The Five That Survived: On The Dionne Quintuplets

As you can see from our “Human Anomaly” section of Travalanche, the Born Different have always occupied a cherished, if sometimes controversial show biz niche. The spectacle of the “grotesque” is naturally a major factor, but often the appeal can be simple rarity. Such is the case with multiple birth babies. Here, rarity is the bottom line. Twins, even identical ones, no matter how amazing they are to those who experience that miracle firsthand, are generally considered too commonplace to be worth exhibiting. It has been known to happen, though. The Dolly Sisters were perhaps the most famous such in show business. (Conjoined twins, are of course a special case — these are ALWAYS considered remarkable). What has always fascinated the public are the outer limits, the world records. In the case of multiple births, for a variety of reasons, the bar is always changing. We live in the age of Octomom — her brood of surviving Octuplets were tabloid fodder throughout 2009. But as of May 28, 1934, medical science being what it was, the outer limit was a surviving set of QUINTS. That was the day an Ontario woman, Elzire Dionne (already a mother of five), gave birth to an additional five: Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie.

The event became news around the world. Some exhibitors at the Chicago Century of Progress fair immediately reached out to the family to secure the babies to show to the public. But a new arrangement rapidly superseded it. Since the Dionnes were people of modest means, unable to support ten children, the babies became wards of Canada. But they went on to live very public lives anyway. A special nursery, with adjoining school and playground, was built for them to live in. The area surrounding the complex became a tourist attraction named Quintland, full of shops and concessions. Millions visited the nursery’s observation gallery and surrounding shops through 1943. The Dionne Quintuplets remain the most famous set of multiple birth babies, mostly because they were the first to come along in the age of mass media. The girls were in numerous movies, and endorsed products like Quaker Oats, Colgate Dental Cream, and Karo Corn syrup. And throughout their lives there were photo ops:

This continued for 20 years, until 1954 when Émilie became the first of the five to die. She had been prone to seizures, and accidentally suffocated during ones of these while unattended. But interest in the sisters continued. A Dionne Quints Museum opened in 1960 and remained in operation for over 50 years. At this writing, only two of the quints, Annette and Cécile, remain.

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