Double Exposure: Born in 1946, international fame followed the Henn quadruplets
Catonsville’s Henn quadruplets — Thomas, Donald, Bruce and Joan, in that order — were born on Dec. 22, 1946. By the time they were 1-year-old, the babies were already veterans of the international media spotlight and the subject of dozens of news reports from their discover in utero to their parents’ effort to care for them. They were photographed in 1947 by A. Aubrey Bodine for a Sun Magazine cover story.
DOUBLE EXPOSURE: ABOUT THE SERIES
As The Baltimore Sun commemorates its 175th anniversary, we revisit the subjects of some of our most iconic photographs, describing where their lives have led them since their moments in The Sun.
THE HENN QUADS, SUBJECT OF 1947 SUN PHOTO, BECAME AMBIVALENT TO FAME
BY MATTHEW HAY BROWN, BALTIMORE SUN
At nine months of age, they hadn’t yet left the hospital, the babies standing at the crib rail. And yet the Henn quadruplets, photographed weeks before they left St. Agnes in October 1947, were already veterans of the international media spotlight — the subject of dozens of news reports, beginning with their discovery in utero through their birth to their parents’ efforts to care and provide for them.
As they stood ready to leave the hospital at last for the world beyond, the breathless coverage of their weights and diet, feeding times and diapers soiled was only the beginning.
Reporters followed Bruce, Donald, Joan and Thomas Henn through their childhoods, returning regularly and commenting freely on everything from their diverging personalities to the family’s finances.
“It’s just the way it was,” Donald, now 65 and living in Sparrows Point, says during a recent visit at Bruce’s house in Towson. “You always knew when we were going to have a birthday, because the reporters came.”
The crib photograph, one of several of the quads to appear in this newspaper over the years, was part of a 1947 Sun Magazine cover story that cheerfully reduced the challenges of raising them to a simple matter of efficient scheduling.
The sunny coverage belied the family’s ambivalence about the attention.
“My mother hated it,” Bruce says. “She was a very private person.”
John Henn, 17 months older then the quads, says years of newspaper, magazine and newsreel coverage fed a misconception about the family that affected the way they were treated growing up in Catonsville.
“A lot of people thought we were rich,” he says. “We’d get picked on I think more than some kids would, because we were the famous ones — ‘Oh, you’re rich and famous.’ A lot of people thought we had this attitude of being privileged.”
“Well, we certainly weren’t rich. My father worked two jobs, and worked very hard to support us. We just thought we were just average, normal people like everybody else.”
Charles J. Henn was a wounded Army veteran and Dorothy his pregnant British war bride in November 1946 when doctors discovered she was harboring her own baby boom.
“The story goes that my mother was in Dr. [Thomas S.] Bowyer’s office for a checkup,” Donald says. “So he had a stethoscope on her stomach, listening for the heartbeat, and it got pretty noisy.”
He ordered a prenatal X-ray and sent Dorothy back to the waiting room with the other expectant mothers while he studied the film.
“Dr. Bowyer came out and said, ‘Mrs. Henn, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we just see the development of four heads,'” Donald says. “And they had to give smelling salts to the other women.”
The Henns had been raising John in the home of Charles’ parents on Bloomingdale Avenue in Catonsville. Now Dorothy was admitted to the hospital for observation. News of the 1-in-600,000 pregnancy was announced, and the Henns began their complicated dance with the media.
The pending birth drew particular interest from Baltimore and London, where the former Dorothy Geast was born, but also made the Washington papers and the wire services.
Reporters wondered aloud where the Henns would live, and how they would provide for five young children on his $45 weekly salary as a bookbinder and his $30 in savings.
During her first week in the hospital, Dorothy told The Sun she felt as if she had been conducting an ongoing press conference.
Thomas, Donald, Bruce and Joan, in that order, arrived on Dec. 22, 1946.
“Here’s at least one girl for the Henn family,” Dorothy said, according to news reports, and asked for a cup of tea.
Charles got his first look at the quadruplets through a nursery window some three hours later, and smiled. “I guess they look all right,” he told a doctor.
From there, the coverage intensified. While the babies stayed at St. Agnes, the offer by a Midwestern contractor to hire Henn at $4,000 a year and house the family rent-free was good for days of stories. A comment by an Army recruiter that Henn could earn more by reenlisting drew more coverage. Had Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin offered the family enough support? Another story.
The Sun’s London bureau contributed a report on the difficulties suffered by a British family with quadruplets.
The attention challenged Dorothy Henn’s British reserve, but it was not without some upside. On the day after the birth, Charles appeared on a local radio program and was given a $100 bill, a ham, a wristwatch, a washing machine and gold rings for each of the babies, among other gifts.
Sam Pistorio, a local builder, built the family a Cape Cod house on Park Drive in Catonsville at cost. Charles Henn allowed Pet Inc. to use a picture of the quadruplets on its delivery trucks in exchange for a steady supply of canned milk.
But there was a limit.
“He got a lot of offers for stuff,” says Tom Henn, who lives in Monument, Colo. “And he said, ‘No, I’m going to turn all that down, because we just want to be a normal family.'”
As a rule, Charles worked two jobs, as a bookbinder and a radio and television repairman.
“He would say, ‘Hey, if you want something, find a way to work and pay for it.” Tom says. “That’s the way we were brought up.”
Donald says the experience of the Dionne quintuplets affected his parents.
Soon after their birth in Canada in 1934, the first set of quintuplets known to have survived infancy were taken from their parents by the provincial government of Ontario and raised in a nursery, where they were put on display as a tourist attraction.
“Certainly that was before us, and all that trauma for that poor family,” Donald says. “I think that that played into [the Henns’ approach]. I think my parents wanted to keep it as low-key as they possibly could.”
From the beginning, each of the quadruplets had distinct personalities. When they turned 1, the Sun Magazine writer took a stab at describing them: “They are Bruce, the placid one, who is the perfect baby; spirited Joan, with too much energy; Donald, with the winning ways; and Tommy speculating on the world, looking like a little old man who knows more than he intends to say.”
“We’re all individuals, we grew up and developed our own styles and personalities,” Donald says. “Number one, we were each our own egg. So in that we have our own little separate things going on anyway.”
“One of the things that we all strived to do unconsciously,” Bruce says, “was being seen as separate, having our own personal identity, rather than being seen as a group.”
Still, there remained a bond among them.
“It was an instant neighborhood,” Bruce says. “When you’re in the womb like that, and you’re like this” — he presses a shoulder against Donald’s shoulder — “that closeness stays with you when you leave.
“You know, you need that contact. That’s how you started your life.”
“We were our own best friends growing up, because, in a sense, we had to be,” he says. “We needed to look after each other. …
“My mother had her hands full. My father worked two jobs. So for her just to try and keep up, there were too many of us at one time, to try and all do the homework and work with each child.”
Home life meant assembly-line meals and close collaboration on schoolwork.
“All the homework looked exactly the same,” Donald says, and laughs. “Because Joan was doing the homework, and we’d copy.”
“Our sister was pretty strong-minded,” Tom says. “She would rule the roost on us.”
Each December, the newspapers would descend to mark another birthday. Donald says his parents recognized that the reporters weren’t going to go away.
“I think that it was something that had to happen,” Donald says. “They’re going to hound you, so you’re going to have to relent somewhere. Let some of it in.”
As they approached their 19th birthday in 1965, it was news again that “Quadruplets Aren’t Alike.” Two years later, The Sun covered the wedding of Tom — “the first of the internationally famous quadruplets to marry.”
By then, the four had begun to go their separate ways. Tom had served a 14-month tour in Vietnam with the Marines; Bruce was with the Army at Fort Bragg and Donald was headed for Marine boot camp. Joan was studying physical education.
They would not live together again. Still, they kept track of each other’s accomplishments in a composition notebook that they mailed to each other.
Tom worked for 30 years in information technology while turning a talent for photography into a business. Donald owned a janitorial business and now works in real estate and exterminating.
Bruce was a Montessori teacher and built animated figures for amusement parks. He’s now building superintendent for WMAR-TV Channel 2.
All of the brothers married and had children.
The quadruplets last appeared on television together in the 1980s, when they participated in a segment about multiple births on Good Morning America. Dorothy Henn died in 1986, on the quadruplets’ 40th birthday.
Joan Henn taught physicial education at Towson High School for five years before returning to school for a master’s degree in adaptive physical education at the University of Michigan in 1975. That year, she was named assistant basketball coach at the University of Indiana.
From 1978 to 1981, Joan was the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Arkansas. She was the first coach to take the new program to postseason play.
Finally, she worked with special needs children in Albuquerque, N.M.
She was a resource teacher in the Albuquerque school system when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. In the summer of 2000, her brothers converged on Albuquerque.
She died Nov. 7, 2000.
“I thought I was ready,” Bruce says. “But when she passed, it was early one morning, I was a wreck. It was more than losing a family member. It was deeper than that.”
At the memory, Donald tears up.
“It still always gets me,” he says. “She was an amazing woman, and we lost a piece of our soul. When she passed away, it took a piece of our soul.”
The brothers remain close, talking on the phone and reuniting when Tom returns to Maryland. Their father died last year.
They have watched the fertility therapies that have led to an increase in multiple births, and are aware of the Gosselin family, the subject of the Jon and Kate Plus Eight reality television series, and Nadya Suleman, the Octomom.
“You know, I think they’re after the money, versus we at the time didn’t care about that,” Tom says. “We just wanted to be normal.”
Bruce says he wouldn’t wish quadruplets on anyone. Donald grows animated on the subject.
“I think that today, with the multiple births today, if they can’t get the science down to one or two, they shouldn’t be messing with it at all,” he says. “Because I think it’s so wrong. It’s very difficult to raise five children at one time.”