The Infantorium

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s a big old apartment building in South Minneapolis that looks out of place. It’s in a residential neighborhood with small bungalows and some auto body shops.

Katie Thornton:
But this apartment building fills up an entire corner lot. I’ve bypassed this place hundreds of times and it always struck me as kind of weird.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Katie Thornton.

Katie Thornton:
I started digging through old newspapers and I found out why it’s there. That building is the last remnant of an early 1900s amusement park. It was called ‘Wonderland.’ A friend of a friend named Hilary lives there now and she gave me a tour.

Hilary Johnson:
“We are at my apartment building. It’s on the corner of 31st and 31st in South Minneapolis. As I understand it, there was an amusement park here.”

Roman Mars:
The park had a rollercoaster and a dance hall and a log flume, but the biggest attraction was something much stranger.

Katie Thornton:
A bizarre sideshow that used to fill the apartment complex where Hilary lives now. When she signed the lease, her landlord told her the building used to be called “the Infantorium.”

Hilary Johnson:
What he said at the time was like they had premature babies living in this building and being taken care of in the building as part of the attraction of the park.

Roman Mars:
Visitors to the Infantorium would pay 10 cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes. They were incubators with tiny premature babies on display. And this wasn’t the only place this was happening.

Lauren Rabinovitz:
The fact that there was a pavilion for incubator babies at Wonderland is not an isolated incident.

Katie Thornton:
Lauren Rabinowitz is an amusement park historian.

Lauren Rabinovitz:
Incubators for premature babies were oddly enough, a phenomenon at the turn of the century that was available at state and county fairs, and amusement parks rather than hospitals.

Roman Mars:
At this moment in history, if you wanted your at-risk premature baby to survive, you pretty much had to bring them to an amusement park. These incubator shows cropped up across America. They were the main source of health care for premature babies for over 40 years.

Katie Thornton:
When the incubator attractions started in the late 1800s, the world was a lot deadlier. Almost 1 in 5 babies in the United States died before childhood and that was an improvement from the previous decades.

Roman Mars:
At the turn of the century, 19 of 20 births were still happening at home, which isn’t a problem if your baby is healthy, but not all of them were. Like today, a lot of babies were born too early.

Katie Thornton:
The majority of American hospitals had nothing to help them. No technology, no special skills. There was no central to keep them warm. Doctors would place heated bricks in cribs and cross their fingers.

Roman Mars:
In private, people tried everything to keep premature babies alive. They put these infants in boxes stuffed with feathers to keep them warm. They rubbed oil on the babies and kept them near fireplaces, but more than three-quarters of premature babies were dying. And in America, no one in the medical community was trying to solve this problem.

Katie Thornton:
But things look different over in France. French doctors stole an idea from the poultry industry, which used incubators to hatch chicken eggs. They designed a human version. Basically, it was a warm box heated by a hot water tank below. In the 1890s, a Frenchman named Alexandre Lion modernized the whole thing. The air in Lion’s incubator was heated by a pipe flowing with hot water. The temperature was pretty consistent and the box was ventilated, but Lion’s real innovation was to put a big glass window on the box. And then he filled the box with a baby.

Dawn Raffel:
He built a better machine and he displayed it at the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1896.

Katie Thornton:
Dawn Raffel is the author of the new book about the unexpected origins of modern incubation.

Dawn Raffel:
He showed the new machine with preemies and side and it was a sensation. There were drinking hall songs about it. He called it ‘Die Kinder-Brutanstalt’ which was literally child hatchery. And so it took on the environment of a sideshow.

Roman Mars:
Some carnival showman bought knock-off machines and started charging entry to their own premature baby shows. But keeping a baby alive is more complicated than putting them in a box and flipping a switch. So most of them got out of the business pretty quickly.

Katie Thornton:
But one showman was hooked on this idea. In 1897, Dr. Martin Couney put on his first incubator baby show in London.

Dawn Raffel:
Somehow he may have just gotten down to the idea that this is kind of a cool way to make money in the beginning, so he went with this show.

Roman Mars:
Unlike other showmen, Couney hired nurses to hold the babies and feed them breastmilk. The babies were healthier and survived at higher rates. The public loved it. So Dr. Couney decided to try it out in the United States at the Omaha World’s Fair.

Katie Thornton:
Details were always a little vague when Couney told his life story to Americans, but a few points stayed consistent. He was from Europe and he was trained in Germany and France, which were decades ahead of the US in terms of medical education. He called himself Dr. Martin Couney, though his given name was actually Michael Cohn and he said he’d just arrived in the US for the first time, though he’d actually emigrated from Poland about a decade earlier. Like a good showman. He had a knack for exaggeration.

Dawn Raffel:
Sometimes he said he invented the incubators. He didn’t.

Katie Thornton:
Dr. Couney beckoned people to his show with bold hand-painted signs that said things like ‘wonderful invention’ and ‘infant incubators with living infants.’ Lots of spectators came and so did parents of premature babies who handed them over to Dr. Couney hoping for a miracle.

Roman Mars:
Couney perfected his sideshow at the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. That fair has gone down in infamy as the place where President William McKinley was shot and later died of gangrene. But aside from that, people had a really good time at the fair.

Katie Thornton:
Dr. Couney was set up on the midway. It’s the section filled with carnival rides and sideshows. And in Buffalo, it was popping off with attractions like ‘House Upside Down’ and ‘Jerusalem on the Morning of the Crucifixion.’ Thousands of people paid 10 cents each to see Dr. Couney’s incubator show.

Dawn Raffel:
They had barkers outside saying, “Don’t forget to see the babies. Maybe the future president is inside.” He knew how to be a showman. He knew how to talk to people, and he loved talking to people.

Roman Mars:
Dr. Couney greeted thousands of people on the midway. His exhibit was full of futuristic glass incubators. One reporter wrote in Cosmopolitan that Couney’s incubator babies were more exciting than Niagara Falls. Newspapers as far away as Hawaii reported on the survival of the infants.

Dawn Raffel:
It was like a reality TV show in some ways where there were people who would come every week to look at the babies and they’d have a favorite that they’d be rooting for.

Katie Thornton:
A local medical journal reported that 48 of the 52 babies delivered to Couney that summer had survived, but even so, American doctors were not banging down Couney’s door for his machines. This lifesaving technology was stuck on the midway.

Roman Mars:
Despite the big crowds and the good press, Couney was still spending more money than he was bringing in.

Dawn Raffel:
To build an exhibit for a World’s Fair was a tremendous amount of work. Safety, points of entrance and egress, ventilation, electricity… You basically had to build a NICU and then when the whole thing is over, you have to tear it all down.

Roman Mars:
Luckily for Couney, a new fad was sweeping the country in the early 1900s.

Katie Thornton:
Amusement parks took all the excitement of the fair midways and made them permanent. In the early 1900s, amusement parks were popping up all over the country – like all over the country. In 1909, a reporter from Pittsburgh apologized on behalf of the city. He wrote, “We regret that we are possibly the only city in the country of any consequence that will go through the coming summer season with only three amusement parks.”

Katie Thornton:
By 1910, every us city with at least 20,000 people had their own park. People wanted to have fun and amusement parks were all about unbridled pleasure.

Lauren Rabinovitz:
It’s not an intellectual thing at all. It’s just a kind of giddy physical amusement. The attendance figures for these parks are phenomenal. You could get things like a quarter of the population of a medium-sized city on a weekend.

Roman Mars:
Most of the early parks were owned by electric trolley companies, who use the parks to get passengers on their trains. The trolley lines would also end at the amusement park and the electric cables from the train would be hooked up to power the roller coasters.

Katie Thornton:
The parks were places where new technology was smuggled into American society under the guise of entertainment. At the time, there was a lot of uneasiness about new technology. Electric trains, lights and motors weren’t always safe, but in amusement parks, technology wasn’t something to be feared or mistrusted.

Lauren Rabinovitz:
Playing with these things, making them part of leisure and recreation, acclimated people to them physically with their bodies, but also made them pleasurable – made them pleasurable at a time when there might be some anxiety about these new technologies.

Katie Thornton:
When people got on thrill rides or watched firework displays, they saw that technology could be fun and safe. In a way, Dr. Couney’s incubator babies where the essence of amusement parks and Couney’s exhibit in Buffalo caught the eye of two businessmen who were planning to build a brand new park in Coney Island.

Dawn Raffel:
They saw this as a really cool show. It’s as interesting as a ride. This would work at an amusement park.

Roman Mars:
Coney Island already had two other self-contained amusement parks and until it burned down in 1896 a seven-story hotel shaped like an elephant, but these businessmen were taking it to the next level.

Katie Thornton:
Their new endeavor would be called ‘Luna Park.’ It featured a ride imported from Buffalo called ‘A Trip to the Moon’, it brought passengers into a paper mâché fantasy world full of scientifically incorrect foliage and 200 actors playing moon people. And among Luna Park’s flagship attractions was Dr. Couney’s incubator babies.

Roman Mars:
When the sunset on May 16th, 1903, Luna Park’s switched on 250,000 electric light bulbs and open their gates to 60,000 people who gathered outside. Many of them made a beeline for the babies.

Katie Thornton:
Coney Island was the start of something big for Dr. Couney

Roman Mars:
In the spring of 1905, he traveled to Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis to set up new exhibits. His incubators captivated audiences across the country and he became stinking rich.

Katie Thornton:
Couney bought a nice house near the shore on Coney Island where he was known to host extravagant dinners. If Dr. Couney was in it for the money, he got what he wanted, but the thing is he made a lot of choices that weren’t driven by profit. He really wanted to save babies and to get the incubators into hospitals.

Roman Mars:
In his travels, Couney would wine and dine doctors and give them demonstrations of the incubators. On multiple occasions, he tried to get health departments to as incubators after the local fair season was over. He even tried to donate his incubators to the city of San Francisco, but no one would take them.

Katie Thornton:
Doctors had all sorts of reasons for rejecting the technology. One reason was the disgraceful influence of the eugenics movement. In 1901, an anonymous editorial made the rounds in medical journals asking if the incubators should be shut down. The author wrote that the human race suffered by keeping alive babies who would quote “transmit their deficiencies, deformities, and vices to the next generation.”

Katie Thornton:
Eugenics was a hateful and racist pseudoscience and it was not a fringe movement. A lot of the fairs where Couney showed his babies also had eugenics exhibits.

Roman Mars:
There were lots of other concerns about Couney’s approach. Like maybe amusement parks weren’t the best place for fragile infants.

Lauren Rabinovitz:
I think of them primarily as an assault on your senses. The noise, the bright lights, the smells of food. They were somewhat seedy.

Katie Thornton:
Amusement parks were noisy and a lot of them served alcohol and had gambling and they became known as places where young people of all different backgrounds bumped a little more than elbows. You could make out in the ‘Tunnel of Love’ or flirt on the dance floor and then you would head over to the babies. This juxtaposition made some people uneasy.

Roman Mars:
And the midways could be incredibly dangerous. Many of the parks were built quickly, were pretty shoddy and prone to fire. One time in 1911, a Coney Island Park with one of Couney’s incubator shows went up in flames.

Dawn Raffel:
A New York Times stop the press had reported on the front page that all the babies had died. That was actually not true. It was an error. All the babies had in fact survived.

Roman Mars:
And beyond the safety concerns. There was something deeply unsettling about the incubator shows. Today, it’s clear that putting babies on display and profiting off them is unquestionably exploitative.

Katie Thornton:
In many ways, Couney’s exhibits were in line, with the worst parts of amusement parks and World’s Fairs. In addition to the rides, many fairs and parks had ethnological villages where Native Americans or people from far away nations would live onsite in stereotyped caricatures of their homes. Some people were literally caged and incarcerated on the grounds with no record of payment. On a lot of midways, there was a despicable willingness to exploit human life for the entertainment of the privileged and charging money to see struggling infants was another manifestation of this unethical practice.

Roman Mars:
And while we’re talking about our discomfort with incubator shows, there’s one more thing that should make you uncomfortable with Dr. Couney.

Dawn Raffel:
He wasn’t a real doctor. There is no medical license on record for him in this country. In the cities where he said he attended medical school in Germany, there is no record of his matriculation in of those schools.

Roman Mars:
This was not common knowledge. Even Couney’s obituary said he was a doctor.

Katie Thornton:
Couney always told his staff that he had a license to practice in Europe, but it just hadn’t transferred to the US or something like that. They followed his instructions, the babies lived, and he worked magic with the media and passers-by.

Roman Mars:
So Dr. Couney was a fraud, but that doesn’t mean his contribution to medicine wasn’t real. The babies in his care or more than four times as likely to survive into childhood.

Katie Thornton:
Saving the babies became Martin Couney’s mission. He liked to say he was making propaganda for preemies. His staff took care in nurturing the babies, even feeding those too weak to suckle through the nose with a dropper. He took babies of all races and classes and he never wants to charge the families. Everything was funded by admissions.

Roman Mars:
After 35 years of Couney’s incubator exhibits, his sideshow was still the best place to keep a premature baby alive. By the 1930s most hospitals hadn’t created alternatives to the Infantorium so people kept bringing their newborns to the midway.

Katie Thornton:
But in the depths of the Great Depression, incubators finally made a breakthrough when Martin Couney teamed up with a sympathetic doctor in Chicago.

Dawn Raffel:
That’s where he met Dr. Julius Hess, who was everything Martin Couney wasn’t. He was a real doctor. He had absolutely stellar credentials and Hess was very impressed with what Martin Couney was doing and Hess really learned a lot of what he knew from Dr. Couney.

Katie Thornton:
Hess was a respected physician with a passion for infant care and over the years he saw how Couney’s system was saving a lot of people, but Hess had to be careful with his associations. Like Couney, he was also up against the medical system that didn’t seem to care if these babies lived or died. Hess wanted his cause to be taken seriously and being the doctor that endorsed the medical sideshow at the local amusement park wasn’t a good look.

Roman Mars:
Hess designed his own incubator and in the 1920s, he got a little bit of funding to open an infant wing at his Chicago hospital, but it couldn’t keep up with demand.

Dawn Raffel:
Julius Hess had been struggling within the system to try to get publicity and funding, and just couldn’t get enough. He was turning away patients because he didn’t have the resources. He needed a publicity machine and Martin Couney at that point needed respectability.

Roman Mars:
When Chicago hosted the World’s Fair in 1933, Couney’s exhibit had the explicit support of Julius Hess and that carried a lot of weight. Even Chicago’s health commissioner got on board. The fair. It ran for two summers and in the second summer, they held an incubator baby reunion event. Joyous mothers carried their one-year-old babies and strolled down the midway. Each baby had been saved by the incubator just one year before.

Katie Thornton:
After the fair, Chicago became the first city in America to create a public health policy specifically for premature infants. Dr. Julius Hess became known as the father of American neonatology and with the blessing of the Chicago medical community, other cities started putting incubators in their hospitals too.

Roman Mars:
As doctors got on board, Couney’s Infantorium started shutting down across the country. By the 1940s, Coney Island was the last of his exhibitions taking babies. And some of those babies are still alive today.

Beth Allen:
I’ve had people refer to it as Dr. Couney’s hospital and all of this kind of terminology, but it was no such thing. It was a sideshow.

Katie Thornton:
This is Beth Allen, born in Brooklyn in 1941.

Beth Allen:
Yes. Well, I was one of the last group of babies that he took care of. He was not a young man then.

Katie Thornton:
78 years ago, Beth’s mother was rushed to a hospital near her house. She had been pregnant just six months. She pushed out two painfully tiny twins. One died shortly after childbirth. Beth was a mere shadow of an infant. At just over a pound and a half, she weighed less than a third of what she should have weighed. The hospital staff had no choice, but to tell Beth’s mother to take her tiny struggling child to Coney Island.

Beth Allen:
She was totally against it. When the doctor said that she had to send me, let me go, to Dr. Couney, she said, “No, I’m not. My baby is not a freak. She’s not going to a sideshow. No way.” And it took a personal visit from Dr. Couney to convince her to let him take me.

Roman Mars:
By now, Couney was in his 70s. He knew this child would not survive without his help. He pleaded with Beth’s mother and finally she agreed. Beth says it’s the only reason she’s alive today.

Beth Allen:
The doctors didn’t want it. They felt that the babies were weaklings. Either they lived or they died, and nobody made any great effort to save them.

Katie Thornton:
Beth was an attraction. The nursing staff would take a wedding band and put it around her wrist just to show how tiny she was as though it wasn’t obvious. There wasn’t any clothing that fit her. So she literally wore doll’s clothes. But if you ask Beth, she considers herself lucky. Her parents visited her every day and they grew to trust and respect the same showman who convinced them to turn their daughter into a sideshow attraction.

Beth Allen:
My parents took me to visit him every Father’s Day until he passed away because that’s how they felt about him.

Roman Mars:
In 1943, a Brooklyn hospital open the city’s first department for premature infants and Martin Couney closed up shop at Coney Island. He told his family his work was finished. Couney had blown all of his savings keeping his incubator shows operating in New York. He lived off checks from sympathetic donors like Julius Hess. But seven years after his last show, Martin Couney died penniless. Beth Allen’s parents were at his funeral.

Beth Allen:
I’m so proud to be an incubator baby because there are so few of us now who are left to tell the story and make sure that Dr. Couney gets all the praise he deserves.

Katie Thornton:
And what do you have to say to the people who think that this was exploitative or wrong?

Beth Allen:
I say, look at me. Here I am.

Roman Mars:
Beth is just one of the amusement park babies to come out of Couney’s 45-year tenure as the sideshow doctor.

Katie Thornton:
Despite everything, Martin Couney’s attractions saved nearly 7,000 babies – kept alive for our amusement.

Roman Mars:
Up next, more of the consequences of putting babies on display. The story of the Dionne quintuplets after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m now talking with Katie Thornton who reported that story. And the amazing part about the Dr. Couney story is that even though you can feel kind of weird and queasy about the scenario, by the end, especially when you hear from Beth, this is a happy ending to this story. He did a lot of good and saved a lot of babies’ lives. But you came across another incubator story when you were researching this that did not end that well.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, totally. So I mean the whole thing is super conflicting. But definitely talking with Beth and talking with Dawn, they all met other babies of Dr. Couney’s and they all kind of said the same thing that Beth said, which is it’s just that they felt saved, and they knew they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. But I did come across a story from the 1930s and it took place in rural Ontario. It’s like more than 200 miles north of Toronto, outside of a town called Callander. And basically, in the 1930s, it was during the Depression. This guy contacts his local newspaper and he’s basically like, “Hey, is it more expensive for me to announce five babies being born rather than just one because my sister-in-law just had five babies?”

Roman Mars:
Whoa. That’s amazing that that was his concern is the cost of the announcement in the newspaper.

Katie Thornton:
Right. Yes.

Roman Mars:
But that’s great.

Katie Thornton:
And then like classic small-town paper, the person who’s placing the birth announcements is the ad guy, but he’s also a staff reporter. So he’s like, “No way. You’re full of it.” And so he goes out there. The uncle is like, “No. I swear that she had five babies.” Because at the time there were no quintuplets that were known to have survived. So the staff reporter goes out there and he’s like, “Yes, there’s actually quintuplets.” And then it just gets picked up all over the US and all over Canada.

Roman Mars:
And so did they end up surviving?

Katie Thornton:
Yeah. All five of them survived. And as you mentioned, it was because of an incubator. So basically, remember how we were talking about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934 where they did the reunion?

Roman Mars:
Right, right.

Katie Thornton:
So the quintuplets were born. They were called the Dionne’s, and they were born two days after the fair started, and it was actually William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who was like, “Get Couney up there. Get him up to Callander.” Outside of Callander, really far north of Ontario. And Couney said no, but Hearst sent up a reporter and with the reporter, he sent them an incubator because they knew that the babies would need an incubator to survive. They didn’t have electricity in the house, so they sent up this gas-powered incubator. And I guess it was this whole fiasco at the border because they were like, “We have no idea what that is.”

Katie Thornton:
But basically it wasn’t Couney, but some other people from that same World’s Fair from a different attraction on the midway, flew to Ontario and they asked the father to bring the babies down so they could feature them in their attraction, and they gave him a really big check, which was super tempting because he already had five kids and now he had five more, and it was the middle of the Depression.

Roman Mars:
So did he take the money?

Katie Thornton:
He did take the money, which is kind of where the story takes a pretty dark turn. First, before he took the money he went to the local priest, and the priest was like, “Yeah, you should take it. And then while you’re at it, why don’t you give some of that money to the church because the church is responsible for miracles and this whole birth is a miracle.” Yada, yada, all this stuff.

Roman Mars:
Oh, God.

Katie Thornton:
And so then everybody is furious that he took the money. It felt like the parents were exploiting the children that they shouldn’t be raising them. And so within two days, the Dad was like, “Nevermind.” He gave back the check, but everybody was already super angry. The public was outraged, and they put a bunch of pressure on the Ontario government not to let the parents raise the kids.

Roman Mars:
Oh my. So what did the Ontario government end up doing?

Katie Thornton:
They did end up getting a legal order to take the quintuplets away from their parents. And then they passed the Dionne Quintuplets Guardianship Act, which made the quintuplets wards of the Crown. So it basically removed all authority from the parents and made them the responsibility of the government, and then they realized, “Hey, there’s a lot of interest in this. We can make a lot of money off of this.” And they built this sort of hospital/nursery for them to grow up in, and it basically became a theme park. They called it ‘Quintland’ and people would travel up to Northern Ontario to go to Quintland.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. This is so grim. So did people end up coming to Quintland?

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, they totally came to Quintland. I mean the quintuplets were supposedly taken to prevent their exploitation, but then they absolutely are exploited by this guardianship board. They were super, super popular. They were in a bunch of American newsreels, so all these Americans knew about them. Actually, there’s still some of those newsreels available, so maybe we can watch one together.

Roman Mars:
Cool. Okay. I have one here on me. I’ll get it started. Okay, so it says the Dionne Triplets at Callander, Ontario.

Newsreel:
“Nowadays selling Dionne souvenirs is a thriving trade. But while they wait outside, we go in to find the two-and-a-half-year-old little girls enjoying the final dip of the season in their own private bathing pool. That’s Yvonne with the ribbon in her hair. She’s generous, but then they’re all generous. In the play yard, Yvonne takes the center of the stage…”

Roman Mars:
This is mesmerizing.

Newsreel:
“Marie tests out an unbreakable doll. Boy, is she tough.”

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, it’s terrible because you know how terrible their story is, and yet it’s just so cute. It’s like a nightmare.

Newsreel:
“The ride on the Go-kart is very nice.”

Katie Thornton:
Like she’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. She’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Katie Thornton:
Oh my gosh. I can’t handle it.

Roman Mars:
And they’re just surrounded by this little fence. It’s a little zoo for babies.

Katie Thornton:
Totally. Yeah. It was absolutely a zoo for babies, and that’s really how people treated it. They came to Northern Ontario. They would watch the girls as they grew up for years and years of their childhood through one-way glass. But obviously, the girls knew that they were there because they could hear them, and it was just pretty bleak.

Roman Mars:
And in addition to the zoo aspect of just watching the girls, who are adorable – walking around and interacting the way toddlers do – there was this huge gift shop associated with it up front. There are like souvenirs and stuff.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah. I mean this became such a market. There was such a cottage industry around it. They had these dolls, and their dolls outsold Shirley Temple dolls five-to-one. That’s wild. I’ve heard of Shirley Temple, but I’d never heard of the Dionne quintuplets before this story. People would just take random rocks from the area and sell them as fertility rocks because people would go there because they thought there was something magical about the soil there. Amelia Earhart came to visit just a few weeks before she went missing. And kind of in the same way that we started this story with that building in Minneapolis, you could really do the same thing with Quintland because you could say, there’s a six-lane highway in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ontario because they built all this infrastructure to get all the tourists out there. And they were in all these ads. I mean, there was a lot of money made off these young girls.

Roman Mars:
And, I mean, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a bunch of kids who probably don’t know any different, but how did they cope under that sort of pressure?

Katie Thornton:
It didn’t end when they were children, of course. They never got to learn normal social skills. They never got to learn normal life skills. I don’t remember exactly what the story was, but I think one of them, when she was 18 and she was out on her own, she had never handled cash before, so she didn’t know how to spend money. And it’s all really twisted because the Ontario government, like you said, they supposedly took over their guardianship to keep the quintuplets from being exploited, but instead, the Ontario government did a lot of exploitation. They spent all this money that was supposed to go to a trust fund for the quintuplets, they spent it all on security for their amusement park and salaries for staff. And so later on in their lives, they ended up having a lot of financial troubles.

Roman Mars:
So what ended up happening with the quintuplets as they grew up?

Katie Thornton:
Eventually, they went back to their parents after kind of a long drawn out legal battle, so they were nine-and-a-half years old when they went back to their parents. But their family life was just super, painfully rocky. They never got to learn how to be a family. Their father was abusive. It was really, really painful. And when they turned 18, all the quintuplets left and they tried to just find a quiet life elsewhere. One, maybe even two of them, went on to be a librarian, so a much quieter life. And it was just really tough. And then in the 90s the surviving quintuplets decided to come forward about their exploitation, and that’s where this person named Carlo Tarini comes in. He is a friend of the Dionne’s now, but at the time he was working in PR, and I’ll just let him tell the story.

Carlo Tarini:
A book editor who was a client calls me up and he says, “Carlo. We need your help. We have a book. It’s about the Dionne quintuplets.” I said, “Oh. The Dionne quintuplets. I know that story very well. How are the sisters doing today?” And he told me, “Well, this is exactly why we’re putting out a book.” I said, “Well, what’s going on?” He says, “Well, the three surviving sisters are living in the same house with a leaking roof, and they wanted to put out a book in order to help to pay for the groceries and to fix the roof.” And I said, “How can this be?” I was flabbergasted.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s tragic.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, it’s heavy. And Carlo, just a little bit of background about Carlo, when he was a kid and he started school, he didn’t speak any English, and he goes to the library and the first English language book he ever pulled out from the library was about the Dionne quintuplets. And so when he got to work on this project, he got super emotionally invested, not just in the book. He did a bunch of research and he paid lawyers and forensic accountants out of his own pocket to prove that the sisters had been terribly exploited when they were young. And he ended up getting them a bunch of media attention. This is back in the ’90s, and all of these senior citizens of Canada start writing to the Ontario government and they say, “Hey. This is wrong. You should pay some reparations.” And after years of work he finally got them a settlement, which was pretty awesome. So it was about three million US dollars.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so good. This story is horrible, but I’m glad there’s a little bit of justice in the end, all credit to Carlo. I mean, what a saint. Yeah, it’s amazing.

Katie Thornton:
Totally. Yeah. He’s a really good friend, and obviously, money can never undo what happened to them, but two of the sisters are still alive. They’re super close friends. They don’t really talk to the media. They still want to live a quiet life. They have some friends. They got their house fixed up. It’s a museum now. So those are somewhat positive outcomes.

Roman Mars:
Well, they’re amazing stories. Thank you so much for reporting them and working with us again on this. It’s been fantastic.

Katie Thornton:
Well, thanks.

Credits

Production

Reporter Katie Thornton has posted many archival photos of the Infantorium on her Instagram account, @itskatiethornton. She spoke with Lauren Rabinovitz, Professor of American Studies and Cinematic Studies at the University of Iowa and author of Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity; Dawn Raffel, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies; Beth Allen, former Dr. Couney patient; Hilary Johnson; Carlo Tarini, family spokesperson for the Dionne sisters. This episode was edited by Chris Berube and Joe Rosenberg.

  1. Jonas Stallmeister

    Fascinating, unbelievable story, especially hearing it two weeks after the birth of my child in a modern hospital.

    Thanks for your podcast – my favorite series.

  2. Sean Redmond

    Katie Thornton’s summation was a bit harsh. The emphasis is misplaced. Rather than saying that these babies were freak shows for 45 years, I would lay the blame where it should be properly be laid — at the feet of the medical profession. They are supposed to save lives not take them. These amusement parks provided a reprieve from the sentence of death handed down to them from the medical profession. Thanks to society’s willingness to accept the incubators in amusement parks, over 7,000 people were rescued from death.

    1. Rhubarbjin

      Agreed. The facts are fascinating, but this episode had a bad case of The Morals.

  3. Daybreaq

    I found the coda particularly weird in how the Dionne quintuplets are presented as if most people have never heard of them. Seriously?! Who has never heard of the Dionne quintuplets?! It seems Katie Thornton hadn’t heard about them so she just assumed everyone else had this particular gap in knowledge. She also left out and kinda misrepresented or perhaps simplified aspects of their story … like the whole political/cultural conflict between French Canadians and English Canadians and the Catholic vs Protestant thing.

  4. Daybreaq

    https://youtu.be/91Vj1T-lt7U
    “Million Dollar Babies” is on YouTube. And seriously, just run a search of them and you’ll find tons of documentary video. And every time there is some sort of controversy with those reality shows that feature families with multiples, they bring up the Dionnes. It’s not like the Dionne quintuplets are this obscure story that isn’t well known. The treatment here was just plain weird!

  5. Adam Thorton

    They outsold the Shirley Temple 5 to 1 because there were five dolls you had to buy!

  6. Foxy

    For what it’s worth, I’d never heard of the Dionne quints.

    Hearing their story furnished an explanation for a Looney Tunes gag I’d puzzled over for years. In the 1946 cartoon Baby Bottleneck, Daffy Duck is fielding calls from anxious parents wondering why the stork hasn’t yet arrived. A call comes in on a long distance line and Daffy says “Who? Oh, Mr. Dionne! What?” Then a pause followed by a rather indignant “Mr. Dionne, puh-lease!” delivered directly to the audience.

  7. Rob Leachman

    Thanks for an excellent episode, really enjoyed it and will be on my mind for quite awhile.

  8. Jack

    I agree with several of the comments above that the episode was heavy-handed in trying to tell me what to think about the infantoriums. I recognize that this is the cultural moment we’re in where everyone’s terrified of being accused of supporting or turning a blind eye to injustices or not being woke enough. But expecting the 1930s to conform exactly to 2019 values is not realistic. 2019 values will surely look ridiculous to someone in 2100. For example, people in the future dealing with catastrophic climate change might be outraged that supposedly progressive people in 2019 flew all over the world to lie on beaches and spend leisure time. Of course, these infantoriums wouldn’t be acceptable today but within the values of the 1930s, they saved a lot of lives. That said, yes, violent racial and other social attitudes back then should be called out, but expecting people from 80 years ago to always conform to present-day values assumes that our values are some sort of perfect, end point of moral evolution that people throughout history should have inherently known. This episode hit a nerve with me in taking what I consider a rather arrogant attitude I see a lot these days.

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