No one knows or perhaps cares to remember the exact day the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis closed. What is known is that 69 years ago, in late November or early December, the place workers later called “a house of horrors” closed its doors for good.
Shutting the Children’s Home Society down may have cast it into obscurity, but by then the home had already permanently changed the lives of more than 5,000 children. The unimaginable horror of the place still reverberates today not because many of the children were orphaned or abused but because they were stolen.
The little-known story caught the attention of fiction author Lisa Wingate when she saw a late-night episode of “Deadly Women” on the Discovery Channel about the children’s home matriarch, Georgia Tann.
“I wondered if it was all true or was sensationalized for TV,” Wingate told Insider. “So I started digging. I had to know more.” The result was “Before We Were Yours,” a fictional account of the orphanage told through the eyes of 12-year-old Rill Foss. Released in 2017, the book stayed on top of best-seller lists for over a year.
“People would write or email and say, ‘This book is about my mother’ or ‘I think I might be one of the stolen babies,'” Wingate said.
For more than 20 years, Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where she and an elaborate network of coconspirators kidnapped and abused children to sell them off to wealthy adoptive parents at a steep profit.
Her favorite scheme was to drive through impoverished neighborhoods, picking out the prettiest children, then offer them rides in her shiny black luxury car. Once the children were in, they usually never saw their families again.
Tann took advantage of the lack of regulation around adoption to perpetuate her scheme, relying on the desperation of would-be parents to keep them quiet. According to reports done after the home was closed, many children died while under Tann’s care. Those who managed to survive TCHS are still grappling with Tann’s unchecked cruelty and greed.
In 2018, spurred by interest in her book, Wingate organized a Children’s Home Society adoptee reunion with help from fellow author Judy Christie. This fall, many of the adoptees from the first event, along with several newly found adoptees, attended a second reunion.
To tell the story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann, Insider spoke with several survivors of Tann’s baby-trafficking business, many of whom have spent a lifetime trying to figure out who they are. We also examined the Memphis Library’s extensive archives on the Home Society and read contemporaneous reports from investigators who uncovered and documented the horrors there.
Tann first tried her child-stealing scam at a Mississippi children’s home, but she was run out of town
Beulah George “Georgia” Tann was born in 1891 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Named for her father, a powerful judge, she hoped to follow in his footsteps and practice law. Instead, her domineering father forbade it, and she instead pursued a career in social work — one of the few socially acceptable positions for a woman of her means.
She first went to work in Mississippi, but she was soon fired for inappropriately removing children from impoverished homes without cause. She made her way to Texas, where it’s believed she adopted her daughter, June, in 1922. Later, in 1943, she adopted Ann Atwood Hollinsworth, a woman believed to be Tann’s longtime same-sex partner. It was common at the time for same-sex couples to use adult adoption as a means of transferring property or inheritances.
Tann then moved on to Memphis, where her father used his political connections to secure a new job for her as executive secretary at the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1922.
By 1929, she had staged a takeover and named herself executive director.
Sallie Brandon is one of the few Children’s Home Society adoptees who still remember Tann.
“She was a rounded lady who wore glasses and carried a little purse,” Brandon told Insider. “I remember her being a stern, severe woman.” Brandon and her two brothers were separated and sold by Tann. With their blond hair and blue eyes, the trio was perfect prey for Tann. She pocketed close to $2,700 in the deal, nearly $40,000 in today’s money.
Tann’s scheme coincided with a sharp increase in families looking to adopt kids
In the 1900s and 1910s, formalized adoptions were fairly rare, but in the 1920s adoption began to be marketed as a shortcut to societal improvement. According to one ad from the National Home Finding Society, adopting would “reduce divorces, banditry, murder, and control births, fill all the churches and do real missionary work at home and abroad, exchanging immigrants for Americans and stopping some of the road leading to war.”
At the time, the theory of eugenics — that is, the controlling of the reproduction of genetically “inferior” people through sterilization — was popular. The movement claimed that people of better genetic endowment were subject to greater infertility. It became important in adoption not just to get babies but to get the best babies. A campaign to explain the superiority of adoption was launched.
This new outlook, along with the popularization of baby formula, helped Tann’s baby-trafficking business grow. Suddenly, nonnursing mothers could easily and affordably feed their babies. The demand for adoptable infants rose, especially among busy, successful women.
Tann was calculated in her approach and targeted the rich and famous, who paid premium prices for their adopted children. Actors, authors, and entertainers, including Dick Powell and June Allyson, Lana Turner, Pearl S. Buck, Smiley Burnette, and New York Gov. Herbert Lehman, all adopted Tann babies. In 1947, Joan Crawford adopted twins, Cathy and Cindy, from Tann.
A network of corrupt social workers, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and judges helped Tann get away with the scheme
Stealing children wasn’t a small side business. During the 21 years Tann ran the Children’s Home Society, it’s believed she made more than $1 million from taking and selling children — about $11 million in today’s money. And she didn’t do it alone.
Tann’s extensive child-trafficking operation required connections, and she quickly linked up with E.H. “Boss” Crump, who ran a powerful Tennessee political machine. Crump offered Tann protections in exchange for kickbacks.
To kidnap and traffic her victims, Tann paid off a network of social workers, police officers, doctors, and lawyers. Some kidnapped children from preschools, churches, and playgrounds for her. Kidnappers preyed on poor children and families who didn’t have the means to fight back. Tann’s coconspirators were authority figures — people not to be contradicted — so children often went with them willingly. Sometimes, Tann would approach families and offer medical or other help. Tann would tell parents she could get their children into a clinic at no cost, but if they came along as well they’d be charged a large bill.
In the era before internet and with few phones, Tann relied on her network of spotters. They alerted Tann to children on riverbanks, in shantytowns, or walking home from school. She drove up in her big black car and offered them rides.
Tann was also in cahoots with a local judge who helped procure children, specifically from impoverished single or widowed mothers. One of her most high profile coconspirators was Judge Camille Kelley, who presided over the juvenile court in Shelby County, Tennessee, for 30 years.
“She had a stooge down in the welfare department when someone would apply for assistance, this person would get their name, and get in touch with Camille Kelley,” Robert Taylor, an investigator, said in a 1992 interview with “60 Minutes.”
In 1950, Taylor, a local lawyer, was asked by newly elected Gov. Gordon Browning to do an in-depth investigation into Children’s Home Society and Tann. “Camille Kelley would send a deputy out to pick them up and award custody to Georgia Tann,” he added.
Tennessee law required children to be adopted in state for a fee of $7, about $75 in today’s money. But Tann moved her “merchandise” at $1,000 per head — $10,000 today. When the state finally investigated, the report on the Children’s Home Society, the Browning report, found that Tann conducted “private” adoptions and pocketed up to 90% of the fee. She would gouge prospective parents on everything from travel costs, to home visits, and attorney’s fees.
The report also detailed how children were then spirited away from the Home Society in the middle of the night to avoid detection by authorities who weren’t in the know or others who might ask too many questions. Her “nurses” had regular circuits to New York and California, though she shipped to all US states and Great Britain.
Tann preyed on the poor
Norma Sue and her five siblings were kidnapped from the yard of their river shanty in January 1943.
Tann had pulled up in her shiny black Packard and asked the children if they wanted to go for a ride. A matronly woman, she appeared non-threatening.
“They were poor children who had maybe never even seen a car,” Norma Sue’s daughter, Peggy Koenitzer, told Insider. Tann had been tipped off. The kids were home alone. Their mother was in the hospital.
“My mother was 8 years old when it happened — she knew her name and family,” Virginia Williamson, another of Norma Sue’s daughters, said. Norma Sue and her siblings stayed at the Home Society for three months, where they were exploited as free labor.
“Basically, she and her sister had to run and fetch and take care of the babies, changed diapers, stuff like that,” Koenitzer said. Norma Sue and her twin sister were the only siblings to stay together. They were adopted out to a family in Philadelphia.
“Mom was told by the woman who met them that she was their new mother. She said, ‘No, you’re not.’ From that moment on, Mom refused to be part of her new family,” Williamson added.
By the time Norma Sue and her sister were in Philadelphia, Tann had moved on to other victims.
Tann often made up the backstories for the children to make them more appealing to prospective parents
Elaborate backstories were added to stolen children’s files to make them more “marketable.” Their files said they came from “good homes” with “very attractive” young mothers. Fathers were described as “intelligent” and often in medical school.
Tann told Norma Sue’s adoptive parents that she and her sister were younger than they were — 6 years old — to make them “more desirable.” To make them difficult to trace, she often changed children’s ages and renamed them before adoption.
Tann also knew how to capitalize on opportunities in the adoption market. Few agencies adopted to Jewish families, and Tann saw her chance. A few pen strokes turned a Southern Baptist child into a baby from a “good Jewish” family. As the Children’s Home Society scandal was exposed, the scenario played out in the adoption records over and over again.
Debbie Branco, adopted under the name Catherine Shredder, was shipped to her new family in New Jersey when she was only days old.
“I went to Hebrew school, the whole thing,” Branco told Insider. “But later found out I’m not Jewish. Who knows what I am?”
If parents, biological or adoptive, asked too many questions about children, Tann threatened to have them arrested or the child removed. She was known for “repossessing” children whose adoptive parents couldn’t make full payments on time. And she wasn’t above blackmailing customers for more money later.
Often she would return to adoptive parents months later and say relatives of the child had come around asking for a baby’s return. But for a hefty fee she had lawyers who could make the situation go away.
She preyed on desperate women, exploiting their sense of shame
Tann was savvy about her child-trafficking business and responsive to the demands of the market. Because many families were interested in babies only, she concentrated her efforts on procuring infants — though she wasn’t above kidnapping older children to fill out her inventory.
Homes for unwed mothers, welfare hospitals, and prisons were targeted. Doctors, working with Tann, told new mothers their babies had died during birth. Those children were “buried” at no cost to the families.
Gene Tapia, who eventually became a NASCAR driver, had a child taken by Tann’s network. While he was fighting in World War II, his son was stolen moments after birth. It would take Gene and his wife Francine 47 years to eventually be reconnected to their son Robert.
Other mothers were coerced into signing their children away while still under sedation from labor. Tann preyed on women’s’ desperation, their poverty, and their sense of shame.
“If they were unsedated and tried to hold on to the babies after the baby was born, then Georgia Tann would step in and say, ‘Well, you don’t want people in your home town to know about [your pregnancy], do you?'” Robert Taylor, a lawyer who investigated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal for Gov. Gordon Browning, said in his 1992 “60 Minutes” interview.
By the 1930s, as a result of Tann’s scam, Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate in the US.
‘We found that on many occasions babies had been taken … only a few hours old and placed in nursing homes in and about Memphis, where they were without medical care’
Taylor spent more than a year working on a 240-page report for the governor about the Children’s Home Society. He spoke with countless child-welfare experts, psychologists, and pediatricians who relayed the terrible truth of life at the children’s home.
“We found that on many occasions babies had been taken … only a few hours old and placed in nursing homes in and about Memphis where they were without medical care,” Taylor wrote. “Children placed in the Memphis home itself were not properly cared for, and many children died while there as a direct result of violations of physicians’ orders.”
“Some people started to raise a stink when a dysentery outbreak swept through the orphanage,” author Lisa Wingate said. “Taylor’s report used the phrase ‘babies dropping like flies’ when somewhere between 40 and 50 children died in 1945 in something like four months.”
Archives at the Benjamin Hooks Library, in Memphis, reveal some of the cruelties children were subjected to. Babies were kept in sweltering conditions, and some children were drugged to keep them quiet until they were sold. Other children were hung in dark closets, beaten, or put on starvation rations for weeks at a time. Drug addicts and pedophiles were hired to watch over them.
“Yes, sexual abuse at the hands of Georgia Tank was very true, and it was presented as your favor,” said one adoptee who was five- years old when she lived at TCHS. “I remember being told to sit in her lap,” she continued. “I keep trying to block it all out, but it keeps coming. It’s caused me a lot of problems. You won’t find a whole lot of healthy adults who went through there.”
Boys at the home, one adoptee told Browning, “back then, every boy in an orphanage got molested,” and pointed to male caretakers as typical perpetrators.
The children’s deaths did little to stop Tann’s baby-adoption juggernaut.
Tann toured the country lecturing on adoption. Employing the language of eugenics, she told the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman that adopted children “turned out better” because of the “selective process” in which poor children could be remade into a “higher type.”
Bolstered by her popularity, Tann grew increasingly audacious. She placed ads in newspapers featuring children with titles like “Yours for the Asking” and “They’d Like to be Your Christmas Gift.” Tann created a “Baby Catalog” to help prospective parents choose the perfect child, for an ever-growing price tag.
In the 1940s, Tann developed a new publicity stunt.
“They would raffle 20 or 30 babies off every year in the ‘Christmas Baby Give Away’ in the newspaper,” Wingate said. “How did anyone ever think that was all right?”
For $25 — about $350 today — purchasers could buy as many raffle tickets as they liked.
Tann pocketed thousands of dollars that ticket holders assumed went to the Home Society, and had to give away just a fraction of her “merchandise” in the process.
After more than 20 years, Tann’s adoption scam was shut down
Tann’s baby-selling scheme carried on unabated for over two decades. But in 1949 things took a turn. Tennessee elected a new governor, Gordon Browning. That weakened, E.H. Crump, Tann’s crony, lost his hold on Memphis politics.
On September 12, 1950, Gov. Browning held a press conference during which he revealed Tann and her network managed to amass more than $1 million from her child-selling scheme — nearly $11 million in today’s money.
But Tann was never held accountable. Three days later, she died at home after slipping into a mysterious coma from untreated uterine cancer.
On November 11, 1950, Judge Camille Kelley, who had worked so closely with Tann, quietly resigned. It took until late November or early December to find safe homes for the remaining children. Somewhere in the waning days of 1950, the doors to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were closed for good.
No one was ever prosecuted for their roles in the black-market baby ring.
In the spring of 1951, Robert Taylor submitted his report. To protect lawmakers and their influential friends from prosecution, the Tennessee Legislature sealed all adoption records. Adoptees of the Home Society needed a court order to get their birth records.
The process was arduous and arcane. In the 1990s, Marianne “Denny” Glad, a historian and cofounder of the adoption nonprofit Right to Know, whose three cousins disappeared in the adoption system, came forward to help the Tennessee Children’s Home Society adoptees.
“She had access to a lot of the records and a lot of the people, the judges, the lawyers that were still alive,” adoptee Sallie Brandon said referring to Glad. “She put together an amazing collection of information.”
Brandon had already uncovered her birth name, Sue Nell. She knew her brothers had been sold as “twins” to a California couple. But Glad told her she didn’t know the whole story.
Brandon paid the $150 processing fee. “It was amazing what I got back,” she said.
Brandon learned her father was a sharecropper who was murdered when she was 14 months old. The man she remembered as an abusive father was her mother’s second husband. She also received photos of her parents, their marriage license, and health information.
Tennessee Children’s Home Society child Matt Lucas never found his birth family. He felt too guilty while his parents were alive. Now, at 84, he doubts there’s anyone left to find.
“I’ll be buried at the feet of my adoptive mother. But I’d still like to find my first mother’s grave,” Lucas said. “I’d like to stand there and let her know I turned out all right.”
“What strikes me is that the adoptees have different situations, but they also have a lot of common threads,” author Judy Christie told Insider. “The need to connect with their families, their lifelong feeling that something was missing. The joy of coming together here in Memphis with other people who understand what they went through at the hands of Georgia Tann.
This past year, Wingate and Christie published a nonfiction account of the reunion, “Before and After.”
“People in this day and age are disconnected in many ways. We all yearn for connection. We yearn for family connections and community. I think this story speaks to people overcoming and connecting,” Christie said.
Many families never found each other again. Archive documents at Benjamin Hooks Library mention that Tann was fond of cremation because it left no evidence.
While no one knows where many of Tann’s victims were buried, many adoptees and their families take comfort in a small memorial in Memphis’ Elwood Cemetery erected in 2015.
The memorial inscription reads, in part: “In memory 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.”
Victims’ stories ‘remain in the DNA’ for generations
Adoptee Norma Sue died a few years ago. Last year her daughters brought their mother’s ashes back to be scattered on the banks of the Mississippi, close to where she was stolen long ago.
Her abduction and time at the Children’s Home Society, her daughters said, had so traumatized their mother that she became chronically depressed. By 15, Norma Sue was pregnant. By 22, she had five children and was divorced. She moved frequently and institutionalized her own children, repeating the cycle.
“I feel rather strongly that people should know this doesn’t stop with the victims. The story goes on and on and remains in the DNA of the generations,” Virginia Williamson said.
Norma Sue’s children found some peace in cousin Jackie Mafori, who told them their mother’s family never stopped looking for them.
“I’m hearing from people all over the world who are to this day still fighting very similar things,” Wingate said. “One of our takeaways from all this should be that children are still monetized and we have to be on the lookout for situations where money takes precedence over the welfare of kids. We now know the effects of something like this can last lifetimes.”