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
|Organization||Tennessee Children's Home Society|
|Partner(s)||Camille Kelley |
Ann Atwood Hollinsworth
|Comments||Died before arrest|
Span of crimes
Georgia Tann (born Beulah George 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 used pressure tactics, threats of legal action and other methods to take children from their birth parents, mostly poor single mothers, so she might sell them to her wealthy patrons. 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.
Tann also arranged 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 with the society because a family was experiencing illness or unemployment, only to find out later that the Society 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 told them that the babies had died, but they were actually placed in foster homes or adopted.
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.
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 (ordered by Kelley) by demonstrating that they were unfit parents.
Tann destroyed records of the children that were processed through the Society and conducted minimal background checks on the adoptive homes. 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. As a result, the Child Welfare League of America dropped the Society from its list of qualifying institutions in 1941.
The Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal resulted in adoption reform laws in Tennessee in 1951.
However, Tann also had arranged for out-of-state private adoptions where she charged a premium, upwards of $5,000 per child, for her "services". It is alleged that she pocketed 75 percent of the fees from these adoptions for her own personal use and failed to report the income to either the Society Board or the Internal Revenue Service.
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in 1950 and is not to be confused with the current Tennessee Children's Home, which is accredited by the state of Tennessee. This Tennessee Children's Home has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann or the Society which she operated.
Tann made millions selling children, 90 percent of them to people in New York and California. New York and California vowed to take action, but the children's adoptions were never investigated, no children were restored.
Notable personalities who used Tann's services (but were not aware of the tactics used by Tann to acquire many of the children processed through the Tennessee Children's Home Society) 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.
In popular culture
The scandal was also the subject of two made for television films:
- Missing Children: A Mother's Story (1982)
- Stolen Babies (1993)
The subject of Georgia Tann also appears in an episode of Investigation Discovery's series Deadly Women titled "Above the Law" that aired September 13, 2013 and also appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
The subject of Georgia Tann is the focus of the nonfiction book, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, The Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond.
A lightly fictionalized Georgia Tann also appears in the novel Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate.
Memorial to victims
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 14x13 lot at the historic Elmwood Cemetery (Memphis, Tennessee) with no headstones. Tann bought the lot sometime before 1923 and recorded the children there by their first names, "Baby Estelle," "Baby Joseph" and so on. 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." 
- Barbara Raymond. The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. 2007. 320p. Carroll & Graf.
- 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. 1951, [Nashville] : State of Tennessee, Dept. of Public Welfare.
- Investigation of the Tennessee Children's Home Society.
- Tennessee Government: Department of Children's Services: Access to Adoption Records. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Tennessee Children's Home.
- "clipping". New York Times.
- Shirley Downing. Quest led Joan Crawford twins, others to Tenn. The Memphis Commercial Appeal. September 11, 1995. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
- Barbara Bisantz Raymond (6 May 2008). The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. Union Square Press. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-1-4027-5863-8.
- Southern Hollows Routine Papers: Meet America's Notorious Baby Thief, Georgia Tann
- Linda Tollett Austin (1 July 1993). Babies for sale: the Tennessee Children's Home adoption scandal. Praeger. ISBN 978-0-275-94585-5.
Group working to undo #TannLehmanLegacy http://www.facebook.com/NYAdoptionEquality/app/100265896690345/