The Georgia Tann Adoption Scandal

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An adoption scandal that shocked the nation, a villain hiding in plain sight, and over 5000 children whose lives would never be the same.

This is season one, episode one of Nonfiction Friday, the series that tells unbelievable stories that really happened. In this inaugural episode we will be talking about the Georgia Tann adoption scandal and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

This story takes place in Memphis, Tennessee, a city alongside the Mississippi River, known for housing great musicians like Elvis Presley, BB King, and Johnny Cash. Near Midtown lived a different kind of celebrity. They called her Georgia Tann.

Georgia Tann was born in 1891 as the daughter of a prominent judge. She slowly made a career for herself through social work, eventually becoming the executive director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which operated successfully from the 1920s to 1950.

What you need to understand about Georgia Tann was that she was a figurehead for adoption throughout the entire country. She spoke extensively on lecture tours, preaching her values to people like Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman. From the outside looking in, she was one of the top proponents for adoption and placing needy children in wonderful homes. No one ever thought to question her. But what was really going on behind the scenes at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was very different from the picture it was trying to sell.

An estimated 5,000 children were black market sold through Georgia Tann’s adoption ring. Sadder still, many of the adoptive families had no idea what they were supporting, what they were getting into, or the incredible repercussions all of their actions would have over the next generation and the generation to come.

Georgia Tann was untouchable. People loved her. They admired her. Celebrities like Joan Crawford, Pearl S. Buck and even the New York Governor adopted Tann children. These celebrities and hundreds of average families all believed they were giving these children a home they needed and that they were doing a greater service to society. No one thought to question where these children were coming from. That is where the darkness of Georgia Tann’s adoption scandal starts. Unfortunately, it’s not where it ends.

Where exactly was Georgia Tann getting all these babies that supposedly needed homes?

The truth is the majority of these children were kidnapped, taken, or confiscated under false means. Georgia Tann would target poor families, poor families who could not fight back, often through a series of lies. Some would promise these poor families some sort of service of help, then their children to be taken away under the guise of something good and never be given back. In other cases, Georgia Tann used a local network of authority figures who served as her kidnappers. Often they would give her tips of poor families who were in desperate times of need. For instance, if a mother of eight was in hospital and the father was at work, Georgia Tann would be given a tip that these children were left alone at home. She would then drive to these houses in her black luxury Packard car, offer the children a ride, and lure them out of their homes. As far as the parents were concerned, their children had just disappeared. They would never find them again.

Another way Georgia Tann acquired babies to sell was by taking advantage of desperate mothers who were not pregnant in a socially acceptable way.

In a more sinister take for acquiring newborns, Georgia Tann and her associates would sometimes tell mothers in a hospital that their baby had died during childbirth when they had not. Then they would tell the family that the body would be buried at no cost to them. That child who had a loving family waiting for them would be stolen, taken into Georgia Tann’s care and, if it was lucky, eventually sold to a family. They would also take advantage of new mothers when they were still under sedation and have them sign their children away.

Once in the home children were given new names, new backgrounds, and sometimes even new religions in order to make them more marketable to families. A 1951 report showed that these children were sometimes drugged to keep them quiet in the house. Older children were often used as free labor and many children would die from lack of medical care.

In an effort to adopt these children or essentially sell them for a high price, Georgia Tann would create backstories for these children that, in an age of eugenics, made them seem more appealing to potential parents. Children always seemed to come from attractive mothers and intelligent fathers who were always doctors. They always came from a well off home and there was always some reason why the child had to be given up.

The children were treated as commodities by Tann. She placed ads in newspapers for them. She even made a baby catalog and every Christmas there would be a raffle in the local paper where 20 to 30 babies would be raffled off to families after buying a simple ticket for an entry. It was called the Christmas Baby Giveaway.

One of the biggest questions about Georgia Tann is, “how did she get away with all of this?”

Well, adoption was becoming big business.

While adoption wasn’t that common in the decades prior to this, a few things changed in the 1920s that made it more popular.

First of all, it was part of a social change. There were governmental campaigns encouraging people to adopt. These campaigns were encouraging Americans to support their local society, support their own families, and to give a loving home to a child who might need one. All admirable messages going to lots of admirable people. That is what Georgia Tann took advantage of.

Eugenics was also a very popular trending topic at this time in history. Eugenics is something that lots of people don’t talk about, I encourage you to do a quick Google search or research it if you’re not familiar. Essentially, it was the belief that human breeding could be made better by focusing on who bred, or who reproduced. That in itself is a very sad story. But, it was popular at the time and people were buying into all this information about what the “best” child is. In that line of thinking you get into all these parameters of what is the “best” child. How is that defined? This was another social belief of the time that Georgia Tann took advantage of. Beautiful babies could sell for a lot more than perhaps what would have been considered an average baby at that time. Georgia Tann would be aware of this when she was seeking out children to kidnap and then sell.

Another major change which allowed adoption in to be possible in a more common sense was the advent of baby formula. Baby formula meant mothers who weren’t nursing could care for a child in a healthy way and without the need of a wet nurse. It allowed them to be independent mothers if they weren’t able to do it in a natural way or did not want to do it in a natural way. Older couples and Jewish families were also common customers of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Partially because many adoption agencies in that era did not adopt out to Jewish families.

These are all people who wanted children. These were a lot of people who were basically good people who wanted children. They thought that they were doing the right thing. They never thought anything out of place was in existence. These families too are victims of Georgia Tann as they were put unknowingly into turmoil.

Once new parents had their adopted children Tann was not against blackmailing them. She would make up excuses of why she needed more money. She would sometimes lie and say the family had to come back for the child and that if they paid a small legal fee she would be able to make the problem go away. If they paid up, they could keep this child they’ve now had for years, who they’ve grown attached to and obviously loved.

She would also make all sorts of excuses to charge more money, everything from traveling fees, nurse fees—just anything she could think of—and Tann would profit a large amount of those fees.

The adoption fee in Tennessee was quite low, but we know that Tann would take advantage of these parents with her prime stock in how she marketed and sold these babies as commodities. We know that in one case, she made at least $2,700 off of one child. In today’s money that’s about $40,000. With an estimated 5,000 children going through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society’s doors you can imagine the amount Tann might have made, which was an estimated 1 million or 11 million and today’s money. Because she was making such money she was able to have a lot of local people in her pocket, people who were also making money off of this business.

It all changed in 1949 when a new governor of Tennessee was appointed. Gordon Browning took office and Tann started to lose her uppermost connections. In September of the next year after the election of 1950 Brown had a press conference where he revealed all of Tann’s schemes.

Unfortunately, Tann would never pay for any of these crimes. Just three days after that press conference she passed away after slipping into a coma from untreated uterine cancer. At the end of that year the remaining children in the home were found new adoptees and the doors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society closed forever.

No one was ever prosecuted for their role in the Georgia Tann adoption scandal. In fact, Tennessee legislature sealed all adoption records, some say in an effort to protect those of the higher ups who had helped Georgia maintain her black market trafficking for all those years. This meant that any children who were adopted through Georgia Tann would have to have a court order and pay a fee to release their birth records.

What people may forget to realize is that in the modern day, some 70 years after this scandal came to a close, survivors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society are still being affected. As the adoptees reach adulthood they may become curious about where they came from and make efforts to forge connections with family they didn’t know they had. Many have met siblings, aunts, uncles, and have found a new hope, a new joy going forward from all the travesties that Georgia Tann committed. Many are proud and honored to be part of the families they grew up in, happy with the lives they lead, and don’t feel a need to find out where they come from.

In 2019 Lisa Wingate, the author of the fictionalized account of Georgia Tann’s adoption scandal in historical fiction Before We Were Yours, came together with journalist Judy Christie to write about 15 survivors who are now seeking out their families, seeking out one another, and stepping forward together bringing something positive to what came from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

There is a small memorial in Elmwood cemetery that serves to honor the children whose lives were lost at the hands of Georgia Tann and whose bodies were never recovered.

The building where the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was housed, where all of these children went in and out of its doors, has since been demolish. Many feel this is a fitting way to say goodbye to that chapter in our history and move forward.

If you want to learn more about the Georgia Tann adoption scandal and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society try reading these books.

The first is Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. This is a fictionalized account through the eyes of a child going through the Georgia Tann system. It has received incredible reviews and spurred the completion of another book by Lisa Wingate and Judy Christie, Before and After, sharing the stories of 15 survivors and how their families are coming together and growing again after all this time has passed. Both books are truly fantastic reads and I hope you will check them out.

Finally, if you liked this video, give it a thumbs up drop a comment below and tune in next Friday for Episode Two. This first season of nonfiction Fridays is experimental there will be eight episodes. And if you did like it, be sure to respond and let me know so that I can determine if there will be a season two. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you on the next one. Bye guys.

End transcript.

The book that inspired this Nonfiction Friday feature:

Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours

A heartbreaking story of love and loss, based on a true story

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

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About the Book

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

Publishers Weekly’s #3 Longest-Running Bestseller of 2017

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Author:
Genres: Historical Fiction, Southern Fiction
ASIN: B01M14UN1J
ISBN: 9781787473102
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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
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Bex Skoog

Bex Skoog

Bex Skoog is the creator of the 'Out of the Bex' website, a guide to a more thoughtful life through books and simple living. If she had three wishes they would be for teacups to never empty, to possess an unending supply of classic films, and have access to the world's greatest libraries. Bex lives in Virginia outside of Washington D.C. with her husband and hundreds of stray books.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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