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Callander, Ontario was a small and quiet community in central Ontario, 280 kilometres north of Toronto.
On May 27, 1934, if you asked someone outside the area about it, most couldn’t even find it on a map.
Then, on May 28, 1934, something happened that defied the odds and for the next decade, Callander was the biggest tourist attraction in Ontario… more people visited the small town than Niagara Falls.
Millions descended on this small community.
In 1943, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King asked a Chinese diplomat what Canada was known for in China, he was told:
- The RCMP
- King himself
- What happened in Callander
This is the story of The Dionne Quintuplets, five girls who were thrust into the spotlight the moment they were born and spent their youth being exploited by those around them. I’m Craig Baird and this is Canadian History Ehx!
A famous smuggler. Scoundrel. Hero. Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon once said… “never tell me the odds.”
But for us to understand what happened in Callander I have to give you a few…
Odds of getting struck by lightning are about 1.2 million to one.
Odds of winning the lottery in Canada? About 14 million to one.
The odds of having five identical quintuplets? That’s even rarer… it’s about 57 million to one.
Identical Quintuplets surviving into adulthood? That is even more unusual.
Oliva and Elzire Dionne, a Francophone couple living outside Callander, beat the odds in late 1934.
The couple had met in 1925 and already had five children by the time Elzire found out she was pregnant almost ten years later.
While pregnant, Elzire thought she was going to have twins.
As you can imagine…She was a bit off on her approximation.
Then, on May 28, 1934, as Dr. Allan Dafoe and two midwives helped Elzire deliver the babies at home, five identical baby girls entered the world two months prematurely.
Yvonne was first, followed by Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and then Marie.
Collectively known as The Dionne Quintuplets, they weighed 13 pounds six ounces in total.
After giving birth, Elzire went into shock and Dr. Dafoe fought to save her life.
His main concern was the mother because at no point in recorded history had quintuplets been born and survived longer than a few hours or days.
Believing the children wouldn’t survive, he focused on Elzire, and his efforts were successful when she recovered after about two hours.
Dr. Dafoe was an experienced, second-generation physician who had been practicing medicine in Callander since 1909.
He could not have known it as he worked to save Elzire, but those five babies he expected to die were about to make him a very famous and very rich man.
Before that could happen, they had to survive. This was 1934, after all, and the infant mortality rate per 1000 live births was 72.7. To put that into perspective the 2023 infant mortality rate is 3.943 deaths…. and these were premature quintuplets… not to talk about odds but… they weren’t in their favor….
To give them a helping hand the babies were put into wicker baskets with heated blankets and massaged with olive oil and fed water with corn sweetener every two hours by the midwives.
Miraculously…the babies survived that first day.
While Elzire and the babies fought for their lives, their uncle, Oliva’s brother, unnamed in my research, went to the Callander newspaper to ask how much it would cost to print an announcement of five babies in a single birth.
The editor’s journalistic Spidey senses tingled and instead wrote a story about the birth that went out on the newswire.
According to newspaper stories from the time, only 30 Quintuplet births had been recorded in the previous 500 years, and all of the children died within a day.
The story spread like wildfire across North America.
(BREAK – MUSIC TRANSITION)
Meanwhile back in Callander, the Quints, as they became known, were given a mixture of cow’s milk, boiled water, corn syrup and two drops of rum on their second day on Earth.
They would have no way of knowing they were the most famous babies on the planet.
The family was still in shock from the surprise of welcoming five new babies at once.
The Dionne’s weren’t poor by any means. But this was the Great Depression, and the family had a nice home got by on their homestead,
But with five newborns, Oliva Dionne suddenly found himself with double the number of children he had before.
His worry about money likely didn’t last long, because as news spread so did opportunities.
From across North America, people offered assistance and advice to the family.
Hospitals donated incubators, and the National Mortgage Company offered to refinance the family’s mortgage, which Oliva declined.
Many women offered their breast milk and with five newborns the offer was accepted. The women were paid 10 cents per ounce of breast milk and each morning, a special train delivered 28 ounces of breastmilk for the babies.
Then On May 30, A Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, offered to put the Quints on display.
The contract guaranteed their father, Oliva $100 as an initial payment, amounting to about $2,500 today, and $250 per week afterwards, about $5,500 today.
It was a fortune for the Dionne’s with ten mouths to feed.
The decision was too important for Oliva to make on his own, so he consulted t with his parish priest, unnamed in the research, What was the priest’s advice?
To take the offer, and to make him their business manager.
As will become too obvious in this episode, those around the Quints didn’t see babies, they saw dollar signs….
Under the agreement with the Chicago World’s Fair, 70 percent of admission profits went to the promoters of the fair, 23 percent would go to the Quint’s father Oliva and seven percent would go to the parish priest.
Soon after it was proposed, Oliva was accused of exploiting his children so he revoked the contract, but that initial decision would have long lasting consequences.
Meanwhile, thousands of people descended on the quiet community of Callander and looked through the Dionne’s windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the babies and caused huge traffic In their newfound fame the issue over the Chicago contract plagued Oliva and to protect himself from a potential lawsuit, on July 27, 1934, he and Elzire signed a contract with the Red Cross.
This contract covered all medical costs and gave custody of the babies over to the Red Cross for two years.
Ontario Attorney General Arthur Roebeck said,
“There is no law which permit us to adequately deal with these American gentleman who were attempting exploitation in question so that we must be satisfied with merely circumventing their scheme.”
The Red Cross built a special hospital for the babies soon after the contract was signed.
On Sept. 21, 1934, the children were moved into the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery, named for Dr. Dafoe. The man who birthed them.
Yet it seemed like everyone around the Quints looked for ways to make money.
Fred Davis, a photographer with the Toronto Star, quickly signed a contract preventing anyone, including the Dionne parents, from taking pictures of the babies.
He was the only one allowed to do.
In exchange, $10,000 was put into a trust fund for the children.
Please make note of that trust fund because it is going to come up many times in this episode.
As the months went by, the trust fund grew by thousands of dollars a week as promotional and merchandise sales came in.
In February 1935, Oliva and Elzire made the decision to go to Chicago and appear on stage s as the “Parents of the World-Famous Babies”.
Even though they went by themselves and knowing that the Red Cross contract was only two years long, Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn saw an opportunity to extend the guardianship of the Quints to avoid them being exploited but more likely to have control of the money they were making.
In his defense, Oliva stated,
“There is talk I want to take them on tour this summer. That is a false rumour.”
In March 1935, Premier Hepburn pushed through the Legislature the Dionne Quintuplets Act.
This officially made the children wards of the state until the age of 18 and removed them from the custody of their parents allegedly to ensure protection from promoters and those who would exploit them.
We will pause briefly here so you can prepare yourself for the hypocrisy whiplash you’re about to experience.
In an effort to protect the Quints from exploitation, the provincial government took custody of the Quints…. and as soon as they did…
They built an entire tourism industry around them….and exploited them.
They appointed a Board of Directors to oversee all business matters for the children.
The board consisted of Dr. Dafoe, Judge Joseph Valin, Minister of Welfare David Kroll, and the Quint’s father, Oliva Dionne.
But Oliva’s seat at the table was merely symbolic, he had little voting power and would never be able to outvote the other three in their monthly meetings.
Saturday Night Magazine wrote of this turn of events, quote,
“Mrs. Dionne, a few months ago, gives birth to some babies and just because there are five and not two or three, a lot of important people, including the premier and attorney general, step in and push the parents into the background.”
On Canada Day 1936, what became known as Quintland opened.
Visitors had to go past a seven-foot-tall barbed wire fence surrounding Quintland which prevented anyone from seeing the girls for free.
Inside, there was a nine-room nursery with three nurses and three police, a housekeeper and two maids.
Visitors could observe the girls playing on the outdoor playground, from an observation deck through one-way mirrors.
Despite not seeing the tourists, the girls could absolutely hear them.
This would be where the five girls would live nearly every day for the next seven years.
The girls wrote in their book We Were Five,
“We dwelt at the centre of a circus. A carnival set in the middle of nowhere.”
Good thing the government stepped in to prevent the exploitation of the Quints, right?
Their parents lived across the road from Quintland, but the girls rarely saw them, except for publicity photos.
Each day, the Quints woke up, were given orange juice and cod liver oil and had their hair curled.
Then, with the sound of a gong….
they ate their breakfast.
At 9 a.m., they were inspected by Dr. Dafoe, and the rest of the day was spent being tutored privately or playing in the playground.
At 6 p.m. they ate dinner.
Remember, the girls were identical so to help tourists identify each girl, they were dressed in specific colours and designs.
Annette was dressed in red, with a maple leaf.
Cecile was dressed in green with a turkey.
Emilie was dressed in white with a tulip.
Marie was dressed in blue with a teddy bear.
And Yvonne was dressed in pink with a bluebird.
Even though Oliva didn’t have custody, he still tried to profit from his children.
He ran a souvenir shop next to Quintland where he sold memorabilia and gave autographs for 25 cents each.
He even sold stones from his property as people believed anything from the property held some sort of fertility power.
Speaking of that, it was not unusual for women to reach out to touch Eliza to increase their own chances of fertility.
All of this was going on at the same time as The Great Stork Derby. You will remember from my episode about the derby that families in Toronto attempted to have the most babies in a ten-year period between 1926 and 1936 in the hopes of inheriting a fortune. It is quite possible; a few families went out to Callander to boost their fertility chances.
The Dionne’s weren’t the only celebrities in town, Dr. Dafoe suddenly found himself in the spotlight as well due to his association with the Quints.
He soon spent little time at his medical practice, and instead dedicated himself to Quintland.
He quickly became wealthy as a guardian of the Quints, while having multiple commercial endorsements and speaking fees.
He wrote books and had a radio show as well.
Meanwhile, the sisters were endorsing and promoting everything from milk to candy to toothpaste.
The Quints were a booming business, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie.
Two corn syrup companies, the St. Lawrence Starch Company, and the Canada Starch Company of Montreal, sued each other in 1935, they each wanted to be the official brand used by the Quints.
The sisters wrote in 1965,
“Money was a monster. So many around us were unable to resist the temptation.”
Before long, the Quints were the biggest tourist attraction in Ontario, and arguably Canada.
Each day, 3,000 people came to Quintland to see the sisters in their enclosure.
A couple months before she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, aviator Amelia Earhart visited the Quints and stated that they were lovely girls.
Other notable visitors included movie stars such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and Mae West.
Soon the girls became stars of the Silver Screen themselves because in 1936 the Quints starred in their first movie, The Country Doctor.
The movie featured a character named Dr. John Luke, based on Dr. Dafoe, who cares for patients for little pay in the backcountry of Quebec.
The character becomes a national hero when five babies are born, helping him save the local hospital.
The Quints were about two years old, so they simply appeared in the film and all their scenes were filmed at Quintland and mostly consisted of them playing.
The movie pulled in $1.4 million at the box office, amounting to about $30 million today.
That same year, The Reunion was released.
This film from 1936 was a sequel to The Country Doctor and centered on Dr. John Luke, who was now famous for the birth of the five babies. He retires after delivering 3,000 babies in his community.
Yes, the Quints had their own cinematic universe.
For that film, the Quints were filmed for 26 days, one hour per day and were paid $83,000.
Well, the Quints weren’t paid directly, the money went into their trust, or at least whatever was left over after the adults took their share. Speaking of the trust fund, it had grown to $250,000by this point.
At the time, there was little in the way of legal protection preventing guardians from dipping into the fund to pay for things.
The government had custody of the Quints but rather than covering costs of taking care of the children used the trust fund to pay for food, travel expenses of photographers and filmmakers, and for dinners with dignitaries.
The Quints were famous and on May 31, 1937, they appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
A year later their third and final film came out.
Five of a Kind was released on Oct. 14, 1938, and featured the fictional Dr. John Luke, a runaway heiress and two rival journalists hoping for a scoop on the quintuplets.
This movie very much presented an idealized version of the sisters. Who in reality had no idea their lives were any different from other families.
As they grew, they dealt with the intense feelings of isolation from growing up in a r compound. Thirty years later they wrote,
“We were a club, society, a civilization all our own.”
Meanwhile on May 22, 1939, the Quints took a special air-conditioned train to Toronto to meet King George VI and Queen Elizabeth while they toured Canada.
That same year, their parents Oliva and Elzire pushed to regain custody of their daughters.
For the next four years they fought the provincial government before finally succeeding in 1943, the same year Dr. Dafoe died.
While the Quints lived at Quintland, they generated a fortune in tourism revenue equaling $500 million in 2023 funds for the Province of Ontario.
A year before the family was finally reunited Oliva and Elzire built a 20-room mansion on their property.
I can hear you asking, how did they pay for such a large home?
If you thought the money came from selling autographs at 25 cents apiece, you would be wrong.
If you guessed that the parents dipped into the Quints trust fund worth $1 million, you are right!
The Quints moved into what was called “The Big House”, in 1943.
The expansive family home paid for by the Quints had a boarding school on the property, for the sisters and 10 other girls of the same age from across Canada.
Four nuns and a monsignor staffed the school.
Their father treated the daughters not as family, but as a prize he had won from the government.
The sisters wrote decades later,
“We were transferred to the big house like a conquered army.”
As for the home the Quints moved into, they called it the saddest home they ever knew.
In the Big House the division between The Quints who only spoke French, and their siblings, who only spoke English, became apparent.
The girls were constantly told how much trouble they caused with their birth, while the family lived lavishly off the money the Quints made.
The sisters wrote later,
“We were drenched with a sense of having sinned from the hour of our birth.”
Before I continue with this story a trigger warning this next portion deals with physical and sexual abuse. Please take care.
The Quints stated their mother was physically abusive to them, while their father constantly wanted the attention they received and took them to perform at functions to pad the family’s bank account.
The sisters stated,
“Mom and dad behaved towards each other as though they had been partners in some unspoken crime in bringing us into the world.”
Later in life, the Quints stated that their father also sexually abused them as teenagers.
According to one story, when Yvonne was feeling sick, her father put liniment, a skin lotion, on her chest in a manner that was described as quote “not fatherly”.
He then insisted on doing the same to Emilie, even though she was not sick.
The girls came to dread car rides alone with their father, and Annette wore turtlenecks to prevent her father from putting his hand in her shirt.
When Annette told a clergyman about the abuse, he allegedly said,
“It is bad, in effect, but it is not up to you to judge your father.”
The only advice he gave her was to wear a thick coat on drives.
Meanwhile, when the Quints were 16, they were put on display once again for money. In October 1950, they went to New York where huge crowds welcomed them.
The New York Times wrote,
“The Dionne Quintuplets came to New York last night and received the wildest press ovation in the history of the great metropolis.”
While in New York, they appeared at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel at dinner where guests had to pay a $100 a plate.
A year later, in 1951, they met Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip while they toured Canada.
On Jan. 28, 1952, they appeared at a parade in St. Paul, Minnesota, then in the evening went to a party held by a calendar company that printed Dionne Quintuplet calendars in Hudson, Wisconsin.
They were a few months from turning 18 years old…
As soon as they became adults the Quints left home and did their best to have little contact with their parents from then on.
All five girls enrolled at the Nicolet Convent in 1952, each taking a different course.
Yvonne left the school in 1953 to study art, while Marie prepared to become a nun.
On Aug. 6, 1954, Emilie suffered a seizure while alone in a room at the convent.
She rolled onto her stomach and wasn’t able to lift her head off the pillow.
She died from suffocation. She was only 20 years old.
News quickly spread around the world and500 people came out for the funeral.
Photographers had the girls stand next to their dead sister in the coffin.
For the Quints, the grief was overwhelming.
Although they knew of her epilepsy, the family refused her treatment.
Instead, it was hidden, and the problem became deadly.
In their book, We Were Five, written in 1965, the sisters wrote,
“Epilepsy does not kill people. It did not kill Em. She died as a consequence of being alone, with no one at her side to take care of her. We never left her like that at home.”
In 1955, when the girls finally turned 21, they got access to their trust fund.
At one point it was worth millions but quickly dwindled as their alleged caretakers dipped into it.
I don’t have a dollar figure of how much was left but once it was split between the four remaining sisters it only lasted a few years.
Between 1956 and 1957, three of the girls, Marie, Annette, and Cecile, got married.
All three marriages ended in divorce.
Marie had two daughters, one of whom she named for her sister Emilie. Marie opened a flower shop in 1956, which she named Emilie after her sister and daughter, but the shop eventually failed, and Marie fell on hard times.
Annette had three sons and became a librarian.
Cecile had five children, including one set of twins and as a single mother became a nurse, which helped her provide her children with everything they needed.
Yvonne remained unwed but also became a nurse, then a librarian in her adult life.
When asked why she never married, she stated she never saw much love when she was young, and that influenced her decision.
In 1965, at 31 years old their book, We Were Five, was released.
It detailed their isolated upbringing and the impact it had on them.
It did not mention the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their father.
But the girls received little sympathy in the press for their book.
The Sault Star wrote,
“It really is unimportant if there is any validity in their account of their early life or not. The fact is no one can feel sympathy for anyone who would wash their own family’s dirty linen in public and make a profit off it.”
The sisters weren’t looking for new fame from their book.
In fact, they avoided the spotlight in adulthood and, for the most part, wanted to be left alone.
Interviews with newspapers were few and far between.
Sadly, more dark days were ahead.
In February 1970, the sisters were unable to reach Marie and they worried because she had been dealing with depression as her kids had recently been put into foster care.
Marie’s doctor went to her home and found her in her bed, having died several days earlier.
The cause of death was never released but it was speculated to be a blood clot in the brain.
The five sisters were now three.
In 1978, The Dionne Quintuplets, a National Film Board documentary, was released by Donald Brittain.
It consisted of archival newsreels.
Brittain didn’t interview the surviving sisters because he felt they wouldn’t want to dredge up the past again and he wanted to respect their privacy.
A year later their father Oliva Dionne died In 1979 followed by his wife Elzire in 1986.
The big house the family lived in eventually became a retirement home.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the three sisters kept a low profile.
By the 1990s, the three sisters were living together in an apartment on only $746 combined income per month.
In the mid-1990s, the sisters wrote The Dionne Quintuplets: Family Secrets.
This book broke the story of the physical and sexual abuse the Quints suffered while living with their parents.
The sexual abuse became the focus in news stories, but the response to the book was much more positive than their 1965 book We Were Five.
On June 23, 2001, Yvonne died of cancer.
Upon her sister’s death, Annette said to the press,
“She was very special. Though very frail, she was strong inside. It will be hard to be without her.”
As of 2023, the five are now only two.
If you’re wondering what happened to trust fund Well, the surviving sisters finally got what they were owed in one small way…
In the mid-1990s, the three remaining sisters asked the Canadian government to compensate them for their exploitation to the tune of $10 million.
The government gave no response.
The sisters kept at it, and began to speak to the media, which helped raise their case’s profile. T
When they released their book, which detailed their traumatic upbringing, public opinion pressured the government to do something.
Then Bertrand, Cecile’s son, discovered that documents from 1934 to 1937 relating to the Quints had been destroyed.
Those documents would have helped the sister’s case.
In response, Ontario Premier Mike Harris offered the three surviving sisters $2,000 per month as payment.
The sisters refused.
They weren’t trying to be greedy, but the amount offered was pennies compared to what was owed to them from the trust fund that was mismanaged by adults around them, including the provincial government.
The government then offered $2 million and then $3 million, which the sisters turned down.
Finally, an offer of $4 million came with an agreement to analyze the trust accounts.
The sisters accepted this, and Premier Harris visited them to personally apologize on behalf of the Ontario government.
Today, the remaining sisters, Cecile, and Annette, live a quiet life away from the spotlight.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, LIFE, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Washington Post, North Bay Nugget, Vancouver Sun, Windsor Star, Canadas History, Red Deer Advocate, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Ottawa Journal, Sun Times, The Great Depression,