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
|Occupation||Social worker turned child trafficker|
|Organization||Tennessee Children's Home Society|
|Partner(s)||Ann Atwood Hollinsworth|
|Comments||Died before arrest|
|Victims||5000 estimated children stolen; at least 19 killed due to abuse|
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. Tann's custom of placing children with influential members of society normalized adoption in America, and many of her adoption practices (often designed to hide the origin of her adoptees) became standard practice.
Early life and education
Georgia Tann was born on July 18, 1891, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to George Clark Tann and Beulah Yates. She was older than her brother, Rob Roy Tann, by three years. Beulah was a school teacher during a time when it was uncommon for women to work outside of the home. Her father, Judge George 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. Nelli Kenyon with The Nashville Tennessean reported that Tann's childhood home in Hickory, Mississippi, was a popular neighborhood gathering spot. Judge Tann would sometimes bring abandoned or neglected children with him, remarking that he would need a minister, school teacher, and doctor to figure out what to do with the children.
Tann attended Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, graduating with a degree in music in 1913, and took courses in social work 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.
Upon graduation, she briefly worked in Texas as a social worker, but quit after a short time.
Mississippi Children’s Home Society
Tann found employment at the Mississippi Children's Home Society, working as the Receiving Director at the Kate McWillie Powers Receiving Home for Children. In 1922, Tann adopted an infant; she named her June. A daughter of a family friend named Ann Atwood also worked at the home as a housemother; Ann was eight years her junior. It is unclear when they became a couple, but when Tann was terminated because of her questionable child-placing methods in 1924, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with June, Atwood, and Atwood's infant son, Jack.
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 the cohabitation of two financially independent women, referred to as "Boston marriages", 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.
Tennessee Children's Home Society
In Memphis, Tann was hired as the Executive Secretary at the Shelby County branch of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Its offices were located on the fifth floor of the Goodwyn Building downtown. The society was the largest in the state, and had branches in Jackson, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Tann used aggressive tactics to eventually take over the organization. In 1924, Tann began trafficking children.
While Tennessee law permitted agencies to place children with appropriate applicants, in an effort to ban the selling of children, agencies could charge only for their services. In keeping with the law, the society charged about seven dollars for adoptions within Tennessee. However, Tann also arranged for out-of-state, private adoptions where she charged a premium. As many as 80 percent of these adoptions were to parents in New York and California. Records indicate that between 1940 and 1950, the agency placed 3000 children in just those two states.
Alma Walton and Regina Warner both worked for Tann, and made a trip every three weeks with four to six babies in tow: Walton to California and Warner to New York. They would rent hotel rooms where they would meet with prospective adoptive parents, most of whom were wealthy. Each couple would pay US$700 in a check made out to "Georgia Tann." Additionally, Tann might charge prospective parents for background checks she had never pursued, air travel costs at exorbitant rates, and adoption paperwork at five times the actual cost. The state of Tennessee itself was contributing US$61,000 a year to the agency, with 31 percent of that money going towards the Memphis branch.
Profits were kept in a secret bank account under a false corporation name at the time. Adoptions in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri could be arranged for $750. It is alleged that she pocketed 80 to 90 percent of the fees from these adoptions for her own personal use. She also failed to report the income to either the Society's board or the Internal Revenue Service. In a 1979 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.
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 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. 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.
Tennessee Children’s Home Society had been dropped from the Child Welfare League of America because of its repeated failure to have homes of foster parents investigated prior to the placement of children for adoption, because Tennessee Children’s Home Society had failed to study the children and their heritage before placing them for adoption, because of the failure of the Society to select proper homes for the children placed for adoption, because the foster parents had been permitted to select the child of their choice rather than placing the children in the home best suited for the child, because the home had engaged in advertising children for adoption and had encouraged hasty placements in disregard of the childrens’ [sic] right to protection from commercial advertising, and because the Society had engaged in interstate placement of children at long distances from the situs of the Society which prevented careful home findings and suitable supervision pending adoption.
Judge Sam Bates
Tann destroyed records of the children who were processed through the Society and conducted minimal background checks on the adoptive homes. As a result, the Child Welfare League of America dropped the Society from its list of qualifying institutions in 1941. 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.
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. 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. In a letter drafted in 1947, Tann's attorney, Abe Waldauer, said that the prospective adoptive couple had "complete custody and control of a child for one year; may submit the child to any physical or mental examination they wish and take any steps they may desire to ascertain they have a healthy and normal child. If it is not, the Tennessee Children's Home takes it back without question."
Bypassing Shelby County Probate Court, most of the adoption cases were handled in the counties of Dyer, Haywood, and Hardeman. Tann also had connections with former Memphis, Tennessee, mayor E. H. “Boss” Crump, who continued to have an influential political presence until his death. He had long been known to take bribes from unlawful establishments (e.g. brothels and gambling halls), a fact which Tann used to her advantage. She enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and was widely respected in the community, counting among her friends prominent families, politicians, and legislators.
While in her care, Tann mistreated the children, with reports of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and murder. With no housing facilities, the society held children awaiting placement in public facilities and foster homes. In the 1930s, Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, largely due to Tann. In 1943, a wealthy businessman donated the mansion at 1556 Poplar Avenue to the society. The offices and intake rooms were put on the bottom floor, while the nurseries were upstairs.
The all-female staff wore all-white nursing uniforms, despite the fact that they were mostly untrained and even substance abusers. The children were frequently sedated and those who were difficult to place were allowed to die of malnutrition. Tann regularly ignored doctors' recommendations for sick children, denying them care or medicine, which often led to preventable deaths from illnesses such as diarrhea. While some of her victims are known to be buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, other children were never accounted for, and the exact number of deceased children remains unknown, with estimates of about 500 deaths due to mistreatment.
Investigation and criminal charges
At the time, so-called "black market" adoptions were not illegal, but were considered ethically and morally wrong. Reasons of the day included the fact that young, unwed mothers were often coerced to give up wanted children, the suitability of the parents was often ignored, information about the child's heritage and medical history was lost, and adoptive parents were unaware of any physical or mental illness.
The Tennessee governor of the time, Gordon Browning, launched an investigation into the society on September 11, 1950, after receiving reports that the agency was selling children for profit. He assigned Memphis attorney Robert Taylor to the case. Public Welfare Commissioner J. O. McMahan accused Tann and her cohorts of receiving as much as US$1 million in profits. The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in 1950.
Tann is estimated to have stolen over 5,000 children. New York and California vowed to take action, but the children's adoptions were never investigated, and no children were restored. Tann died of uterine cancer three days before the state filed charges against the society, thus escaping prosecution. For her part, Judge Kelley was believed to be receiving bribes for ruling in Tann's favor; however, a 1951 report to Browning by the Tennessee Department of Public Welfare said that while she had "failed on many occasions to aid destitute families and permitted family ties to be destroyed" she had not personally profited from the rulings. She retired shortly after the start of the investigation, and died in 1955 without any charges having been brought against her.
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 (e.g. "Baby Estelle" and "Baby Joseph"). 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 her book, Rural Unwed Mothers: An American Experience, Mazie Hough makes the argument the Tennessee implementation of social work standards without providing the needed funding contributed to abuses in the system. The Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951. Her custom of creating false birth certificates for adoptees (which she did to hide the origins of the child) became standard practice nationwide.
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 1996, the State of Tennessee enacted Chapter 532 of the Tennessee Public Acts of 1996, which revised the process of obtaining adoption records by releasing them to adult adoptees of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, upon receiving permission from any living birth parents.
Prior to the 1920s, adoption was a rare practice in the United States, with the Boston Children's Aid Society placing only five children per year. By contrast, in 1928, Tann placed 206 children with adoptive families. Believing in class distinctions, Tann felt that children should be taken from poor families and placed with, what she called, "people of the higher type." Because of Tann's insistence on choosing wealthy adoptive families, the practice of adoption became associated with the famous and influential, removing much of the stigma it previously had in American culture.
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 of cancer  on September 15, 1950, three days before Governor Gordon Browning of Tennessee filed charges against Tann's home. The home was permanently closed in December 1950. Tann was buried in her family's plot in Hickory Cemetery.
In the media
Missing Children: A Mother's Story (1982), was loosely based on the Tennessee scandal.
Stolen Babies (TV Movie, 1993).
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 the subject of the 2007 nonfiction book The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond.
She is also featured in the 2017 novel about the scandal, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate. In October 2019, Wingate and Judy Christie released the book Before and After: The Incredible RealLife Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society. It is a nonfiction companion to Wingate's novel.
In 2010, Devereaux "Devy" Bruch Eyler published her memoir No Mama, I Didn’t Die — My Life as a Stolen Baby to tell her story as a stolen baby and victim of Georgia Tann. She grew up knowing she was adopted, but did not know, until she was in her 70s, that she had been stolen from her birth mother—a mother who, Eyler had been told, was dead. Eyler met her sister, Patricia Ann Wilks of Germantown, Tennessee, for the first time in 2009.
Tann is featured in the 2019 novel, The Pink Bonnet by Liz Tolsma.
In 1990, the Los Angeles Times published the story of Alma Sipple. Her daughter, Irma, had been taken by Georgia Tann in the spring of 1946 under the pretense of providing medical care, but a few days later, however, Tann informed Sipple that her daughter had died of pneumonia and already been buried. Sipple was devastated by her grief, but suspected the child was still alive. Her efforts to find her daughter at the time, however, were fruitless. Years later, in 1989, she happened to be watching Unsolved Mysteries, and recognized Georgia Tann as the woman who had taken her child. As the show suggested, she wrote to Tennessee's Right to Know, a volunteer agency in Memphis that reunites families separated by adoption. They soon found Irma, whose name was Sandra Kimbrell, and the mother and daughter reunited by phone. Sipple's story was featured again in the podcast Criminal.
- Tennessee Death Records
- Cooper, Lois. "A Story of Stolen Babies". www.nchgs.org. Archived from the original on March 10, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- Kenyon, Nellie (October 22, 1950). "Father Favored Music, She Saw Greater Need". The Nashville Tennessean: 18A. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. 48.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, pp. 48–49.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. 49.
- Bisantz Raymond. sfn error: no target: CITEREFBisantz_Raymond (help)
- "Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society Investigation Scrapbooks, 1950" (PDF). State of Tennessee Department of State Tennessee State Library and Archives. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 11, 2018. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. 105-106.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. 105.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. 106.
- Blade 2012, p. 99.
- Austin, Linda T. (Summer 1990). "Babies for Sale: Tennessee Children's Adoption Scandal". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Nashville. 49 (2): 91. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
- Blade 2012, p. 100.
- Duran, Gabby (February 19, 2018). "Meet The Woman Who Kidnapped 5,000 Babies And Sold Them All". All That's Interesting. Archived from the original on July 2, 2018. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- Miller, Laura (December 25, 1979). "New Routes to Old Roots". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on March 27, 2019. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
- Downing, Shirley (September 11, 1995). "Quest led Joan Crawford twins, others to Tenn". The Memphis Commercial Appeal. Archived from the original on February 20, 2007. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Maxey, Ron. "Georgia Tann victims recount tales of lives lost in infamous adoption scandal". The Commercial Appeal. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, pp. 107–108.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. vii.
- Blade 2012, p. 136.
- Sandine, Julie K.; Greenman, Frederick F. (2001). "Tennessee's Adoption Law: Balancing the Interests of the Adoption Triad". Family Court Review. 39 (1): 58–74. doi:10.1111/j.174-1617.2001.tb00594.x.
- Koeppel, Fredric. "Author spent 16 years delving into the power Georgia Tann wielded and the victims she left". Commercial Appeal. Archived from the original on September 29, 2018. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
- Noll-Wilensky, Hannah (Summer 2019). "Black-Market Adoptions In Tennessee: A Call for Reparations". Hastings Women's Law Journal. 30 (2): 8. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
- BROWNING, MARIA (July 17, 2008). "She terrified people". Nashville Scene. Archived from the original on March 10, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- Blade 2012, p. 137.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. viii.
- Raymond, B.B. (March 1991). "The woman who stole 5,000 babies". Good Housekeeping. 212 (3): 140. ISSN 0017-209X.
- "Restoring Parental Rights after an Adoption". New York Times – via facebook.com.[dead link]
- "Meet America's Notorious Baby Seller, Georgia Tann". Southern Hollows Podcast (Podcast). April 25, 2017. Archived from the original on March 21, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- Goan, Melanie Beals (August 2013). "Rural Unwed Mothers: An American Experience". The Journal of Southern History. Athens. 79 (3): 741–742. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
- "Tennessee Government: Department of Children's Services: Access to Adoption Records". Tennessee State Government. August 10, 2009. Archived from the original on June 22, 2009. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (August 2017). Post Adoption/Access to Sealed Records Practice and Procedure Manual (PDF). p. 2. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- Bisantz Raymond 2007, p. ix.
- "Home". smithdray.tripod.com. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
- cns|carcinosis, primary location uterus, according to Dr. Alma Richards on death certificate|date=May 2020
- Beyette, Beverly (August 20, 1990). "Together Again : After 44 Tortured Years, a Mother Finds Her Stolen Child Via 'Unsolved Mysteries'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
- "Mary Tyler Moore". Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. Gale. 108. April 8, 2011. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
- "Meet America's Notorious Baby Seller, Georgia Tann". SouthernHollows.com (Podcast). April 25, 2017. Archived from the original on March 28, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
- "The Baby Thief: The Crimes of Georgia Tann". Tiegrabber Podcasts (Podcast). August 29, 2017. Archived from the original on March 27, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- Judge, Phoebe (March 15, 2019). "Episode 110: Baby Snatcher". This is Criminal (Podcast). Archived from the original on March 27, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
- "4 Amazing, Must-Listen Podcasts for History Lovers". Study Breaks. July 12, 2019. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
- Raymond, Barbara Bisantz (May 2008). The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller who Corrupted Adoption. Union Square Press. ISBN 9781402758638.
- Poppy, Nick (June 17, 2017). "This woman stole children from the poor to give to the rich". New York Post. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
- Ross, Michelle (October 15, 2019). "Before and After: The Incredible RealLife Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society". Booklist. American Library Association. 116 (4). Retrieved May 8, 2020.
- Spencer, Alexa Imani. "'My mother was told I died': Stolen Georgia Tann baby, now 81, to share her story in Collierville". The Commercial Appeal. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- "The Pink Bonnet - Author Liz Tolsma". April 10, 2021.
- "Episode 110: Baby Snatcher" (Podcast). March 15, 2019. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
- Tollett Austin, Linda (1993). Babies for sale: the Tennessee Children's Home adoption scandal. Praeger. ISBN 978-0-275-94585-5.
- Bisantz Raymond, Barbara (2007). The baby thief : the untold story of Georgia Tann, the baby seller who corrupted adoption (1st ed.). New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 9780786733743.
- Blade, Robert (2012). Tupelo man : the life and times of George McLean, a most peculiar newspaper publisher. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1617036286.
- PROFILE: Mary Margulis St. Louis Post - Dispatch St. Louis, Mo.: May 10, 1993. p. 1 Section: EVERYDAY MAGAZINE
- "Report to Governor Gordon Browning on Shelby County Branch, Tennessee Children's Home Society". State of Tennessee, Dept. of Public Welfare. 1951. OCLC 4349960. Cite journal requires
- Elkins, Ashley (August 10, 1997). "HED:Stolen baby meets her family". Daily Journal. Retrieved March 17, 2019.