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.