Episode One: Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society

“Yours for the asking! 
George wants to play catch but needs a Daddy to complete Team “Catch this ball, Daddy!” 
How would YOU like to have this handsome five-year-old play “catch” with you? 
How would you like his chubby arms to slip around your neck and give you a bearlike 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 co-operation with Miss Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, The Press-Scimitar will place 25 babies for adoption this Christmas.” 

Our first story takes us back to the early 1920s. 

Adoption was not terribly common in the US prior to the 1920s, but a lady by the name of Georgia Tann moved to Memphis and brought with her ideas that would change the world of adoption forever.

Now, a story about adoption may not seem too scandalous of a tale, but just wait…

Beulah George “Georgia” Tann was born in 1891 in Philadelphia, MS. Her father was a district court judge with a “domineering” personality. As a child, she was a tomboy in every sense of the word. Her father thought his daughter was too masculine, wearing pants and flannel shirts.  To try to curtail those tomboy tendencies, he had her studying piano since age five. 

As a teenager, she was sent to attend Martha Washington College and she graduated with a degree in music. Unfortunately for him, Tann didn’t want to play music, she wanted to find a way to follow her true passion, the law. She was able to take summer courses at Columbia University so that she could become a lawyer. She studied hard and passed the bar exam in MS. But sadly for women at that time, becoming a lawyer was uncommon. She settled for becoming something acceptable for an unwed woman… a social worker. 

Her first social work job was at the Mississippi Children’s Home Finding Society. Working with the public in a poor state such as MS, she began to develop theories on the difference between classes. She saw the poverty stricken as breeders, incapable of proper parenting, and the wealthy were “of higher type” and could rear children well.  During her time in MS, her job was to place orphans for adoption, but she soon realized she could capitalize on this idea and charge desperate couples a hefty fee to become parents.   

In the 1920s, regulations on adoption were lacking, a fact that Tann began to exploit. Children of poor families, who couldn’t afford to keep them, were acquired and sold to wealthy families. This began Tann’s descent into the underworld of less-than-legal adoptions. It was also when she decided MS was not the place for baby resale, so her father used his connections to move his daughter, first briefly to Texas, but then on to Memphis. 

Before her move to Memphis, Tann began a relationship with Ann Atwood, a childhood friend and coworker from a children’s home in Jackson, MS.  At one time, cohabitation between two independent women was socially acceptable, but as time went by, it began to be seen as homosexual, something that was looked down upon. 

Shortly before they moved to Memphis, Atwood was pregnant with a child she named George, whom she would call Jack. She took Jack’s father’s last name, Hollinsworth, so that people would think she was a widow, instead of having had a child out of wedlock. 

In 1922, Tann adopted a daughter, June. She was apparently not the greatest mother though. In an interview with June’s daughter, she said that Tann was a “cold fish” and that she gave her material things, but nothing else. These actions would later be reflected on the children in her care.

With two children in tow, in 1924, Georgia and Ann arrived in Memphis and began to use their home as a makeshift adoption agency, and thus began the Shelby Co chapter of the TN Children’s Home Society. 

Eventually, they acquired a building at 1556 Poplar Ave. 

The Society, as it was called, was well supported by the community. Tann had many connections and a strong network of supporters. Among those supporters was Camille Kelley, a Shelby County Family Court Judge, and the Mayor of Memphis, at the time, Edward Hull Crump. These two played an integral part in Tann’s adoptions. 

E.H. “Boss” Crump

Unfortunately for Tann, in 1941, the adoption agency lost its endorsements from the Child Welfare League of America. They had discovered that Tann destroyed most of the paperwork associated with its child placements and used that against her to revoke her license. Tann said the TN adoptions were protected by privacy laws and they were not in violation of any practices. Still, the Society remained unlicensed under TN law. 

By 1950, the Society was under investigation. It was found that Tann had arranged for thousands of her adoptions under questionable means. 

What are these questionable means you ask?

Tann was basically the director of a black market baby stealing ring. 

She acquired children in various ways:
She arranged taking the children born to inmates at TN mental institutions and babies born to wards of the state. 
She would go to nursery schools and steal the children from single parents, telling the school she was a welfare agent assigned to remove the children. 
She would take them from orphanages, where children whose parents were ill or unemployed, had left them temporarily. 
She would find unwed mothers at the hospital, bribe the nurses and doctors to tell the mother’s their babies needed medical care and had either died or had been stillborn. 
Sometimes, she simply stole them off the street with promises of ice cream.

That being said, there was also the occasion that girls who found themselves pregnant, did not want their babies and gave them to her the legitimate way, to have them adopted out. 

Most of the children were adopted relatively quickly, but if not adopted out immediately, they spent the time in Tann’s home. The children in her care would reportedly be neglected, kept sedated until adopted out, physically abused, sexually abused, and even murdered. Memphis in the 1930s had the highest mortality rate in the nation, a good bit of it due to Tann. 

As mentioned before, Camille Kelley and Mayor “Boss” Crump were the main accomplices to Tann. Bribery will get you everywhere. Tann would tell Kelley that the children were from homes that could not provide for them and she would push the adoptions through. Kelley would take custody of children of divorcing mothers and place their children with Tann, who would later adopt them out to “better homes” that could provide for them. She would then sign off on abandonment papers so that Tann would have custody to adopt them out. 

With the growing success of the Society, Memphis gained notoriety. This pleased Mayor Crump. Tann would pay him off, in turn for his protection from investigations. He would ignore complaints from families of children Tann stole and sometimes even helped her seize them.

Reportedly over 5000 children were adopted out of Tann’s TN Children’s Home Society. Most of the children were adopted by the wealthy. Some movie stars even got their hands unknowingly dirty by adopting from her. Stars like Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Dick Powell, and even the governor of New York, at the time, were clients. One of her adoptees even became famous himself, pro wrestler Ric Flair. 

But of course Tann was only in it for the money, so she didn’t care who she adopted to. There were even reported cases of adopting young teenagers to shady single men, children being placed in abusive homes, or used for child labor on farms. She was so eager to get children adopted, she would even put out advertisements. One example is her Christmas ad, “want a real, live Christmas present?” from our opener.  

Adoptions in TN were possible for $7, in states such as MS, AR, and MO, it cost $750, but for out of state private adoptions, which most were, the cost was upwards of $5000. Tann was becoming a millionaire. She rode around in chauffeur-driven black stretch limos. 

But as fate would have it, by 1950, Tann was dying from uterine cancer, a new Governor was cracking down on Boss Crump and his wiley ways, and an investigation into the Society had begun. The investigation focused on Tann stealing money from the Society, a state funded entity, which they were more likely to get a conviction on, not the ways she acquired children to adopt out. 

Tann got them in the end though. She passed away only a few days before the case against her was to be announced. The Shelby Co chapter of the TN Children’s Home Society was closed only a few months later. 

But what happened to all the wealth she acquired? In 1943, Tann “adopted” Ann, a practice gay couples did in that time, to ensure she would be the one to inherit her property when Tann died. 
(We are unsure if Ann did inherit the money though. There was a legal case against her, see citations below, but I don’t have the legalese to really understand it. Her child Jack, died in a plane crash coming to Memphis, so he did not inherit any money either.)

After her death, Tann was buried in a family plot in Hickory, MS. 

Ann, on the other hand, went on to lead a very different life. She was never officially employed by the Society, although she did help with some secretarial duties and escorting children to adopted homes. While you may want to vilify her,  a niece of hers has tried to redeem her aunt’s name. Laurie Gabriel publicly posted about how generous a woman her aunt was and how much she loved her family and doted on them. She believes Tann took advantage of Ann and manipulated her to join her in her devious adventure. Ann passed away in 1995, after having retired as a secretary from the Boy Scouts and part owner of a children’s store, she was an accomplished artist as well.

There is a marker in Elmwood Cemetery dedicated to 19 children who lost their lives under Georgia Tann’s care. 

Since Tann made a habit of destroying the records of children who were adopted out, it was difficult for people to find their lost children or children to find their parents. It was 1995 before the birth certificates and adoption records were released. Since then, several people have searched for their birth parents. Some have even written books on their experiences. One is a book by Devy Bruch called No Mama, I Didn’t Die…My Life as a Stolen Baby. There is also a historical fiction novel Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, based on the events of the TN Children’s Home Society. There have also been a few films about the events as well. 

In an odd twist of events, Tann’s work made adoption more socially acceptable. Many adoption agencies would continue to work in the same manner as Tann, minus the theft, mistreatment, and death. One way was the practice of closed adoptions. Records were sealed and children could not find out their birth parents identities. Some states still practice this law, but TN was the first state to lift the law in 1999. 

And there you have the story of Georgia Tann, the devious pioneer of adoption agencies. 

Citations

Legacy of Devy Bruch
https://fayettewoman.com/legacy-devy-bruch-life-stolen-baby.html

Georgia Tann Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Tann

Tennessee Children’s Home Society
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Children%27s_Home_Society

This woman stole children from poor to give to the rich
https://nypost.com/2017/06/17/this-woman-stole-children-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich/

The Hollywood Baby Snatcher
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1131282/The-Hollywood-Baby-Snatcher-The-sinister-story-woman-stole-children-sold-stars.html

TN State Library and Archives
Georgia Tann/Tn Children’s Home Society Investigation Scrapbooks, 1950
https://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/georgia-tanntennessee-childrens-home-society-investigation-scrapbooks-1950

http://unknownmisandry.blogspot.com/2011/11/child-care-provider-kidnapper-serial.html

Find a Grave: Ann Atwood Hollinsworth
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/51788547/ann-hollinsworth

Find a Grave: George Allen Hollinsworth
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/54178737/george-allen-hollinsworth

http://www.southernhollows.com/episodes/routine-papers

https://casetext.com/case/state-et-al-v-hollinsworth-et-al

**Photos on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to the photos.**

3 thoughts on “Episode One: Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society

  1. I just discovered your podcast. I truly enjoy it as I am a former Landmark Commissioner (1999-2005). I love Memphis history! I live a few blocks down from Laura Bullion second to last home (last one standing). She was last survivor of the Wild Bunch Gang.
    My comment was that my mother was “almost” a Tann baby. She was poor growing up on High Street, sixth of eight kids. She developed respiratory issues so kids were sent to dormitory type place in Millington were Tann also “shopped” for children.
    Also there is a publicity photo of Joan Crawford attending opening of Stephenson Big Star Grocery taken while in Memphis. The photo is in the “public break room” of Stephenson grocery off Spottswood next to Target.
    I guess she earned a buck and a baby at the same time. Lol.

    Jerry Benya
    Midtown Memphis
    Jerrybenya@icloud.com

    • Thanks so much for listening! We’re glad you enjoyed it!
      I’m glad your mom avoided being a Tann baby, it unfortunately it seemed hit or miss with how those stories turned out. Thanks for sharing your story! I’m going to look into this place in Millington they sent children.
      I wonder if that photo is still in the break room? That Big Star is now a Superlo I believe.

      Thanks again for your story and what a cool job to have as Landmark Commissioner too! If you have any stories you’d like for people to hear, let us know. We’re always looking for a good story that people might not know a lot of information.

  2. This story is so disturbing to read and think about how she did this with zero remorse. Such a monster! I read somewhere ,she was considered the first female serial killer in the nation. 19 kids murdered under her care or nurses she hired that were untrained to take care of the sick children. I wonder if they ever arrested Judge Camille Kelly and Mayor Boss Crumps? And what about her other cohorts? Wow!! Sad!!

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