Monday 28 May 2012

A Basket Full of Babies

On May 28, 1934, in a farmhouse in the village of Corbeil, Ontario, a French Canadian woman named Elzire gave birth to five children, delivered by Dr. Dafoe and two midwives, Madame LeGros and Madame LaBelle.  They soon became known as the Dionne Quintuplets, the first to survive infancy.  They would soon become wards of the King, the Premier claiming that the parents were incapable of caring for them since they already had five children at home.  The Quints' new home, across the street from the Dionne farmhouse, soon became the most popular tourist attraction in Ontario, even surpassing Niagara Falls.

The Dionne quintuplets were born two months premature and were not expected to survive.  Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie (Elzire suspected that she miscarried a sixth baby early in her pregnancy) were identical quints.  For the first 24 hours, the quints were fed water and corn syrup every two hours.  Then they were placed in a wicker basket with heated blankets, which was placed in the kitchen by the open oven door.  Every so often, they were taken out of the basket to be massaged with olive oil.  The second day, they were moved to a laundry basket and given a concoction called the "seven-twenty formula", a concoction of cow's milk, boiled water, 2 spoonfuls of corn syrup and 1 to 2 drops of rum as a stimulant. 

Public interest first started when the quints' father, Oliva, had his brother contact the local newspaper to ask how much a birth announcement would cost for five babies.  The Dionne's started receiving offers of help from all over North America; one hospital sent them two incubators.  Bit by bit, the babies started to grow stronger. 

However, Premier Mitchell Hepburn got in on the act and had the babies taken away as wards of the King, claiming that the Dionne's were incapable of raising them.  The original plan was to get the quints into their toddler years.  However, the wardship was later extended until they turned 18.  A 20-room mansion, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery, funded by a Red Cross fundraiser, was built across the road from the Corbeil farmhouse.  The mansion contained 9 rooms and was staffed by 3 nurses and 3 policemen.  Each day, the girls followed a rigid routine which started with a dose of orange juice and cod liver oil followed by someone curling their hair, followed by tutoring and ending with a bath and dinner.  Sometimes the girls had engagements to honour like photo sessions.  Images of their cherub-like faces framed in dark curls were used to sell products like Karo Coprn Syrup and Quaker Oats.

The mansion, known as "Quintland", attracted 6,000 visitors per day.  Not only Canadians came to the observation gallery but also Americans, including famous personalities like Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Amerlia Earhart, the latter just six weeks before her doomed flight.  The girls even met the Queen of England at one point.  Oliva Dionne opened a souvenir shop there where he sold autographs, photographs of the quints, spoons, cups, dolls and even "fertility stones" from his farm.  Three million visitors passed through Quintland in the years 1934 to 1943.  Only Radio City, Mount Vernon and Gettysburg surpassed it in terms of tourists.  The Quints raised a revenue of 1 million dollars in 1934 alone and 40 million dollars in the 9 years they lived at Quintland. 

In 1943, the Dionne's regained custody of their girls and Oliva had a 20-room house built for his entire family which became known as "The Big House".  Sadly, though, the girls were already 9 1/2 years old by this point and much of their childhood had been lost.  It was hard to become part of a family that they had had so little contact with.  Apparently, their father begrudged them the trouble they had caused him over the years, but, at the same time, it was the money they had generated which had paid for their new home. 

Although all of the quints reached adulthood, Emilie died of an epileptic fit at age 20.  Marie died of a blood clot at age 35.  The remaining three sisters lived until middle age.  Yvonne died of cancer in 2001.  The other two are still alive and celebrate their 78th birthday today.  No one will ever forget the five cherub-faced girls who captured the hearts of 1930's era Canadians.

Note:  For more information, read Pierre Berton's book The Dionne Years:  A Thirties Melodrama (1977).

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