Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Nation's First Quintuplets Born in Wisconsin

The Surprise and Aftermath of a Miraculous Birth

Nation's First Quints Born in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Long before In Vitro Fertilization and fertility drugs, a Watertown woman gave birth to a naturally-conceived set of quintuplets. They are believed to be the first set of quintuplets born in the U.S.

A Surprise

Edna Kanouse, described as obese by one newspaper, reportedly had no idea she was pregnant with five babies. When she went into labor on February 13, 1875, her husband Edward left her in the care of neighbors and braved a snow storm in search of the doctor.

When he returned, Edward received quite the shock — his wife had given birth to five sons. In total, the babies weighed a little over ten pounds and were all supported by a single placenta. While all of them appeared to be properly developed, none of them lived more than a few hours and one was stillborn.

Protecting the Corpses

The sad couple quietly buried their five sons. But word spread about the phenomenal birth, and the parents soon feared that their children would be exhumed by curious body-snatchers. Rumors even circulated that they had been offered a substantial sum to exhibit the babies in P.T. Barnum's travelling circus. Uncomfortable with the amount of press they received and afraid of possible body-snatchers, the parents exhumed the bodies themselves and placed them in the care of Edward Kanouse's father and brother, both of whom were doctors.

But before their sons' burial Mr. and Mrs. Kanouse had paid a secret visit to the studio of local photographer W.K. Hosken. At Mrs. Kanouse's insistence, Hosken swore that the image captured that day would remain secret. And while he never presented it publically, he did register its copyright. The photograph was re-discovered in the early 1940s, but the final resting place of the five babies has never been ascertained.

[Sources: "We had Quintuplets, Too — In 1875" Wisconsin State Journal, June 11, 1940; "Quintuplets Born in Wisconsin in 1875" Racine Journal-Times, July 5, 1942; "Famous First Facts: a Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in The United States" Third Edition, Joseph Nathan Kane, 1964.]

Learn More

See more about P.T. Barnum.