Throughout history, certain figures have left a lasting and dubious legacy. Georgia Tann, operative from the 1920s to the 1950s, is one such figure. Although many of the infants she forcefully separated from their birth families have passed on or aged significantly, the reverberations of her deeds persist.
In 1891, Georgia Tann came into the world, the offspring of a respected judge and an educator. Remarkably for a woman of her time, she pursued legal studies, successfully earning her law degree in Mississippi. However, she forsook law to delve into the more socially acclaimed realm of social work, becoming a part of the Mississippi Children’s Home Society in 1916.
Perhaps influenced by her father’s judicial role in rehoming children, Georgia began to see potential in this avenue. At the Mississippi establishment, she initiated her notorious practice of relocating kids from underprivileged backgrounds to affluent families, stemming from the mistaken belief that wealth equated to moral virtue and superior parenting.
Sadly, time revealed that financial prosperity was not indicative of a nurturing environment. Numerous instances of physical and sexual mistreatment emerged from children placed under Tann’s supervision, with some even handed over to known sexual predators.
Due to her questionable practices, the Mississippi home terminated her employment in 1924. Seeking more amenable conditions for her operations, Tann found Memphis, Tennessee suitable, relocating there with her partner and their children.
In Memphis, Tann orchestrated a clandestine web of medical professionals, legal experts, and magistrates who either intentionally or inadvertently aided her in obliterating the origins of her wards. Moreover, this network conveniently overlooked the concerning mortality rates of infants under her care.
This high demand and limited supply led Tann to adopt even more unscrupulous tactics, including outright abduction. Alma Sipple’s story serves as a poignant example: after her daughter Irma fell ill, Tann promised medical assistance. Later, she falsely informed Alma of Irma’s death. Alma was only reunited with her daughter decades later in 1989.
Tann’s enterprise lured an array of clients, spanning Hollywood icons like Joan Crawford and June Allyson to influential politicians.
A notable figure, the New York governor, after adopting two children from Tann, influenced a legislative amendment to seal adoption records in the state, a trend other states emulated. Presently, only Alaska and Kansas maintain open adoption records.
Despite the revelations of her heinous activities after her demise, the elite and influential circles connected to Tann remained untouched. None suggested the stolen children be restored to their biological families.
Her schemes always aimed at concealing the identities of the parents who, under societal pressure, relinquished their children. Tann’s self-proclaimed mission to “improve” the destinies of these children by placing them with prosperous families saw her building a vast network of influential allies.
Chillingly, Tann oversaw acts of euthanasia on the vulnerable children she was entrusted with. The Home often left the weak and unwell to perish in extreme conditions or due to starvation. Physical maltreatment was rampant, and there are numerous testimonies of sexual abuse within the Home’s walls.
The operations of Tennessee Children’s Home Society began to face scrutiny in the 1940s. In 1941, its membership from the Child Welfare League, an endorsing entity, was terminated, pointing out issues like poor adoption follow-ups by competent personnel and advertising kids for adoption.
By 1946, Judge Sam Bates from Probate Court penned a note to Memphis’s Commissioner of Public Welfare, urging an examination of Tann’s activities. Bates, who authorized numerous Home’s adoptions, expressed unease about the Child Welfare League’s findings.
Moreover, Bates was alarmed by feedback from healthcare experts that the Home disregarded medical suggestions, leading to infant fatalities.
During a 1941 outbreak, despite healthcare professionals’ instructions, 30-40 children reportedly succumbed to diarrhea under Tann’s supervision due to inadequate health standards at the establishment.
Following Dr. Clyde Crosswell, the Memphis Medical Association’s leader, raising concerns to the board of Tennessee Children’s Home about the matter, they dismissed the allegations as baseless.
In light of these claims, Tennessee’s lawmakers contemplated rules to bolster state regulation of institutions similar to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Tann, it seems, utilized blackmail to deter the bill’s advocates, even intimidating one by threatening to disclose her past adoption through the Home.
The legislation did get approval, but some pivotal sections were omitted, supposedly due to a clerical mishap, notably those focusing on out-of-state adoption scrutiny. Judge Robert Taylor has recently shared further details about the controversy.
In the 1950’s summer, leading up to the August polls, several esteemed individuals, including US Attorney John Brown, ex-mayor, and congressman Walter Chandler, and realtor Ernest Schumacher, approached Governor Gordon Browning in Nashville.
Browning confided in Taylor that this assembly had undermined the 1947 adoption act and weakened it in 1949, under Tann’s blackmail threats. Threatened with exposure, they ensured their biological children’s parents remained ignorant of their whereabouts.
This revelation urged Governor Brown to take action in September 1950, designating Judge Robert Taylor to delve into the Memphis claims. One discrepancy was the Home’s tendency to adopt children to families on the coasts, with about 80% of children placed either in California or New York, bypassing local Tennessee families.
Such moves were lucrative for Tann. Firstly, overseeing such adoptions became tricky due to differing jurisdictions. Secondly, coastal families had deeper pockets and posed fewer queries.
However, as inquiries began, the Crump Political Network, deeply involved, shielded Tann’s Memphis setup. Abe Waldauer, a key player in the Home and its legal advisor, was integrally linked to this network.
Because Tennessee’s Democratic gubernatorial contests relied on Crump’s machine, they were hesitant to probe the matters too intrusively. Public awareness grew in September 1950, post the governor’s election.
All evidence Taylor had amassed was passed to a legal official to frame charges against Georgia Tann. Yet, before they could proceed, Tann succumbed to cancer on September 15, 1950.
Throughout September, document boxes owned by Waldauer seemingly vanished. Other stakeholders in the Home’s dealings exerted pressure on potential witnesses. Among them was Judge Camille Kelley, the signer of numerous adoption documents.
Ultimately, political ties safeguarded many who were aware of or directly profited from the operations from legal actions. John Heiskill, the Attorney General for Shelby County, owing his position to Crump’s influence, never pressed charges. Influential figures, including Judge Kelley, were discreetly displaced from their roles.
The Tennessee Children’s Home Society paid $100,000 in settlements and was compelled to close by 1951’s end. Estimations suggest that the Tann-led Home unlawfully earned over $1,000,000 through adoption fees and managed over 5,000 adoptions throughout its tenure.
Due to the destruction or tampering of most records, countless children lost their links to their biological families forever. Modern DNA techniques have begun to unveil some truths. Celebrated wrestler Ric Flair recently disclosed his abduction by Tann, with other revelations surfacing since the 1980s.
While Tann’s actions catalyzed adoption oversight reforms, certain practices she pioneered persist, like concealing biological mothers’ identities to prevent “embarrassment.” Parental rights continue to be stripped in courts.
In the 1930s, with most states outlawing abortion and out-of-wedlock pregnancies stigmatized, many children were abandoned or born to struggling single mothers. Currently, with many states imposing abortion limits or outright bans, adoption is often proposed as a pregnancy alternative.
Yet, the adoption infrastructure remains tainted by Tann’s exploitative legacy. This doesn’t even consider the anguish faced by countless children who passed through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society over the years.