Back in the 1930s, in a small village in Canada, something extraordinary happened. A woman went into labor and doubled her already large family of 5.
Having already had so many children, Elzire Dionne knew something was different about this pregnancy. She told her husband Oliva Edouard Dionne that they should prepare for twins. She was wrong. She went into labor 2 months before her due date, and shocked doctors and the 2 midwives in the room when she birthed 5 identical baby girls. Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie.
The Dionne Quintuplets became a sensation immediately. People from around the world wrote in their support, advice, and even sent donations. A hospital even donated two incubators to the small town clinic where the babies were being treated. After a circus from Chicago offered to buy the little girls from the poor parents the Ontario government stepped in to "protect" the babies from exploitation. That's where the tragic tale of the Dionne quintuplets really begins, and is likely how you know them.
Oliva and Elzire Dionne were already struggling to make ends meet when the surprise births upended their lives. The government thought this would make the parents susceptible to the offers of circuses, freak shows and other entities looking to exploit the small children. After the parents signed a contract to sell their babies to the Century of Progress exhibition out of Chicago, the government intervened. Revoking the contract and declaring the parents unfit, although ruling they were only unfit to raise the quintuplets, not the 5 existing children.
The province took the girls, and although Olvia remained a part of the overall guardianship, the final power rested with the doctor who birthed the girls, Dr. Allan Dafoe.
A nursery was developed specifically for the quintuplets, at the time the world's first known set, and was funded by the Red Cross. It didn't take long however for the government to realize why circuses wanted the girls in the first place.
An observation area was constructed outside the girl's enclosed playground, much like something we'd see today in a zoo. Separated by one-way screens, the 5 sisters played, laughed and learned in front of thousands of visitors they never knew were there.
Life In A Fishbowl
As they girl's aged the interest in the quintuplets spread. At its peak the nursery was seeing over 6,000 visitors every day. It became the single largest tourist attraction in the country, and was rivaled only by Gettysburg, Mount Vernon and the Radio City Music Hall for most visited North American sites.
The girls' routine was highly regimented, with every activity taking place at a specific time, for a specific duration. Meals were served precisely at 6, play time was never more than 30 minutes and at 9 a.m. they had a daily inspection by Dr. Dafoe.
Being able to meet the girls became an elite status symbol. They were taken to meet Queen Elizabeth in 1939, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis and other stars all had the privilege.
It's estimated the quintuplets provided about $51 million to the government in the form of tourist revenue, but only some of that money went to the family of the girls, and none was set aside for them.
On The Screen
No celebrity has even been able to escape the clutches of the advertising industry, and the quintuplets were no exception. While barely out of diapers they were being used to sell corn syrup, Quaker Oats, toothpaste, detergent and pretty much everything in between.
They made the short leap to Hollywood shortly after, starring in movies about their life. The Country Doctor and Five of a Kind told the story of the "Wyatt quintuplets" and centered around the doctor who raised them.
But they didn't stay with him for ever...
In 1943 the Dionne family won back custody of the little girls, but it wasn't a blissful reunion. In later interviews the sisters talked about the abuse they suffered at the hands of a jaded Olivia and indifferent Elzire. Constantly told they were a burden on the family, the 5 girls were kept separate from their 5 other siblings, given harder chores and punished more severely than the other children.
They said they didn't learn that their father had actually earned money from their exploitation until years after they moved out.
Life as Adults
At 18 they moved away from home, and apparently cut off contact with their parents. They married, had children of their own and lived their life away from the constant scrutiny they had grown accustomed to.
Their life wasn't all happily ever after though. Emilie died at 20, the result of suffocating after a seizure, Marie died of a brain bleed in 1970.
Several books and documentaries were produced about the horrific treatment the girls received, and in 1997 the McCaughey septuplets were born in Iowa. Feeling an affinity with the 7 babies, the 3 surviving quintuplets wrote an open letter to the parents.
"Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government. We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day. We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered," they said in the joint statement.
In 1998 the sisters successful sued the Ontario government for $2.8 million, but Yvonne died in 2001.
The two surviving sisters rarely give interviews, but have just celebrated their 83 birthday. They quietly live their lives like any other grandparents, but will forever share their place in history as a tragic abuse of circumstance.