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The true story of the first quintuplets who were raised in a ‘baby zoo.’

Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie were the first set of quintuplets known to live through infancy.

But that one fact that made them so unique saw them imprisoned in a ‘human zoo’.

More than three million tourists visited “Quintland” during the 1930s, watching the girls play and learn and grow up through one-way glass. The sisters were used as an attraction and also for science experiments.

This is their story.

Dionne Quintuplets.

It was the end of May in 1934 and five girls were born to parents in Ontario, Canada. Their mother, Elzire Dionne, suspected she was carrying twins. She never expected quintuplets.

Later, it was confirmed the five identical girls were from a single egg. It became a media storm.

The girls were born two months premature and, at four months, they were taken from their parents and became Wards of The King. The government deemed the parents unfit to ensure the girls' survival, however, there was no problem with the girls' three older brothers who were left in the care of Elzire and her husband, Oliva-Edouard.

In the eyes of the government, the girls were a tourist opportunity and a science experiment all in one.

A nursery was built especially for the five girls and their caregivers. It was guarded by police and run by nurses. There was an 'outdoor' playground, which was enclosed with one-way screens. Visitors could observe the girls as they played, without being seen. The children were brought into the playground for thirty minutes, three times a day, and the entire nursery was surrounded by seven-foot-high barbed wire.

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In total, the quintuplets made around $51 million dollars in tourism revenue for the province of Ontario. Quintland was the area's biggest tourist attraction. It was more popular than the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Quintland in 1934. Image; AAP.

The girls' days were run to a strict routine.

They would wake and dress together in a big bathroom. They were given doses of orange juice and cod-liver oil before having their hair curled.

They said a prayer before breakfast in the dining room (the nursery had nine rooms) and, after half an hour at the table, the girls were responsible for clearing the plates.

They were taken to the sun-room, to play on display for thirty minutes, before their 9am "morning inspection" with a doctor. The girls were constantly tested and examined. Records and measurements were kept to monitor their development.

The girls bathed every evening, before dinner was served at 6pm. They said their prayers again before bed.

The five girls had very little contact with the outside world. Their parents lived across the road, and their father sold 'merchandise' to tourists. Everyone was making money off five small girls who could hear, but never see, the tourists watching from the outside.

They were paraded in front of the Queen. They were given roles to appear in movies. They were front-page news across the world.

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The Dionne Quintuplets arrive in Toronto for presentation to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

Almost 10 years later, in November 1943, Elzire and Oliva won back custody of the twins. They moved to a mansion bought with the money made from the girls' fame. But their suffering was not over.

The girls' parents hid the fact that the house, and the money, was because of the five girls. Instead, they made them feel a burden to the family. It's also alleged the girls were sexually molested at the hands of their father, who grew increasingly angry at the intrusion into their life from the outside world.

Still, the five were paraded around the country. Dressed identically. Hair curled to appear the same. They were asked to attend events, a never-forgotten source of novelty.

Dionne Quintuplets in 1947 with their parents and a priest in the background.
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When they were 18, they left the family home and all but severed ties with their parents.

Here's what happened to the five:

Annette and Cécile are both mothers. Anette has three sons and Cecile five children, including one who died in infancy. Both are divorced and still alive today. In 1998, the sisters won a $2.8 million settlement with the Government of Ontario as compensation for their abuse.

Marie had two daughters and died at 35. She was living alone in her apartment after she and her husband separated. The sisters hadn't heard from her in a couple of days and called upon the house to find her dead. It was reported she suffered a blood clot in her brain.

Émile became a nun but died at age 20 from a seizure. She had been experiencing regular seizures while living in a convent and had requested to be minded around the clock. The nun who was supposed to be looking after her left the room after Émile had fallen asleep. However, the 20-year-old quintuplet had a seizure, rolled onto her belly and accidentally suffocated.

Yvonne was a nurse, then a sculptor, before becoming a librarian in later life. She died in 2001, aged 67.

Two sets of twins in two years. Post continues below. 

Before she passed, Yvonne, Anette and Cécile wrote an open letter to the parents of the McCaughey septuplets, born in Iowa in the US in 1997.

"We hope your children receive more respect than we did," the letter reads. "Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.

"Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government of Ontario, our place of birth," it continues. "We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. To this day we receive letters from all over the world. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose."

This was originally published in 2017 and has been updated in May 2020. 

Feature image: AP.

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