Before invitro fertilization, multiple births were wildly uncommon. Twins and triplets were rare, so when Elzire Dionne gave birth to five babies, Annette, Cecile, Yvonne, Emilie, and Marie, in 1938, it was national news. Unfortunately, it became a national spectacle when the girls became government property.
1934- The Beginning
Elzire Dionne was just 25 years old when she gave birth to her quintuplets in Ontario, Canada. The young mother believed she was pregnant with twins because of her size. No one knew quintuplets were possible, so the birth of her daughters was heralded as something of a miracle.
The girls were born two months premature, and later genetic testing proved all the girls were identical, stemming from the same egg. Elzire reported having cramps during her third month of pregnancy and passing a "strange object", which many believe to have been a sixth baby.
Being the first set of quintuplets to live longer than a few days, taking care of the babies was something of a mystery. They were all underweight, their total combined weight was just over 13lbs, and were kept in a wicker basket, covered with heated blankets. They were set up in the kitchen in front of the stove to keep them warm. Every two hours, they were massaged with olive oil and fed a mixture of water and corn syrup.
News of the Dionne quintuplets spread quickly, with many wondering how dad, Oliva, was going to support five new babies. People from all over North America began sending supplies to the new family, who was becoming an international phenomenon.
Just days after the birth, Elzire and Oliva were approached by exhibitor's for Chicago's Century of Progress exhibition, wanting to put the girls on display. The parents agreed, but the contract was revoked before it was ever put into effect, citing issues of child exploitation.
If only those same issues were applied to the Canadian government.
1935-1943 Government Intervention and Public Attraction
Elzire and Oliva were found to be unfit parents to their quintuplets, but not to their other eight children born prior. Custody of the babies was withdrawn from their parents by the Ontario government. The guardianship was initially intended to last for two years, with the girls put in the care of Dr. Allan Dafoe, who delivered them. Oliva Dionne was also involved in the guardianship. According to the government, the reason for taking away custody was "to ensure their survival."
After realizing there was massive public interest in the Dionne quintuplets, the girls were made wards of the provincial Crown until they turned 18.
Across from their birthplace, a hospital and nursery was built for the quintuplets, where they lived with their new caregivers. They lived in the farmhouse at "Quintland" for nine years, where people could come and observe the girls. Through the use of two-way mirrors, over three million people watched as the young girls ate, played, and did other things that normal kids do. They were brought outside three times a day for 30 minutes, where there was a seven-foot barbed wire fence surrounding the area.
The quints lived across the street from their parents and siblings, and were occasionally allowed to see them, but their main job was to be studied, tested, and examined. They had a morning routine, which ended with an inspection by Dr. Dafoe at nine in the morning.
Approximately 6,000 people visited the quints each day. Souvenirs like autographs, photographs, spoons, cups, plates, candy, postcards, and dolls were available. Oliva Dionne also sold stones from the family farm, which were alleged to have the magical power of fertility. In their first year of "attraction", the quintuplets brought in over $1 million, and generated almost $51 million in tourist revenue to the Ontario Government. The only attractions in North America who saw more visitors were Radio City Music Hall, Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg. Celebrities like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Mae West, and Amelia Earhart all visited Quintland.
But in 1943, things changed.
1943 - Back Home
By 1943, Oliva and Elzire regained custody of their quintuplets, who moved back home with them and their eight other children. The family had built a 19-room mansion using money the girls had earned as tourist attractions.
However, despite claims of attempting to integrate the quintuplets back into the family, Oliva and Elzire reportedly treated them poorly upon their return. Constantly treating them as a single, five-part unit, Oliva would lecture them about how much trouble they caused the family. The girls were often left out of family activities and denied privileges the other siblings received. They were also punished more harshly. The girls were completely unaware that the lavish lifestyle the family was living, the food, the cars, the clothing, the mansion, was all paid for through money they themselves had earned.
1952 - Coming of Age
In 1952, the Dionne quintuplets turned 18. They all left the family and never looked back.
1954 - Emilie's Death
Emilie Dionne had devoted her adult life to becoming a nun. While living at a convent, Emilie suffered a seizure and had asked not to be left alone. Emilie suffered another seizure, but the nun who was supposed to be watching her figured she was just sleeping and went to mass. Emilie seized again, rolling onto her stomach, and her face was smothered in her pillow. Unable to lift her head, Emilie accidentally suffocated. She was just 20 years old.
A year later, Marie Dionne would open a flower shop in Montreal, Canada, named after her late sister, Emilie.
1970 - Marie's Death
Marie was living alone in 1970, and after not hearing from their sister for a few days, the Dionne sisters called authorities to check on her. Marie's doctor found her in her bed, having been dead for days. Her estranged husband told the media she had died of a blood clot in her brain. Marie left behind two daughters.
1995 - Accusations Against Dad
In 1995, the surviving quintuplets alleged that their father had sexually abused them all as teenagers. They claim he would take them all on car rides and "touch them in sexual ways." When the girls told their school chaplain about the abuse, they were told "to continue to love our parents and wear a thick coat when we went for car rides."
Therese Callahan, an older sister of the quintuplets, denies the abuse happened.
"We assert that we had good parents, and that to our knowledge our father was certainly not a sexual abuser," said Callahan in a statement to the newspaper The North Bay Nugget. "That's all I want to say right now because it hurts too much."
After all they went through, it wasn't until 1998 that the government apologized to the sisters.
1998 - Government Apology
The Dionne quintuplets spent years negotiating with the government, looking for retribution for the way they were treated. In 1998, the Ontario government apologized for exploiting the now poverty-stricken quintuplets. They were awarded a $4 million lump-sum payment. Previously, the sisters had refused an offer of $2,000 per month each for the rest of their lives. This seemed like a small amount to many, considering they quintuplets brought in more than $500 million to the province.
2001 - Yvonne's Death
Yvonne Dionne lost her battle with cancer in 2001 at 67 years old. Cecile called Yvonne the "most reserved and perhaps individual of us." She was a librarian, and artist, and lobbied for children's rights.
Where Are They Now
The surviving two Dionne quintuplets, Cecile and Annette, are now 83 years old and are working to prevent child abuse in Canada. In a rare interview, the sisters spoke about their birthday wishes.
"In our case, there were huge gaps...there was abuse,"� Annette told The Canadian Press. "So for our birthday, we wish that Canada would take better care of their children."�
"That they take the time,"� C�cile chimed in. "That we can help them with their problems, that we listen to them."
The sisters spend most of their time together in Montreal, and are just trying to live with a sense of normalcy.
"As for our life "� we live day to day "� we try to take good care of ourselves and do what's necessary to accomplish all that we want," Annette said.