“An episode in American adoption history little remembered by the public at large, the crimes of nationally-lauded Memphis orphanage director Georgia Tann are skillfully and passionately recounted by freelance writer Raymond, herself an adoptive mom. The portrait of Tann that emerges is a domineering, indefatigable figure with an insane commitment to ends-justify-the-means logic, who oversaw three decades of baby-stealing, baby-selling and unprecedented neglect. Meanwhile, she did more to popularize, commercialize and influence adoption in America than anyone before her. Tann operated carte blanche under corrupt Mayor Edward Hull Crump from the 1920s to the ‘50s, employing a nefarious network of judges, attorneys, social workers and politicos, whom she sometimes bribed with “free” babies; her clients included the rich, the famous and the entirely unfit (who more than occasionally returned their disappointing children for a refund). “Spotters” located babies and young children ripe for abduction-from women too uneducated or exhausted to fight back-and Tann made standard practice of altering birth certificates and secreting away adoption records to attract buyers and cover her tracks-self-serving moves that have become standard practice in modern adoption.
“A riveting array of interviews with Tann’s former charges reveals adults still struggling with their adoption ordeal, childhood memories stacked with sexual abuse, torture and confusion. Raymond’s dogged investigation makes a strong case for “ridding adoptions of lies and secrets,” warning that “[u]ntil we do, [Tann] and her imitators will continue to corrupt adoption.” A rigorous, fascinating, page-turning tale, this important book is not for the timorous.”
“For nearly three decades, Georgia Tann stole children from their poverty-stricken Southern parents, separated them from siblings and falsified their birth certificates so they’d never find their parents again. She abused little girls and allowed others to abuse children in her care at a Memphis, Tenn., orphanage. She allowed babies to die of neglect and illnesses. For those who survived, she dressed them in the finest clothes and often hand-delivered them to wealthy American families who paid her quite well. It was a black-market, despicable business where Ms. Tann saw children as simply a commodity and a way to build her fortune and reputation. But Ms. Tann also became one of the chief architects of domestic adoption as we know it and managed, with the help of well-placed political allies, to simultaneously popularize and corrupt the institution, according to a new book about her life.
“With the help of Edward Hall Crump, a powerful Memphis political boss, Ms. Tann was able to stave off most public scrutiny until after her death. As part of the narrative, Ms. Raymond strays from neutral journalistic roots. She is an adoptive mother. Her honesty allows one to peek into her conflicted feelings as she digs deep into Ms. Tann’s cruelty and blesses her own daughter’s need to find her biological parents. The book is hard to read at times as it becomes painfully clear just how disturbed Ms. Tann was. At the same time, this is a riveting account of adoption history that has been mostly forgotten until now. Its tentacles have long ago snaked out of Tennessee and across the nation. With open adoption and birth mothers’ rights, one can only be grateful that modern adoption is now working hard to reverse most of Ms. Tann’s cruelest legacies.”
“For almost 30 years, starting in the 1920s, Georgia Tann stole and sold babies out of a children’s home in Memphis, Tenn. She lied to parents and bribed social workers to scout for attractive newborns and youngsters. She kept corrupt judges in her pocket to separate parents from children and siblings from each other. She abused little girls in her care and was instrumental in raising the infant mortality rate of Memphis to the highest in the country. She was a thoroughly unpleasant person. On the other hand, she nearly single-handedly popularized adoption in the United States.
“A friend of mine once had Victorian-style business cards made up that read, “Joe Leo, Purveyor in Fine Human Infants.” Hilarious, right? I always thought so, until I learned about Georgia Tann, a woman who kidnapped and sold children out of her Memphis orphanages from the 1920s until her death in 1950.
“At the turn of the century, adoption wasn’t terribly popular, as orphans and illegitimate children were considered to be innately inferior. Children most likely to be adopted on the Orphan Trains that took loads of children west were older boys who looked like they could do heavy labor.
“Georgia Tann helped make adoption appealing to American families, even if they only happened to be wealthy or middle-class white ones. Children were adopted to be children, not unpaid labor, which seems to have been her only positive contribution to the institution.
“Tann brokered over 5000 adoptions during her tenure in Memphis, and raked in over $1 million doing it under the legitimate front of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Her clients included state and local officials, judges, and Hollywood stars, including Dick Powell and June Allyson and Joan Crawford. Undoubtedly, she liked associating with these types, but even more, she enjoyed the leverage this gave her over them. These placements allowed her to run her dirty business without oversight or censure, and also allowed her to have laws changed when they hampered her methods. Having the notorious Boss Crump in her corner didn’t hurt either.
“And the suffering didn’t end there. Conditions in Tann’s homes were abysmal. Children were beaten, starved, dehydrated, and sexually abused by Tann and her staff. She made no effort to place children with loving families — wealth was enough. As a result, many children were mistreated and abused by their adoptive parents, and some were “exchanged,” if they weren’t working out.
“Also horrifying were the ads Tann ran in the local newspaper, featuring exploitative photographs of children up for adoption: “A solemn little trick with big, brown eyes, Madge is… five years old and ‘awful lonesome,’ one ad reads.
“To hide her crimes, Tann changed the birth certificates of the children she sold, and had the originals sealed. This policy seeped into legitimate organizations, and to this day, adoptees in many states are forbidden access to their birth records — it’s the law.
“In the book, Raymond interviews men and women who were sold by Tann, and recounts their stories of being kidnapped from their parents, tortured in her facilities, and herded off to new families. She also interviews Memphis citizens, many in their 80s and 90s, who knew what Tann was up to, but were powerless to stop her and the Crump machine.
“At first, the structure of the book is frustrating. Raymond jumps around in her narrative, and just when it seems she’s about to sink her teeth into her subject, she turns her attentions somewhere less painful. It’s almost as if Raymond can’t face the monstrosity of Georgia Tann all at once, but has to confront her in bits before she can tackle the whole package.
“However, by the end of the book, Raymond finds her courage and exposes Tann’s crimes. It’s a heartbreaking story, and almost unbelievable that one woman could destroy so many lives. That it happened here, and that it happened so recently, that the crimes were so blatant and heinous, and that no one stopped it. Then again, that’s U.S. history, more or less.
“Creepy Note: I just looked up the address of Tann’s House of Horrors on Google Maps, and discovered that my apartment was 4 blocks away from it when I lived in Memphis.”