-way screens did not fully block out the visitors, acting more as frosted glass.
Approximately 3,000 people per day visited the observation gallery that surrounded the outdoor playground to view the Dionne sisters. Ample parking was provided and almost 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943.
Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop and a woolen store opposite the nursery and the area acquired the name “Quintland”. The souvenirs, picturing the five sisters, included autographs and framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, and dolls.
By 1939 Dr. Dafoe had resigned as guardian and Oliva Dionne was gaining more support to have his family reunited. The family was reunited because their parents made efforts to regain custody over their children
. Also, the Catholic Church and French-speaking communities in both Quebec and Ontario pressured the government to give Oliva Dionne custody. These efforts and pressure stemmed from the fact that the Dionnes had never agreed to the removal of the quintuplets from their custody.
In 1942, the Dionne family moved into the nursery with the quintuplets while they waited for their new home to be completed. In November 1943, the entire Dionne family moved into their new home. The yellow brick, 20-room mansion was paid for out of the quintuplets’ fund.
The home had many amenities that were considered luxuries at the time, including telephones, electricity, and hot water, and was nicknamed “The Big House”.
The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952 and had little contact with their parents afterwards.
Three went on to marry and have children: Marie had two daughters, Annette had three sons, and Cécile had five children, including one who died in infancy and twins Bruno and Bertrand.
Émilie devoted her brief life to becoming a nun. Yvonne finished nursing school before turning to sculpting, then later becoming a librarian. Émilie died at the age of 20 as a result of a seizure.
She had a series of seizures while she was a postulant at a convent and had asked not to be left unattended, but the nun who was supposed to be watching her thought she was asleep and went to Mass.
Émilie had another seizure, rolled onto her belly, and, unable to raise her face from her pillow, accidentally suffocated.
In 1970, Marie was living alone in an apartment and her sisters were worried after not hearing from her in several days. Her doctor went to her home and found her in bed, Marie having been dead for days. A blood clot was found on her brain.
Annette and Cécile both eventually divorced and by the 1990s, the three surviving sisters lived together in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville.
In their memoirs We Were Five (1964) and Family Secrets: The Dionne Quintuplets’ Autobiography (1994), the sisters describe the exploitation they endured as children.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Britannica / Toronto Stars / Flickr / Pinterest).