Beulah George Tann
July 18, 1891
Philadelphia, Mississippi, United States
|Died||September 15, 1950 (aged 59)|
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
|Resting place||Hickory, Mississippi, United States|
|Alma mater||Columbia University |
Martha Washington College
|Organization||Tennessee Children's Home Society|
|Partner(s)||Camille Kelley |
Ann Atwood Hollinsworth
|Comments||Died before arrest|
Span of crimes
Beulah George "Georgia" Tann (July 18, 1891 – September 15, 1950) was an American child trafficker who operated the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Tann used the unlicensed home as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme from the 1920s until a state investigation into numerous instances of adoption fraud being perpetrated by her closed the institution in 1950. Tann died of cancer before the investigation made its findings public.
Early life and education
Georgia Tann was born on July 18, 1891, in Philadelphia, Mississippi to George Clark Tann (a district court judge) and Beulah Isabella Tann (née Yates). She was older than her brother, Rob Roy Tann, by three years. Judge Tann reportedly had a "domineering" personality. He also had aspirations of his daughter becoming a concert pianist, and, beginning at the age of five, he put her in piano lessons that continued into adulthood. Tann attended Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, graduating with a degree in music in 1913, and took social courses at Columbia University in New York for two summers. However, she despised playing piano and, instead, desired to become a lawyer as her father had been. Under his tutelage, she read the law and passed the state bar exam in Mississippi. However, her father did not want her to practice law because it was unusual for women. With no apparent desire to get married or have children, she availed herself of one of the few careers available to unmarried women of her time, social work.
Tann moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1924 with her adopted daughter, June, and her girlfriend, Ann Atwood. Atwood had recently given birth to a son out of wedlock, and around this time appended Hollinsworth to her name, likely to give the impression that she had actually been widowed. While so-called "Boston marriages", or cohabitation of two financially independent women, had once been socially acceptable, such arrangements had begun to be viewed as suspiciously homosexual. Tann and Atwood hid the true nature of their relationship.
In Memphis, Tann began trafficking children. Prior to the 1920s, adoption was a rare practice in the United States, with the Boston Children's Aid Society only placing five children per year. By contrast, in 1928, Tann placed 206 children with adoptive families.
Tann used a variety of methods to procure children. Through pressure tactics, threats of legal action, and other ways, she would dupe or coerce birth parents, mostly poor single mothers, to turn the children over to her custody, often under false pretenses. In turn, she might sell the children to her wealthy patrons. Alma Simple, one of Tann's victims, described her as "a stern-looking woman with close-cropped grey hair, round wireless glasses and an air of utter authority." Tann also arranged for the taking of children born to inmates at Tennessee mental institutions and those born to wards of the state through her connections. To meet demand, she resorted to kidnappings. In some cases, single parents would drop their children off at nursery schools, only to be told that welfare agents had taken the children. In others, children would be temporarily placed in an orphanage because a family was experiencing illness or unemployment, only to find out later that the orphanage had adopted them out or had no record of the children ever being placed. Tann was also documented as taking children born to unwed mothers at birth, claiming that the newborns required medical care. When the mothers asked about the children, Tann or her accomplices would explain that the babies had died, when they had actually been placed in foster homes or adopted.
While in her care, she mistreated the children, with reports of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and murder. In the 1930s, Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, largely due to Tann. Some children were never accounted for or buried, and exact numbers of deceased children remain unknown.
Tann's crimes were accomplished with the aid of Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley, who used her position of authority to sanction Tann's tactics and activities. Tann would identify children as being from homes which could not provide for their care, and Kelley would push the matter through her dockets. Kelley also severed custody of divorced mothers, placing the children with Tann, who then arranged for adoption of the children into "homes better able to provide for the children's care." However, many of the children were placed into homes where they were used as child labor on farms, or with abusive families.
When an adoptive parent discovered that the information on the child was incorrect, such as in cases of falsified medical histories, Tann often threatened the adoptive parents with possible legal action that would force a surrender of their children (ordered by Kelley) by demonstrating that they were unfit parents.
Tann destroyed records of the children who were processed through the Society and conducted minimal background checks on the adoptive homes. Many of the files of the children were fictionalized before being presented to the adoptive parents, which covered up the child's circumstances prior to being placed with the society. As a result, the Child Welfare League of America dropped the Society from its list of qualifying institutions in 1941.
Tann adopted Hollinsworth on August 2, 1943, in Dyer County, Tennessee, a legal provision that same-sex couples used at the time to ensure that their partners would inherit their property. Tann died in 1950, and was buried in her family's plot in Hickory Cemetery.
The Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951. In 1979, the state adopted legislation requiring the state to assist siblings who were trying to find each other, while a bill that extended this provision to birth parents did not pass.
In an effort to ban the selling of children, Tennessee law permitted agencies to place children with appropriate applicants and charge them for the services. In keeping with the law, the Home charged about $7 per adoption. Adoptions in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri could be arranged for $750. However, Tann also had arranged for out-of-state private adoptions where she charged a premium, upwards of $5,000 per child. Additionally, Tann charged prospective parents for a background checks she never pursued, air travel costs at exorbitant rates, and adoption paperwork at five times the actual cost. Profits were kept in a secret bank account under a false a corporation name at the time, It is alleged that she pocketed 75 percent of the fees from these adoptions for her own personal use and failed to report the income to either the Society Board or the Internal Revenue Service. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tennessee special prosecutor, Robert Taylor, reported that 1,200 children were adopted out of the home between 1944 and 1950, but only a few of them remained with Tennessee families.
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in 1950 and is not to be confused with the current Tennessee Children's Home, which is accredited by the state of Tennessee. This Tennessee Children's Home has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann or the Society which she operated.
Tann made millions selling children, 90 percent of them to people in New York and California. New York and California vowed to take action, but the children's adoptions were never investigated, and no children were restored.
Notable personalities who used Tann's services included actress Joan Crawford (twin daughters, Cathy and Cynthia were adopted through the agency while daughter Christina Crawford and son Christopher were adopted through other agencies). June Allyson and husband Dick Powell also used the Memphis-based home for adopting a child, as did the adoptive parents of professional wrestler Ric Flair. New York Governor Herbert Lehman, who signed a law sealing birth certificates from New York adoptees in 1935, also adopted a child through the agency.
Tann is estimated to have stolen over 5,000 children. Over several decades, 19 of the children who died at the Tennessee Children's Home Society due to the abuse and neglect that Tann subjected them to were buried in a 14 ft × 13 ft (4.3 m × 4.0 m) lot at the historic Elmwood Cemetery with no headstones. Tann bought the lot sometime before 1923 and recorded the children there by their first names, "Baby Estelle", "Baby Joseph", and so on. In 2015, the cemetery raised $13,000 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."
In the media
The scandal was the subject of two made-for-television films: Missing Children: A Mother's Story (1982), and Stolen Babies (1993). The subject of Georgia Tann also appears in an episode of Investigation Discovery's series Deadly Women titled "Above the Law" that aired September 13, 2013 and also appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. She was the topic of the April 25, 2017 episode of the podcast Southern Hollows; the August 29, 2017, episode of the True Crime Brewery podcast titled "The Baby Thief: The Crimes of Georgia Tann"; the March 15, 2019, episode of the Criminal podcast titled "Baby Snatcher,"  and the April 30, 2019 two part episode of the Behind The Bastards podcast titled "The Woman Who Invented Adoption (By Stealing Thousands of Babies)". She is also featured in the 2017 novel about the scandal, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate (ISBN 0425284689).
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