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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 Dionne Quintuplets 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 85 as of February 2020
- Cécile Marie Émilda Dionne (Langlois) — age 85 as of February 2020
- 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
Émilie and Marie shared an embryonic sac (and were mirror twins), Annette and Yvonne shared an embryonic sac, and it is believed that Cécile shared an embryonic sac with the miscarried sixth fetus. Interestingly, each girl became emotionally the closest to with whomever they shared a sac; 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.
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 a pillow, accidentally suffocated.
Marie was living alone in an apartment and her sisters were worried, because they had not heard from her in several days. Her doctor, who 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 to save face for her family and daughters.
The Dionne family
The family, headed by father Oliva (1903–1979) and mother Elzire Dionne (1909–1986), 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 named 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, son 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 proved 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 the 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.
The births were registered in nearby Corbeil. Their weight 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 none of the babies could live. Shortly after the births were completed, Elzire went into shock and Dafoe thought she would die as well, but she recovered in two hours.
The babies were kept in an ordinary wicker basket borrowed from the neighbors, 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
Four months after the birth of the sisters, the Ontario government intervened and, in an unprecedented fashion, found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets, and custody of the five babies was withdrawn from their parents by the Ontario government of Mitchell Hepburn in 1935, originally for a guardianship of two years. Although Oliva Dionne remained part of the guardianship, they 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 into healthy toddlers. The government realized the massive 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 being tested, studied, and examined with tedious records 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. They said a prayer before breakfast, 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, while 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 an 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 for $0.50 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, 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 four Hollywood films:
- The Country Doctor (1936) – fictionalized version directed by Henry King and starring Jean Hersholt
- Reunion (1936)
- Quintupland (1938)
- Five Times Five (1939)
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. Years after, it was used by the Recluses of Corbeil as a convent.
The quintuplets became emotionally closest to their sister, Pauline. While the parents claimed they wished to integrate the quintuplets into the family, the sisters frequently travelled to perform at various functions, still all dressed the same. 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 house- and farmwork. They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, expensive food and cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned.
In particular, the father was resentful and suspicious of outsiders for having lost custody of his children.
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.
The Quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old and had little contact with their parents thereafter. Émilie and Marie both died before reaching middle age. Marie had married Florian Houle before her death from a blood clot. She, along with Annette and Cécile went on to marry and have children — Cécile having twins Bertrand and Bruno — but both eventually divorced.
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 teen-aged 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.
In 1998, the sisters, living together in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, reached a monetary settlement with the Ontario government as compensation for what was perceived to be their exploitation. Since Yvonne Dionne died in 2001, as of June 2011, there are two surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile.
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 replies, "Sure, those five kids up in Canada."
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 "homebody". 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 listed in Stephen Sondheim's 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.
- We Were Five and Family Secrets by Cécile, Yvonne, and Annette Dionne
- Jean-François Loiseau. "Perche-quebec.com". Perche-quebec.com. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- All the information in this section is taken from the first two chapters of Pierre Berton's The Dionne Years, A Thirties Melodrama (W.W. Norton, 1978).
- Reprinted in Quadruplets and Higher Multiple Births by Marie M. Clay (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 6.
- "They were five: The Dionne Quintuplets revisited" Cynthia Wright, Winter 1994
- "The Dionne Quintuplets, 2007". Neonatology.org. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- "The Dionne quintuplets: A Depression-era freak show". CNN Interactive. CNN. 1997-11-19. Retrieved 2007-06-21.
- Nipissing Manor former home to Dionne quintuplets November 1, 2003
- Three Dionne Quintuplets Say Father Sexually Abused Them Clyde H. Farnsworth, September 26, 1995
- Advice from the Dionne Quintuplets December 1, 1997
- Open Letter from the Dionne Quintuplets 1997
- Dionnes Get Justice March 16, 1998
- St. Bruno Journal: The Babies of Quintland Now: Broke, and Bitter The New York Times, March 4, 1998
- Family Secrets: The Dionne Quintuplets' Autobiography (1997); ISBN 0425156907
- 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
- Annette Dionne on IMDb
- Million Dollar Babies on 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: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7