When Oliva and Elzire Dionne of Corbeil, Ontario were expecting their sixth child they were fairly certain that Elzire was carrying twins.2 They would turn out to be about 40% right. On 28 May 1934, with the help of two midwives and the local doctor Allan Roy Dafoe, Elzire gave birth to five girls: Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie. They were the world’s first surviving quintuplets.
In an unprecedented move the parents were found to be “unfit” and the quints were made special wards of the province under the Dionne Quints Guardianship Act of 1935. The girls were removed from their home and placed in the newly-built Dafoe Hospital and Nursery (AKA Quintland), directly across the street from their parents farmhouse.
In nearly sterile isolation under the custody of Dr Dafoe, the girls were observed, measured, analyzed and recorded in minute detail.3 While the good doctor was busy using the quints as medical test subjects the the provincial government was busy turning them into a tourist attraction. At the height of the Depression as many as 6000 visitors a day came to see “Canada’s greatest natural wonder.” Souvenir stands soon lined the street selling everything from postcards and tinted pictures to fertility stones from the family farm. The girls had been turned into a freak show and anyone even remotely connected to them began to cash in on their popularity. “Money was the monster,” they wrote, “So many around us were unable to resist the temptation.”
The quints became a lucrative promotional machine. Their photos appeared in thousands of magazine articles. Their likeness was licensed for everything from books and postcards to collectable spoons and Madame Alexander dolls. They (along with the good Dr.) endorsed many other products, including Karo, Baby Ruth, Quaker Oats, Palmolive, Colgate, even Fisher Body. They even starred (again, with the Dr.) in several 20th-Century Fox films:
Over the years the quints were portrayed by several official photographers and commercial artists. Andrew Loomis eventually became their official portrait artist, illustrating many early advertising campaigns and eventually their popular yearly calendar. Although as the quints entered their awkward adolescent years he found it increasingly difficult to portray them, he did their portrait (in a progressively more idealized fashion) until they were 21.
After a protracted legal battle the Dionnes’ finally regained custody of the quints and in 1943 the family moved into a new Georgian mansion. Although the circus of Quintland came to an end, the girls didn’t fare any better with their parents. Oliva deeply resented the hardships they had brought on the family. As the sisters said “Who could ever count the times we heard, ‘We were better off before you were born, and we'd be better off without you now?’” Most horribly, according to their later allegations, he sexually abused them as teenagers.
The quints left home at age 18 and cut off all contact with their parents. After Émilie died of epilepsy at age 20 interest in the quints began to wane but they would never lead normal lives. Completely ill-prepared for the real world, the surviving sisters went through failed businesses and financial hardships as well as difficult marriages and divorces and chronic health problems.
It has been estimated that the quints had generated some 500 million CDN in revenue over the years, but of course the girls never received any of it. By the 1990s the three remaining sisters were living on a combined 700 CDN/month pension and petitioned the government for an accounting of their Trust. Under public pressure Premier Mike Harris finally awarded them 4 million CDN for “reparations.” A classic case of too little, too late.
1. The commercial artist Gil Elvgren, working for Brown and Bigelow in the 1940s, would become much better known this sort of calendar:
2. Oliva (1903–1979) and Elzire (1909–1986) were married on 15 Sep 1926. They had a total of 14 children. Ernest (1926–1995), Rose Marie (1928–1995), Thérèse (1929–) Léo (1930), Daniel (1932–1995) and Pauline (1933–). Then the quints: Yvonne Édouilda Marie (1934–23 June 2001), Annette Lillianne Marie (1934–) Cécile Marie Émilda (1934–) Émilie Marie Jeanne (1934–6 Aug 1954) and Marie Reine Alma Dionne (1934–27 Feb 1970). Then Oliva Jr.(1936–), Victor (1938–2007) and Claude (1946–).
3. For a typical example see: Dafoe AR, Dafoe WA. The Physical Welfare Of The Dionne Quintuplets. Can Med Assoc J. 1937 Nov; 37(5): 415–423, which is online at PubMed.
4. The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets. Racine, Wisconsin: Whitman Publishing, 1935. This autographed souvenir book was purchased from the roadside stand operated by Madame Legros and Jane Lebel – the midwives who delivered the quints:
11 Feb 2012 ‧ Illustration