In July 1965 Sam and Ann Lawson, who had been undergoing fertility treatment, gave birth to the world’s third surviving set of quintuplets at Aucklands’ National Women’s Hospital. The crowd went wild. Paul Little’s fascinating book Stolen Lives: The Untold Stories of the Lawson Quins picks up the story…
Sam and Ann were in more demand than they could be expected to keep up with. Within one week, for instance, when the babies were four months old, Ann judged the Henderson North School PTA Fair baby show (in two sessions, birth to six months and six to 12 months) and the couple attended the glamorous Pasadena ballroom opening in the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, their presence advertised along with that of other special guests including the Mayor and Mayoress of Mt Eden and members of the 1965 All Blacks.
Sam is sometimes perceived as a distant figure and he was certainly a man of his era. When male visitors came to the house, in the early days with the babies, he handed out five cigars instead of the traditional one.
But Karitane nurse Margie Sadler found him easy to talk to and saw a man struggling to function as the normal father he wanted to be because of the abnormal situation he was in.
‘He was quite bamboozled,” says Margie. ‘All he wanted was to be able to give his children a cuddle and put on a nappy. And if one side fell down because he pinned the wrong two bits together – so what? He was learning. But there was always somebody at his elbow offering to do the job and hand him the baby. That isn’t what he wanted. They were his children. But if someone keeps doing things for you, you stop trying to do them yourself.’
He was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the constant public interest.
‘I wish we could have less publicity,” he was heard to say several times. ‘We just want to be a family by ourselves.’
But there wasn’t much time to brood. …
Efforts to keep things normal sometimes had to be made in the face of almost absurd challenges as the national – and even international – interest in the babies showed no sign of waning.
When the children were born, New Zealand was sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War and consequently had the benefit of a goodwill visit from South Vietnam’s premier Air Vice Marshal Ky and Mrs Ky in 1967.
While here, Mrs Ky decided on a whim that she just had to lay eyes on Samuel, Lisa, Deborah, Shirlene and Selina, and headed off to the house.
Which would have been fine except that Ann had taken their older sister, Leeann, to the zoo for a treat that day and, in the pre-cellphone era, could not be easily contacted. In fact, it took an hour to find her and arrange a police escort to the house, by which time Mrs Ky had already been enjoying the babies’ company for 15 minutes.
And what could be more natural than for a woman who had not long given birth to five babies to want to have some more? Ann had to deny rumours at one point that she was pregnant – some said with triplets, others that it was quins again.
Because people were used to seeing the babies in magazines and newspapers and on television, and possibly because they felt that if they received public money they owed the public something in return, some members of the public thought they had access rights to the children.
More than once people called at the house, knocked and asked when the quins were on show.
‘What do I do?’ Ann asked Margie.
‘Well, if you saw nappies on someone’s line would you go and knock on their door and ask when you could see the baby?’ said Margie.
‘I don’t think I could do that.’
‘Well that’s the nearest thing I can say for you to think about and for you and Sam to talk over.’
Given people felt comfortable bowling up to the front door, something as normal as taking the babies for a walk was going to present more difficulties than just how to handle five prams. It was a long time before Ann could do what any other mother could do without thinking and take her babies – with one or two other adults along to push some of them – for a walk down the road.
She had already expressed her concern, along with some hopes for the future, in an interview:
‘I do hope people will leave us alone. I’m even wondering now how we will take the babies for walks – I’ve thought of getting friends or relations to come and we could all set off in different directions with the prams … I know if I see a baby in a pram I’ve just got to look inside it.
‘I can’t help thinking what a lot of fun such things as their first birthday will be. And although I haven’t quite got the girls all married off in my mind I do wonder what on earth we’ll do for their 21st birthday.’
Ann and Sam separated and she remarried Gary Eyton, a violent man who abused her and the children before shooting first Ann and then himself dead when the children were 16.
Stolen Lives: The Untold Stories of the Lawson Quins by Paul Little (Paul Little Books, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.