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The Dionne quintuplets: A Depression-era freak show

Infants November 19, 1997
Web posted at: 11:46 p.m. EST (0446 GMT)

(CNN) -- The Dionne quintuplets were the miracle babies of their time -- a bright story in the depth of the Depression.

But their story is tragic; their lives a circus.

The five sisters, Annette, Cecile, Yvonne, Marie and Emilie, were born from a single egg in 1934. The public seemed to adore them. But, they were abused -- both by the world and, they claim, by their father.

As babies, the quints were taken from their parents by the Ontario government and made wards of the state. Although their health was fine, they lived at a hospital that became a tourist mecca called "Quintland."

Between 1934 and 1943, about 3 million people visited Quintland, a low, modern building with a garden and a high fence near the village of Corbeil, in Northern Ontario.

The government and nearby businesses made an estimated half-billion dollars off the tourists. The sisters were the nation's biggest tourist attraction -- bigger than Niagara Falls.

'It wasn't human'

Born May 28, 1934, to poor, French-speaking, Catholic parents, the Dionne quints were at least two months premature, and together they weighed less than 14 pounds. Each of the babies could be held in an adult palm.

They were put by an open stove to keep warm, and mothers from surrounding villages brought breast milk for them. Against all expectations, they survived their first weeks.

To protect the infants from germs, kidnappers and a father known to have considered exhibiting them for money, they were taken from their family and placed under the government's guardianship. A hospital was built across the road from their family's farmhouse for their exclusive use.

The hospital became "Quintland" and the sisters' home for years after. Their parents, made unwelcome, became irregular visitors.

Film footage of the young quintuplets shows five pretty girls with dark hair and dark eyes -- and a crush of tourists waiting in line to see them.

"It wasn't human," Cecile Dionne told The (London) Independent in a 1995 interview. "It was a circus."

In the early days, nurses would take the quints to a nursery balcony and show them, one at a time, to the crowds below. Later, they were viewed three times a day from a gauze-covered corridor. "We saw moving. We heard sounds," said Cecile.

The quints were studied by scientists, who X-rayed them, catalogued episodes of "anger and fear," and recorded things such as food intake and incidents of dissent.

Cecile said she learned the word "doctor" before she learned "mother."

After nine years and a bitter custody fight, the girls moved back with their parents and their other siblings. They lived at home until they were 18, after which they broke off almost all contact with their parents. In a later book the sisters claimed their father sexually abused them, though they later disputed the allegations of abuse.

Two of them, Emilie and Marie, died as young women, one from a seizure and one from a stroke.

Now 63 -- in poor health and with limited financial resources -- the surviving sisters are negotiating with the Ontario government for their share of some of the profits made at Quintland more than half a century ago.

Correspondent Dan Ronan contributed to this report.


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