MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 12 - The Dionne Quintuplets

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Natasha Wiatr, Curator of the Callander Bay Heritage Museum. Handley and Wiatr discuss the Dionne Quintuplets and her first exposure to the story upon relocating to the North Bay area from Southern Ontario. The two also discuss the worldwide reach that the story of the Dionne Quintuplets had and the role that the media played in the creation of the phenomenon. 

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day. Welcome to North Bay’s Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and talk to Natasha Wiatr, of the Callander Museum & Gallery located in the Doctor Dafoe home and office in Callander – the doctor of course presided over the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. We’ll be talking about the Quints today. It's a major story in this area. Does your job require you to have a familiarity with the Dionne story, and if so to what extent?

Natasha Wiatr:
Well, interestingly, when I first came here for the job. I had never heard of the Dionne Quintuplets. I came from southern Ontario, so I had to learn everything from scratch because I mean we have guests who come in and they are there to learn and so of course as curator and my summer students and such we have to become very familiar with the story in order to answer different questions that people have. Different research requests come through all the time whether it's for new books being written or for whatever reason people are there looking for references and resources, and so absolutely we need to familiarize ourselves.

Peter Handley:
If you hadn’t heard of them, what did you learn? Were you surprised by the story?

Natasha Wiatr:
The more I learn about it, I'm shocked that I didn't know about it. Like how can how can I have lived 30 years and have never heard about such a sensation or that these girls completely captivated the world and saved know this area from the depression that they were in and just all the controversy around the story and the role of the government. I don't know how – it boggles my mind that it somehow surpassed me. A lot of people I know from where I am from like they don't either. They’ve never heard of the story either. That does surprise me.

Peter Handley:
So a generational story of the 30s, 40s and 50s, would you say?

Natasha Wiatr:
Certainly, yes, a lot of the people today who would you talk to, especially the younger generation. Their interest stems from hearing about it from their mother or their grandparents. That's how they heard the story, or maybe their grandmother had a scrapbook or saved newspaper clippings or had a set of the dolls or something and that kind of sparked conversations with their with her granddaughters and grandsons and that's how they knew but otherwise, how would they?

Peter Handley:
There has been a number of books written over the years… books, motion pictures, magazine articles, and so on so forth. Pierre Burton called the story a “30s melodrama” – in essence a soap opera. Another book called the story a “tragedy”. I’ll throw both of those terms at you - do they ring any bells with you?

Natasha Wiatr:
Certainly, of course everyone at the time was following complete these girls’ lives. In the early days, it's literally every day, maybe one gained an ounce of weight and one last ounce of weight and everyone was enthralled by this. The newspapers of the day had birth charts each day and newspapers would update people what was going on because it was such this obsession in following and knowing what was going on with them. Then as different things started to happen between the parents and the doctor and the government stepping and all of this it really did become a soap opera because you have the parents and their family on one side and you have the doctor backed by nurses and the government and the Red Cross and things like that on another side. It’s almost like a bit of a fight for custody and everybody had an opinion. We’ve gotten multiple people in the museum who you can kind of tell if they’re from the area or from out of town because people from out of town, especially down in the states, they think that the doctor was a wonderful person who did wonderful things and that he was just so praised and it was such a good thing. With people from this area, it’s a little bit different where he's maybe not looked upon as favourably and there's more sympathy towards the family. So the fact that even today, you can still see that conflicting view that was just as prevalent back then in terms of a soap opera and newspaper headlines like this person did this. It's a story that's weighted in drama.

Peter Handley:
The babies were so tiny and it was remarkable that they were from a single egg which is I guess only the third time that has ever happened with five and they survived. As far as Dr. Dafoe was concerned, Pierre Burton said and I’ll quote him again, “never able to find a hat quite big enough to fit him”.

Natasha Wiatr:
Literally.

Peter Handley:
There's a picture in the book of him wearing an ill-fitting hat. Others have called him a rambunctious little man. What was his role in the birth? Midwifes actually did the birthing, is that correct?

Natasha Wiatr:
The midwives certainly did the majority of the birthing. That was the morning around 1 o'clock in the morning is when the labour pains and all that had started to happen and by 4 o’clock the first girl is born. At that point, you Mme. Labelle and Mme. Legros – the midwives of the area who are attending to the birth and they deliver the first and another one is coming and there's a little bit of conflict between whether the doctor arrived as the third was being born or whether it was directly after and then when he arrived, you can imagine the scene you’d come into where you have these three babies…


Peter Handley:
It wasn’t in a hospital either…

Natasha Wiatr:
No, it was just in the home and actually when they were first born they weren’t breathing and it was the midwives who breathed air into their lungs and massaged their backs and got them breathing. They said that they made this noise that almost sounded like a tiny kitten or mosquitoes is another term to describe the noises that they were making. So, when the doctor arrived, he could tell Elzire or the mother, she was very much on the verge of death. She was not doing well at all throughout this pregnancy or the birth and he actually had to push on her stomach in order to get the last two out because she didn't have the strength to push them out herself. So, he was there for the last two and all the babies received a conditional baptism as was normal at the time. I mean, can you imagine standing in that farmhouse at that time and just seeing this and the different descriptions about how their arms were so small it was like insects and and one of the first nurses on duty, Yvonne Leroux, she described holding one of the girls is like holding a wounded bird. There's a picture of her holding one baby in one hand, almost like you’d pick up a kitten. It's absolutely remarkable that they survived.

Peter Handley:
You talk about the estrangement – do you know… Was that when the separation occurred? When the government stepped in, was that the key?

Natasha Wiatr:
Between the parents and Dafoe? Yeah, that certainly increased it or exasperated it. There was always a little bit of conflict in that the doctor was English Protestant and the family was French Catholic and the doctor, despite being in the area since 1909 and being the doctor of primarily French area, never bother to learn a word of French. So, he always came across as this kind of gruff and kind of brashly. Also, he had a stutter which meant that he didn't use a whole lot of words when he talked so he’d come across even more straight to the point. There was also discomfort where he kind of waltzed in and didn't explain the reasons why for the things that they were doing. He just kind of did them and assumed the parents would follow. No one ever really explained to the parents what was happening and so that of course starts this divide, and even early on, there was a report said that when the doctor went to town after the girls were born he used a derogatory French slur to describe the girls and that automatically put, of course, the parents’ and the French community’s backs up because it's insulting. So, right away there was always a divide, but certainly as the separation occurred. However, it didn't occur in the way that is kind of summarized in the books. The books cut out a lot of time, including in Burton's book they kind of combine almost two guardianships into one because the government did not remove the girls within a month or so of the birth - it was not the government.

Peter Handley:
Who was it?

Natasha Wiatr:
It was the Red Cross and this was done because in the days after the birth, the father Oliver Dionne had signed a contract with the Chicago World Fair to exhibit the girls. Now this was done. However, on after receiving advice from his priest and of course in the French Catholic community, the priest is very much a respected figure and the doctor in his typical straight to the point manner, he goes ‘they’re not going to survive, your wife is sick and you have five other kids to worry about, you might as well make money while you can’. And so he signed his contract and it's interesting because especially like in Burton's book it’s written of this outrage that happens against the father. There's outrage, but it's not that the father is a horrible person for exploiting his kids, that actually does not hit the papers at all, there's never condemning him for that. Instead, it's “the Americans are trying to steal our babies away”. Marie is on the verge of death and a move like this would surely kill her and it just seems that the father thinks about it more and any goes “you know what my wife didn’t sign the contract, so it's void like it's not binding. But, Chicago says “no, it is” and says that they will sue him for breach of contract if he tries to get out of it and regardless the babies are coming Chicago. So, to get around this, there is a willing agreement to sign custody over to the Red Cross for a period of two years, and this breaks the contract because there are new guardians and in turn, the Red Cross assumes all medical expenses, the nurses wages, the the supply of breastmilk which was a huge thing in keeping the babies alive and the building of a nursery across the road with all of the best amenities and the most modern equipment to keep them alive. Now, later, though the parents they did sign this willingly at the time and they put their name to paper. They did say later that they were threatened to sign that if they did not sign the doctor would quit and the Red Cross was would withdraw the breastmilk coming. So what can they do? While it was a willing thing, it really wasn't. And this is only supposed to be for two years, but then as you know people are starting to come and money is coming in and different things like that, I'm sure it seems that that maybe the government took more of an interest in the girls. But the girls are in the hospital by September 1934, so only you know few months or so after they’re born really like within that first year. In March 1935, the parents go on this vaudeville trip to Chicago as parents of the world-famous babies. They stand on stage and say “thank you for your support – merci”. It’s a five-minute thing, nothing big and keeping in mind everybody starting to make money at this time, like souvenir shops are starting to kind of be in the works and they say that they do this because they know if they're going to get the babies back in two years, they need to modernize their home or in order to have the proper equipment. However, the Premier of Ontario at the time jumps on this and says, “this is a humiliating thing that they've done to themselves. Look at them, exploiting themselves. If we give the girls back what are they going to do with them?” So the government then passes the Dionne Quintuplets Act through government in March 1935, which then makes them wards of the Crown. I just feel that it is an important distinction to make because even when you read different articles online they slump it together in just saying that the government swooped in right away. That's just it's just not what happened. They did, certainly, there's no justification for it, but that's just the that the cause of events and it really just seems that in the beginning everybody did want to keep them safe and healthy as much as they could, but it just escalated into something nobody could expect.

Peter Handley:
You talked about the French/English business – it’s interesting because Corbeil was a French community and Callander is a mixture right?

Natasha Wiatr:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
And you talked about strength that the priest would have been in their lives. So everything is so mixed up.

Natasha Wiatr:
Oh and on speaking with the priest - he was going to be Mr. Dionne's business manager and receive 7% of the Chicago contract that would've gone towards the building of a new church in Corbeil.

Peter Handley:
You're calling it “Cor-bay”… Now, I know when I came up here and then they do that on the CBC sometimes too, but around here “Corbeil”.

Natasha Wiatr:
I always said Corbeil as well. I've just been speaking with more and more French people and that’s how they pronounce it and considering it is a primarily French story, I'm attempting to change the way that I'm pronouncing different names and different places.

Peter Handley:
That's interesting that sort of puts the whole picture in a nutshell doesn’t it… ‘Quintland.’ Which developed - it's huge. There's a picture or drawing of it in Burton's book and it's a massive complex. It's got souvenir shops, a woolen shop; the original house across it's…

Natasha Wiatr:
The tourism is what really gets me learning more and more about how many souvenir shops and all the advertising contracts and just how popular these girls were in the small town of Corbeil, Ontario which is not very remarkable in terms of the rest of the world, and yet all this happened and just escalated into something so big that nobody could've probably ever imagined it happening.

Peter Handley:
The government paid for all that? Did they build all that?

Natasha Wiatr:
To a point because, from what we know, the hospital or the nursery was built by the Red Cross but actually all the materials were donated everywhere from Orillia to Toronto.

Peter Handley:
Where was the hospital?

Natasha Wiatr:
So, that was directly across the road from the Dionne home and that is the hospital where they moved into in September 1934. The terms “nursery” and “hospital” get interchanged. It seems like it in the earlier times, it's more for of a hospital because the girls were so little and they needed this medical care then by the time they’re five or six they obviously don't need that kind of medical care so now is just a nursery. So, the two terms get interchanged but that was built by the Red Cross. All materials were donated even in Callander the Canadian Timber Company donated log siding and all this.

Peter Handley:
Now, that is now the home for the elderly, right?

Natasha Wiatr:
It’s next to it. It is a separate building and it's owned by Nipissing Manor and they kind of use it as a storage spot but you can certainly drive by and you can see the nursery in its entirety. It was actually, after the girls returned home, it was converted into a school and that's where the girls attended schooling with kids from families of the area and later later it was used as a convent for the Jesuits or Church of Jesus & Mary or something like a convent or church place.

Peter Handley:
So Nipissing Manor was built as a new building?

Natasha Wiatr:
So yes, Nipissing Manor – the section of it that is so critical to the quintuplets story is the big house because the big house is the big mansion that was built to house the entire family in 1943 and this was this lavish 18 room mansion. So, you're asking if the government paid for a lot of this well that house was paid for by money of the quintuplets trust fund so it was the quintuplets essentially themselves, who paid for the big house and then and in modern times. Nipissing Manor have added this big extension to the side of it. So if you look at Nipissing Manor today and you look at the front door, it's clear that it looks like a separate building, but then to the right of it it's got these big rooms and it's extended out and in this map, it's the staff house here that’s in front of it so it would be about here. Now just out of sight on the map the observatory was built with the older playground that was built by the government are the souvenir shops were all privately built the public washrooms would've been built the government as well. The guardhouse likely would've been built by the government. The guardhouse housed the OPP who were on guard 24/7

Peter Handley:
People started to come in droves didn’t they?

Natasha Wiatr:
They started to come as early as April 1935, in which at this point, all we have on our Quintland map is the Dionne home and the nursery. They are coming in and actually entering the hospital directly. This is before the playgrounds built anything like this. This is written in Nurse Yvonne Leroux’s diary and she talks about visitors coming by the hundreds. They enter through the front door, they exit out the kitchen and actually if you look at the blueprint of the hospital there's actually a spot that says “observation window”. So, it was for a very short period of time because of course, the babies were being agitated by this constant noise. Like if they’re like ‘don’t tap on the windows’ well of course you’re going to tap on the window so they stopped that, but then what they do is they add additions to the hospital and enlarge it to make it bigger and it’s to satisfy this public curiosity. Now, the nurses are holding the girls up on the porch to the crowds. So, this is called the ‘Porch Show Era’ and this goes on from spring 1935 until 1936 in the spring and the crowds they just rush the fence. There's a there's a famous photo where a whole bunch of people are running out of a fence and they’re running to get as close as they can to see the girls being held up and they’re are like nameplates you know, ‘this is Annette’ and ‘this is Yvonne’. Of course if Marie wasn't feeling well, the nurses would grab Annette with Marie’s nameplate so who knows who was actually who. Then, at this time as well, the very first one of the first two souvenir shops pops up and it's Mme. Labelle and Mme. Legros the midwives. Their names are on it, but they don't actually own it. They just used their name to a promote it and on the top of the souvenir shop is an observation deck. So, if you don't want to rush with the crowds to get to the fence you could stand up top of this observation deck and get an aerial view looking down.

Peter Handley:
You’re talking on the nurses. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was for a short time - I did an interview with her many years later when she became very famous for her books on birds and we spent very little time talking about the Quints. It was very short and sweet. I don't know. We were in this area… in jeopardy. A lot of people out of work. A lot of people on the dole. The whole area completely was in depression right? Is that safe to say?

Natasha Wiatr:
Absolutely. Even in Burton's book he says that the unemployment, the national average in Canada was 15%, North Bay was 20% and Callander was 70% as all the sawmills had shut down. To put that in perspective, the Smith Mill was going to reopen, was going to employ 150 men for six weeks and it was great news. It burns down two days before it’s supposed to open. Eight days later, the girls are born. So, you can imagine and people ask what was the fascination or why do people care? But you have the town right next door completely just shattered by this latest news and they hear of these births and they’re like maybe of these girls can pull through and survive we can too and that really seems to be the sentiment.

Peter Handley:
The government had to improve the accessibility of Northern Ontario to the vast public that wanted to come up. material to the vast public wanted to come up and see the Quints. The highway was paved I guess?

Natasha Wiatr:
Yeah, certainly not at the beginning but yes the road conditions improved as time went on, and the road from Callander to Corbeil became more and more… It's interesting because you can actually look at different photos and you can see the evolution of the road as it went from country road to slightly less country road to paved and it's a remarkable transformation that you see.

Peter Handley:
Do you have any idea how many people did come and visit when the Quints were young? I know there's a figure even in 1940 when they were six – it was 250,000. Before that, I guess it must've been…

Natasha Wiatr:
It seems that the most commonly accepted number is 3 million. That’s approximately 3000 a day. They did say that, I want to say in 1936 but not quite, but one of the Labor Day weekends there was 6000 people a day. It was the thing to do it. I mean, we actually, you know, different artifacts come along our way in and different things like that. So, we acquired a scrapbook from Sarnia and it shows two different trips to Quintland plus like a picture of Niagara Falls and so we don't know where these people came from, but they came back two years in a row because we can just tell from what the buildings look like in the photos that they took. So it was, it was the thing to do back then and in the people who were coming I mean something like only 40% of Canadians at the time could afford an automobile so those who were coming had money to spend, so that is what helped this massive tourist boom.

Peter Handley:
You’re just mentioning a car... Now, father Dionne was not poor. In fact, by estimates of the time he had a producing farm and he was the only gentleman in the area with a car right?

Natasha Wiatr:
He was one of two – I believe the priest had a car too.

Peter Handley:
But he wasn't poverty-stricken.

Natasha Wiatr:
No and certainly not in regards to the area around. Certainly not. He never went on relief payments – he refused to. I believe he mortgaged his house instead and hauled gravel I believe for four dollars a day. He was a very hard-working and very proud man would not want relief and would provide for his family no matter what. And this is still a misconception that we still see with guests who come in or you see comments on Facebook that say “oh that poor family.” They weren’t poor but then again however much they had, this would've been a massive medical expense…

Peter Handley:
Well they had to look after five babies.

Natasha Wiatr:
Well ten really because they had five kids before. So I mean certainly by modern standards and by that time they were not poor by any means, but it's quite realistic to say that they still would've required some assistance, but they were not this poor or uneducated family that the media made them out to be.

Peter Handley:
Magazines jumped on this whole story was a film called Country Doctor…

Natasha Wiatr:
One of three films.

Peter Handley:
Three films?

Natasha Wiatr:
Yes, there was also “Five of a Kind” and “Reunion” they all also stared the Dionne Quintuplets. An interesting point is, I had someone from the Ingersoll Cheese Factory Museum send me a photo that was in there with her in their collection of a gentleman who travelled around the world and oddly, in 1937 or 1936, he was in Manila in the Philippines and he snapped a photo of a movie theatre and on it said “’Five of a Kind’ now starting the Dionne Quintuplets Now Playing” in the Philippines. Just to show you the reach.

Peter Handley:
Talk about worldwide. They saved the entire region from bankruptcy with all the people that came up here. I'll give you another quote. A government official named Dolan spoke to the Board of Trade. In 1936 and he called them ‘the greatest tourist attraction on the face of the earth’. How would you feel being called tourist attraction?

Natasha Wiatr:
I don't enjoy people looking at me, so I don't think I would appreciate it very much. Can you imagine? The girls had no idea that people… Like they knew that people were coming to see them like they said in a later documentary, but they had no idea 3 million people came to see them. They knew people were coming, but I guess when they found out it was just like, ‘why are people so interested in us?’ And that's always the question, but that's even today, I mean it happens all the time. Weird little celebrity things pop up or weird little instances and people jump on it and are so fascinated - 15 minutes of fame like that sort of thing. As humans we just have a strange inkling to draw towards things out of the ordinary and we blow them into something even bigger than what they are.

Peter Handley:
In your estimation, was there a hero or villain or anything in this story? Soap operas generally have heroes and villains…

Natasha Wiatr:
It certainly seems like it was portrayed as though the doctor was the hero and the father and the parents were the villains. Of course, that's not true at all. For me personally when I look at history I try not to see villains and heroes because I like to try to understand the reasons behind people's actions and who they are as people and to kind of understand why they did what they did. In that way it’s more of a grey area and its less black-and-white and even in a story like this it's fairly grey in that everybody was really just trying to do the best they could to keep the girls safe, but they just did so without any consideration for the parents feelings. They certainly could have worked better to incorporate them more quickly. They rarely went over to the nursery because every time they went over they were made to feel like inadequate parents because the nurses would stand over them, watching them and wouldn't even leave the parents alone with their own kids though these parents had already raised five kids. And of course you have the media that is blowing up this doctor as being this wonderful, marvelous, humble man and it was almost like because he was so unaffected in a sense by everything that's why they were drawn to him more. He was just this pipe smoking man who had a dog and just played with his radio all the time and read books – that’s all he did and yet, he seemed unbothered by a lot of the attention and that drove more attention to him because they were trying to figure him out and really putting him on a pedestal. That’s 100% true and it can certainly spin him into a villain role.

Peter Handley:
You think the media has massive role to play in all this?

Natasha Wiatr:
Certainly. Even from the very start there was the North Bay Nugget or the Nugget at the time that came they were talking to Mr. Dionne and they misquoted him. They are asking all these personal invasive questions and he goes, “you know, the way you're talking you make it sound like I’m the kind of man that ought to be put in jail” well they print “I’m the kind of man that ought to be put in jail” and that instantly puts distrust in Mr. Dionne towards the reporters because it made him look like a fool in the papers. The second big instance is he comes home to find reporters in his home because the doctors let them in to take photos of his kids and he's like, get out, get out, kicking them out. So he's very hostile towards reporters because they're hounding him, but then you have the doctor who was doing every interview and answering anything anybody asks. He'll answer, he’ll let you see the babies, so of course the media swings to the doctor side and the parents get kind of pushed off to the other side. The Nugget does seem to be one of the more unbiased papers from the time but if you leave this area especially in the United States and you read some of the articles, they are horrible towards the family. They’re so derogatory and racist and they just praise the doctor so it's no wonder that people have these misconceptions in their mind when they look at the story as a whole. They come in with such strong opinions towards these individuals…

Peter Handley:
Do you think that's one reason why the sisters are almost reclusive?

Natasha Wiatr:
It could be. They’re also likely just tired of talking about it and not wanting to be bugged about it and just wanting to live in peace finally. But, then again, in the last couple years they have spoken out and actually last year they put out a very interesting article on their birthday last year or just this past May for their birthday and they talked about how to caution parents who are allowing their kids to use social media like YouTube and Instagram to sell products and to become these influencers and to gain as many followers as they can because this is moneymaking. The sisters are saying you know this could be another way of child exploitation like you're taking his childhoods away from the kids, so they're still very much active and they’ve become more active in the last few years. Certainly before that for a very long time they were very reclusive.

Peter Handley:
You mentioned sponsorship. There was a lot of that wasn't there. There were the dolls and all sorts of other things.

Natasha Wiatr:
Absolutely. It became a monopoly of sorts. For example, Mme. Alexander dolls – they were the only ones who could make the dolls in the likeness of the Quintuplets. You had Carol’s Syrup – that was the only syrup company. You had Palmolive Soap – Palmolive Oil. They had that so you’d see the same ads over and over and if anybody else tried to use the word Quints or Quinn was another one that was used or Dionne Quintuplets, the board of guardians had the terms trademarked so no one else could use them. But some companies did their best to try to get around that like we actually have a Heinz ketchup ad in which it just has five tomatoes with faces on them - nothing about quintuplets, but you know and people knew. We also have a little cartoon - it's an advertisement by Walt Disney and its Pluto in his Quin’pup’lets and you know that they did not pay royalties to the Quintuplets for that because who would've thought to trademark Quin’pup’lets. So yeah, the advertising it's just massive like their faces were on everything – even on cigarette holders we've seen.

Peter Handley:
Mitch Hepburn was the Premier and he made several visits.

Natasha Wiatr:
He did. I guess at the time he kind of saw himself as the baby’s savior in all this. And of course in a very political sense, he thought he could be the one to kind of swoop in and save the girls from these parents who were so willing to put themselves on stage and just blew it out of proportion.

Peter Handley:
If the government hadn't stepped in where do you see the story going?

Natasha Wiatr:
It’s really hard to say because people were coming regardless, but people were also wanting to help. Like everybody, especially across Canada and North America, people were sending clothes and gifts and money like they were sending all this stuff to them to try to help them out. Incubators were arriving and different things. So, people wanted to help. But it's hard to say how it would have turned out like people were going to be coming and could the family deal with that by themselves? It’s quite possible they could have but when you have thousands of people showing up at the door or maybe with the government not being involved and the government and the Red Cross building a separate place, it almost sensationalized them more and made people want to pay attention. Maybe if they had just stayed quiet, maybe it wouldn’t have turned into this crazy frenzy. If the parents were able to keep them at home and just quietly live.

Peter Handley:
Because there wasn’t the media then that there is now. Basically it was some radio and print that was it. No social media or anything like that.

Natasha Wiatr:
There were video reels like the pathe newsreels that would be shown in movie theatres across the world. Pathe news of course got their contract signed with the guardianship as well so there's lots of these news clips of the girls playing, and it's like “today in the Dionne nursery… This is happening”. Oh, my apologies, not the Dionne nursery - that's part of the contention. It was called the Dafoe Hospital not the Dionne hospital and that was a big source of contention because they felt that at the very least, it should've just been called the hospital for the Dionne Quintuplets, but it was called the Dafoe Hospital and that did not go over well of course with the Dionne family so that was a mistake on my part. But these newsreels were to say how you know, like today here's what the girls are going to do, and they can really play it up and people all over the world fell in love with them.

Peter Handley:
Is there anything that you discovered about the story during your research… anything that shocked you or really made you say ‘my God’ or was it a natural progression considering the climate of the times? Considering the poverty of the area, did it flow logically to you or was there was an aberration there?

Natasha Wiatr:
I mean, in a in a sense, you can kind of see how it managed to progress into how it did, but just the fact that they were so easily able to push the family aside and not make them try to be more involved or invite them or make them feel more welcome to be involved in all these different steps. That could've made all the difference. The hospital, they built it from scratch so they could have built it big enough to house the entire family but that never seem to have occurred to anybody at the time. Why didn't they build a hospital big enough so the whole family could move in there and live altogether? You know there are things that could absolutely have been done. I just, I think for me personally, a lot of it is the. The advertising and the tourism that really is fascinating to me personally and just the way the contracts were. The fact that the girls could only be photographed for a number of years by the NEA, which was the Newspaper Enterprise Association like an American paper syndicate.

Peter Handley:
They sold everything didn’t they?

Natasha Wiatr:
Yes, all those pictures – there was only one man who was able to take photographs of them and that was Fred Davis who would actually end up eventually marrying nurse Yvonne Leroux. Fred Davis took just thousands of photographs and no one else was allowed to - the parents could not photograph their kids. When the girls went to meet the King and Queen of England in 1939, they were not allowed to have a photograph with them because of the different photo copyrights. So there's not a photo of them meeting the King and Queen and you’d think that's a monumental moment that you could just put the contract aside for a moment, just for this one exception but no. and at one point the family also signed a separate a photograph contract. I believe with King Syndicate and because of the two conflicting copyrights, the family was not photographed together again between the 1935 to 38 or 39. So for a number of years, the family is never photographed together and so what the public is looking at is pictures of Dr. Dafoe posing and and sitting with the girls of Dr. Dafoe playing with them on the newsreels. So of course in the public eye, it’s him who is seen as the father and the parents are nowhere to be found.

Peter Handley:
A fascinating story. Just to wrap up, it is a morality tale? Can we learn anything from this?

Natasha Wiatr:
Certainly we hope so just in terms of child abuse and child exploitation, and using children for the gain of other people is a massive thing that and even that’s something that the sisters today have spoken out about and they don't want their story forgotten because they never want something like this to ever happen again. We’d like to think that maybe were moving forward and it doesn't seem like people would come and see kids in a kind of zoo area in all this and that was typical of the time for sure, and we like to look back on that and say ‘oh that will never happen again today’, but in a sense it still does on reality TV. It's just in a different format. Now it's digital so we can open up our phones to go all look at it all. There’s an update on octo-mom and her kids down wherever they are and then we can close it and go on with our day and continue with our lives. We don’t drive hundreds of miles you know to come and see them in person, but were still looking at them and we’re still giving attention to them.

Peter Handley:
I’m thinking of JonBenét Ramsey - the murder case in the States. She was about six and she was a beauty queen at the age of five or six and there’s all sorts of this stuff going on.

Natasha Wiatr:
Yeah, the beauty pageants are something else… You know I’d like to think that we’re moving forward and I think that probably for the most part we are, but at the same time, I don’t know. I think it's human nature to be fascinated by different, by odd, by curious by that kind of stuff.

Peter Handley:
Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Natasha Wiatr:
Yeah, they've got an article on the Quintuplets on their website. So there you go

Peter Handley:
Natasha, many thanks for coming in to talk with us.

Natasha Wiatr:
Thank you very much for having me.

Peter Handley:
It's interesting to get the point of view from somebody went from basically not even knowing what they were to being able to talk fluidly and fluently about the subject. Natasha Wiatr – Curator of the Callander Museum & Gallery located in the Dr. Dafoe home office in Callander – our guest. Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions put together by the North Bay Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community. We shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Production Kealey Ducharme. Pete Handley speaking.