Of all the things that one could steal in the world, children are probably the worst. The loss of a child in such an unbelievable fashion would be sure to scare any parent or caregiver even where the child may never be aware that the people they consider parents were not always so. This was the incredibly sinister crime that Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society committed for twenty-six years before finally being caught.
From 1924 to 1950, Georgia Tann used the front of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee, to steal and sell an estimated number of 5000 children. The children sold were often white with blond hair and blue eyes. She chose her victim pool from poor families who she reasoned out would not notice their missing children and would not have the required resources to search for them.
Who Is Georgia Tann?
Georgia Tann was born and named Beulah Georgia Tann on the 18th of July 1891. She was raised in a tiny town called Hickory and later grew to run a child trafficking ring in Tennessee. Records written about her have described her as ambitious and have also stated that she identified as a lesbian which made life extremely difficult for her in the time she grew up. Some people who have studied her sinister life have theorized that it was her inability to fit in and settle down to have her own family that pushed her into resentment and a terrible kind of life characterized by taking other people’s babies.
She may be rightfully considered a criminal mastermind but Georgia had quite a lot of help including from a crooked judge and the mayor of the state who was the most powerful politician of that time. There have also been claims made that she was a pedophile who would sometimes molest the little children that she stole before putting them up for sale. She got away with her crimes for 26 years and just as the jig was about to be up she died before she could face the judgments for her crimes.
Georgia Tann in executing her sinister plans would deploy pressure, threats of legal action and any other available method to take children away from their birth parents. She also took children from inmates at the Tennessee mental institutions as well as those born to wards of the state. Where those sources were not enough, she would resort to kidnapping – taking children from schools while posing as a welfare agent. Another source of children for her were those born to single mothers whom she would take away claiming that they required urgent medical care but then she would return to the mothers claiming that their children had died.
Her first accomplice was a Memphis Family Court Judge known as Camille Kelley. Kelley would use her position to give a stamp of approval to Georgia Tann’s tactics by pushing through to the dockets any case where Georgia Tann identified children as coming from homes that could not adequately provide them care. Kelley also sometimes took custody from divorced mothers and placed their children in Georgia Tann’s care who would then arrange for adoption and place the children in richer homes. The children, unfortunately, did not find better lives as they were often placed in homes where they were either abused or used as child labor. This happened because Georgia did little to no background checks on adoptive homes.
Where the adoptive families were actually sincere and discovered discrepancies in the information about the child they adopted, she would threaten them with legal action that would lead to their children being taken from them with the claim that they were unfit parents. Georgia Tann’s rates were high across the board but she made her money from interstate adoptions where adoptive parents would be required to pay as high as $5000 for a child.
Another of her accomplice was mayor E.H. Crump who ensured that any complaints that did come forward and reach the police were ignored. In fact, with the mayor’s authority behind her she would sometimes get the help of the police in nabbing the kids from their parents.
To make Georgia Tann’s crimes even more odious, children also ended up dying under her care. It is estimated that almost 500 children lost their lives while the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was still in business. The children died mostly from poor care but there were cases of suspected abuse. Shortly before 1923, Tann bought a lot at the historic Elmwood Cemetery (Memphis, Tennessee). About nineteen of the children who died under her crime ring were buried there with no headstones. She only recorded the children with their first names. The cemetery in 2015 raised $13,000 to erect a monument to the memory of those nineteen children and all the other children who died under the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
The End Of The Road For Georgia Tann
The end of the road for the Tennessee Children’s Home Society came when Gordon Browning was elected mayor in place of E.H Crump. He launched an investigation into the operations of Georgia Tann and everything pointed to her being indicted. Georgia Tann, however, died from cancer a few days later. Two months after her death the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was closed down.
The entire scandal led to adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951, which is often seen as the only positive to come out of such a horrid period brought about by a terrible woman and her crooked friends.