The Dionne quintuplets fascinated the public from the moment they were born. These identical sisters were such curiosities that they became victims of exploitation—and their story is unbelievably harrowing.
When 24-year-old Elzire Dionne went into premature labor, she assumed she was having twins—but she was so wrong. On May 28, 1934, with the help of two midwives, Dr Allan Roy Dafoe delivered five identical babies: Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie. But few know that there were actually supposed to be six infants.
In her third month of pregnancy, Elzire experienced severe cramping and actually passed a mysterious object that may have been a sixth fetus. Without a doubt, having a sixth baby would have posed an even higher risk for everyone involved, especially considering that the Dionne sisters were the very first quintuplets to survive their infancy.
Together, the babies' total birth weight was only 13 pounds, six ounces. They were so tiny—and yet, they were about to become the biggest sensations imaginable.
Dr Dafoe—cavalier-like and awestruck—went on a gossip spree after delivering the miraculous quintuplets. He alerted the girls' uncle, told everyone at the post office, and even shared the news with a store clerk, who advised him to take this jaw-dropping information straight to the newspapers. Of course, the domino effect was already in motion.
The girls' uncle had already spread the word to the newspapers—but the consequences proved to be a double-edged sword.
The news of the quintuplets' birth spread like wildfire. Only six hours after their birth, a reporter and photographer showed up on the doorstep of the Dionne family's farmhouse. In a dangerous move, the underweight babies were lifted out of their heated blankets and positioned next to their exhausted mother. After all, the photographer needed to get the perfect shot.
But this was just the beginning of the Dionne quintuplets' haunting reality show.
At first, the media circus that flocked to the Dionne quintuplets actually helped them survive. Hospitals began shipping the family much-needed breast milk, while a Red Cross nursing team monitored their precarious health. Even journalists sent water-heated incubators that made all the difference. But there was also a dark side to all of the overwhelming attention.
In the first few days, thousands of people showed up at the Dionne home, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed babies. Soon, the surrounding fields became a parking lot for eager visitors, while reporters circled the house like vultures. Already, the Dionne quintuplets had become a popular tourist attraction—a chilling foreshadowing of their tumultuous futures.
Now, the girls' father, Oliva Dionne, had a problem on his hands. Before the birth of the quintuplets, the Dionnes had already had five older children. Now they had ten. Stuck in the middle of the Great Depression, Oliva worried about the mounting medical and childcare expenses—and it drove him to a shocking decision.
After the birth of his quintuplets, Oliva Dionne sought the counsel of his priest about a controversial business venture: He wanted to know whether he should publicly display his daughters...for money. The priest brought his "unique" moral compass to the table. Not only did he support this idea, but he also wanted to be the business manager.
Unfortunately, Oliva turned down a path that he lived to regret.
Oliva Dionne made a questionable deal on behalf of his quintuplets. For tens of thousands of dollars, he agreed to relinquish his girls for six months, so that they could appear at the Chicago World's Fair. During such trying times, this amount of money was a downright fortune. However, there was one person not on board with this idea.
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Elzire Dionne was rageful when she heard about the Chicago World Fair deal, even more when she heard it was a done deal. But the worries just kept coming. As the quintuplet's futures hung in the balance, their health also took a distressing turn. They began to lose weight and Dr Dafoe insisted on isolating the babies in a separate room.
The Dionne family faced fears they'd never felt before—but it was the quintuplets who paid the ultimate price.
Though Oliva and Elzire tried to get out of the agreement made with the Chicago promoters, it was already too late. In an effort to protect the girls for a while longer, they came up with a temporary solution. The Dionnes signed over custody of the quintuplets to the Red Cross for two years. It was still a huge sacrifice, but at least the girls would be provided for and, most importantly, shielded from the nefarious contract.
It was a messy situation—but sadly, this wouldn't be Oliva and Elzire's last parental mishap.
The Dionnes just couldn't resist the limelight, and the very next year Oliva and Elzire advertised themselves as the "Parents of the World Famous Babies". They even traveled to Chicago and took to the stage. For the Premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn, the Dionnes' vaudeville sensibilities raised some serious red flags, which caused him to spring into action.
When Oliva and Elzire decided to use their babies for clout, they faced some serious consequences. Their little trip to Chicago gave Premier Mitchell Hepburn an excellent excuse to extend the quintuplets' guardianship. He claimed that the babies needed to be saved from exploitation and even changed the law to do so. The Dionne Quintuplet Act ensured that the girls remained wards of the Crown until they turned 18.
But in an awful twist, this only made the quintuplets easier to exploit.
Although the quintuplets' father sat on the Board of Guardians, his voice was often overshadowed by the other three guardians, one of which was Dr Dafoe. And so, three powerful men ruled over five little girls: They managed their money and oversaw their care—but also allowed them to appear in films and commercials. Horrifyingly, they did everything they'd sworn to protect the quintuplets from.
The Dionne quintuplets were the perfect tourist attraction—and there was money to be made.
Their first order of business was to build a special nursery—or basically a baby zoo–for babies to live in and tourists to spectate them. At first glance, this didn’t seem to be a money-making venture because visitors weren't charged a fee. However, this was only a sideshow act in disguise—and if one looked closely enough, the awful truth made itself known.
The nursery—also called the Dafoe Nursery—opened to the public in 1936, and looked like a building from a post-apocalyptic world: playgrounds and dining rooms specially designed for the toddlers, and a long hallway where they would “present” themselves to the public like living paintings. The girls had a very strict and regimented upbringing—and it didn't seem like they enjoyed any freedoms whatsoever.
People working in the nursery had a robotic system in place for the quintuplets. The girls were often tested and examined, and everything about them was documented. Like lab rats, their contact with the outside world was limited, even nonexistent. Indeed, their only interactions were with their spectators and infrequent meetings with their parents and siblings.
Other than seeing some tourists, the quintuplets lead a very boring life in the nursery. Everything about their routine was predetermined, from when they had breakfast to what they ate. They had set play times, prayer hours, medical inspections, and bathtimes. But there was also a very strange aspect of their daily lives.
Since there were five girls and each girl had lots of dresses, the nursery staff decided to assign them colors and symbols to mark their belongings. The poor little girls became identifiable through colors and symbols: Annette had red and a maple leaf, Émilie had white and a tulip, Cécile had green and a turkey, Marie had blue and a teddy bear, and Yvonne had pink and a bluebird.
But as the quintuplets grew up in their very unique bubble, one of their caretakers, in particular, reaped unbelievable benefits.
Dr Dafoe ran the facility, therefore he was in charge of the money. He made a fortune off of the Dionne quintuplets, but he also made a name for himself as an expert doctor. He published ads like “Guidebook for Mothers” and wrote a column called “The Quintuplets and the Care of Your Children.” Meanwhile, “Quintland” grew in popularity with each passing day.
As the glorious “Quintland” made headlines for being the biggest tourist attraction in Canada, people protected the girls more and more. However, this only meant increased isolation for the quintuplets. Visitors were instructed not to speak to the girls. Each tourist stayed silent in their presence and didn’t have much time before the next visitor came through.
The rules were stringent, but this only aggravated their fame—they were like five gold-laying geese, and it became quite disturbing for them.
The Dionne quintuplets were the stars of a weird theme park—and what was an attraction without its souvenirs? Not only were there souvenir shops on the premises but there were also photoshoots and dolls and countless advertisements. The girls' faces could be found on bottles of ketchup or Palmolive soap. But that wasn't all.
Near the nursery, the staff placed bins with stones in them, because people believed that the stones would increase their chances of fertility. Meanwhile, the quintuplets' father Oliva Dionne was the fertility king himself and enjoyed constant attention. Women often touched him as though he was some holy relic, in the hopes that their own fertility would skyrocket.
The place was chaotic in many ways—and yet, shockingly, the girls were actually quite happy.
Maybe it was because Dr Dafoe brainwashed them or they didn’t know anything different, but the quintuplets actually enjoyed their lives at “Quintland”. As they later put it, those were “the happiest, least complicated years of our lives”. However, in 1943, their nine-year run in the nursery came to an end—and a fresh nightmare began.
While Mr and Mrs Dionne kept fighting for the custody of their children from the beginning, they finally succeeded in 1943 after Dr Dafoe retired. After so many years, the family reunited under the same roof, but the new roof was a bit bigger than the old one. In fact, it was a 20-room mansion. And guess who paid for it all?
The girls paid for everything—and I mean everything—the luxurious house, numerous lavish cars, and the expensive food their family enjoyed greatly. Still, the family treated them as if they were sources of money, so they never truly welcomed them with open arms. Indeed, mom and dad often spoke to them in a disheartening way.
The sisters reported that their parents often treated them very differently than their other siblings. As they put it, they often scolded the quintuplets for even existing. Yes, the girls suffered a series of lectures about the troubles they caused their family when in fact they ensured their family's livelihood. Their mother, in particular, often crossed the line.
Ironically, Mrs Dionne—who fought for custody for years—acted very capriciously around the quintuplets. She frequently screamed and insulted the girls, and once in a while, even injured them. While their other siblings got the carrot, they always got the stick. Even amidst their family, the girls felt terribly lonely—a lonely wolf pack of five.
Siblings usually team up against the parents, yet for the quintuplets, their siblings felt like strangers. Not only did they distance themselves from the children they hadn’t seen for nine years, but they struggled to connect with them. This was because the quintuplets spoke French—nursery rules—while their siblings spoke English.
However, this wasn't even their biggest household crisis.
Of course, the “man” of the Dionne household—Oliva—loved the quintuplets, as long as they provided money and kept the spotlight trained on him. He loved the attention he was getting, so he milked the girl’s popularity for all its worth. Every time he went out with his five daughters, an officer accompanied their car, which was its own form of spectacle.
For the Dionne quintuplets, their new lives were a massive downgrade.
Even when the quintuplets became teenagers, their family still treated them like special edition Barbie dolls that should always be on display. Whenever they traveled, they dressed identically—and they hated every second of it. They recalled their times at the “Big House” as "the saddest home we ever knew".
On top of all the disappointment and misery, the girls endured some tragic incidents behind closed doors. Reportedly, they had multiple experiences where their father took them for a drive, but then stopped the car and made the girls very uncomfortable by touching them inappropriately.
Shockingly, these demented outings were only the tip of the iceberg.
One day, when helpless Yvonne got a chest cold, Oliva did an unspeakable thing with the excuse of “helping" his daughter. He allegedly used the application of liniment as a reason to get his hands on her. The girls—not being able to say anything—took precautions as best as they could.
Some of the quintuplets' precautions included changing the way they dress. As if people didn’t have enough control over their lives, now their dad's gross behavior influenced their decision-making. For example, Annette always wore turtlenecks and tried to dress “extra conservatively” in order to prevent her dad from becoming inappropriate.
However, the dress code wasn’t Annette's only tactic.
The quintuplets were such megastars that their parents turned a building into a private school for them, which allowed them to have more control over the girls' upbringing. When rebellious Annette told the school's chaplain about her father’s strange behavior, not surprisingly, he did nothing. The girls officially had no escape—but this wasn't the only skeleton in the Dionne family's closet.
The Dionne family had countless secrets and one of them involved Émilie. She began to have seizures, but due to the stigma of the time against epilepsy, her family members kept their lips sealed. Sadly, this secret prevailed even when Émilie's seizures intensified in magnitude and number. But as we'll soon see, this was destined to end in heartbreak.
Marie, the youngest quintuplet, proved to be the boldest. As soon as she turned 19, she left her family home, surprising everyone. She must have thought her life was dark and disappointing because she believed that even a strict nunnery would be a more joyful place to live. Thankfully, the rest of the girls followed her lead.
One by one, the girls left the family home with one simple goal—never to come back. They were ready for a fresh start, and the only thing they truly wanted was to never see their cold-hearted mother and creepy father again. They were finally free to pursue their passions—but sadly, Émilie's days were numbered.
After Marie joined a strict order of nuns, Émilie quickly followed in her footsteps. Everyone always considered Marie to be the weakest of them all, so if Marie could do it, so could Émilie. Right? Wrong. Only two months after Émilie joined a convent, tragedy struck.
Due to her seizures, Émilie wasn't supposed to be left alone. She asked other nuns to always be around her, but when one of them accidentally skipped her shift, fate stepped in. Émilie had a seizure and landed with her face in a pillow. This led to her suffocation. She was only 20 years old.
This sudden loss changed the girls' lives forever.
On the day of Émilie's funeral, the remaining quintuplets experienced a life-altering moment. The media asked the girls to pose together for press photos and countless articles about their lost sibling. This was it for them. Since there weren’t five of them anymore, the media craze and the exhausting fame would be over.
They were right, at least for a while.
When people asked Cécile about her sister Émilie, she said that her demise was “a sort of release” from their rollercoaster lives. After the nightmarish incident, the four girls moved to Montreal, far away from their family and the public craze. All they needed was each other—and they proved that no amount of grief could tear them apart.
One great thing about being identical quintuplets was that they always had their sisters by their side—no matter what. So when they moved to Montreal, Yvonne, and Cécile went to nursing school together whereas Annette and Marie became roommates at university.
However, when they started to form families of their own, they made a startling realization.
As time passed by, the quintuplets formed relationships with people other than their identical sisters. Annette, Cécile, and Marie got married and had children, whereas Yvonne remained single. Despite succeeding in forming new families, the sisters often reported how difficult it was for them to stay away from each other.
In 1970, the sisters went through another heartbreaking break-up—the youngest sibling, Marie, also passed. On that fateful day, after not hearing from Marie, her sisters panicked and called their doctors, who found Marie in her bed—gone for good. This was a devastating moment for the remaining girls, but more tragic news was around the corner.
The three sisters—who supposedly had a hefty trust fund—struggled to pay their bills. They weren’t even living extravagant lives, but the money was somewhat tight. That’s when they realized that a stunning portion of their earnings had gone straight into the government's pocket. So much of their hard-earned money was gone. They were furious, and they took action.
In 1997, the sisters decided to share their experiences in a surprising way. They wrote an open letter to the McCaugheys who had recently welcomed septuplets into their lives. The letter was like a bitter warning because the sisters warned the parents about the dangers of publicity and exposing their children to the world.
After all, the sisters were also embroiled in a shocking controversy.
After the girls opened up about how the government treated them, they sought compensation for all the money taken from them. They requested $10 million—but this is where their situation took an unbelievably shady turn. Apparently, the government had burned all documents concerning the Dionne quintuplets from 1934 to 1937. Sketchy or what? Of course, the government responded quickly.
Premier Mike Harris—former premier of Ontario—offered the girls $2,000 per month. It was such an offensive amount for the famous Dionne quintuplets. The Canadian government profited millions because of them. The girls were furious, so they publicly denied the money and ran straight to the press.
Eventually, the government—tails between their legs—offered the girls two, then three million dollars. The sisters turned down these numbers but finally settled on four million dollars, as well as a thorough analysis of their trust funds. On top of that, the premier made an official apology on behalf of the government.
After staying silent for decades, the sisters finally won control of their narrative.
In 2001, the remaining quintuplets ceased to be a party of three. The first-born Yvonne—who spent her life as a sculptor and librarian—also passed. Now, the majority of the quintuplets live together on the other side, while the two surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile, still live in Montreal.
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