*Trigger warning: child abuse & child loss
You hear of child abduction or human trafficking in the news today and it’s something so awful and unimaginable you don’t want to believe it. But would you believe over 5000 children were stolen and illegally sold out of an adoption home in Memphis Tennessee between 1924 & 1950, all at the hands of one woman and an intricate system of connections and societal status.
The home: The Tennessee Children’s Home Society, was functioning as an adoption agency with much dire circumstances and unconventional tactics. The head of the facility, Georgia Tann, was a stout woman with short, cropped hair, tiny glasses and a smile with a hidden meaning. She was said to be abrasive and hot-headed with an apt for charisma and gaining prestigious friends.
Before running the TCHS, Georgia grew up in a prominent family in Hickory Mississippi. Despite wanting to become a lawyer, her father and judge, swayed her to find a path into social work after graduating from university; a job more “fit for a woman” he said.
She moved around the US, learning and adapting the techniques she would soon use to run the TCHS. Starting under the guidance of Kate McWillie Powers in Jackson, she learned the in’s and out’s, including how to exploit the very lax system for adoption. Eventually she moved to Dallas, and a short stint in New Orleans. But when authorities would start sniffing around, she packed up and moved on. Eventually she ended up as the Executive Director at the Memphis branch of the TCHS. She learned how to work the system and her way into elite society becoming fast friends with the mayor, Edward ‘Boss’ Crump. Through his political connections she was even consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt on child welfare and even personally invited to the inauguration of President Truman. Eventually, it would be some rumors in this exact circle and a run for governor that would unravel the secrets she had been holding behind locked doors.
Georgia Tann knew there was a demand for children with parents that were unable to conceive. She helped to remove the stigma from adoption, making it a completely acceptable option, when before adoption was a frowned upon. she particularly liked the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ones, but she wasn’t known to discriminate. In fact, she even pushed adoption for bi-racial children, who were once only adopted for house slaves and indentured servants. Unfortunately, the good she did was washed away like a sandcastle in a storm when the secret doors to her home were broke wide open by soon-to-be Governor, Gordon Browning.
Georgia and her team had a few different ways to acquire the children, the rarest of them was when the parents brought the children willingly to the TCHS. More often than not, Georgia would steal the babies and children right off of front lawns, playgrounds, or even daycares, where she would have either a fake, or a bribed social worker enter the premise and remove the child under the “orders of the state”.
When and if the parents would find their children, there was almost no chance of getting them back. Georgia would falsify documents, including birth certificates, renaming the child completely and telling the parents that there was no such child by that name at the facility. If the parents were lucky enough to afford to take Georgia to court, she would pay off Judge, Camille Kelley, who handled the juvenile cases. Kelley would be more than happy to sign a few papers deeming the parents (or commonly a single mom) unfit and transferring custody of the children to Georgia. The children were commonly told their parents had died to prevent any snooping or spreading of “misinformation” once they were placed in an adoptive home.
In other instances, Georgia would go straight to the hospital and through her system of bribed contacts, the newborn babies would be handed off to a social worker and put in a car to be driven to the TCHS. When the new mother asked about her child, she was told that the baby was born stillborn or died after birth, leaving the mother in anguish while only her body held the reminder of her child.
The adoptive parents Georgia dealt with were typically high-class families, usually recommended by a friend. Including actress Joan Crawford, and a NY governor among others.
They were given papers and under the impression that the children and babies were all received through a cooperation between parents and TCHS. Georgia took their fees, pocketing over 70% herself sometimes. If the parents came to question her, possibly when the child admitted to being stolen off a playground, Georgia would threaten to take the child back from the new parents who had been desperately waiting so long and came to love the child. If the parents were willing to give the child back, she would plan to bury them in legal fees, or blackmail them, dropping their status in society. Georgia had a knack for being able to divert issues and blame, including when rumors started to spread about her. She and the mayor, Crump would start switching the spotlight on problems with other adoption agencies in town.
During the holidays, Georgia found the perfect money-making trick: place an ad of a beautiful child in the local paper with a caption that said, “Want a real-life Christmas present? … How can you say no?”
These ads actually worked and her sales of the children would sky-rocket. When asked to stop placing the ads by local officials, she refused.
Meanwhile, at the facility, the children were not kept in good circumstances. They were typically unwashed and underfed. The babies slept 5 or 6 to one crib, often left to cry alone with watered down formula or corn mush. Their diapers were rarely changed, and the babies would constantly get sick. At one point, a dysentery outbreak killed over 50 (documented) babies before they got it under control. The TCHS alone even raised Memphis’ infant mortality rate to the highest in the nation.
If the children would misbehave, punishment was swift and harsh. For weeks they could be locked in a closet, fed only water and stale bread. They would be hung from coat hooks for hours and other unimaginable ways of abuse. It was known that sexual assault was happening at the hands of the staff of the TCHS. One particular staff member, the janitor, who had a room in the basement of the house where he was known to take the little boys. Georgia herself would also sexually abuse and rape the little girls. Survivors of the TCHS can recall the bright, frilly nature of her bedroom; once so inviting and calm, now remembered as a torture chamber.
This wouldn’t be the end for the children either. Georgia’s vetting process became next to nothing. She stopped doing in-home visits with the adoptive parents; she stopped placing the children and let the parents choose which ones they wanted. This was the dismal concoction for unfit parents to gain access to the children and many faced abuse at the hands of their new family.
Eventually, over time, Georgia got complacent. She still funneled money into her account; charging fees where there shouldn’t be, or charging a fee that belonged to another, more expensive adoption, like an out-of-state adoption. Her (assumed) girlfriend, would pick up children, where she would get five or more for the cost of one, pocketing the rest of the money and forging any documents needed.
By 1949, Gordon Browning was running for governor. There were rumors going around about what was happening at THCS. In an effort to not only humiliate his opponent, but uncover what was happening, he hired investigator and attorney, Robert Taylor, to look into Georgia. Robert went as far as to follow Judge Kelley’s assistant when she went all the way to LA to gather children and bring them back for Georgia. He was able to gather records showing her fraud. But when questioned about it, Georgia stated she was just following procedure by eliminating files. Back then—and in some states still, adoption files were sealed completely with no access.
Eventually, Robert made a case against Georgia, and in 1950 she was finally set to go to court. But not for human trafficking, only for the fraud and money laundering. At this point, Georgia was in the very late stages of uterine cancer and she died before the charges were even brought. Days later her friend, Judge Camille Kelley resigned from her post. The TCHS was closed with only 20 children left and none of the staff were charged with any wrongdoing.
To this day, less than 10% of the children from the TCHS were able to find their birth families. Over 500 (documented) children died at the facility at the hands of Georgia and the staff. There is now a memorial where the cemetery is.
Crump currently has statues and streets named after him to this day. He died in 1954 with no repercussions for his actions or involvement. Wikipedia doesn’t even mention the TCHS under his name.
In a proverbial silver lining, Tennessee strengthened their adoption policies and procedures. As of recently, they are one of the only states to allow unsealed adoption papers, allowing children to see the documents and possibly find their birth parents.
This story has been depicted in a couple other movies and shows, a book with survivor interviews and most recently, a novel by Lisa Wingate: Before We Were Yours. Until I read this, I had never heard of this story. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time things like this have happened in America. There have been a few women following in Georgia’s footsteps, but that’s a story for another time.
Southern Fried Crime
Most Likely Misinformed