Georgia Tann Abducted Children And Sold Them To Celebrities And Pedophiles, Making Millions
Georgia Tann and unknown child. (Source: Unknown Gender Histories)
Have you ever wondered why someone would get it into their head to steal babies and flip them like so many houses? Well, you're in luck, friend. Buckle up, and hold onto your babies, because it's time to learn about Georgia Tann: pianist, social worker, and baby-napping enthusiast. You might call her a triple threat.
Cue Georgia's Birth
Beulah George "Georgia" Tann was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and by all accounts, was not baby-napped. Wouldn't that be a great origin story? In flat reality, however, Tann was raised by her father, Judge George Tann, and her mother, Beulah Yates. Judge Tann was hellbent on Georgia playing the piano, and play she did, right through college, despite her apparent loathing of the forced musical rigor. Allegedly, she had aspirations toward law, but her father discouraged her on the sound basis that chicks can't argue good.
Apparently a bit of a masochist as well as a sadist, Tann nonetheless majored in music and graduated with a degree from Martha Washington College in 1913. Though she took and passed the bar exam, she ultimately studied social work at Columbia University for two summers. Once Tann had finished her education, she finally unleashed all the fury that only years of mandatory piano lessons can give a person. By 1924, she got into human trafficking.
What, were you expecting a scene phase?
The Worse-Than-A-Scene Phase
In 1922, Tann began working at the Mississippi Children's Home Society, but she got fired for "dubious child-placing practices" that official documents alarmingly don't elaborate. Following this termination, she and her "gal pal," Ann Atwood, packed up and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Tann became Executive Secretary at the Shelby branch of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, who apparently didn't believe in background checks.
At the time, adoption was not popular or chic, and even worse for someone like Tann, it was not lucrative. You could adopt yourself a brand new baby to the tune of just $7 dollars, or a little over $100 in 2019 money. For perspective, you could buy one new iPhone, or you could buy eight babies. They were, shall we say, undervalued in the market.
Tann saw that market, and she had a solution: arrange expensive out-of-state adoptions, skim off the top, and then literally shred the evidence. Foolproof! The only problem, at that point, was procuring enough marketable babies. It seems that Memphis simply didn't produce enough orphans for Tann's liking, and there were only so many she could coerce from poor families, so she started straight-up stealing them. Think your child is safe in the hospital? Nope: Nurses and doctors were in on it. What about at the park? Wrong again---they could be taken right off the playground. Have you just given birth and aren't fully aware of your surroundings due to, you know, giving birth? Tough luck; you've just been baby-napped.
It's estimated that Tann was responsible for trafficking more than 5,000 children throughout 48 states. Most of these children were placed with affluent families in New York and California, and some of these rich parents were even celebrities, including Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Ric Flair, and Herbert Lehman. (Don't worry: There's no reason to think Tann's clients knew the children they adopted were kidnapped, so you're free to continue enjoying the Golden Age of Hollywood.) If you were lucky, you were placed with a wealthy family that was stable, sane, and even loving. If you were unlucky, your experience ran the gamut from being returned to the orphanage to plain, old death. Yes, seriously.
Speaking Of Death
Tann didn't immediately place all these babies into the semi-capable arms of the semi-affluent. Between the stealing and the selling, she had to put them somewhere. That place was Tennessee Children's Home Society, where they were subjected to neglect that included the denial of medication and food---your basic kids-definitely-need-it stuff. Many of the children were also straight-up abused, sometimes sexually, sometimes by Tann herself, having apparently looked in the mirror and thought "Nope---needs to be more cartoon-villainy." According to one report, the children were "dropping like flies"---about 500 flies, to be exact. More of a swarm, really.
You might think that surely, this many children weren't disappearing without consequence, but alas, gentle reader, they were. Thanks to her lucrative scheme, Tann was friends with quite a few of the well-to-do around Memphis, including Judge Camille Kelley and Mayor E. H. "Boss" Crump, and it's not like the kind of person who's willing to sell children is above a little bribery. Ever the ambitious sort, Tann even used her "success" to befriend Eleanor Roosevelt, though it's doubtful that the first lady knew of Tann's affinity for infanticide.
Okay, But ... How Much Did She Make?
As mentioned, adoptions in Tennessee at the time went for about $7 a (mom and) pop, and Tann decided to up that a bit. She charged for background checks that she didn't do, documents that she didn't file, inflated travel expenses, and for some older prospective parents, essentially for the privilege of getting to adopt anyone at all. She padded the bill so heavily that she made over $1 million peddling children. It's really an appropriate word: She put ads in the paper captioned like Kewpie dolls, which no doubt appealed to the pedophiles she sometimes worked with when she couldn't land a celebrity. The most marketable children? Blue-eyed blondes.
Despite making all this paper, she did very little of the actual paperwork. On top of that, she practiced exclusively closed adoptions. That means no information about the birth parents to anyone, and no information about the children to anyone, either. It's a license to keep people in the dark, and if Tann's enthusiasm for shredding is any indication, keeping people in the dark was the name of the game.
In fact, at the time, Tann was viewed as a sort of champion of orphaned children. She made adoption more commonplace, and her insistence on placing children with well-to-do families meant that adoption became associated with the upper class. In other words, she put adoption in vogue. That's how she managed to make the acquaintance of the first lady: She had become a small-time celebrity humanitarian, at least until people found out about all of the kidnappings and killings. That put a bit of a damper on her new friendships.
Did They Get Away With It, Scoob?
Pretty much, in the sense that no one went to jail. Tann died of uterine cancer three days before the state filed charges against the society. It's rather poetic for a woman who was responsible for the deaths of so many children to die from her womb, but it can't beat the regular ol' justice system.
Speaking of the justice system, that judge never did time, either. A handful of children have managed to get in touch with their birth parents, but thanks to Tennessee's closed adoption laws and Tann's shredding habit, many of the trails have long since gone cold.
In 2015, a memorial to Tann's hundreds of victims was placed in Memphis's Elmwood Cemetery, where 19 of the unnamed children are buried. If you're hoping that number is so low because the rest of the victims were identified and returned to their families to be laid to rest, we're sorry to disappoint you one final time: Their bodies were simply never recovered. Sleep tight!
Tags: 1920s | crime | murder | United States
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