The Crimes and Influence of Georgia Tann

Hopefully you are already a reader of this blog so you know that most of the cases that I write about involve murder.  Sure, there have been a few in which that may not be a forgone conclusion but either there has been a death of some sort, or in cases of people who have disappeared they are most often presumed dead.  This case is different than those, and although there were apparently some deaths, possibly related, murder was never a word used, nor was it charged. No, because the crime here was almost bigger than murder. Bigger than murder you say? Yes, I know it seems impossible but this crime, perpetrated by one woman who was aided (some say unknowingly) by very influential people affected the lives of thousands of people.  In fact, the effects of these crimes are still evident today, nearly 65 years later.  

Georgia (born Beulah George) Tann was born in 1891 in Mississippi.  It was a time of repression when it came to women.  Women did not have careers, they had families.  Georgia's father was a well known and respected judge in Mississippi.  Some reports say that she adored her father, while others claim she despised him.  He apparently was well known for his work with orphanages and helping the under privileged children of the area.  While things for women would change over the course of her lifetime as far as career fields more available to women, that did not mean that every woman was able to enter those said fields.  It was said that Georgia wanted to go to law school like her father but he discouraged it so she ended up in the more "female friendly" area of social work.  You have to remember that when she started in the early 1920's there was no help for the poor or the ones "down on their luck." Unwed women who became pregnant were often forced to hide the pregnancy and either give the baby up for adoption (or simply away) or in many cases give birth and have their child raised as a sibling to the mother.  Georgia soon started working in Mississippi.  Rumor is that she was "run out" of Mississippi for her "child placing methods" but those claims and charges were unclear.

I would like to say that as a society we have evolved from the time in which Georgia lived, and in many cases we have but we often remain a society that tends to not get involved in things that do not directly affect us at a particular time.  I always tend to use the following example when I try to explain this way of thinking.  Several years ago I lived in a community in which a local sewer company had decided to expand. They had several different areas in which they planned to install their lines and force the residents to hook up to their system. Each area was a separate phase and they would be completed one after another.  Residents did not like this idea at all.  Many had septic systems that worked fine and argued that the reasons the sewer company gave for forcing residents to comply were false. So they start with "Phase 1" and those people began fighting against it.  They called for all the people in the phases to come to join them in their fight but despite knowing that the company would come to their area soon no one came to their aid.  When the company moved on to "Phase 2" those people too began to fight.  Well once again the people involved in the phases to come would not help and those who had been forced through "Phase 1" basically said "you did not help us, why should we help you?"  This way of thinking continued through the next several phases and in the end the only people who won (aside from one section who had other legal reasons to be able to fight it) was the sewer company.  The point is that no one wanted to fight or help others until it came to the point in which they were directly affected. As a society this is how we are.  The same idea is evident when it comes to employees.  Of course today we have a better system of reporting things to future employers than we did in the 1920's but it still comes down to a matter of actually getting involved and many employers still do not want to do that.  The fact that Georgia was "run out" of Mississippi may have not even come to light until several decades later when her crimes were revealed, I cannot be certain. It is likely that once they got rid of Georgia the idea was she would be "someone else's problem" and they no longer needed to worry with her.

So after Georgia was effectively fired and out of the Mississippi social working system she apparently spent a little bit of time in Texas.  I am unsure if this was a vacation of sorts or if she worked anywhere there but apparently it was unremarkable as she was soon in the Memphis Tennessee area.  I believe the reason that Texas may even be mentioned at all in her story is that it seems while there are questions as to exactly when it occurred, Georgia adopted a daughter around this time.  It is unclear whether that happened after she arrived in Memphis or before.  This in and of itself is rather different.  Single women rarely adopted children, and knowing what we know now about Georgia it has to make one wonder just how she was able to accomplish this.  At any rate her daughter, June, would say as an adult that while Georgia provided her with material things and basic needs, she was a very cold woman and in no way affectionate.  Once in Memphis Georgia started the Tennessee Children's Home Society and soon she was making a name for herself.  She made many friends in high places who helped her not only maintain her image but allowed her to succeed in her goal. In the beginning people believed her goal was to place unwanted or abused children in good, loving homes.  It took a few decades before her true motive was revealed.  

Of course there were people over the years that questioned things about Georgia.  People wondered how a woman who seemingly was just a "social worker," running a home for children had the means to be chauffeured around town in a limousine and wear the seemingly expensive clothing that she did.  But, Georgia had made a name for herself.  She had placed babies all over the country.  If there was anyone who could get a baby for a couple who desperately wanted one, it was Georgia.  In fact she had found babies for celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Lana Turner.  As I stated earlier it was rare for a single woman to adopt children so maybe this is why some of the celebrities went through Georgia.  In Hollywood image was everything and what better way to polish that than by adopting an underprivileged child that needed a family? Then again, one of the reasons that Georgia was able to do what she did was that adoption laws were severely lacking.  She would be instrumental in changing that though, but only in ways in which she benefited.  

So what exactly were Georgia's crimes?  She ran what was called a black market baby adoption scheme and she did so effectively from the time she got into the business (before Memphis apparently) in the early 1920's but during her time at the Tennessee Children's Home Society (from about 1924- her death in 1950) she had perfected her methods, or so she thought anyway.  In fact, it was not until 1941 that anything was even questioned from a state or legal standpoint, at least semi-publicly and even then it still took several more years to get an investigation started and even more years to conclude that investigation.  In the end even Georgia was able to escape punishment. By 1950 she had developed cancer and she died September 15th of that year.  Reports vary but most say that the official conclusions of the investigation into her practices were not revealed until 3 days after her death.  My research also found that during her illness she had not sought treatment which seemed very odd at the time.  This was a woman who cherished the spotlight and obviously had the means to pay for medical care.  Most believe, and they are probably right, that her choice to not receive care probably had to do with the impending investigation.  Georgia likely knew that her scheme was over and that she would probably face criminal charges of some sort and heaven forbid how could she wear her furs in prison? The timing of the conclusion of the results of the investigation seem rather strange to me.  One has to wonder if the results were not in prior to her death and that since she was ill the official release of those were delayed on purpose.  There is also the idea that it was not officially finished or at least compiled and that her death and the likely idea of her idolization at her death convinced those heading the investigation to scramble to get it put all together so that this woman who had been idolized for years by the community and even the country at large would have her crimes revealed.

The never answered question has been, how was this woman able to steal babies for over a quarter of a century and never get caught doing so? People trusted her so much that she was asked to co-author a book on adoption; she helped changed the laws seemingly to protect adopted children; she had socialized with Presidents and First Ladies. When it came to the welfare and care of children, the fighting of their rights, there was no better person than Georgia Tann.  And Georgia had a judge and a state politician on her side.  When someone talks about Georgia and her crimes it is very hard not to mention her and the judge, her friend, the Honorable Judge Camille Kelley.  Kelley is said to have only been the second woman to become a judge in the country.  She worked in the juvenile department of the courts which made her Georgia's best friend.  Within days of Georgia's death in 1950 and the revelation of her crimes Kelley resigned from her post after 20 years on the bench.  Some say she was forced out, while others say she did so in fear.  Most will tell you that aside from Georgia, Camille Kelley was the most culpable person in this crime. But, Kelley was never charged and died at the home of her son in 1955.  Why was she never charge?  Well that obviously is questionable. It could be that no one could prove exactly what she knew about Georgia's schemes.  Some could argue that like many others Kelley simply believed everything that Georgia told her about the children that came through her doors. Others will argue that Kelley got "kick backs" or money from Georgia for her cooperation and that there was no way she did not at least know that some shady things were going on but that she continued to support and give Georgia what she wanted and needed to continue. As far as the state politician?  His name was Edward Hull Crump.  Most believe that like the general citizens and most everyone else involved with Georgia Tann, Crump was fooled by her and just simply believed that Georgia was doing what was right and just for the children. Georgia seemingly went to him often to get things done, like the push for adoption reform laws.  By all accounts, while tough and obviously influential the only real tarnish on Crump's career is Georgia herself. He had started out in Memphis and had been the mayor for many years before becoming a State Representative.   He had run Memphis with an iron fist and apparently under his reign Memphis became a city to aspire to.  The only blight in the city when he was in charge was that Memphis seemed to have the highest infant mortality rate in the country, largely it seemed due to the Tennessee Children's Home Society, ran by Georgia.  It was easy for people to later blame Crump for not looking more closely at Georgia during that time but there is no proof that he did not ask questions or show concern.  Like many he was likely fooled by her.  To be fair, these are the only accusations associated with Crump when it came to Georgia.  There is no evidence that he had any idea what she was doing or involved in any way.  In fact, it seems that when the conclusions of the investigation came out Crump tried to distance himself as far as he could from Georgia Tann because her death was not enough. 

So, just what were Georgia's methods? Well, they varied depending on the situation.  One of the first things she had to do was obviously to gain the trust of many.  This would include people like the aforementioned judge or judges, doctors, nurses and other influential people in the area.  These were the people who would lead her to the babies that she wanted.... needed even.  She quickly became the first person who was contacted when a situation arose such as an inmate at a mental institution giving birth. a poor family unable to care for their children and those who became wards of the state.  By gaining that reputation her home also became the go to place for people who intended to temporarily give their children a home and better care while they themselves got back on their feet and in a position to care for their children properly.  All she needed was the access to these children and then she could make her next move, and those also varied depending on the situation.  She then in turn became the savior for families, many of them wealthy, although not all, who yearned for a child and unable to have one of their own.  She obviously quickly learned that to adopt children outside the state of Tennessee, which was legal, was a much easier and hugely more profitable way of doing things.  While adoptions within the state were a mere $7 (although $7 in 1920 was a lot), adoptions out to other states could legally garner as much as $750.  But, Georgia figured out ways not only to get her hands on thousands of children, but to make even higher profits that she could keep for herself.  Obtaining the children was not too difficult as I said once she gained the trust of those who had easier access to them. The more difficult part was to explain the adoption away, when the biological parents consent would have been needed, or to even keep adoptive parents quiet about any inconsistencies they may have found in the documentation they received. This is where her reputation and friendships with others helped her.  At first it seems that she used the judges (with or without their knowledge) to have parents deemed unfit and then she used them to finalize the adoptions.  Later, when things began to get a little sticky on both sides (from the biological parents and the adoptive parents) she went to the higher ups and started looking into reforming adoption laws.  These would include sealing all adoption records.  She convinced people that the reason was to protect everyone involved but the real reason was to help hide what she was doing.  

She had to control the parents (all of them) in some manner and most generally that was by using lies, threats and fears.  When it came to biological parents sometimes she would gain a child just after child birth on the premises that they needed medical care and then would tell the mother later the child died. This was probably her best and easiest tactic to use. She would tell the parent that out of compassion she had quickly buried the child and then she (or presumably a doctor she contacted) issued a death certificate to show the parent.  This tactic leaves me with questions.  While the 1950 investigation concluded that children did in fact die in her care, or the care of the Home, my research indicated that some of the reported deaths may not have actually occurred and were only said to in order to fool the parent into believing their child had died to only have the same child adopted out to another family.  In other cases when parents thought they were simply turning their children over to the Home on a temporary basis they would return to find their child had been adopted to another family.  When they would cause a fuss with Georgia she would threaten them with legal actions of some sort or indicate to them that fighting was not worth it because she could simply walk into a court (presumably Judge Kelley's courtroom) and have them deemed unfit.  Many times this left the parent feeling there was nothing they could do.  Most of the biological parents were poor people already and not only did they really not have the funds to fight, their economic status left them often unheard.  Here was a seemingly (and she was) wealthy woman with connections to the courts, the state law makers, doctors, law enforcement...etc.  Their voices would not be heard against this woman.  

A large majority, although definitely not all, of the adoptive parents had more wealthy means so when they tended to cause problems, especially when wanting more medical history or knowing what they had may have been false she had to use a different tactic to settle them.  It was later discovered, at least in the 1950 investigation, that first, Georgia did little to no back ground checking on the foster and adoptive families in which she placed children.  What little she did have she generally destroyed which is why in 1941 the Child Welfare League of America dropped the Tennessee's Children's Home Society from their list of qualified institutions.  But, by then she was so well established and respected that "little blip" meant nothing to Georgia and her ego.  It was also discovered that she falsified medical histories of children to fit the needs of the adoptive parents.  Presumably when something would come up with a child in which she had adopted out and the parents pushed for a more accurate history Georgia's means of keeping them quiet was to threaten to have Judge Kelley revoke their adoption, proving them to be unfit and their child taken.  For people who had spent years wanting a child and finally having one, this threat generally worked.  A good example of this would have been the children who were born to mothers that were inmates in the mental institutions. This of course would appear no where on the medical history of the child.  In fact, if the prospective adoptive parents were extremely wealthy the file would indicate that the child also came from respected, wealthy, intelligent, or even noble people despite whatever the truth may have been.  

I can only presume that these tactics of hers were starting to wear thin or else she was simply tired of having to use them and this is why she started lobbying to have adoption laws reformed.  It was then that she started arguing for the privacy of adoptions and having records sealed to which none of the parties could get a full accurate picture. Tennessee was the first to enact such laws but many states followed in their footsteps.  It appears it was easy to do the damage and have them enacted, and while some states have changed the laws again, not all have and 65 years after this crime was uncovered there are still lasting effects of the damage, not just from the families directly related to the situation but from the laws that were made to seemingly protect people.  

While, all of the above information were ways in which Georgia was able to procure and then adopt out children, just where did she have the means to live the seemingly lavish lifestyle that she did.  While arguably she was likely the leading person in the country when it came to social work and adoption, it still was not necessarily a lucrative "business."  I say business because this is exactly what this was to Georgia.  I think most will agree that looking back her goal was not about providing a safe environment or home for unwanted, abused or orphaned children.  Her goal was about her lifestyle and the money it brought her.  As I stated earlier in state adoptions were not the money makers and it is likely those were many of the cases in which many of the children who went to some of the homes that were later considered abusive or were simply adopted to be used as farm hands. Now, obviously the longer a child was in the care of the home, the more they "cost" the home.  So presumably the goal would have been to keep the children residing in the home for the shortest period possible.  This is also why babies were more lucrative.  Most adoptive parents prefer babies or young children.  And seeing as she was the person everyone seemed to come to she likely had many children that were "unadoptable" in normal circumstances. So as long as they stated in the Home they had to be fed, clothes and provided medical care which cost the Home money and $7 was not going to recover those costs for an in state adoption, but they would at least prevent more overhead in a sense.  The money makers were the out of state adoptions.  Those were said to have officially cost around $750, the money of which would go into the Home.  But, seeing as Georgia ran the Home, although they had a private board of overseers, and over time few questioned her methods as they praised her, she began charging huge amounts as she saw fit, some were reportedly for the sum of $5,000.  The 1950 investigation revealed that Georgia reportedly kept 75% of the fees of these adoptions for herself and on top of this would not report them to the board that oversaw the finances of the Home nor to the IRS.  By doing this there is no real way of knowing just how many "adoptions" occurred, nor just how much people paid for them.  

When she died on September 15, 1950 and her obituary was written the official findings of the investigation had not been revealed.  We can presume that someone very close to her provided the details that were published.  This could have likely been her daughter June although the details given indicated that more than likely it was someone else.  In fact, it is my theory that it was likely a woman by the name of Ann Atwood Hollingsworth that wrote the obituary.  So who was Ann?  Well Ann was Georgia's "partner" in life but legally she was her adopted sister (or some say daughter)as of 1943.  This seemed to be fairly common practice of the time.  Homosexual couples with the means to do so would set up a situation in which one of the two people were legally adopted in some manner to make them related by law and subject to inheritance laws.  Her obituary lists Ann as her adopted sister and June as her only child.  Ann was also said to have, while not officially employed by the Home, helped in matters involving transportation or secretarial duties for Georgia. The obituary was full of all of her "accomplishments."  It stated that around 1946 Georgia had estimated that she had adopted out 5,000 children and that while that was an estimate there was also no subsequent total from that time on known for certain.  This number is likely not necessarily correct but one can never know if the number was higher or lower.  Did she inflate the number to make herself look better or was that close to the official number that there were records for with many more that people were unaware of?  There were many quotes from Georgia throughout her obituary from things she said to legislative committees to things in interviews.  All of these things made her look so wonderful and really there for the people. That image took all of about three days to be completely destroyed.

Aside from all of the baby "brokering" facts that were discovered in the investigation, it was stated that many children had been taken soon after birth on the premises of needing medical care but were then placed in "nursing homes" without medical care and died; children who lived in the Home Society were not given proper medical care and in many cases medications prescribed by doctors were never given; and very superficial backgrounds were taken of fostering or adoptive parents leading many children to be placed in abusive homes. Citing these findings the state of Tennessee shut down the Tennessee Children's Home Society a few short months later in December of 1950 and almost immediately Judge Kelley resigned.  The following year Tennessee revised their adoption laws, although I cannot say in what manner.  However, many of those adopted through Georgia Tann were still unable to garner any information and it took until 1995 for some of those victims to even have access to what little information there may have been.  To add to this it is likely the information they received was not correct since it is well known now that Georgia altered facts and documents.  Presumably many well meaning parents who had their children stolen from them died without ever knowing or seeing their children again.  Some likely died believing their child did not survive when in fact they had.  

Georgia Tann in her quest for money and prosperity ruined the lives of many people, all in the name of greed and while she avoided any sort of legal punishment her name will be forever tarnished.

Comments

  1. Barbara Bisantz Raymond's nonfiction book, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, is the go-to for information about Georgia Tann.

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