May 28, 2015

It Happened on May 28th

Dionne Quintuplets Born, 1934

6 years old!
Elzira Dionne thought she might be having twins. She and her husband, Oliva, already had five children, two boys and three girls, aged 8 years to 11 months. When Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, with the help of two midwives, helped her deliver five baby girls, both parents were astounded. Dr. Dafoe thought he might lose the mother, and more or less took for granted that the babies would die.

The babies were stashed into a wicker clothes basket borrowed from a neighbor, and wrapped in heated blankets. There were placed in the kitchen by the open door of the stove. One by one, they were taken out and rubbed with olive oil. They were given water sweetened with corn syrup to drink.

The following day they graduated into a larger clothes basket, and soon their food was upgraded, as well -- to a mixture of cow's milk, boiled water, and corn syrup, with a drop or two of rum. Oliva's brother asked the local newspaper the cost for a birth announcement for five babies from a single birth, and the media was up and running.

Contributions started pouring in from all over North America. When he learned how startling his progeny were, Oliva signed a contract to exhibit them at the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition. The Canadian public was outraged. How dare the Dionne's subject "our" quints to American hucksterism?

The Quints in 1937.
The Canadian government stepped in and declared the parents unfit to raise the quintuplets. The girls were made Wards of the Province. A board of guardians was set up, with Dr. Dafoe calling most of the shots. A hospital/home was set up for the quints, just across the road from their birth home. There they remained for the next nine years.

The girls were named Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie. Emilie and Marie had shared an embryonic sac, as had Annette and Yvonne. It was believed that Cecile had shared a sac with a 6th embryo, who had miscarried. As the girls grew up, they became closest emotionally to the sibling with whom they had shared a sac. Cecile was more of a loner, compared to the other girls.

At their new home, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery, the girls led a regimented and very public life. An observation stand was built outside their playground, with free admission and parking for tourists. They were viewed several times a day through gauze covered windows. The quints couldn't see the tourists, but they could hear them, and they always knew they were there.

Tourism is big business, and in the midst of the Depression, the Dionne Quintuplets gave Ontario's economy a big boost. Admission at Quintland, as it was called, may have been free, but a great deal of money was raised through souvenir sales. In 1934 alone, they brought in $1 million directly, and $51 in Ontario tourism. Their images were also used as product endorsements -- Karo Syrup and Quaker Oats were among the better-known products. "A percentage of profits" was turned over to the quints' trust fund.

In 1943, after a long battle, the Dionnes won back custody of their daughters. A large new house of 20 rooms (the Dionnes had three more children after the quintuplets) was built with funds from the girls' trust fund.

The parents tended to treat the five girls as a single unit, and the quintuplets received more household chores and heavier punishments than the other children. They were frequently lectured about all the trouble they had caused for the family. They were not aware until much later that it was their earnings that had purchased the family home, their cars, and expensive lifestyle.

The Dionne Quintuplets in 1947
Later in life (1995), the then-surviving quints would allege that their father had sexually molested them, usually when he took them, individually, for rides in the car. When the girls complained to a Roman Catholic priest, he told them to "continue to love [their] parents and to wear a thick coat when [they] went for car rides."

All five quintuplets left home after reaching the age of 18, and none maintained close ties with the rest of the family. Emilie died at the age of 20 of suffocation during an epileptic seizure. (She was a postulant at a convent and had asked not to be left unattended, but the nun watching her thought she was asleep and left to attend prayers. Emilie, while suffering a seizure, rolled onto her stomach and suffocated in her pillow.) Marie died at the age of 35 of a blot clot to the brain.

Yvonne, Annette, and Cecile sued the Ontario government for compensation for being taken from their parents, and for the millions of dollars they generated through Quintland tourism. The case was settled in 1998 for $4 million and an apology from Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

Yvonne died in 2001 of cancer. Annette and Cecile are still alive.

Noah Webster Dies, 1843

Noah Webster
Noah Webster is probably best known for creating the first American dictionary. It wasn't, however, the first book he ever wrote. And it certainly wasn't the most successful during his own lifetime.

Webster was a teacher, a journalist, and a political writer, but it was as a teacher that he had his greatest impact. Thoroughly disgusted with the English textbooks he was forced to teach from, he authored a 3 volume set of textbooks: a speller, a grammar, and a reader.

Webster believed that a democratic society such as ours must have a democratic language. He rejected the notion that "proper" English usage should be determined by the aristocracy, as it was in England, but rather that it should be determined by general usage. On the other hand, he strongly believed that America required a uniformity of language, spelling, and pronunciation, so that Americans would be able to understand each other. His set of textbooks was an important first step to that goal.

Webster's The Elementary Spelling Book was by far the best-selling American book of its time, selling over a million copies a year. Even at royalties of less than one cent a book, this was enough to provide Webster with a modest income throughout his life. Webster's "Americanization" of the English language is the main reason we spell so many words differently than the English -- center instead of centre and honor instead of honour. He also changed the pronunciation of tion from the European "she un" to "shun".

Title page of an edition published in the 1830's.
An American Dictionary of the English Language, when it was finally finished after 27 years of work, continued the Americanization of the English language. In addition to the reforms of his Speller and Grammar books, he added uniquely American words such as "squash", "hickory", and "chowder". The final product contained 70,000 words -- 12,000 of which had never appeared in any dictionary.

Today, his dictionary has sold more copies than any book in the English language except the Bible.

Why wasn't it more popular during Webster's lifetime? The steep $20 price tag might have had something to do with it.

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