Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Georgia Tann

Real Name: Beulah George "Georgia" Tann
Case: Child abduction/abuse/murder
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Date: 1924 to 1950


Details: From 1924 to 1950, the Tennessee Children's Home Society on Poplar Avenue in Memphis was a model orphanage. Its director, Georgia Tann, worked diligently to find homes for the children, rather than allow them to languish through their teenage years in an orphanage. She won national praise for her progressive approach and single-handedly placed 5,000 orphans (from infants to teenagers) with new families. But her orphanage was not all that it seemed. She and the orphanage, in fact, had a darker side.
When Cindy Lu Presto was growing up, she was told that she was adopted from Memphis. She asked her adoptive family numerous questions, but never got any answers. After her mother passed away, she was packing her things when she found correspondence from the Tennessee Children's Home. She then began a search for her birth family. Two years later, she found her birth name. Two hours later, she found her birth mother, Evelyn Bridgewater. They were reunited soon after. She learned that she was separated from her birth family in 1947 when she was just two years old. She had originally been christened "Sandra Lee Bridgewater". But only when she found Evelyn was she able to piece together the sinister events that led up to her adoption.
On the day Cindy was separated from her family, she was playing on a playground when Tann drove up in her proverbial black limousine. Tann asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She ran up to Tann, who picked her up and put her inside. They then drove away. She had literally been stolen by Tann. She and several other children were then taken to juvenile court in Memphis, where she was brought before Judge Camille Kelley. Her fate was completely in Kelley's hands. Evelyn had no idea that her daughter had been kidnapped until she got a call from the juvenile court. Incredibly, she was asked to sign papers making Cindy eligible for adoption. She refused. Kelley overruled her and Cindy was taken away.
Kelley was a well-respected citizen of Memphis. In 1948, a national poll selected her as one of the six most wholesome women in the world, along with Queen Elizabeth. Investigating attorney Robert Taylor was certain, however, that Kelley was involved in Tann's operation. He did not believe that Tann could have carried it on without her. Also, he did not believe that Kelley could have lived her extravagant lifestyle unless she had outside income. For twelve years, Tann used the Tennessee Children's Home Society as a cover for a black market baby ring. She allegedly 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. However, in 1950, after a number of doctors resigned in protest over health standards at the orphanage, Taylor was appointed by Governor Browning to investigate her and the orphanage.
Taylor discovered that a large number of the children were being sent out of state to be adopted by "high-class" couples, even though there was a long list of couples waiting to adopt a child in Tennessee. Tann was ignoring these local couples. In order to find out the reason, Taylor followed her assistant, Alma Walton, on her next trip to Los Angeles. He determined that her regular practice was to leave at 3am, when there would be almost no one at the airport or on the planes. She would then call the adoptive parents and have them meet her in a hotel lobby. She would come down to the lobby with one baby, while she had the hotel maid stay with the rest of the children. After talking with them for a few minutes, they would all leave. She would then go back to get another baby, and do that over and over until she gave away all of them.
Taylor discovered that Tann had placed out over 1,200 babies for adoption in New York City and Los Angeles alone. He also discovered that she increased revenue by charging childless couples a fee to conduct background investigations in preparation for adoptions that would never take place. Over the twenty years she had been operating this black market in babies, she had made a fortune. In total, she made over $1 million (a remarkable sum, especially back in 1950). With her ill-gained profits, she bought a vast amount of property. Along with the real estate in Memphis, she also owned a large tourist court in Mississippi, and a summer home on the Gulf Coast.
On September 12, 1950, Taylor presented his report to Governor Browning. Tann had been stricken with cancer and died three days later. Under pressure from the continuing investigation, Kelley resigned on November 11. The Tennessee Children's Home Society was then closed. Tann's death prior to prosecution led to more stringent laws on adoption in Tennessee in 1951. Cindy, along with others who have been victimized by Tann's operation, are very upset at what happened to them. She is especially upset for the years she missed out on with her birth family. Fewer than 10% of the stolen children were ever reunited with parents or siblings due to the complicity of local and state officials, such as Kelley, and manipulation and destruction of records on the children.

Several of those who were victimized by 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 1936 and was put up for adoption in April 1939.
  • Nancy Turner is looking for her sister. Nancy was born in Tennessee and was adopted when she was four years old. Her original name was Nancy Lee McCoy. She and her siblings were given up by their mother, who was unable to take care of them. 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.

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.
  • 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.
  • It is reported that so many children died while in Tann's care that at one point, the infant mortality rate in Memphis was highest in the country and many more deaths were never reported.
  • 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.

Lynn reunited with her family

Results: Solved. After the broadcast, friends told fifty-year-old Lynn Heinz about the Tennessee's Right to Know adoption support group. The group helps children from the Tennessee Children's Home Society find their families. In 1949, she was placed in Tann's orphanage. She was five-years-old when she was adopted by a wealthy California couple. She recalled that although her adoptive family was nice, she did not feel loved by them. She also always felt different than them.
When Lynn 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 at the time. After contacting the group, member Debbie Norton was able to locate Lynn's birth announcement, which had the names of her birth parents. Within an hour, she tracked down Lynn's brother, Randall Gookin, and half-brother, Paul McKeel. Three weeks after the broadcast, she flew from her home in Denver, Colorado, to Memphis and was reunited with her brothers and eighty-six-year-old father, Rufus.
On December 19, 1989, thanks to the broadcast, Nancy was able to locate her fifty-year-old sister, Evelyn Routh, who now lives in Winnemucca, Nevada. She remembered Nancy, their brothers, and their tearful separation. In January 1990, they were reunited after forty years. In February, Evelyn also met two of their brothers. They all appeared briefly on the "Third Anniversary Special".
Alma Sipple saw the broadcast and contacted the tele-center, 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. Seven months later, Irma, now Sandra Kimbrell, was found living in Cincinnati. Soon after, she and Alma were joyfully reunited.
It is not known whether Ginny, David, or Alma were reunited with their loved ones.