"Five!? There are five? My God! What am I going to do with five babies?" exclaimed Oliva Dionne on May 28, 1934, when his wife Elzire delivered quintuplets. Elzire managed only to gasp "Holy Mary!" as she realized that their family had increased from seven to 12. Oliva didn't know how, at the height of the Depression, he would feed his large family. Nor could he have guessed what lay ahead for his five daughters.
The births of the quintuplets, Emilie, Annette, Marie, Cécile and Yvonne, comprised a miracle beyond anyone's comprehension. Multiple births, almost commonplace today, were practically unheard of in the 1930s. Their survival was certainly astonishing. The extraordinariness of their births superseded the quintuplets' own presence
At birth, the babies were not expected to live beyond a few hours. Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, who arrived during the third birth, gave simple instructions: keep them warm, feed them water from an eyedropper, bathe them in olive oil, and leave them alone. The latter was probably the most sensible advice, for over-handling would assuredly have over-stressed the babies.
When the quintuplets exceeded the doctor's expectations, he and a team of nurses and assistants took over the household, pushing Oliva and even Elzire aside. Nurse Yvonne Leroux recorded in her diary: "Five premature, scrawny, rickety, hungry mites - five in a butcher's basket-blankets under & blankets over, shirting and sheeting for wraps....decent dishes, no screens, doors or cleanliness, and mosquitoes at night & flies in the day. Neighbors trying to be kind but being rather underfoot."
As the babies not only survived, but thrived, Oliva became increasingly concerned about feeding his children. His need to sustain them overshadowed all else.
|The Dionne Quintuplets from left to right - Yvonne, Marie, Annette Cecile, and Emilie (courtesy Archives of Ontario/C9-6).|
News of the multiple births caused a media frenzy. Dafoe, who had barely scraped through medical school and relied on common sense to provide medical care, was idealized as the archetypal country doctor. Oliva, antagonistic toward the press, was demonized as a heartless opportunist. Elzire, a loving woman whose sole desire was to raise children, was rendered as an ignorant peasant
Ivan Spear of the Chicago's World Fair saw commercial possibilities in the astonishing births. The fair, a colossal flop, needed an exhibit with family appeal. Oliva, still in shock, met with Spear on May 31. They signed a contract giving Oliva $100 immediately and a guarantee of $250 weekly for the rest of the year when the babies went on exhibit in exchange for "exclusive rights to pictures of the five infant daughters, newspaper pictures and movies; and to all advertising contracts that might be obtained for and with the children." Dafoe reportedly told Oliva to make what he could, as the babies likely wouldn't live long.
Spear's announcement about the living exhibit made headlines across North America and garnered a flood of counter-offers. The Ontario government intervened in the name of the King, who ultimately was responsible for every subject's welfare. On July 27 Toronto newspapers reported that Attorney General Arthur Roebuck was exercising his authority to prevent the exploitation scheme by breaking the contract and that the babies would "not be racketeered in some vaudeville show."
Ontario passed the Dionne Quintuplets Guardianship Act to protect the girls and "ensure their advancement, education and welfare" because "they are the only known living quintuplets and as such are therefore of special interest to the people of Canada and to people of other countries." The government "protected" the babies by ensconcing them in Quintland, a special nursery where they would be raised away from their parents and siblings, tended not by their mother but by nurses directed by Dafoe, and put on display for the paying public. The irony of saving them from exploitation in Chicago to exploit them in Ontario seemed to go unnoticed.
The Dionne quintuplets became a marketing phenomenon and tourist attraction. Their images promoted everything from automobiles to canned tomatoes. Carnation Milk ads claimed the babies were "thriving on it - gaining famously right along." In truth, the babies refused to drink it. While the little girls played in their Quintland nursery, gawking tourists marvelled and spent their money.
Dafoe received $200 per month, while Oliva, unwillingly a member of the board of guardians, received $100 per month. Oliva began a nine-year fight to regain custody of his daughters from the government. The girls generated considerable revenue for the province. By the time they returned to their family, they had been viewed by three million people, and had become the country's biggest tourist attraction and a $500 million provincial asset.