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The Dionne quintuplets: The exploitation of five girls raised in a ‘baby zoo’

A new book sheds light on the misery they endured after their birth in Canada during the Great Depression

The Dionne quintuplets are shown in 1943, a few weeks before their ninth birthday. (AP)

Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe started spreading the news right after he helped to deliver five identical girls in a farmhouse in Corbeil, Canada, on the morning of May 28, 1934.

First, he ran into the girls’ uncle, informing him that his brother and sister-in-law had just gone from parents of five to parents of 10. Then, the doctor went to the post office the next town over and told everyone inside. After that, he told a store clerk, who said he should tell the local newspaper. But the girls’ uncle had already done that.

The editor of the North Bay Nugget immediately put the amazing news out on the wire service, then sent a reporter and a photographer to the farmhouse.

Within six hours of their birth, the Dionne quintuplets — Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie — were photographed for all the world to see. The dangerously underweight babies were removed from the butcher’s basket keeping them warm and positioned next to their dazed mother, who had barely survived the birth herself, to get the shot.

The exploitation of the Dionne sisters is the subject of a new book, “The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets,” by Sarah Miller, who has previously written about other young women who made headlines, like Lizzie Borden and Anastasia Romanov.

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At first the media attention on the Dionnes seemed like a boon. Journalists from Chicago and Toronto brought with them water-heated incubators that almost certainly saved the girls’ lives. (Though the Dionnes were by no means poor, their farmhouse lacked electricity.) Faraway hospitals shipped in breast milk and the Red Cross provided a round-the-clock nursing team.

Within days, thousands of spectators had gathered outside the house, peeping through the windows and turning the Dionnes’ fields into a parking lot. Reporters milled around in and out of the house.

Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Oliva Dionne, worried about how he would pay for medical care and all the other expenses of five more kids, in the middle of the Great Depression. He went to his priest for guidance on whether he should accept offers to publicly display the quintuplets for money. The priest offered to be his business manager.

Within a week, a deal was signed for tens of thousands of dollars — a fortune in the middle of the Great Depression. Oliva Dionne agreed that if and when his daughters were healthy enough, they would appear at the Chicago World’s Fair for six months.

He regretted signing the deal almost immediately, and tried to get out of it, but the Chicago promoters refused. Meanwhile, the infant girls’ conditions worsened, and the tiny babies began to lose weight. Dr. Dafoe and the nurses sealed off a room in the house for the girls’ care, and wouldn’t let anyone in. Even their parents were allowed only glimpses.

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With the Chicago promoters trying to enforce the deal, the Ontario attorney general’s office proposed a solution to Oliva and his wife, Elzire: Sign over custody of the girls to the Red Cross for two years. The Red Cross was under no obligation to the promoters; plus, they would build a state-of-the-art hospital across the street from the farmhouse just for the girls’ care.

Once the baby girls were moved, it was even harder for Oliva and Elzire to get time with them, as they lived in a sterile space sealed off from the world. And the parents were never allowed to be alone with them.

Months later, for no discernible reason, the premier of Ontario proposed a bill to permanently strip them of custody and make the girls wards of the state. He argued it would protect them from being exploited and would ensure that any money made would be held in a trust for the girls’ benefit. The parents, who were frequently depicted in the media as ignorant peasants, publicly begged for the chance to prove they were good parents, but it didn’t matter. The bill passed. The Dionne quintuplets would be raised primarily by Dr. Dafoe and a constantly rotating team of nurses.

In this 1940 newsreel, the Dionne quintuplets are made to pose around a radio to listen for updates on World War II. (Video: AP Archive)

Bigger than Niagara Falls

Incredibly, the quintuplets’ newly appointed guardians turned around and did exactly what they were supposedly protecting the girls from. First, they built a veritable baby zoo — an outdoor area where the girls would play twice a day, with a long observation hallway curved around it for thousands of daily spectators.

At the end of the observation hallway stood hot dog stands and souvenir shops. One was run by the midwives who helped deliver the girls. Another was run by their father, who rarely saw them. “Kwint Kabins” appeared all over the region for visiting tourists. Ontario, the province where they lived, raised its gasoline tax as waves of visitors motored in. By 1937, “Quintland” was a more popular tourist destination than Niagara Falls, according to Miller.

But that was just the tip of the sales iceberg. There were, of course, dolls, and paid photo shoots for magazines. The Dionne quintuplets also appeared in ads for dozens of products — Heinz ketchup, Quaker oats, Lifesavers candy, Palmolive soap, Lysol, typewriters, bread, ice cream, sanitized mattress covers.

“That was the kind of creepy thing, because there was this association with sanitation and the Dionnes, since they were so isolated. And that medical necessity, allegedly, was what was keeping them from their family,” Miller said.

All the money coming in was put into a trust fund meant for the girls. But the fund was regularly ransacked. It paid for every aspect of the Dionne hospital, right down to the water bill. It paid for the construction of public bathrooms for tourists. And the hotel dinners of visiting psychologists.

The photo shoots often centered on holidays and would be shot months in advance. Boxes of “Christmas presents” and five-tiered birthday cakes were empty on the inside.

“We were obliged to do so many things, so often, that in our head, we didn’t feel that we were able to say, ‘No, not this time, another time,’” Cécile said later.

The windows of the observation hallway were supposedly obscured so the girls couldn’t see all the strangers, but the sisters later said, “Of course we knew we were being watched.” They would ham it up for tourists, just as they had learned to pose for the cameras.

In the nine years they spent in the hospital, they left only a few times, to meet the King and Queen in Toronto, and for a couple promotional tours. Still, they later described those years as “the happiest, least complicated years of our lives.”

“We didn’t know at that time that the whole way of life in which we were raised wasn’t good for us,” Yvonne said later.

The consequences begin

Oliva and Elzire Dionne never stopped advocating to get all of their children living together under one roof. When they finally succeeded in 1943, they also got a new roof — a 19-bedroom, yellow-brick mansion, paid for with the quintuplets’ trust fund of course.

Despite the reunion, it was not a happy home. Years of separation had done its damage. The girls felt guilty for the suffering they had brought the family, and Elzire treated them harshly, sometimes screaming insults and hitting them.

Decades later, three of them also claimed Oliva sexually abused them. The other Dionne children denied this.

The hospital across the street was turned into a private Catholic school for the sisters, with a handful of local girls as classmates. At one point, Annette confided in the school’s chaplain about their father’s abuse, but he did nothing, apparently believing if he confronted the parents they would yank the girls out of school, and that some contact with the outside world was better than none at all.

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As the years passed, interest in the girls began to recede, but they were still forced to dress up in matching outfits for photo shoots in their teen years. And the media continued to pry. The Toronto Star published each girl’s weight when they were 14.

Émilie also began to have seizures. Because of the stigma of the day against epilepsy, the family kept it secret, even as her seizures became more frequent and severe.

Marie, who had been born last and was at first the frailest, surprised everyone by being the first to leave the fold. At 19, she joined a strict order of nuns and moved into a convent. Émilie followed her into a different convent soon afterward.

Only two months later, Émilie died suddenly, probably due to complications from her seizure disorder. She was 20.

Even in their grief, the four surviving sisters were made to pose for press photos next to Émilie’s open casket.

The spell is broken, but the damage is done

In death, Émilie gave her sisters “a sort of release,” as Cécile put it. Public interest in the girls dried up, they moved away from their family and started their own lives in Montreal.

Yvonne and Cécile went to nursing school together, and Marie and Annette roomed together in college. Three of them eventually married, though none of the marriages lasted. Even as adults, the sisters found it difficult to be around anyone but each other.

In February 1970, Marie’s body was found in her bed next to several bottles of medication. She had recently separated from her husband and placed her children in foster care as she struggled with depression. A cause of death could never be determined.

After her death, the sisters became even more private.

If you’re wondering whatever happened to the trust fund that was supposed to make the girls rich, well, by the time they learned of it and gained control, half of it was gone. In the 1990s, Yvonne, Annette and Cécile were struggling to pay their modest bills.

Cécile’s adult son Bertrand Langlois began to investigate and discovered how the account had been plundered. Thus began a public-relations campaign to shame the Canadian government into giving them a portion of state profits they felt they were owed. The sisters spoke to the media for the first time in decades and revealed just how miserable their lives had been.

Eventually, they took a $4 million settlement.

Now 85, two sisters are still living, Cécile and Annette. But the son who helped them win their settlement disappeared with Cécile’s share of the money, so in a terrible irony, she is once again a ward of the state and lives in a state-run nursing home. They rarely speak with the media, and generally only to warn the public that what happened to them must never happen again.

Given how much more is known about child development now, could that even be possible? Miller isn’t sure.

“I don’t think we would necessarily have another baby zoo,” she said. But in the age of Instagram “kidfluencers,” “you could wind up kicking a different snowball down a similar hill.”


A previous version of this article misidentified the premier of Ontario.

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