Real Name: Beulah George "Georgia" Tann
Case: Child abduction/abuse/murder
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Date: 1920s to 1950
Details: From 1924 through 1950, Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society, from a stately home on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. She used it as a front for an illegal foundling home and adoption agency that placed over 5,000 newborn infants and children, from toddlers up to age 16, to sell to what she called "high type" families in 48 states. She used manipulation, deception, pressure tactics, threats, and brute force to take children from mainly poor single mothers in a five-state area to sell to wealthy parents up until outrage, lawsuits, and complaints spurred a state investigation into her tactics closed her down in 1950.
Protected by the infamous Edward Hull "Boss" Crump, Tann regularly altered and destroyed the records of the children "processed" through her custody and did not conduct checks on the adoption homes to which she sent them. It is believed she craved the wealth and power that her position and role afforded her, hopefully to eclipse her locally famous father, who was a judge in Mississippi and who had prohibited her from entering the field of law. She delivered speeches about adoption in Washington, New York, and other major cities and was consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt regarding child welfare. So many children died while in her care that at one point, the infant mortality rate in Memphis was highest in the country and many more deaths were never reported.
Notable celebrities such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson, Dick Powell, Smiley Burnette, and Pearl Buck used Tann's services as well as the parents of New York governor Herbert Lehman. Her death prior to prosecution in 1950 led to more stringent laws on adoption in Tennessee in 1951. Fewer than 10% of these stolen children were ever reunited with parents or siblings due to the complicity of local and state officials such as Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, who provided about 20% of the children adopted out by her, and difficulty finding true and accurate documentation for identification.
Attorney Robert Taylor investigated Tann and her orphanage, finding that it was a front for a baby-stealing and black market adoption organization. He believes that Judge Kelley was actively involved in the cover-up of her operation. He followed her assistant, who often flew in the middle of the night to Los Angeles to bring stolen children to their adopted families. He also discovered that she charged childless couples a fee for background checks for adoptions that would never take place. In total, she gained over $1 million from her operation. Taylor presented a report to the governor on September 12, 1950. She died of cancer just three days later. Kelley resigned two months later. As a result, the orphanage was officially shut down.
Cindy Lou Presto was one of the children "found" by Tann and placed in her orphanage. After she was adopted, she asked her parents about her birth family. They refused to tell her anything. After her adoptive mother's death, she found correspondence between her parents and Tann. A few weeks later, she learned that her birth name was Sandra Lee Bridgewater and that her birth mother's name is Evelyn Bridgewater. They were soon reunited after thirty-two years. She learned that in 1947, she was abducted by Tann while playing at a park when she was just a toddler. She and several other children were taken to Judge Kelley's courtroom. Evelyn tried to get her back, but was unsuccessful.
Several of those who were victims of the Tennessee Children's Home Society are still searching for missing loved ones:
- Ginny Bond is looking for her brother. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee on February 17, 1939 and was originally given the name Mary Nell Long. Her brother's last name was either Hickman or Long. He was born in July of 1936 and was put up for adoption in April of 1939.
- Nancy Turner is looking for her sister. Nancy was born in Tennessee and adopted when she was four years old. Her original name was Nancy Lee McCoy. She has found her brothers but has been unable to locate her sister, whose birth name was Nellie Marie McCoy. She was born in Chattanoga, Tennessee on November 29, 1940.
- David Goldberg is looking for his mother. He was born on April 28, 1944. At the time, his mother was twenty-three and living in Cleveland, Mississippi. She had a brother and five sisters.
- Alma Jo Davis is looking for her son, Billy Joe Woodbury, who was born in Memphis on January 25, 1945. Three days after his birth, he was sent to the Tennessee Children's Home Society. She never saw him again.
- Lynn Heinz is looking for her birth family. In 1949, Lynn was five years old when she was adopted by a wealthy California couple. When she was an adult, she learned the truth about her adoption and began searching for her biological family. She located her adoption certificate, which said that her birth name was "Martha Jean Gookin". However, she was unable to find any other information about her family.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the December 13, 1989 episode. It inspired the movies, "Missing Children: A Mother's Story" and "Stolen Babies." The book, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, was published in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. Georgia Tann was profiled on Deadly Women.
Other cases involving black-market baby organizations include Dylene Zolikoff, Scott Merz, and Dawnette Barker, The Family of Joe Soll, and The Parents of Gale Samuels.
Results: Solved. Soon after the broadcast, Lynn got in contact with an organization that helps children from the Tennessee Children's Home Society find their families. One of the organization's members was able to locate Lynn's birth announcement. Within a few days, she had found Lynn's birth family. Three weeks later, she was reunited with her father and two half-brothers, Paul and Randall.
In January 1990, thanks to the broadcast, Nancy was able to locate and reunite with her sister, Evelyn Routh, after forty years.
Alma Sipple saw the broadcast and contacted the telecenter, asking for help in locating her daughter Irma. Irma had been taken by Tann in 1946 after she took her to a hospital and never returned. Alma was then put in touch with Tennessee's Right to Know, an organization that helps reunite families separated by adoption. Seven months later, Irma - now Sandra Kimbrell - was found living in Cinncinati. Soon after, she and Alma were joyfully reunited.
- Georgia Tann on Wikipedia
- Georgia Tann: A Story of Stolen Babies
- Siblings trying to locate sister sold into adoption
- Woman led to brothers by TV show
- Together Again: After 44 Tortured Years, a Mother Finds Her Stolen Child Via 'Unsolved Mysteries'
- Mom reunites with child stolen in ’40s
- 44 Years Later, Mom Finds Lost Baby
- Joy: Mother hadn't seen daughter for 40 years
- Siblings broken apart, adopted for profit, reunited
- California man looking for relatives
- Lifetime sheds light on painful tale of 'Stolen Babies'
- Sisters reunited (Page 1) (Page 2)
- Adopt (2009 Article about Tann)
- This woman stole children from the poor to give to the rich
- Babies for sale: Memphis adoption ring inspired author Lisa Wingate's new novel
- She terrified people
- Georgia Tann on Find a Grave