Elzire Dionne suspected she was carrying twins, but no one was aware that quintuplets were even possible. In her third month, she reported having had cramps and passing a strange object which, hindsight, may have been a sixth fetus. The Dionne Quintuplets were born on May 28, 1934. The five girls, in order of birth: Yvonne Édouilda Marie, Annette Lillianne Marie, Cécile Marie Émilda, Émilie Marie Jeanne, and Marie Reine Alma.
They are the first quintuplets known to survive their infancy. The sisters were born in Canada south of North Bay, Ontario, just outside Callander, Ontario, near the village of Corbeil. Émilie and Marie shared an embryonic sac, Annette and Yvonne shared another one, and it is believed that Cécile shared an embryonic sac with the miscarried sixth fetus. Each girl became emotionally close to whomever she shared a sac with, and Cécile tended to be alone the most. The girls were born two months premature.
After four months with their family, they were made Wards of the King for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935. The government and those around them began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction in Ontario. Four months later, the Ontario government, Lieutenant Governor-in-Council, on the advice of Premier Mitchell Hepburn, intervened and found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets (although not for their earlier children), in 1935. The government realized that there was massive public interest in the sisters and proceeded to engender a tourist industry around them. Across the road from their birthplace, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers. It was surrounded by a covered arcade that allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens.
It is estimated that 6,000 people visited the observation gallery every day. 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943. In 1934, the Quintuplets brought in about $1 million, and they attracted in total about $51 million of tourist revenue to Ontario.
Quintland, as it came to be called, became Ontario’s biggest tourist attraction of the era; then surpassing the Canadian side of Niagara Falls!
In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house, with many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water.
According to the accounts of the surviving sisters, the parents often treated them at home as a five-part unit, and often lectured them about the trouble they had caused the family by existing. They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, the expensive food and the series of cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned.
The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952, and had little contact with their parents afterwards. Annette and Cécile both eventually divorced; by the 1990s, the three surviving sisters (Annette, Cécile and Yvonne) lived together in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville.
In 1998, the sisters reached a monetary settlement with the Ontario government as compensation for their exploitation. Yvonne Dionne died in 2001, and as of May 2013, there are two surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile.
The sisters wrote a book, We Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets’ Story from Birth through Girlhood to Womanhood that’s worth a read. A blog at Gosselins Without Pity posted a letter the sisters wrote to a couple who just had septuplets, I also find the comments on this page quite interesting.