Recently, I came across a most disturbing story about the nefarious activities of an organization called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and the proprietor of its Memphis branch, Georgia Tann. This story may turn your stomach, and parts of it are too incredulous to believe, but based on my research I am convinced of its veracity.
Beulah George Tann was born on July 18, 1891 in Hickory, MS into a wealthy family. Her father was a local judge. Ironically, one of his responsibilities was to resolve issues relating to homeless children, who were wards of the state. Tann wanted to be a lawyer, but her father vetoed that career as being “too masculine” for a “respectable” woman. As a result Tann went into social work. Eventually, she found her way to the TCHS in Memphis where she hatched her scheme.
During a roughly 25 year period from the late 1920s – 1950 the TCHS was engaged in the wholesale kidnapping of children of indigent parents and their subsequent placement for adoption with wealthy and/or influential couples who wanted a child and could afford to pay their exorbitant fees. It is likely that, for the most part, these adoptive couples were not cognizant that the children had been kidnapped, but, on the other hand, it is possible that some of them knew or suspected but turned a “blind eye.” Ms. Tann was aided and abetted in her elaborate scheme by a cadre of wealthy and well-connected supporters, including state legislators and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley. Kelley was found to have “railroaded through” hundreds of adoptions without regard to state laws. Moreover, administrative oversight by local and state authorities was haphazard, at best.
To be sure, it is a bizarre and unbelievable tale straight out of a Charles Dickens novel that seems inconceivable in this day and age, but apparently during the above-referenced time period the laws, customs and mores with respect to adoptions were very different than they are today. Paradoxically, the TCHS did manage to rescue many children from deplorable conditions legally and place them with loving adoptive parents. Unfortunately, that was not always the case.
Essentially, the scheme worked as follows:
- The TCHS was continually on the lookout for vulnerable babies or young children, such as children of indigent or poor parents, or single mothers that were either in mental wards or prison. Blonde, blue-eyed children were preferred.
- It employed a network of spotters who, for example, worked in hospitals or public aid clinics where those poor and desperate women were likely to give birth.
- It employed workers who due to their own desperate economic circumstances or questionable ethics were willing to go along and keep quiet about the scheme.
- In some cases, the women were tricked into signing over custody of their newborns. Sometimes, the complicit doctor or nurse would tell the mother that the baby had died during childbirth. Another version of the scheme would be to convince the mother to surrender custody “temporarily” so that the baby could receive “emergency” medical treatment. This deception would be perpetrated soon after delivery when the mother would be most vulnerable.
- Other children were simply kidnapped on their way to school, or from their porches or yards by TCHS agents.
- The fate of thousands of these children is unknown. Many of them simply vanished. It is not known what happened to them definitively. In some cases they were placed for adoption, but the placement could not be traced because the child’s name, birthdate and/or date of adoption were falsified in order to preclude their biological parents from locating them prospectively. If the biological parents were to show up at the TCHS looking for their child they would be told the child had died in childbirth or already placed for a sealed adoption. In other cases, the child may have died due to illness or neglect, in which case it would have been buried in an unmarked grave. One such mass grave, containing 19 children’s remains was discovered in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
- Basically, any child of poor or transient parents was fair game. Thousands of children were stolen in this manner and due process, as we know it, did not exist.
- TCHS blatantly advertised the availability of these children. For example, newspaper ads of the day showed actual photos of the stolen children underscored with enticing captions, such as “Yours for the Asking” or “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?”
- Tann managed to present a respectable, or even charitable, public image. She was perceived as a hero who rescued children from desperate circumstances and placed them with loving parents of a “high type.” At the time, the prevailing public opinion was that indigents should not have an “excessive” number of babies that they would be unable to care for. Therefore, the ethical and moral detriments of taking them away from their biological parents were overridden by the perceived benefits of placing them with more “suitable” adoptive parents.
- Many of these children were placed with wealthy, loving parents who provided them with a better life (not that that made it acceptable). Unfortunately, many others were placed in households where they were overworked, treated like servants, or even abused physically and/or sexually.
- Tann had influential connections. Her scheme could not sustain itself without the support of Judge Kelley and other supporters. Her clients included movie stars, such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell and politicians such as NY Governor Herbert Lehman. In addition, she was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, who regarded her as a pioneer of and an authority on child adoptions.
Tann’s scheme finally unraveled in 1950, and the TCHS was closed. But, it was not due to public outrage. There was no firestorm of police inquiries, no muckraking reportage, no flurry of legal action. There were too many powerful and influential people who had a stake in keeping a lid on the entire matter. Instead, the Governor of Tennessee, Gordon Browning, disclosed the scheme in a press conference that focused on Tann’s profiting illegally from various adoptions she handled. It is estimated she profited to the tune of $1 million, which is roughly equivalent to $10 million in today’s dollars. The other aspects of the matter were basically swept under the rug.
Tann did not stand trial for her crimes. She was dying of cancer and would succumb mere days after the governor’s press conference. Kelley was also not prosecuted for her role in the scandal. She died in 1955. The authorities mounted an investigation, but it was thwarted at every turn and was eventually abandoned. With the passage of time it became largely moot as most of the biological parents died off and the adopted children had become ensconced in their own lives.
Tann’s records, such as they remained, were finally opened to the public in 1995. By then, it was way too late to do much good.
This tragic undertaking has been reported in various newspaper articles, as well as television exposes on both 60 Minutes (1991) and Unsolved Mysteries. Additionally, it has been the subject of two tv movies and a best-selling novel, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate. I have read this book, and although, technically, it is a work of fiction it describes the scheme in heart-rending detail.
The UM piece helped one mother find her daughter. Alma Sipple was watching the show when she recognized Tann as the woman who 44 years previously had convinced Sipple to let her take her infant daughter to a hospital for a checkup. That had been the last Sipple had seen of Tann or her daughter. “I let out a scream,” she said. “That’s the woman that took Irma! My husband said I turned white. I felt like going through the television.” Seven months later, with the assistance of an investigator, Sipple found her long-lost daughter. This was but one isolated happy ending out of thousands of heartbreaking stories.