Thursday, May 28, 2009

a reality show before television

In a stunning display of insensitivity and greed, the government of the day declared the parents of the Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie, and Yvonne unfit to care for them and they were made wards of the crown. The official reason was to "ensure their survival". The girls, who were born 75 years ago today made medical history as the first identical quintuplets to survive infancy. They are also the only set of five identical females ever recorded. They were born in a very small farmhouse to Elzire and Oliva Dionne 2 months prematurely. The five girls were so small they all fit into a wicker laundry basket and were kept warmed by the open door of the kitchen stove and hot water bottles. They also were given a special formula of cow's milk, boiled water, two spoonfuls of corn syrup, and one or two drops of rum for stimulant.

By the time they had survived four months, they government took the girls from their poor family (and their father, who had allegedly already considered exhibiting them for money) and guardianship of the girls was given to Dr Dafoe (who attended their birth). A specially designed hospital across the street from the family farm was built where they spent the next nine years of their lives, seeing nothing of the outside world and little of their parents who were made to feel unwelcome. They were tested and studied and examined, with meticulous records kept of everything. Once the government realized this could be a tourist attraction where they could make money there was no stopping the number of souvenirs, endorsements, and apparently tourists. More people came to visit what became known as 'Quintland' than visited Niagara Falls. The girls were put on display for 30 minutes two or three times a day as they were brought to a special 'play area' where tourists could watch them through a one way screen. Even in the Depression, 6,000 tourists a day made their way to this little Northern Ontario town. Souvenirs with their identical likeness (they were always dressed the same, why would anyone want to see identical quintuplets not dressed identically?) included everything from postcards, calendars, dolls, spoons, plates, cups, plaques, to special chocolate bars. Anything that could have their picture imprinted on it was and sales of Quaker Oats, condensed milk, toothpaste, corn syrup, soared as people bought into the cuteness factor and aided the economy and the exploitation.

A whole new Quint industry sprang up and provided employment for thousands. The Quints helped millions of people feel happy during the depression and forget the hunger and unemployment for a moment. - from the website of the Dionne Quints Museum North Bay District Chamber of Commerce

All was not rosy when they were eventually returned to their family. The girls felt alienated from their five older siblings and their father continued to use them as a source of income.

Emilie died at age 20 of an epileptic seizure, Marie died at age 35 of a blood clot, and Yvonne died in 2001 at age 67 of cancer. The two remaining sisters, Annette and Cecile live in Montreal. The girls all left home when they turned 18 and had little contact with their parents after that.

"We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children," Annette, Cecile and Yvonne Dionne wrote in an open letter published in Time magazine (1997) to the McCaughey's after the birth of their septuplets. "Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products."

Jon and Kate take note.

Happy 75th birthday to Annette and Cecile.

See here for more Archival pictures
For more on the Quints story including video footage see here


  1. The mind boggles.

    Had they been born today they would definitely had been on TV.

  2. That's a very sad story. I'd like to think that even educated people were backwards then, but I wonder if we know that much better now. I really wonder. We won't make that mistake, but which other one will we make instead?

  3. It would be the big businesses who wanted to make money from multiple birth today. Big businesses connected with babies/children - nappy, formula, skin products whatever, they would pay a lot to use photographs of the babies. Or the tabloid newspapers. I expect yours are as bad as the UK ones!

    In today's money orientated society (or greed, as it should be known!) any chance of making money from something like that would not be passed by.

    I don't think we have changed one bit.

    Will we ever?

  4. excellent message I think - all of these people showing their children like trained seals. the same with the couple that have like 18 children.

    stop the insanity

  5. I find the hwole giant family as reality show concept appalling. And I am equally appalled by the sort of fertility treatment that produces enormous brrods. Of course multiples occur naturally (presumably that was the case with the Dinonne quints?) and twins are typically healthy enogh, but the implanting of a big batch of fertizled eggs is just wrong. Capitalizing on those births is even more wrong.

  6. I remember seeing a PBS(?) special about the Dionne quintuplets a few years ago. What an awful life for them. Makes you wonder if all the millions made from 'Jon and Kate' will be enough to pay for their children's therapy when they're adults.

  7. That's an amazing story. The poor kids.

  8. That IS an amazing story. Very different from today, when it seems everyone is having multiple births!
    Sad for the ones that died young.

  9. Snap Violetsky. I made mention of the quints today too, pointing out that people like Jon and Kate and everyone who gleefully watches their family melt down have learned nothing from this sad story and all the other "freak show" stories that came before them. A very nice tribute!

  10. Jazz: television might have been better for them.

    Irene: it is a sad story, and the remaining sisters sued the province and in 1998 were paid 4 million compensation for the nine years of 'captivity'

    Gilly: the current multiples family reality show - Jon & Kate Gosselin with twins and sextuplets - are in a train wreck with no brakes as they (read Kate) likely won't want to give up the thens of thousands of dollars per episode even at the expense of their marriage. Kate insisists that her kids "like' having the cameras around.

  11. That was very interesting and sad that children should have had to endure that.

  12. Char: I guess once tempted with so much money it is hard for them to see past it. And now that family is moving into a new generation...

    Citizen: yes, the Dionne Quintuplets were all natural (single egg). Mme Dionne had no idea.

    Susan: first, Jon and Kate need therapy and counselling not an extended deal from the network. I don't like Kate, but I did feel for her on last week's show and was not surprised it all blew up in her face.

    Frogdancer: it is hard to imagine how popular they really were.

    Maggie May: none of the sisters had a very happy life, and I think only one had any children.

    XUP: thanks, and yes, I saw that - and you'll know by now that I watch Jon & Kate, though not gleefully to see the meltdown. I felt bad for Kate (for the first time) but I don't think much will change on her part, which shows how little has been learned.

  13. Berni: thank goodness it doesn't happen qwite like that anymore - the kids aren't so much a 'curiosity' as 'entertainment'

  14. How sad to have lost so much of their childhood. Glad that they sued -at least the ones still alive can enjoy their later years.

  15. Jeannette: yes, it was sad to hear that they were living in poverty for many years after providing so much income for the provincial and local business coffers.

  16. Well, like I always say: People are weird.

  17. Horrible to think how they were treated.

  18. I've read their story before, but I never really thought of the Jon and Kate thing - I mean I never really liked them, but it's just really messed up.

    Considering the fact that the girls survived for four months having been born 2 months premature, I don't see where the government could take them away.


  19. I meant that I never liked Jon and Kate, not the Dionne quints.

  20. I always found the Dionne story to be tragic and exploitive. Thanks for remembering them.

  21. Ooh, heavens, yes. You've taken me back to the period when I was reading lots about the Dionne quints...and somehow, now, in the intervening years, I'd forgotten about them. Thanks for the reminder!

    It all makes me want to slap Kate Gosselin more than usual.

  22. So very sad indeed...

    If you enjoy reading fiction "Feather Crowns" by Bobbie Ann Mason was a great book about a family with a multiple birth about the same time as the Dionnes...I found it very touching...


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