NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The Bushnell sextuplets

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThe 1880 U.S. census record for Lockport shows the Bushnell family when they resided on Garden Street.

A book by Central New York historian Arch Merrill mentions that a couple from Chicago who had had sextuplets in 1866 moved to Lockport in 1872 with their four surviving children.

James Bushnell was born in Vermont in about 1822. His family later moved to Phelps in Ontario County and then to Lockport sometime in the 1840s. His mother died in Lockport in 1849 and is buried in Cold Spring cemetery. James continued to live in Lockport in the 1850s and early 1860s and operated a grocery store at 63 Market St. before moving to Chicago.

Where and when he married Jennie Lamont Charlton is uncertain but the couple were living in Chicago when the sextuplets were born on Sept. 8, 1866. There are discrepancies in the sexes and names of the babies. Most of the accounts, including that of the attending physician, claim there were three boys (Alberto, Norberto and Laberto) and three girls (Alice, Alincia and Lucy). Two of the children, Laberto and Lucy, died in infancy.

The Bushnells left Chicago after losing their home and means of employment to the Great Fire of 1871. James returned to Lockport with his wife and four surviving children and resumed his grocery business, this time at 75 Market St.

The 1875 U.S. census for Lockport lists four girls, Alice, Alincia, Alberta and Norberta, all aged 8. This is incorrect, as Alberto and Norberto were misidentified as girls. The 1880 U.S. census for Lockport correctly lists two boys and two girls, all aged 13.

According to the Lockport City Directories of the 1870s and early 1880s, as well as other sources, James Bushnell started out in the grocery business but later worked as a bookkeeper at quarries in Lockport and Albion. Another account described him as a bank clerk. The years the family lived in Lockport were spent at 74 Garden St. (now 208 Garden St.).

Jennie Charlton Bushnell, an English-born actress of French descent, died in 1880, aged 45, while living in Lockport and is buried in Cold Spring Cemetery. James Bushnell and his four children left Lockport about 1881 and moved to Albion.

It seems hard to believe, but according to Alincia Bushnell Parker, the last of the sextuplets to die, the children were not told that they all shared the same birthdate until they were 15 years old. The parents wanted the unusual circumstance of their birth to be kept a secret. However, friends of the children who were interviewed in the 1930s and 1940s claimed they knew that the siblings were part of a set of sextuplets.

What is even more astonishing is Alincia Parker’s claim that hers was not the only multiple birth in the family. According to Parker, Jennie Bushnell gave birth to triplets in Chicago before the sextuplets and then had another set of triplets and a set of quintuplets while living in Lockport, for a total of 17 children. All the other children apparently died in infancy.

Of the sextuplets born in 1866, three of the four surviving children stayed in Western New York, while the fourth one ended up in Arizona. Norberto died in Buffalo in 1934; Alberto died in Albion in 1940; and Alice (Hughes) died in Arizona in 1942. The last of the children, Alincia, died in Wyoming County in 1952 shortly before her 86th birthday. She and her brother Alberto are buried in Cold Spring Cemetery along with their mother and father, James, who died in 1904.

When the Dionne quintuplets were born in Canada in 1934, there was renewed interest in the Bushnell sextuplets and the four siblings were interviewed for newspapers and on the radio. Several Lockport residents who had been childhood friends of the Bushnell children were also asked to share their memories of the family.

In 1966, Clarence Lewis related another story about Lockport that involved multiple births. Back in 1843 when passenger packet boats still ran on the Erie Canal, a family was traveling from Massachusetts to Ohio and briefly stopped in Lockport while their boat was locking through to Buffalo. The whole family, all 26 of them, disembarked to find a place to dine in Lockport. The family included the parents and 12 sets of twins, all boys. They walked to the Eagle Hotel above the locks (about where city hall now stands) and were treated as celebrities while they were there. According to eye witnesses, all the boys were dressed alike with the smallest toddlers closest to their parents and the teenage boys bringing up the end of the line. The family was only in Lockport for about an hour but made a considerable impression upon the community nonetheless.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.