In 1927 Beula George “Georgia” Tann became the director of the Memphis office of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Through a corrupt network of court officials, hospital staff, a team of social workers, law enforcement, and even the Mayor of Memphis, Tann is responsible for separating upwards of 5,000 children from their families.
In spite of her unethical practices, Tann provided the groundwork for modern U.S. adoptions and made the practice more common and acceptable within societal standards. Her work received recognition from Eleanor Roosevelt and was personally invited to attend President Truman’s inauguration, due to her work as an outspoken children’s advocate, yet it was later discovered that Georgia Tann had been one of the most prolific child killers to ever grace U.S. soil.
Tann started her black market baby sales in the state of Mississippi, where her father held a prominent position as a judge. The lack of adoption regulations allowed Tann to exploit loopholes in the laws and underhandedly obtain custody of children from impoverish families. Eventually the state of Mississippi caught on to Tann’s unscrupulous “placement methods” and she fled to Texas, before being placed as the director for the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis.
Tann would bribe hospital staff to steal babies, telling mothers that the child was stillborn. The babies would then be taken to a nursing home where they would not receive proper medical care, often resulting in the death of the child. The babies that did manage to survive would be taken to Ms. Tann’s orphanage.
Older children seen by Tann’s “spotters” would be kidnapped off the streets. Many of these children were told that their parents had suddenly died or that their parents could no longer keep them for one reason or another.
Any information about the children on record would be destroyed and the agency would create falsified documents concerning the children’s origins in order to obtain legal guardianship from the courts. Adoptive families would be told completely false information on the child’s background and would be provided with a counterfeit birth certificate for the child.
The best looking children would be sold off to the wealthy, and arguably had a better life than if they hadn’t been separated from their poor biological families. Some of these children included the twins adopted by actress Joan Crawford, as well as children adopted by other Old Hollywood starlets. Children who weren’t lucky enough to be placed in permanent homes were forced to suffer at the hands of Tann and her staff at the children’s home.
In addition to starvation and neglect, the children also suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Tann. As the bodies piled up, witnesses near the home claimed to have seen staff burning their remains on the property. It’s believed that the bodies or cremains of nearly 500 children are scattered throughout the former orphanage’s grounds.
In spite of Memphis’ unusually high infant mortality rate at that time, Tann was lauded for her work in the press and was seen as an expert in child adoption and social work. Her power within political circles allowed her operations to go undisturbed for the better part of 30 years.
It wasn’t until 1941, when a social worker began to question Ms. Tann’s practices that the truth about the Memphis, Tennessee Children’s Home Society would come to light.
Internal investigations into Ms. Tann’s finances had shown that the orphanage had been falsifying documents to read that children had been adopted out to families in the Western Tennessee-area, when the agency had really been adopting many of the children out to wealthy families in New York, California, and other areas outside of their jurisdiction. Tann was able to charge more for these adoptions and it didn’t take long for her to make millions off of the illegal adoptions.
After the discovery by investigators, the children’s home was dropped from the Child Welfare League of America. It would be another five years before a formal state investigation was ordered. In 1951, the state completed its investigation into the allegations against the orphanage, but it was already too late to press formal charges against Georgia Tann. Tann had died in 1950 after slipping into a coma. She died of uterine cancer.