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The Dionne girls were born two months premature. After four months with their family, they were made wards of the King for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets' Guardianship Act, 1935. The government and those around them began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction in Ontario.
The identical quintuplet sisters were (in order of birth):
- Yvonne Édouilda Marie Dionne — died June 23, 2001, age 67, of cancer
- Annette Lillianne Marie Dionne (Allard) — age 79 as of June 2013
- Cécile Marie Émilda Dionne (Langlois) — age 79 as of June 2013
- Émilie Marie Jeanne Dionne — died August 6, 1954, age 20, of accidental suffocation during an epileptic seizure at her convent
- Marie Reine Alma Dionne (Houle) — died February 27, 1970, age 35, of an apparent blood clot of the brain in Montreal
The Dionne family
The family was headed by father Oliva-Edouard (27 Aug 1904 - 15 Nov 1979) and mother Elzire (Legros) Dionne (07 May 1909 – 22 Nov 1986), who married on September 15, 1926. They lived just outside of Corbeil, in a farmhouse in unregistered territory. Oliva, through his father, was a descendant of Zacharie Cloutier (via Louise Cloutier 1632–1699, Charlotte Mignault 1669–1747, and Antoine Dionne 1706–1807). The Dionnes were a farming family with five previous children, Ernest (1926–1995), Rose Marie (1928–1995), Thérèse (b. 1929), Daniel (1932–1995), and Pauline (b. 1933), who was only eleven months older than the quints. A sixth child, Léo (b. 1930), died of pneumonia shortly after birth.
The Dionnes also had three sons after the quintuplets: Oliva Jr. (b. 1936), Victor (1938–2007), and Claude (b. 1946).
Elzire suspected she was carrying twins, but no one was aware that quintuplets were even possible. The quintuplets were born two months premature. In 1938, the doctors had a theory that was later proven correct when genetic tests showed that the girls were indeed identical and were created from one single egg cell. Elzire reported having had cramps in her third month and passing a strange object which may have been a sixth fetus.
Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe is credited with ensuring the successful live birth of the quintuplets. Originally, he diagnosed Elzire with a "fetal abnormality". He delivered the babies with the help of two midwives, Aunt Donalda and Madame Benoit Lebel, who were summoned by Oliva Dionne in the middle of the night.
Émilie and Marie shared an embryonic sac (and were identical twins), Annette and Yvonne shared an embryonic sac, and it is believed that Cécile shared an embryonic sac with the miscarried sixth fetus. Each girl became emotionally the closest to whomever they shared a sac with; Cécile tended to be alone the most. All but Émilie were/are right-handed; all but Marie have/had a counter-clockwise whorl in their hair.
The births were registered in nearby Corbeil. The babies' weights and measurements were not recorded. The quintuplets were immediately wrapped in cotton sheets and old napkins, and laid in the corner of the bed. Dr. Dafoe was certain that none of them could live. Shortly after the births were completed, Elzire went into shock and Dafoe thought that she would die as well, but she recovered in two hours.
The babies were kept in a wicker basket borrowed from the neighbours, covered with heated blankets. They were brought into the kitchen and set by the open door of the stove to keep warm. One by one, they were taken out of the basket and massaged with olive oil. Every two hours for the first twenty-four, they were fed water sweetened with corn syrup. By the second day they were moved to a slightly larger laundry basket, and kept warm with hot-water bottles. They were watched constantly and often had to be roused. They were then fed with "seven-twenty" formula; that is, cow's milk, boiled water, two spoonfuls of corn syrup, and one or two drops of rum for a stimulant.
The news of the unusual birth spread quickly, sparked by Oliva's brother's inquiry to the local newspaper editor about how much he would charge for an announcement of five babies at a single birth. Before long, people all over North America were offering assistance. Individuals sent supplies and well-meant advice (a famous letter from Appalachia recommends tiny doses of burnt rye whiskey to prevent diarrhoea); one hospital sent two incubators.
At the Dafoe Nursery
Oliva, already poor with five children, was approached by fair exhibitors for Chicago's Century of Progress exhibition within days of their birth, who wished to put the Quintuplets on display and show them to the world. The parents were persuaded to agree, and although the contract was revoked before it was ever put into effect, it raised the issue of exploitation of the children. Four months after the birth of the sisters, the Ontario government intervened and found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets. Custody of the five babies was withdrawn from their parents by the Lieutenant Governor-in-Council, on the advice of Premier Mitchell Hepburn, in 1935, originally for a guardianship of two years. Although Oliva Dionne remained part of the guardianship, the children were put under the guidance of Dr. Dafoe and two other guardians. The stated reason for removing the quintuplets from their parents' legal custody was to ensure their survival. The government realized that there was massive public interest in the sisters and proceeded to engender a tourist industry around them. The girls were made wards of the provincial Crown, planned until they reached the age of 18.
Across the road from their birthplace, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers. The girls were moved from the farmhouse to this nursery at the end of September. The compound had an outdoor playground designed to be a public observation area. It was surrounded by a covered arcade that allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens. The facility was funded by a Red Cross fundraiser. It was a nine-room nursery with a staff house nearby. The staff house held the three nurses and the three policemen in charge of guarding them. A housekeeper and two maids lived in the main building with the quintuplets. The buildings were surrounded by a seven-foot barbed-wire fence. The sisters were brought to play there for thirty minutes two or three times a day. They were constantly tested, studied, and examined, with records being taken of everything. The Dionne sisters, while living at the compound, had a somewhat rigid lifestyle. They were not required to participate in chores. They were privately tutored in the same building where they lived. Cared for primarily by nurses, the children had limited exposure to the world outside the boundaries of the compound except for the daily rounds of tourists, who, from the sisters' point of view, were generally heard but not seen. They also had occasional contact with their parents and siblings across the road. Every morning they dressed together in a big bathroom, had doses of orange juice and cod-liver oil, and then went to have their hair curled. Then they said a prayer, a gong was sounded, and they ate breakfast in the dining room. After thirty minutes, they had to clear the table, even if they were not done. Then they went and played in the sunroom for thirty minutes, took a fifteen-minute break, and at nine o'clock had their morning inspection with Dr. Dafoe. Every month they had a different timetable of activities. They bathed every day before dinner and put on their pajamas. Dinner was served at precisely six o'clock. Then they went into the quiet playroom to say their evening prayers. Each girl had a colour and a symbol to mark what was hers. Annette's colour was red with a maple leaf, Cecile's colour was green and her design a turkey, Emilie had white and a tulip, Marie had blue and a teddy bear, and Yvonne had pink and a bluebird.
Approximately 6,000 people per day visited the observation gallery that surrounded the outdoor playground to view the Dionne sisters. Ample parking was provided and almost 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943. Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop and a concession store opposite the nursery and the area acquired the name "Quintland". The souvenirs pictured the five sisters. There were autographs and framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, dolls, and much more at this shop. Oliva Dionne also sold stones from the Dionne farm that were supposed to have some magical power of fertility. Midwives Madame LeGros and Madame LeBelle opened their own souvenir and dining stand. In 1934, the Quintuplets brought in about $1 million, and they attracted in total about $51 million of tourist revenue to Ontario. Quintland became Ontario's biggest tourist attraction of the era, at the time surpassing the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It was only rivaled by Radio City Music Hall, Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg in the United States. Hollywood stars who came to Callander to visit the Quints included Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, and Mae West. Amelia Earhart also visited Callander just six weeks before her ill-fated flight in 1937.
The sisters, and their likenesses and images, along with Dr. Dafoe, were used to publicize commercial products such as Karo corn syrup and Quaker Oats among many of other popular brands. They increased the sales of condensed milk, toothpaste, disinfectant, and many other products through their promotions. The Dionne sisters were becoming very famous.
They starred in two Hollywood feature films, which were essentially fictionalized versions of their story. They played the 'Wyatt Quintuplets' in both films:
- The Country Doctor (1936) – directed by Henry King and starring Jean Hersholt
- Five Of A Kind (1938) - The sequel to the above film.
In both these films, the Dionne Quintuplets didn't so much act as simply appear. Their scenes were filmed at Quintland in Callendar, and largely consisted of them playing and interacting with each other, as one would expect of normal 2 and 4-year-old children. Both films concentrated more on telling the (fictionalized) story of the heroic doctor who delivered the Wyatts and took care of them, than it did on the Wyatt quintuplets themselves.
The Dionne quintuplets also appeared in numerous newsreels, and a short documentary film called Five Times Five in 1939. This film was nominated for an Oscar in 1940. In 1998, three of the surviving sisters, Cécile, Annette and Yvonne, participated in an hour long documentary, "Full Circle: The Untold Story of the Dionne Quintuplets", written and directed by Maya Gallus, and broadcast on the CBC documentary series "Life & Times".
Return to family
In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house within walking distance of Quintland. The yellow brick, 20-room mansion was paid for out of the Quintuplets' fund. The home had many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water. The mansion was nicknamed "The Big House." The building is now a retirement home.
The nursery was eventually converted into an accredited school house where the sisters finished their secondary education along with ten girls from the area that were chosen to attend. In later years, it was used by the Recluses of Corbeil as a convent.
The quintuplets became emotionally closest to their sister Pauline. While the parents claimed that they wished to integrate the quintuplets into the family, the sisters frequently travelled to perform at various functions, still dressed identically. According to the accounts of the surviving sisters, the parents often treated them at home as a five-part unit, and frequently lectured them about the trouble they had caused the family by existing. They were sometimes denied privileges the other children received, and were more strictly disciplined and punished. They also received a heavier share of the housework and farmwork. They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, the expensive food and the series of cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned.
In particular, the father was resentful and suspicious of outsiders as a result of his having lost custody of his children. In 1995, the three surviving sisters asserted that their father had sexually abused them during their teenaged years.
The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952, and had little contact with their parents afterwards. Marie, Annette and Cécile went on to marry and have children — Cécile having twins Bertrand and Bruno. Yvonne and Émilie never married; Émilie devoted her brief life to becoming a nun.
Émilie and Marie both died before reaching middle age, with Émilie dying as a result of a seizure at 20, and Marie dying at 35. Émilie had a series of seizures while she was a postulant at a convent. She had asked not to be left unattended, but the nun who was supposed to be watching her thought she was asleep and went to Mass. Emilie had another seizure, rolled onto her belly and, unable to raise her face from her pillow, accidentally suffocated.
In 1970 Marie was living alone in an apartment and her sisters were worried, because they had not heard from her in several days. Her doctor, whom she was seeing at the time, went to her home and found her in bed. She had been dead for days. Her estranged husband quickly reported to the media that there had been a blood clot in her brain.
Annette and Cécile both eventually divorced; by the 1990s, the three surviving sisters (Annette, Cécile and Yvonne) lived together in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville.
In 1965, author James Brough wrote a book, in cooperation with the four surviving sisters, called We Were Five. Pierre Berton published a biography called The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama in 1977 and narrated a 1978 National Film Board of Canada documentary.
John Nihmey and Stuart Foxman published the fictional Time of Their Lives — The Dionne Tragedy in 1986. Nihmey and Foxman's book was the basis for the 1994 TV miniseries, Million Dollar Babies (1994), produced by CBC Television and starring Roy Dupuis and Céline Bonnier.
In 1995, the three surviving sisters asserted that their father had sexually abused them during their teenaged years. In 1997, the three surviving sisters wrote an open letter to the parents of the McCaughey septuplets, warning against allowing too much publicity for the children. The letter read:
Dear Bobbi and Kenny,
If we emerge momentarily from the privacy we have sought all our adult lives, it is only to send a message to the McCaughey family. We three would like you to know we feel a natural affinity and tenderness for your children. We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.
Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government of Ontario, our place of birth. We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. To this day we receive letters from all over the world. To all those who have expressed their support in light of the abuse we have endured, we say thank you. And to those who would seek to exploit the growing fame of these children, we say beware.
We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose.
Sincerely, Annette, Cecile and Yvonne Dionne
In 1998, the sisters reached a monetary settlement with the Ontario government as compensation for what was perceived to be their exploitation. Yvonne Dionne died in 2001, and as of May 2013, there are two surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile.
Dionne Quints Museum
A sibling of the Quintuplets was the first to open the Dionne home as a museum. The original family homestead was moved around 1960 to a location on Highway 11B (near the present Clarion Resort), and again in 1985 to North Bay and converted into the non-profit Dionne Quintuplets Museum. The museum is located at the intersection of Highway 11 and the Trans Canada Highway. The museum features many artifacts from the quints' early days and their growing years.
In popular culture
References to the quintuplets appear in the Three Stooges' shorts False Alarms (1936), and Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (1939), the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (1936), Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), and Agatha Christie's The Adventure of the Cheap Flat.
During the "contract scene" in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera (1935), Groucho asks Chico if he knows what "duplicates" are. Chico answers, "Sure, those five kids up in Canada." "Well, I wouldn't know about that; I haven't been to Canada in years," Groucho replies.
In the 1939 movie The Women, Crystal Allen wants to make dinner for the married man she is seeing to show him that she is a "home girl". A co-worker quips "why don't you borrow the Quints for the night". In Dumbo (1941), during the song "Watch Out For Mr. Stork", the reference to the sisters is Remember those quintuplets / And the woman in the shoe / Maybe he's got his eye on you /.
They are mentioned in Stephen Sondheim's list song "I'm Still Here" from his 1971 musical Follies. They were also loosely parodied in the South Park episode "Quintuplets 2000"; though the sisters featured on the show are Romanian, their treatment by both of the South Park main characters, their father, and their government mirror the Dionne quintuplets' situations.
Creative photographer Genevieve Thauvette composed a series "The Dionne Quintuplets".
In an episode of the Canadian program Wind at My Back, Grace Bailey is totally enamored by the quints and seeks to break away from her domineering mother to visit Callander, and Quintland to see the girls in person.
In the season 4 episode (5) of the television sitcom M.A.S.H., Hey Doc, Hawkeye Pierce says, "Good thing you didn't go to the local doctors. Their sole medical training comes from watching Jean Hersholt deliver the Dionne quintuplets."
In the original version of the song Hooray for Hollywood (1937) Johnny Mercer referenced the Dionne quintuplets in the second verse.
- Loiseau, Jean-François. "Zacharie Cloutier (~1590 Mortagne-au-Perche - 1677 Château-Richer)". Perche-quebec.com. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- Berton, Pierre (1978). The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393332268.
- Denison, Merrill. Infant Industry: The Quintuplets. Harper's Magazine. (1938). Condensed in Readers Digest 33(200), December 1938, pp. 104-107.
- Reprinted in Clay, Marie M. (1991). Quadruplets and Higher Multiple Births. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0521412234.
- "They were five: The Dionne Quintuplets revisited" Cynthia Wright, Winter 1994
- "The Dionne quintuplets: A Depression-era freak show". CNN. 1997-11-19. Retrieved 2007-06-21.
- Miller, Natalie (November 1, 2003). "Nipissing Manor former home to Dionne quintuplets". Ontario Long Term Care Association. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
- Farnsworth, Clyde H. (September 26, 1995). "Three Dionne Quintuplets Say Father Sexually Abused Them". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
- We Were Five and Family Secrets by Cécile, Yvonne, and Annette Dionne
- Dionne, Annette; Dionne, Cecile; Dionne date=December 1, 1997, Yvonne. "Advice from the Dionne Quintuplets". TIME. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
- Open Letter from the Dionne Quintuplets 1997
- DePalma, Anthony (March 4, 1998). "St. Bruno Journal: The Babies of Quintland Now: Broke, and Bitter". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
- Soucy, Jean Yves; Dionne, Annette; Dionne, Cécile; Dionne, Yvonne (1997). Family Secrets: The Dionne Quintuplets' Autobiography. Berkley Books. ISBN 0-425-15690-7.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Dionne Quintuplets|
- Dionne Quints Digitization Project by North Bay
- Life and Times: Full Circle: The Untold Story of the Dionne Quintuplets (CBC)
- Dionne Quints Museum
- Summary of Dionne quintuplets
- Dionne Quints Ahnentafel 14 generations previous: 1934-1515
- The Dionne Quintuplets
- The Dionne Quintuplets
- A film clip "4 surviving Dionne quints open flower shop in Ottawa (1956)" is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- Annette Dionne at the Internet Movie Database
- Million Dollar Babies at the Internet Movie Database
- Dionne quintuplets newsreel 1953 via YouTube
- Dormant Dionne Virus Flares Blog with several video clips, Part 2, Part 3
- Collection of Dionne quintuplet photos
- Dionne Quints star in 1940 Christmas comic strip series "The Quints' Christmas" by Brandon Walsh: