Fame followed the Henn quads

Catonsville family ambivalent about the international attention

  • The Henn quadruplets have their picture taken at St. Angnes Hospital when they are nine months old. From left to right are Tommy, Donald, Bruce and Joan.
The Henn quadruplets have their picture taken at St. Angnes… (Baltimore Sun photo by A.…)
August 19, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The 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.'"

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