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The 1866 Chicago Sextuplets Hidden From the World

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Jennie Bushnell was beside herself. It was September 8, 1866, and the twentysomething had stunned her physician, James Edwards, by delivering six babies. To the best of his knowledge, no one in North America had ever birthed a half-dozen children at once—certainly not in an era that knew little of fertility treatments.

Edwards considered it a historic moment. Jennie did not. To his surprise, both the mother and father of the three boys and three girls begged him not to tell another soul. They made the same plea to the midwife, Prissilla Bancroft.

To the Bushnells, there was little joy in ushering six children into the world. It was a freak occurrence, and Jennie was terrified the world would treat them accordingly.

There’s no easily excavated record of when James Bushnell met Jennie, the British-born French actress who would become his wife. What is known is that after spending a portion of the 1850s and 1860s in Lockport, New York, James arrived in Chicago with Jennie and the two set about starting a family.

Their physician, Edwards, had quizzed the couple about their family heritage and discovered there was a history of multiple births: When Jennie became pregnant, Edwards had some expectation that she might eventually nurse twins or even triplets. But sextuplets were nowhere to be found in English medical literature. The competition for nourishment and life support in the womb was difficult for multiple babies, with complications and premature births lasting well into the 21st century. Six seemed out of the question.

Against the odds, Jennie had her miraculous delivery. But she was struck by an abject fear that the children would be perceived as unusual or even as monstrosities, much in the same way carnival sideshow acts were often exploited for their atypical nature. Somewhere in Jennie’s life, it had been instilled in her that only animals gave birth to “litters” of offspring. The sheer volume she had produced made her feel like a beast.

Although Edwards and Bancroft were sworn to silence, Edwards had a duty to file an official birth certificate. After deliberating for a week, he finally wrote one up, mentioning all six children, and gave a copy to the Bushnells. (Although some news reports give the birth year as 1863, Edwards’s report is dated 1866.) No one in Chicago seemed to bat an eye; it’s possible the certificate was simply tucked away in the city’s logs without being examined.

The handwritten birth certificate of the Bushnell sextuplets. Courtesy of Lucas D. Smith

The Bushnells had a larger problem: They didn’t want the children themselves to know they were part of an exceptional birth. Before a solution presented itself, the family was struck by tragedy—one of the boys, Layeburto, died at just four months. A girl, Linca Lucy, passed away at eight months. With four children left, Jennie and James put forward a story that they were quadruplets. It seemed to take most of the concern away from Jennie, who feared they could be harmed by people who considered the birth some kind of evil aberration.

The Bushnells and their four children—Alincia, Alice, Alberto, and Norberto—went on to live as though Layeburto and Linca Lucy had never existed. Close relatives knew the truth, but the children seemed satisfied with their mother’s explanation. (Happening upon their birth certificate was not going to be possible: their home burned down as part of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, taking their copy of the paper with it.) The family migrated to Buffalo and later back to Lockport, New York, where James found work as a grocer, before moving into bookkeeping at other towns nearby. The children grew into teenagers, unaware that the four of them once numbered six.

Around 1881, Jennie fell ill. It became clear she was not going to recover. One by one, she called each of her 15-year-old children to her to say goodbye and share the truth: that they once had another brother and sister.

“It was a well-kept family secret, and when Mother told us the truth, we were stunned,” Alincia told an NBC radio reporter in the 1940s. Interviewed for the same program, her brother, Alberto, said that Jennie revised history so “people wouldn’t think of us as freaks.”

Those siblings weren’t bothered by the secret or its revelation, but their sister, Alice, was. According to Alincia, Alice shared her mother’s opinion that having six children was like having a litter.

History would eventually prove there had been some substance behind Jennie’s concerns. In 1934, a woman named Elzire Dionne gave birth to quintuplets—five girls who survived the precarious nature of multiple births and subsequently found themselves under a magnifying glass. Their father wanted to exhibit them; Ontario seized them as wards of the state and turned the hospital they lived in into a glorified tourist attraction where they were viewed in the manner Jennie had feared—like circus animals. An estimated three million people made the trek to see them before a custody battle eventually returned them to their parents.

When Alberto spoke with the Daily Messenger in 1936 about the Dionne hysteria that was already brewing, he revealed that a circus promoter named Dan Rice once made similar overtures to his family; Jennie had refused to ever consider such an arrangement. Alberto also insisted that Queen Victoria once offered to subsidize their living expenses, apparently because Jennie was a British-born citizen. If the Dionnes are any example, Jennie may have spared her children considerable distress.

After Norberto and Alberto died in 1933 and 1940, respectively, Alincia (sometimes spelled Alinca) became the oldest surviving Bushnell sextuplet until she died in 1952 at the age of 85. The following year, a physician named John Nichols wrote to Life magazine in response to a recent story about multiple births with a startling statement, one Alinca had related several years prior.

In both accounts, as well as in a 1952 Herald-Journal obituary for Alincia, it’s claimed that the sextuplets weren’t Jennie’s first experience with an unusual delivery. She had delivered triplets in Chicago in 1865, and after the sextuplets, became pregnant once more in Lockport with triplets, then again with quintuplets, for a total of 17 children. (Nichols placed the count at 16, writing that Jennie delivered quadruplets.) Of those, only four lived.

It’s hard to know for certain if Jennie did indeed have such a prolific time in the delivery room. Of the siblings, only Alincia spoke of the other births. Then again, Jennie was never one to share more than she absolutely had to.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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