Thought you’ve heard it all?
Known as “The Baby Thief,” Georgia Tann managed to kidnap and sell 5,000 babies in the black market from 1924 to 1950.
Yes, she managed to commit her crimes in the span of 26 years.
How and why?
Let’s recount the story of Georgia Tann if you’ve got the stomach for it.
1. Normal beginnings
Georgia Tann had a seemingly normal childhood. It’s certainly one you wouldn’t expect a child-trafficker to have.
She was born on 1881 in Philadelphia, Mississippi to George Clark Tann, a district court judge and Beulah Isabella Tann.
Her father, Judge Tann, was domineering and had specific aspirations for Georgia. He wanted her to be a concert pianist and had her trained by the age of 5.
Despite hating the piano, she graduated with a degree in music. However, she showed an interest in the law and somehow persuaded her father to tutor her.
She passed the state bar exam in Mississippi but never went into practice. Later, she would use her knowledge of the law to aid her in her crimes.
2. She was in a “Boston Marriage”
Georgia moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1924 with her girlfriend, Ann Atwood.
During that time, legal cohabitation between two financially independent females, called a Boston Marriage, was socially acceptable.
The couple, however, kept the nature of their relationship private, as such arrangements were beginning to be viewed as suspiciously homosexual.
They lived with their adopted daughter, June, and Ann’s son.
3. The Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Georgia began her social work in Memphis, heading up the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Before the 1920s, adoption was not very popular in the United States. As few as five children were placed each year.
However, by 1928, Tann and her charity organization managed to place as many as 206 children.
Prior to the discovery of her crimes, Georgia and her organization were well-respected in the community. Some would say she popularized adoption, which was discouraged, even feared at the time.
Her position in high society enabled her to establish connections with influential people like Shelby County Family Court Judge Camille Kelley and mayor E.H. Crump.
She used these connections to traffic babies and children without any legal consequences for almost three decades.
4. Kidnapping, Lies, and Bribery.
How was she able to get her hands on 5,000 children?
By any means possible, apparently.
Most of the children she trafficked were kidnapped from poor families as poor folks wouldn’t have the resources to retaliate. Those who reported the kidnappings were ignored, thanks to her friendship with mayor E.H. Crump.
Perhaps it would have been easier to believe she genuinely wanted to give these children better homes if that was her only method. But it wasn’t.
Georgia didn’t just stop at kidnapping. She used pressure tactics, extortion, and threats of legal action against parents who didn’t know any better. She often preyed on young, single mothers.
Georgia also picked up newborns from prisons and mental wards. Even those born in hospitals weren’t safe. She bribed doctors and nurses to snatch the babies. The accomplices would then tell parents that their babies were stillborn.
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To meet further demand, she also used the power of the family court to separate children from their parents. With the help of Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley, Georgia would put cases forward of children that were “not properly cared for”. She would funnel funds to judge Kelley’s office and the latter arranged the children’s adoptions into “homes better able to provide for the children’s care.”
5. The adoptive parents weren’t safe from her either.
Georgia didn’t just exercise her power on children and their poor families. She threatened the adoptive parents, too.
When an adoptive parent discovered false documents, like medical histories, she threatened them with legal action.
She would tell the parents that if they did not stop, she could force them to surrender the child by demonstrating that they were unfit parents.
With backing from good old Judge Kelley, the adoptive parents were forced to keep quiet.
6. What made her do what she did?
We can never truly know what motivated Georgia’s heinous activities.
However, we can make an educated guess.
Barbara Bisantz Raymond, writer of The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, went in-depth into Georgia Tann’s life.
She believed that the frustrations and powerlessness of being a lesbian woman at the time was the reason behind such evil behavior.
In Raymond’s observation:
“Georgia was a woman unable to directly partake of the traditional source of female power: marriage and the bearing of children.”
Instead, she exercised this power on her victims – the children and the families she hurt.
Astonishingly, Georgia adopted a child herself, a girl she named June. But, according to Raymond’s research, she wasn’t a better mother either.
June’s daughter was quoted in Raymond’s book, saying:
“Mother said Georgia Tann was a cold fish; she gave her material things, but nothing else. I don’t why she bothered to adopt her.”
7. The children experienced unspeakable horrors in her care.
This story only gets worse.
Georgia also mistreated the children while they were in her care. There were various reports of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and even murder.
In the 1930s, Tann’s illegal activities contributed to a record-breaking infant mortality rate in Memphis.
It is estimated that more than 500 children died in the hands of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Only a few bodies were found, buried in graves marked by only first names.
8. The children’s fates.
What happened to the children who lived and were adopted?
Regrettably, not all of them had happy endings. The numbers are undetermined but most of the children actually ended up in abusive families and child labor farms.
One of her customers told his adopted child:
“I want you to know I paid $500 for you and I could have gotten a good hunting dog for a lot less.”
Sallie Brandon was one of Georgia’s victims. She recounted her days in Georgia’s care:
“We were herded into the car and brought back to Memphis. When we got here, they dropped my two brothers at another holding place and they took me to the house on Poplar. I remember the parties, when they would dress up the children and take them downstairs for a meet-and-greet. Some of the children would come back, some wouldn’t.”
9. Georgia even made newspaper ads for her adoption agency.
Not only did Georgia get away with her crimes for decades, but she would also even blatantly broadcast her services to the world.
She placed newspaper ads, complete with a well-dressed child’s photo. Under the photos were headlines like, “Yours for the Asking!” or “Want A Real Live Christmas Present?”
Here’s an example of an advertisement in the Memphis Press Scimitar on December 8, 1935:
“Yours for the asking!
“George wants to play catch but needs a Daddy to complete the team. ‘Catch this ball, Daddy!’ How would YOU like to have this handsome five-year old to play ‘catch’ with you? How would you like his chubby arms to slip around your neck and give you a bear-like hug? His name is George and he may be yours for the asking, if you hurry along your request to the Christmas Baby Editor of the Press-Scimitar.
“In cooperation with Miss Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, the Press-Scimitar will place 25 babies for adoption this Christmas.”
Yes, that really happened.
10. She earned a lot of money from the adoptions.
Georgia Tann lived remarkably well-off thanks to her “adoption services.”
Normally, adoptions in Tennessee cost a mere $7. But Tann was earning thousands more. She would charge exorbitant amounts of money for investigative fees and medical bills.
She also had high-profile clients, some of whom lived outside the state. Georgia charged as much as $5,000 per child for these out-of-state private adoptions – a whopping $84,000 in today’s currency.
She lived so well that she was always driven around in chauffeured Cadillac limousine. By the 1940s she had several properties under her name including a large farm, a motel, and a lavish home she called “Tannwood.”
People naturally speculated. However, Georgia always maintained that she came from a prominent and wealthy Mississippi family.
11. Discovery and scandal.
In 1948, Georgia’s strongest backer, E.H. Crump, suffered a devastating loss in the elections when he decided to back Cookeville Judge John A. Mitchell.
The events steamrolled the discovery of Georgia’s crimes.
With E.H. Crump’s authority gone, Georgia’s power over the legal system weakened. Seated in Crump’s stead was his political nemesis, Gordon Browning.
Whispers of Georgia’s trafficking operations reached Browning’s ears in no time. He immediately started an official investigation.
Discoveries soon followed.
Finally, it looked like Georgia Tenn’s reign of terror over Memphis was coming to an end.
12. She died days after her crime was publicized.
Call it anticlimactic.
But a few days after Browning’s press conference about his successful investigation, Georgie Tann died.
She died from cancer, in her own bed, in the comfort of her own home. Strangely enough, or perhaps not – she never sought treatment for her cancer.
The law never reached her.
Her accomplices were never punished either. Judge Kelley avoided prosecution but was forced to retire from the bench. She was 75 years old. Crump was never tried.