The Dionne quintuplets born on May 28, 1934 are the first quintuplets known to have survived their infancy. The Dionne girls were born two months premature. All five survived to adulthood.
Within six hours of their birth, the Dionne quintuplets – Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie – were photographed for the entire 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 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.
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 Canada 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.
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.
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.
The photo shoots often centered around 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.
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.
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.
Emilie 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. Emilie followed her into a different convent soon afterward.
Only two months later, Emilie died suddenly, likely due to complications from her seizure disorder. She was 20. The four surviving sisters were made to pose for press photos next to Emilie’s open casket.
In death, Emilie 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 that trust fund that was supposed to make the girls rich, 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.