How the world’s first quintuplets were exploited in a human zoo
It was a typical playground — if you ignored the barbed wire and bizarre signs:
“PLEASE COOPERATE; SILENCE IS REQUESTED.”
“NO PHOTOGRAPHS ALLOWED TO BE TAKEN OF THE CHILDREN.”
The children in question were the internationally famous Dionne quintuplets, the first-ever five identical siblings to survive infancy. Four times a day the girls waddled into their private playground to shovel in a sandbox or wade through baby pools as thousands of onlookers gawked at the spectacle.
Their mere existence created a mania only rivaled three decades later by the arrival of the Beatles in America. When the playground opened to the public in 1936, 5,000 people stampeded the grounds.
“Quint-mania” was big business, bringing in an estimated 3 million visitors in the 1930s. More people visited “Quintland,” as their compound in a small city outside Ontario was called, than Niagara Falls. Their own doctor called them the “eighth wonder of the world.”
“I thank my Almighty God that I have lived to see this day,” a lady from Maryland told a reporter in 1936.
“We drove 590 miles to see this,” an elderly lady added. “But, my gracious! It was worth it!”
Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie belonged to the government of Ontario, who had taken over guardianship in a bid to save them from abuse. But the government went on to exploit them by putting them in a human zoo.
And yet, their time in a government-run private prison was the “happiest, least complicated years of our lives,” the quints would later say — one twisted detail of many revealed in Sarah Miller’s book “The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets” (Schwartz & Wade), out Tuesday.
Even before the quints were born, the Dionne family was far from wealthy. Oliva Dionne supported his family of eight — including his pregnant wife — with a $4-a-day gig as a gravel hauler during the Great Depression.
On May 28, 1934, his wife, Elzire, started having contractions two months early. Before the doctor could arrive, a tiny baby, just 3 pounds, 4 ounces, was born. Her head was the size of an orange, and her whole torso could fit into an adult palm. She was barely breathing.
Then another baby, smaller than the first was born. And then another, and another and another — each tinier than the next. Marie, the last infant born, weighed just over 2 pounds. In total, the five babies weighed 13 pounds, 6 ounces.
“What will I do with all them babies?” Elzire reportedly screamed.
Survival seemed unlikely. Until then, the only other quintuplets born died within 55 days of their birth in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1866. (In 2017, the age of IVF, there were 49 quintuplet births in the United States, according to the CDC.) Not only did the babies look like “scrawny, spider-legged … specks of half humanity” with serious respiratory problems, but the conditions in the farmhouse — no heat, electricity or telephones — were not helping their chances of survival.
Local doctor Allan Roy Dafoe, who was present for the births, recruited nurses to do the backbreaking job of keeping five premies alive — sterilizing the farmhouse, changing diapers, keeping them warm with one rotating hot water bottle and feeding them every two hours with a dropper.
Elzire, still recovering from a traumatic birth, was moved to a separate room. Her family cut a window out of the wall so she could observe her five girls from her bed.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world caught wind of the miraculous fivesome. Reporters streamed into the small town.
Dr. Dafoe, a born showman, stoked the media interest, which actually helped keep the babies alive. Breast milk was shipped in. An enterprising reporter from Chicago tracked down an 1895 incubator that ran on hot water, as donations of diapers, clothes and toys streamed in.
Reporters and newsreel cameramen camped outside the farmhouse for a glimpse of the babies and their parents, ridiculed for being oversexed French peasants who had created a “litter” of humans.
Tourists arrived in droves, clogging the one-way road with their cars. Neighbors set up hot-dog stands. (Even Oliva would eventually set up a stand selling autographs.) A pair of Americans offered to pay thousands for the bed in which the babies were born. One person tried to break into the house. The frenzy was labeled “The Quintuplet Disease.”
‘They didn’t treat us as children…[We were] their servants, slaves. It was not human’
Eventually, an exhibitor at the Chicago World’s Fair convinced Oliva to sign a contract that would put his babies on display in return for full payment of all medical expenses, housing and meals, plus $250 per week (in addition to a stake in tickets sold).
Oliva was desperate and needed the money, but he despaired.
To get out of the contract, he agreed to sign over custody of the five girls to the Red Cross, who promised to protect them from any further exploitation.
The Red Cross also built the girls a safe, sanitary and secure place to live. The public donated everything from the lumber to the baby clothes. Within four months, the babies had their own private compound.
Dafoe designed the hospital as a baby oasis. Every piece of furniture from “the dinner tables to their five cushioned rocking chairs” were scaled to their size, writes Miller.
“We had everything we wanted, everything within the limits of our knowledge and imagination,” the Dionne sisters wrote in their 1965 memoir “We Were Five.”
“In that house of fives, we were treated like princesses. We were the cause and center of all activity.”
Though only across the street from their family farmhouse, the Dionne compound may as well have been in another country.
Elzire and Oliva never felt welcome. Nurses monitored their movements, and they were never allowed alone with their babies. The girls were taught English, even though their parents spoke French.
The separation became official in 1935 when the girls became wards of the Crown to further protect them from exploitation. “Legally speaking, Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Emilie and Marie belonged to the government of Ontario until they turned 18,” writes Miller.
The Red Cross also set up a trust for the babies. Newspaper organizations put thousands into the fund for access to images of them. Dionne dolls were sold. Companies — from Lysol to Karo Corn Syrup — paid to license their images on their packages. (Dafoe’s salary — as well as every hospital employee — was paid for by the quint trust.)
But the Dionnes weren’t the only ones raking it in. Dafoe, who was often referred to as the “sixth quintuplet,” was also often featured in these ad campaigns — and paid handsomely for the honor.
Now that the girls were fully under the guardianship of the government, Dafoe had free range to experiment. His goal was to create an “infant utopia” and a “gold standard of childhood and child care,” Miller writes.
Routine was king. Mornings began at 6:30 a.m. with orange juice and cod liver oil. The nurses, a rotating cast who made up a “composite mother,” according to the Dionne quintuplets, were instructed not to show favoritism or affection.
Discipline, though delivered with a smile, was “absolute.” If the girls developed the habit of putting their hands inside their diapers when they slept, for example, their pajama arms would be tied to the crib bars.
Meanwhile, the “baby show,” as Dafoe called it, intensified with the opening of the private playground.
“They were shown four times a day — before and after their morning nap, and again before and after their afternoon nap. If one little girl was unwell, the nurses secretly displayed another of her sisters twice, ensuring that everyone left believing they had seen five identical babies,” writes Miller.
Sometimes the babies were pushed out into the playground during bad weather or when they were sick.
Their own mother often had to elbow her way through the crowds to see her children. “They belong to them,” Elzire said of the tourists, “not to us.”
Though visitors were told that the children were unaware of and unbothered by the crowds — this was untrue.
As two nurses noted in a complaint: “Daily the children run to the adults exclaiming about the people viewing them. On many, many occasions they were very frightened, hiding themselves and refusing to play.” Nightmares happened regularly.
Perhaps because of the intense environment, no nurse lasted more than three years.
“We could not help weeping,” the quints recalled of the nurses, “because we loved them all.”
By 1943, Oliva filed lawsuits against Dafoe that threatened to uncover his financial stake in the quintuplets’ story. At the same time, Elzire coaxed her girls with smuggled-in candies (treats were banned at the hospital) to disparage the hospital and garner sympathy for the family in interviews with the press. Thanks to their combined efforts, the Dionnes got their girls back.
It wasn’t a sweet reunion. The Dionne family, flush with money from “Quint mania,” had moved into a much larger “dream home” with the funds from the quintuplets’ trust.
‘If one little girl was unwell, the nurses secretly displayed another of her sisters twice, ensuring that everyone left believing they had seen five identical babies’
But the girls, now 9, knew nothing of life outside their compound. Their own brothers and sisters, who had long been segregated from them, were strangers. Oliva separated the girls at the dinner table, and for the first time they didn’t share the same bedroom. This was unthinkable for the five, whose bond was “as deep as thirst or hunger . . . It is a kind of pull, an attraction that obliterates distance or immediate circumstances,” they later wrote.
Elzire gave them grueling chores and then chastised them when they didn’t do the work well enough, using insults and slaps to hammer in her disappointment.
“Did a nurse tell you to do that?” she would say. “If I’d raised you, you’d be normal, like the others.”
“They didn’t treat us as children,” Annette told The New York Times in 2017. “[We were] their servants, slaves. It was not human.”
Though treated as servants in their own home, they were still celebrities outside it. Just going to the movies required police escorts.
Eventually, their father started taking a special interest in the girls, giving them candies and then visiting them in their bedrooms at night.
“He put his finger in my blouse. I was 13,” Annette told journalist Ellie Tesher in the 1999 biography “The Dionnes.” “I froze, unable to speak.” To hide herself from her father’s advances, she started wearing turtlenecks.
Cécile recalled finding Émilie in the basement with her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth. Emilie would not say what was wrong, but when Cécile asked, “Dad?” Émilie’s sobs confirmed the worst.
They finally got away at age 18 when they attended a school in Quebec. Émilie went one step further: She left school against her parents’ wishes and joined a convent. Two years later she died when her untreated epilepsy triggered a lethal seizure at the age of 20.
Despite the tragedy of her death, the loss of Émilie is what finally freed the girls: The quintuplets as a unit no longer existed. Around this time, the sisters received their share in their trust — $183,000 each (equivalent to $1.3 million today).
Inspired by the women who cared for them as children, Yvonne and Cécile went to nursing school. Marie and Annette attended college.
Four became three in 1970 when Marie died of “undetermined” causes at 35 years old (though Miller speculates she committed suicide by overdosing).
Annette and Cécile married, had children and divorced — the pull to one another so great that no man could compete. Yvonne remained unattached.
By 1998, the three remaining quints, “broke and bitter,” sued the government, receiving $4 million Canadian dollars and an acknowledgment that the authorities had mismanaged their trust funds.
After Yvonne died of cancer in 2001, two sisters, now 85 years old, remain.
Annette lives in a condo outside of Montreal. And then there’s Cécile, whose story ends as unfairly as it began.
In 2012, Cécile’s son Bertrand, one of her four children, emptied his mother’s bank account of its quint-trust funds, leaving her to rot in a government-assisted living facility — totally penniless.
“In a cruel echo of her childhood, Cécile Dionne became a ward of the government, with no control over any aspect of her life,” writes Miller.
Even so, Cécile has not given up.
“At my age it’s difficult,” she told the Montreal Gazette in 2016. “But I clench my fists and I keep my head high.”
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