The Dionne Quintuplets – Circus Freaks of the Depression Era
Have you ever wondered what happens to child stars who are a public magnet for years then disappear the next? Me, I’ve always assumed famous children, no matter why they are celebrities have untold wealth and live a life of luxury until the day they die. The Dionne Quintuplets however have proven me quite wrong. These five little girls were conceived in 1934 when there was no such thing as invitro fertilization or fertility drugs. The sisters were born just outside Callander,Ontario, Canada to father Oliva-Edouard and mother Elzire (Legros) Dionne. The Dionnes had five previous children, Ernest, Rose Marie, Thérèse, Daniel, and Pauline, who was only eleven months older than the quints. In total, the farming family consisted of ten children, five of whom were infants. The Dionnes also had three sons after the quintuplets: Oliva Jr., Victor and Claude. The five identical sisters were born from a single egg in 1934. They were abused for the beginning of their lives into their teenage years, both by the Ontario government and, they claim by their father.
The Media Circus
The news of the unusual birth spread quickly. Before long, people all over North America were offering assistance. Individuals sent supplies and well-meant advice and one hospital sent two incubators. Oliva, already poor 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. The parents were persuaded to agree, and although the contract was revoked before it was put into effect, it raised the issue of exploitation of the children. After four months with their family, the girls were made wards of the King for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act, 1935. In the same year the Ontario government had intervened and found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets (although not for their previous children). The government recognized the massive public interest in the sisters and made them into a tourist attraction.
Across the road from their birthplace, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers. 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 girls were beautifully dressed, their hair curled, and they were provided with a plethora of toys. Meanwhile across the street their siblings, unnoticed by tourists and the media, lived in abject poverty.
The quints were constantly tested, studied, and examined with records being taken of everything. What they were examined and tested for beats me. The Dionne sisters, while living at the compound, had a somewhat rigid lifestyle. 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 heard but not seen. They also had occasional contact with their parents and siblings across the road. The quintuplets were allowed to leave the compound only a handful of times. Their parents were allowed to visit but to the girls they were simply two more visitors who had to wear surgical masks to keep from spreading germs. ”We didn’t know each other,” Cecile said. So much for bear hugs and candy kisses.
Approximately 6,000 people per day or, in my opinion the equivalent of a small army. visited the observation gallery that surrounded the outdoor playground. The tourists behaved like brutes towards each other. They yelled, pushed and shoved each other out of the way to observe the children who were a circus attraction. 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. The sisters, their likenesses and images along with Dr. Dafoe, were used to publicize commercial products such as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats, among many other popular brands. They increased the sales of condensed milk, toothpaste, disinfectant, and many other products through their promotions. During the girls’ infancy, nurses would take them to a nursery balcony and show them one at a time to a crowd below, their names written on a card. In the media, the girls’ upbringing was characterized as privileged, with round-the-clock nursing, a swimming pool and playground all their own. But in reality their playground was surrounded with glass that allowed visitors to view them three times a day. A store set up in Quintland generated millions of dollars for the province of Ontario, at times keeping the province from going bankrupt. The Dionne sisters became very famous. Famous, certainly, but not at all wealthy. The girls enjoyed the creature comforts of life and wanted for nothing but all of the profits made from their exhibition went to other people and the government. They never saw a penny.
Show’s Over, Folks
In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters and everything circus ground to a halt. 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. Odd. I would have thought the quintuplets fund would be held in trust and used for the quintuplets. Silly me. The new home had many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water. this was new and unprecedented luxury for the previous five children. The mansion was nicknamed “The Big House.” (Isn’t that an expression for prison? how ironic). 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.The quintuplets became emotionally closest to their sister Pauline. This made sense, considering Pauline was born within the same year as the girls. My, my, those parents were busy. While the Dionnes claimed they wished to integrate the quintuplets into the family, the sisters frequently travelled to perform at various functions, still dressed identically.
According to the 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. Ouch. They didn’t perceive their parents as saviors from Quintland; they their mother was unloving and their father was controlling, even tyrannical. Their parents acted as if “they had been partners in some unspoken misdeed in bringing us into the world [and] we were drenched with a sense of having sinned from the hour of our birth.” The girls later admitted that they all longed to have been born alone rather than as five. They were sometimes denied privileges the other Dionnes received, and were more strictly disciplined and punished. Perhaps life in Quintland was better than they’d realized. “Who could ever count the times we heard, ‘We were better off before you were born, and we’d be better off without you now?'”They also received a heavier share of the housework and farm work and were forced to serve the family dinner. 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, three surviving sisters asserted that their father sexually abused them during their teenage years. That’s a tricky accusation to prove or disprove, for reasons listed later in this blog.
Let’s sort that one out inside their heads, shall we? They grew up for nine years on display like a circus attraction and were viewed by millions of people. They had no concept of a world outside their own bizarre compound where they were subject to various scientific and psychological tests. Whatever. Their parents are merely visiting strangers in medical masks. Then abruptly the girls are removed from the compound they have known as their only home and moved into a new house with the strangers from across the street who now call themselves mother and father. There is very little media attendance or public interest anymore. Suddenly they’re expected to live just like everyone else, after having had their every want and need catered to for almost a decade. Alongside all of those grievous changes they are treated like house-servants and abused by their father. With the exception of Pauline, who knows how the other siblings treated them?
Word to the Wise
The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952, and had little contact with their parents afterwards. Small wonder. Marie, Annette, and Cécile went on to marry and have children however both ultimately divorced. 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. In 1997, the three surviving sisters wrote an open letter to the parents of the McCaughey Septuplets, Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey in Des Monies, Iowa, United States, 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, Cécile and Yvonne Dionne
No reply was received from the McCaugheys’.
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. The three women lived together in a modest house in a Montreal suburb on the equivalent of $525 (United States) a month in pensions. One of the three remaining sisters, Yvonne, died in 2001 from cancer. The three emerged from decades of seclusion and spent months in the early 2000s digging through their pasts in painfully public ways. They asked the Mike Harris government, where they were born on May 28, 1934, to poor French-Catholic parents they never really knew, and to give them a full accounting of their early years, when they were a bigger tourist attraction than Niagara Falls. They wanted to know what happened to around $1 million that disappeared from a trust fund set up for them when they were taken from their parents’ farm home in Corbeil, Ontario, and made wards of the state. They wanted a public inquiry into the millions of dollars their fame brought to Ontario during the Great Depression when three million tourists visited the rural compound where the world’s first surviving quintuplets were put on display three times a day.
The late Yvonne said, ”we want to find the real truth.’‘ While the Ontario government rejected legal responsibility for the plight of the three sisters, it accepted a moral obligation to help. Premier Mike Harris offered them, but not the survivors of a dead sister, a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $1,400 a month, apiece, for life, if they agreed to drop all claims to future compensation. The three extremely shy women went before the cameras they so dislike to denounce the offer as little more than an attempt to silence them. ”We want justice,” Cecile told reporters at a news conference last week, ”not charity.’‘
When the girls entered the “real world”at the age of ten, they discovered for the first time that other children didn’t live the way they did. Ten little girls who lived in the area attended the former nursery to receive a private education. They were very happy, a fact that baffled the girls, whose lives had gone from one of vaudeville entertainment to that of servant. As the quints aged into adulthood they had no idea how to live, behave, or set goals for themselves. They couldn’t tell the difference in a nickel and a quarter. Cecile married the first man who took her for a cup of coffee. She had five children in five years and then left him. Annette and Marie also married and raised families, and their marriages failed. By the time they turned 60, they were under such emotional and financial stress that they wrote a book with a professional author. Revelations of sexual abuse by their father briefly increased sales (sick society) but the advance of about $37,000 did not last long. One wonders if Oliva Dionne did indeed sexually abuse his daughters, since this “admission” from the girls helped to make the book a success. At any rate, the remaining sisters, Annette and Cecile, continue their quest for retribution from the Ontario government. I hope they get it. Not surprisingly, Hollywood exploited their fame and four movies were made about them in the 1930s, all with happy endings. If only fiction was stranger than truth.
Thursday May 28, 2009 marked the 75th anniversary of the birth of the world-famous Dionne quintuplets. Thursday also marked National Multiple Births Awareness Day. The day was established in 2005 by the organization Multiple Births Canada to coincide with the Dionne quints’ birthdate.
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