Episode 4: Georgia Tann’s Children

From the 1920s until 1950, Georgia Tann used a network of powerful accomplices to take advantage of the poor and helpless in and around Memphis, Tennessee. Her crimes made her one of the most notorious child traffickers of the 20th century and led to countless unsolved mysteries throughout the South and across the country

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Some stories are legendary here in the South because of the horrible people and circumstances attached to them. One of the most notorious Unsolved Mysteries in the history of Tennessee, affected families all over the country who still have no identity and are searching for answers over half a century later.  It all comes down to one evil woman who left a legacy of pain and suffering.  

Georgia Tann

Georgia Tann ran one of America’s biggest black market adoption schemes and she did it from the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.  Between 1920-1950, it’s estimated that Georgia Tann and the powerful people who helped her, stole over 5000 children from poor families off the streets. From pregnant teen moms who were shamed and made to hide that they had a child. They even stole children from day care centers and kidnapped them from front yards. 

Georgia Tann would stop at nothing to steal babies because they were her source of income. It’s estimated that over 500 babies died as a result of lack of care or abuse they suffered at the hands of Georgia Tann and the people within her organization. To say these crimes are shocking is an understatement. But the truth is, we only have estimates of the number of children she stole and the number of children who died because of lack of care. 

Georgia Tann’s ultimate motivation for these crimes was money. She sold babies to the rich and elite of Hollywood and New York.  The Tann agency as she called it, charged as much as $5000 for an adoption, and Georgia Tann pocketed most of that money. It’s estimated she made millions of dollars off of these innocent families. 

To cover her tracks, Tann and her organisation falsified adoption records and destroyed any trace of where the children had come from, or who they had been. Those actions led to generations of families who have no way of tracing their birth families.  

Georgia Tann was empowered to continue this operation, because of the support she had from powerful members of society in Tennessee. They looked the other way or helped her carry out her crimes so they could all benefit from them. Tann had politicians, a judge, police officers and hospital workers helping her cover up her crimes. 

The political power behind Georgia Tann was Edward “Boss” Crump who had a lot of power and influence in Memphis, and throughout the state of Tennessee. He helped the Tann Agency by sending his cronies to handle ‘disputes’ and used his influence to change laws to make sure Georgia Tann had what she needed. 

The way Boss Crump was able to do that, according to the investigation that happened years later, was with the help of  Abe Waldauer, the Assistant City Attorney under Boss Crump.  Waldauer rewrote the laws by order of Boss Crump. Many of his writings include references to children at the home and he would call them “Merchandise”. That sums up how these children were treated and viewed by this powerful group and by Georgia Tann. They were merchandise to move to the highest bidder.

Waldauer was in deep. Not only was he working for Crump, he was Georgia Tann’s personal attorney and he was the attorney for the Tennessee Children’s Home Society where this operation was happening.  He even refused to get a state license for the home because he said they didn’t need one. That act ensured all of the records of the home remained out of the hands of Government officials. 

If they had been licensed, they would have to adhere to the $7 per adoption fee that was required by the state. They were getting up to $5,000 per adoption so everyone involved had a lot of motivation to hide what they were doing to protect themselves and make money from their illegal operation. 

The judge who helped Georgia Tann finalize the adoptions for these children was Camille Kelley. She was a juvenile-court judge who pretended to act in the best interest of the children. She would claim the best interest was to legally remove the parental rights of the children and transfer them to Tann so she could find them homes.

One man did try to stop the all powerful Georgia Tann.  In 1946 Judge Sam O. Bates became concerned about the home and the children and practices of the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. His concern grew because the Child Welfare League had dropped their endorsement for the home in 1941 after discovering Tann had been destroying paperwork associated with adoptions.

When she was questioned about that practice, Tann said that documents related to adoptions were shielded by state privacy laws and that the Society was not violating any laws by destroying files. Judge Bates had more concerns because he also learned the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society had engaged in advertising children for adoption. There’s an ad that was placed in newspaper that referenced these kids as Christmas presents to buy for your family.  

According to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society Investigation Scrapbooks from 1950, Judge Bates was also “of the opinion that Tennessee Children’s Home Society had failed to follow the advice of its medical advisers in many respects which had resulted in the unnecessary loss of life of many children which had been placed with it for placement for adoption.”

When Judge Sam O. Bates voiced his concerns he was made to look crazy  to question the good work of Georgia Tann. His request was ignored and eventually dropped. Years later, the Governor of Tennessee will have a report in his hands that says that Bates was right to question the home and the practices. But that was years after he began asking questions.

Eventually some hopeful adoptive parents started to question Georgia Tann’s methods newspapers began to print articles featuring families who were objecting to Tann’s practices. On September 12, 1950, The Memphis Commercial Appeal printed an article that informed the public that the Governor of Tennessee had opened an investigation into Georgia Tann. It read as follows:

“Governor Browning last night began an investigation of a reported $1,000,000 black market in babies by the Shelby County Division of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The Governor said he instituted the investigation after receiving numerous reports that the Memphis office of the children’s agency was selling babies for profit”

Georgia Tann was only considered guilty of pocketing money from the state and not kidnapping because no one knew the full scope of her trafficking ring at that time. There were just questions. The investigation was new but something happened soon after that changed everything. Georgia Tann got away from it all.

She was never prosecuted or made to stand trial for what she did because as the investigation was being opened, Georgia Tann was diagnosed with uterine cancer.  On September 15, 1950  she died. Just three days later, the state filed charges against the Tennessee Children’s Home Society office in Memphis. The Tennessee Children’s Home Society closed two months after Georgia Tann died. 

Soon after, Tann’s co-conspirator, Camille Kelley, announced her retirement as a judge and also avoided prosecution, dying from a stroke in 1955.

Georgia Tann’s crimes became national news in the US, however few attempts were made to reconnect birth parents with their stolen children. Generations later some children have never been able to find their birth parents and in turn meet their birth families. 

That’s the legacy and why so many mysteries remain unsolved around Georgia Tann. “ Thousands of families not knowing where they came from after being torn apart and separated from their parents and siblings.“

Countless babies died because of lack of care under Georgia Tann and her organization. Records are scarce but we know at least nineteen of the children who died at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were buried in a lot at the historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee with no headstones.  In 2015, the cemetery raised money to erect a monument to their memory. It reads, in part…

 “In memory of the 19 children who finally rest here unmarked if not unknown, and of all the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Their final resting place unknown. Their final peace a blessing. The hard lesson of their fate changed adoption procedure and law nationwide.

Episode Sources
Investigation of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society of Memphis, portion of report to Governor Browning
Tann Investigation Scrapbook, State of Tennessee
Unsolved Mysteries Episode Info, December 1989
‘Before We Were Yours’: The woman who stole and sold 5000 babies. New Zealand Herald. 22 June 2017

Music Credits
Theme Song: “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use

Additional Music
“Long Note Four” and “Almost in F Tranquility” by Kevin MacLeod Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution