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The Dionne Quintuplets: The World’s First Recorded Quintuplets YouTube: CBS News: The National
YouTube: CBS News: The National

The Canadian Dionne quintuplets were the first quintuplet set to survive infancy. They were born to Olivia Édouard Dionne and Elzire Dionne just outside of Callander, Ontario, on May 28, 1934. They were deemed “miracle babies” and seen as a symbol of hope during the Great Depression. The set of five identical girls, Annette, Yvonne, Cécile, Émelie, and Marie Dionne were delivered by Dr. Dafoe and two midwives, two months early. They weigh a total of 13.6 lbs. Special precautions were taken to ensure their survival, such as being swaddled in blankets, keeping the babies in wicker baskets for a short time, covering them with heated blankets for warmth and feeding them water sweetened with corn syrup in the first few days after their birth. Generous care was given to take care of them. In the public,  mothers reached out with advice, charities sent necessities and a hospital even sent in two incubators.

The World’s Fair

Unfortunately, the attempts at exploitation began early, just four days after the girls were born. Their girls’ father was approached by fair promotors wanting to put the girls in the World’s Fair. The Dionne family already had five children before the quintuplets were born. Thus, being offered a very large sum of money in addition to compensation for the girl’s health care if they were allowed to attend the World’s Fair, seemed the thing to do. The girl’s father consulted a clergyman and Dr. Dafoe. Both encouraged him to pursue the opportunity; the preacher only encouraged under the condition that he got a cut. When the news broke that the quintuplets would be shown, the Dionne family received heavy backlash. The people of Canada were mad at them for giving away Canada’s “miracle babies”.

Within one day Olivia had changed his mind. He contacted the promoters calling the contract off, saying the girls would not appear and offering to return the check. When the Tour Bureau decided that the girl’s parents would be held liable to keep the contract, even though Mrs. Dionne hadn’t signed, they had to move fast. To keep the girls out of the promoters grasp, they signed the girls’ custody over to the Red Cross for the girls continued health care. This contract was meant to last for two years.

Dionne Quintuplet’s Guardianship Act

Before long, the Ontario Government was involved and extended the Dionne Quintuplet’s Guardianship Act in 1934, which made the girls “wards of the crown” until they reached 18. I know, this sort of sounds like they were in a form of foster care or a protection program in which the government supported the girls. However, in reality, it was more like the Ontario Government turned the quintuplets into a tourist attraction.

The girls were moved from their family home across the street to the Dafoe Hospital and nursery that was built specifically for them. It came to be called “Quintland”. The girls lived on the property with surveillance officers, nurses, housekeepers, and maids. Their parents lived across them but often felt unwelcome which is why they rarely visited. The girls lived isolated lives interacting with only their care staff, each other and the sounds of the faceless tourists through the one-sided glass. “Quintland” was the girl’s home. Their faces and Dr. Dafoe’s appeared on Quaker oatmeal, Palmolive liquids, syrup, toothpaste and even war bonds and Karo Corn Syrup. They were featured on Time and Life Magazine, as well as in popular culture shows and entertainment. The girls became one of the biggest tourism spots in Canada. Ontario, Canada made over $500 million from “Quintland”, and was so lucrative that it gave a nearby city, North Bay, new life with the heavy tourism.

The exploitation continued to include the Dionne sisters starring in a few Hollywood films. The films were essentially fictionalizations or loosely based versions of the quintuplets’ story. Filmed in Quintland, the first movie, “The Country Doctor” mostly showed the girls existing and told the story of Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe who delivered them, who was a hero for doing so. There was a sequel to this film called “Five of a Kind” that followed two years later in 1938.

At nine years old, the girls were able to rejoin their family after a custody battle. Unfortunately, the girls were even more miserable at their new family home. The home was built to accommodate the family of 12 and included many high ticket luxuries at that time. It was paid for out of the money the girls earned- which they didn’t find out for years. While living in the home, they were often treated differently than the other kids, given more chores to complete, and guilted for existing. When the girl’s turned 18 in 1952, they left home. Although a trust fund had been set aside for them, there wasn’t much money left in it by that time. They requested the Canadian government to reimburse them for the money taken/spent from them, but with little success until a $3 million dollar settlement was reached in 2018.

Where are they now?

Adulthood for the quintuplets was both free and more of the same. Many of the sisters married and had kids. Emilie, however, became a nun. She died at 20 due to a  seizure. Marie died in 1970 of a blood clot and was found alone in her apartment. Annette, Cecile, and Yvonne Dionne lived together in the 90’s in a Montreal suburb. They assisted in a biography of their lives entitled, “We Were Five“.  The surviving sisters wrote their own book, “The Dionne Quintuplets: Family Secrets” where they give an inside look at what their lives were like. Their story continued to lace through pop culture for the duration of their lives. They have been mentioned countless times in movies, tv shows, books, dolls have been made in their likenesses, a museum was made in their honor. They spent as much time as possible out of the limelight, giving rare interviews only to promote and save the house they were born in.

As of December 2018, Annette and Cecile were the only ones still alive. The same year their birth was named a National Historic Event.

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Moriah Gill About the author:
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