The Miraculous Yet Woeful Tale of the Dionne Quintuplets

Not that long ago, in a small rural hamlet in northeastern Ontario, there was a world famous theme park that drew in as many as 6000 visitors a day. At its peak, it was as popular as Niagara Falls and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in spin-off revenue. The main attraction wasn’t a carnival ride, a petting zoo or the world’s largest stuffed moose. No, it was an outdoor play area surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped observatory where visitors could gawk at five little French Canadian girls in identical outfits.

On May 28, 1934, the first recorded quintuplets to survive infancy were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne on a farm outside of Corbeil, Ontario, southeast of North Bay. Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie arrived two months premature, and collectively weighed less than 14 pounds. Midwives Mmes. Legros and Lebel delivered the first two, then called for local doctor Allan Dafoe when they realized more were on the way. The girls weren’t given much chance to survive, but Dafoe and the midwives kept them alive by bathing them in olive oil, feeding them rum and corn syrup and placing them blanket-wrapped in wicker baskets located next to an open door of the wood stove to keep warm. Neighbouring women brought breast milk, and once news spread further afield, the Canadian Red Cross sent nurses and an incubator.

The Dionnes were poor and already had five children, so a mere three days after the quints’ birth their cash-strapped father Oliva signed a contract to put them on display at the Chicago World’s Fair. In part because the Dionne parents were regarded as country bumpkins, and in part to protect an asset of “special interest to the people of Canada,” the Ontario government concocted the Dionne Quintuplets Guardianship Act to make the five girls wards of the state and keep them out of exploitative Yankee clutches.

The Act made “Papa Dafoe” responsible for the quints’ parenting, along with a series of attendant nurses who didn’t stay long and were discouraged from physical contact so that the girls wouldn’t become too attached. It also precipitated construction of a sprawling complex to house and showcase the girls across the street from their family’s home, which was officially called the Dafoe Hospital and Play House, but commonly known as “Quintland.” Because of Dafoe’s fear of germs and the government’s fear of kidnapping, the quintuplets rarely left the compound. Their insular world was encircled by a chain-link, barbed wire fence, with uniformed policemen standing guard at the gate.

Inside the fence, a nursery was flanked by staff housing and a guard post, but the showpiece was the aforementioned play area, with corresponding clocks to helpfully indicate the next viewing — “weather permitting,” of course. Although the play area was surrounded by a crude one-way screen so visitors could ogle without being seen, the girls saw shadows and heard murmuring and knew they were on display. ”We were hearing the noise,” Cécile told The New York Times decades later. ”We knew they were there.” After exiting the observation gallery, visitors were encouraged to take from a trough full of “fertility stones” gathered daily by local highway crews. Some of the more famous names to come for a look were Clark Gable, Bette Davis and King George VI.

A strict itinerary determined their activities from dawn to dusk. The quintuplets’ rigid life consisted of prayer, daily check-ups by Dr. Dafoe, homeschooling and scheduled playground time. Visits with their biological parents and siblings were awkward and confusing — the girls weren’t clear what distinguished them from the other visitors. The first time they saw their family was through a window pane, and their own mother was prevented from holding them as babies because of Dafoe’s obsession with maintaining a germ-free environment.

Still, their father Oliva rightly determined that he should profit from the presence of a major tourist attraction directly across the street. On the side of a parking lot that could accommodate 1000 cars, he built two gift stands with his name in giant all caps. He sold his own autograph, along with all manner of quints trinkets: pictures, dolls, spoons, china, plaques, postcards, books, and pamphlets — plus ice cream and sandwiches for those feeling peckish.

Naturally, the whole town wanted in on the action. Motels, mini-golf courses and snack bars cropped up to cash in on Corbeil’s overnight fame. Oliva’s brother Léon named the five pumps at his gas station after his world-renowned nieces. Concession stands associated with the midwives offered views of the baskets the girls had been placed in at birth, in addition to food and souvenirs. Lebel was available to answer any questions and provide free autographs at a pavilion that offered “typical French Canadian products” by “artists actually at work” — as opposed, presumably, to those artists who just pretend to work.

The big winners, though, were Dr. Dafoe and the province of Ontario. As their official guardian, Dafoe drew a salary for his oversight and divested himself of the responsibilities of his medical practice to focus on commercial endorsements and speaking engagements as far away as New York. The quiet, previously unremarkable country doctor became an overnight child-rearing authority, and was accordingly feted and awarded the Order of the British Empire.

Although some money from the girls’ multiple endorsements was set aside for them in a trust fund, most of it went to the upkeep of Quintland, which was a major economic driver for the region and, indeed, the province. While viewings at Quintland and the fertility stones were free, the girls’ five cherubic faces were used to hawk everything from toothpaste to soap, dessert, oats, corn syrup, baby food and even cars. They also appeared in two Hollywood films based on their lives — though Dafoe’s character was the hero and took most of the screen time. Their exclusive photo rights were sold to the highest bidder, which meant their own father was reprimanded when he tried to take a picture of them through a window. Their miraculous tale and seemingly storybook existence was particularly uplifting for people around the world suffering under the bleakness of the Depression. As a result, they were anointed with almost-royal status.

Amidst the euphoria, and with so much lucre filling provincial coffers, it was easy to forget that the girls had originally been taken from their parents to protect them from exploitation. So the initial two-year span of the Guardianship Act was extended to 18 years. You know, for the girls’ sake.

But Oliva and Elzire had always objected to the arrangement, and finally, coinciding with Dafoe’s death in 1943, the province conceded. The quints’ adorableness had declined as they aged, and World War II had bumped them from the headlines — though they were enlisted to sing patriotic songs about Mother England to help rally the war effort. After hosting almost 3,000,000 visitors over nine years, Quintland was shuttered, and the girls moved into a mansion built across the street with trust fund money. They were reunited with their biological family, but given that they’d been raised by Dafoe and a revolving door of nurses, their parents and siblings were essentially strangers.

On top of this alienation, they experienced resentment from their “new” family. With their newfound exposure to the outside world, the quintuplets became acutely aware how abnormal their upbringing had been. Their parents continued to see them as a cash cow, maintaining their regimen of staged performances in identical outfits. Just as had been the case in the barbed-wire enclosure, the quintuplets were treated as a five-part unit to be kept separate from everyone else — rather than attend the local public school, they were educated privately in an old Quintland building with a small group of handpicked neighbours.

At age 18, they left home to attend college in Nicolet, Quebec, and severed ties with the rest of their family almost immediately. Two years later, Emilie died of an epileptic seizure in a convent where she was training to be a nun. The four surviving sisters published a harsh memoir in 1965 that chronicled childhoods scarred by adult greed and exploitation, and absent of love. Perhaps in some part due to their lack of normal social interaction growing up, Annette, Cécile and Marie all married the first men who showed interest in them. All three marriages ended in divorce. Marie died in 1970 of a blood clot, and the three remaining sisters lived together in Montreal. They published another memoir in 1997 that added accusations of sexual abuse by their father to the litany of abuses suffered in their bizarre childhood. While they had received a portion of the much-depleted trust fund when they turned 21, in 1998 the Ontario government acknowledged that they were owed considerably more and agreed to a $4 million settlement for the three surviving sisters. Premier Mike Harris personally delivered coffee cake as part of the agreement. Yvonne subsequently died of cancer in 2001, and now Annette and Cécile are the last remaining of the five.

These days, the mansion they lived in after Quintland’s closure is a retirement home, and the original Dionne homestead where the girls were born has been maintained as a museum. The structure itself has been moved from its original plot into North Bay proper, and sits forlornly out-of-place along the Trans-Canada highway, surrounded by car dealerships, doughnut shops and strip malls. It houses artifacts from the sisters’ childhood and youth “with the co-operation of Annette and Cécile Dionne,” the museum’s website hastens to point out — to protect from accusations of continued exploitation, no doubt.

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Nicholas Klassen is a Vancouver-based writer, digital strategist and former senior editor at Adbusters magazine.