Yesterday's Magazette

3 – The Government’s Babies

The Government’s Babies



By Madonna Dries Christensen

In the early morning hours of May 28, 1934, in a rural Ontario, Canada farmhouse lit only by kerosene lamps, five identical baby girls entered the world and made medical history. The odds of this multiple birth were one in eight million. The parents, 24-year-old Elzire and 31-year-old Oliva Dionne, already had three boys and two girls.By the time Doctor Allan Dafoe arrived, two infants had been delivered by midwives, Mrs. Ben Labelle and Mrs. Alex Legros (Elzire’s aunt). Born two months premature, each two pound newborn could be held in the palm of the doctor’s hand. The babies were placed in a basket near the cook stove, with one hot water bottle warming ten miniature feet. Village women brought breast milk to help feed the infants. Because Dafoe did not expect them to live, he waited three days to announce their birth. Given world-wide coverage, the first known surviving quintuplets brought a bright spot to an era darkened by a severe economic Depression. Although the babies had lovely names: Emilie, Cecile, Annette, Yvonne, and Marie, they were known as “The Dionne Quints.”What began as a captivating story soon became a nightmare for the parents. Within 48 hours of the announcement, Oliva had signed a contract to exhibit his daughters at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. He reneged on the deal after an outcry arose against him for exploiting the babies. Because the Dionnes were inundated with unscrupulous money-making schemes, the government made the babies wards of the state. At four months, they were moved to a house across the road from the farm, where nurse Louise de Kirline oversaw their care. The parents could visit as often as they wished, but had no say in decisions about the babies.

The siblings were not allowed to visit. Often made to feel unwelcome, the parents’ visits became irregular. Cecile later said she learned to say Doctor before she learned Mother.

There, in what became known as Quintland, the children were Canada’s biggest tourist attraction, more popular than Niagara Falls. Thousands of visitors a day paid to watch through a one-way window as the girls played, slept, ate, learned to crawl, walk, and talk. One of the sisters later said they heard people talking and moving but could not see them. For a fee, tourists could visit the house where the quints were born. Scientists studied the girls’ eating habits, behavior, and growth.

Movie contracts and product endorsements added money to the government’s coffers. Images of the quints were used on calendars, postcards, magazine covers, and advertisements. Among the products endorsed by the babies were Karo syrup, Quaker Oats cereal, Baby Ruth candy, and Carnation milk. Little girls dreamed of owning a set of Dionne dolls, or at least one. Later estimates indicated that the marketing industry surrounding the quints generated about five million dollars for the government. At age 21, the women collected a million dollars from that total.

In the early years, Doctor Dafoe fancied himself a folk hero, promoting “his story” through speaking tours, books and movies; two in 1936 and one in 1938, in which the quints played themselves. Later movies and books painted a cynical view of Doctor Dafoe’s role. In a 1995 interview, Cecile said their childhood had been inhuman, that it was a circus.

The children did not leave their sanctuary until age four, when they rode a train, with private accommodations, to Toronto to visit the king and queen of England. For the first time, journalists were allowed to photograph the dark-eyed, dark-haired lasses. Previously, all photos had been taken by a news syndicate under an exclusive contract. The girls carried with them a petition requesting they be returned to their parents’ care, but in all the confusion the letter went astray and never reached the royal couple.

In 1941, when the seven-year-old girls finally returned to the parental (government built) seven bedroom home, they were strangers to their family. At age 18, they left home after a rift with their parents. Protective of one another, the shy sisters wanted only privacy, but failed marriages and other events that should have been private always made news. Emilie entered the convent; Yvonne and Cecile became nurses, and Annette studied music. Marie, Cecile, and Annette married and, between them, had eleven children, including one set of twin boys. Emilie’s death in 1954, at age 20, from an epileptic seizure, shocked the world, as did Marie’s death in 1970 from a blood clot on the brain. The biggest Dionne surprise came in 1995, when the three remaining quintuplets revealed that all of them had been sexually abused by their father. Another sibling, a sister, declared the story untrue.

In 1998, when Annette, Cecile, and Yvonne were living together on a combined income of $700.00 a month, they sued the government for separating them from their family and for putting them on display. They asked for an independent examination to determine how much money had been taken from their trust fund, and to have it paid back. They rejected the government’s offer of $2000.00 each per month, saying they wanted justice, not charity.

Conditions to the government’s offer were that the government would have no further obligation, and the women would remain silent about the details of the settlement. Later that year, the women accepted a check for 4 million dollars. On the occasion of Yvonne’s death from cancer in 2001, family members refused interviews and the funeral was private. Donations were directed to a help-line service for victims of child abuse.

In 1963, the De Prieto babies, born in Venezuela, were the first male quintuplets to survive. That same year, the four girls and one boy born in South Dakota to Andy and Mary Ann Fischer were the first surviving quintuplets in the United States. Not until 1987 was another set of quintuplets born in Canada.

These earlier multiple births are called spontaneous, distinguishing them from fertility drug pregnancies that commonly produce triplets, quadruplets, even quintuplets. Today, in the United States alone, there are more than 100,000 multiple births per year, with triplets the most common. It takes something more dramatic than even quintuplets to pique attention. In 1997, septuplets were born in Iowa to Bobbi and Ken McCaughey. A year later, octuplets were born in Texas to Ike and Nkem Chukwu (one of the babies later died).

The family names of most multiple birth children are soon forgotten. But the name Dionne, and the beguiling faces of five identical girls wearing different colored hair ribbons, remain a highlight in the annals of medical history.

(Madonna has one Dionne quint doll (Emile) in her vintage doll collection. She’s the author of Swinging Sisters and Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J.Edgar Hoover. Website:


1 Comment »

  1. What a horrible thing for a government to do to a family! Do you know what Annette and Cecile are doing nowadays? I hope they finally have peace in their lives.

    This is a very good example of why government should not interfere with families. I hope we have learned from this example and will never repeat it.

    I remember seeing a movie about the Dionne Quintuplets and had thought how sad everything for them was back then. Their parents didn’t even get a chance to be parents to them. The parents were robbed of their children as well as the children were robbed of their parents.

    From what I hear about the McCaughey Septuplets, everything is working out great for the whole family. McCaughey’s keep up the good work!

    Comment by Michelle Rothwell — April 11, 2008 @ 9:04 am | Reply

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