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Paying for the Sins of Georgia Tann

Originally Published on Yahoo!

            Birth certificates. We all have one. But have you ever really looked closely at the information that is written on it? Is all of the information on it correct and complete?  Are all of the appropriate boxes checked with the correct information? How do you know?


            A normal birth certificate contains a great deal of information which includes the baby’s name; their parents names; the date including month, day and time of birth, as well as the name of the hospital you were born in; whether you were a single birth or if there were multiple babies born including the order in which they were born. Lastly there is a second date on every birth certificate that indicates when the birth certificate was filed with the county or state department of vital statistics. The filing of the birth certificate is usually required to be within one year of the official birth.


            There was a time, not that far removed in history, when all birth certificates contained the same information whether you were kept and raised by your biological family, grew up in foster care or an orphanage, or were given up for adoption. The names of your biological parents were listed as your parents and all the normal information was included. The only thing different then was that there were two extra boxes included at the top of the birth certificate indicating whether you were either a legitimate birth or an illegitimate birth. Those babies who were the result of an illegitimate birth were the ones that first caught the attention of Georgia Tann, social worker and director of the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society from 1927 until her death in 1950.


            Born Beulah George Tann in 1891 she became the biggest black market dealer of children in the United States. It is estimated that Georgia Tann stole and sold to the highest bidder over 5,000 babies under the guise of legal adoption during her tenure as the Director of the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (Loftiss 2009). It is also estimated that Georgia Tann is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children that she stole from either young single mothers or poor couples that she later deemed unadoptable. These children died a slow death from starvation and neglect and were usually buried in unmarked graves somewhere on Georgia Tann’s many properties, including many that were discovered buried on the Children’s Home grounds.


            When you think about the enormity of how many lives that she shattered and destroyed, one has to wonder how she was able to continue stealing babies and selling them in illegal adoptions for almost thirty years.  The pure and simple answer is that she couldn’t have and she didn’t do it alone. From the hospital staff who informed her of the availability of babies from a single mother who recently gave birth or a poor couple who recently had a baby; to her staff, including her lover Ann Atwood Hollinsworth, who helped her change information on birth certificates and other records to make the children seem more compatible; to her lawyer Abe Waldaur, also the assistant city attorney, who had connections with the local mob boss Edward Hull Crump; to the judge Camille Kelly who Georgia Tann paid to sever parental rights without their knowledge and rubber stamp her adoptions (Loftiss 2009). Once Georgia Tann had a child’s parental rights severed she would often destroy the child’s original documents and create new ones to suit what a specific adopter wanted thereby making a good match between the child and the potential adopter (Loftiss 2009).


            During the 1920’s and 1930’s Georgia Tann had created quite a reputation for herself throughout the United States for her uncanny knack for matching children with potential adopters.  So much so that the Hollywood elite, such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Lana Turner, all adopted children from her in return for a tidy sum of money (Loftiss 2009).  She also sold babies to many wealthy Jewish families in New York, including then Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman whose family had started Lehman Brothers Bank. But as her reputation grew amongst the elite there were also those who were starting to question how she ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.


            By the mid 1930’s there were rumors circulating as to how Georgia Tann was able to find so many quality matches between adoptees and perspective adopted families. But with her impeccable record creation abilities no one could find fault with her matches. There were also those who began to question the increase in infant mortality rates as Memphis Tennessee suddenly led the state with the highest number of infant deaths. While the answer would not become apparent until after her death, the spike in infant mortality rates would be attributed to two reasons.


            The first was attributed to how Georgia Tann obtained the babies she had stolen for adoption. So no one would question what happened to their child, hospital staff would often tell exhausted new mothers that their child was either stillborn or had died shortly after birth and that their bodies had been disposed of (Brennan 2009).   The second, which would not be known until long after her death, is attributed to those who died of neglect in Georgia Tann’s care. Even though there were many red flags surrounding Georgia Tann’s adoptions, any attempt to investigate the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were easily quashed by Georgia Tann, Boss Crump and the local judges he controlled who legally covered her tracks.  But not everyone was ignoring what was going on at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.


            In 1935 then Governor of New York, Herbert Lehman, passed legislation that made all adoptions in New York closed adoptions. Upon being legally adopted the child’s original birth certificate would be sealed, forever hiding their original identity and heritage. In its place the State would issue an amended birth certificate which listed the adopted parents as the original birth parents; the place of birth became the town or city where the adopted parents lived; and often the adopting parents were able to change the date of birth of the child to one of their choosing. The main reason that Governor Lehman gave for sealing adoption records was to erase the stigma of being an illegitimate child and to provide a clear path for inheritance.  Of course the reason that he did not give had to do with his own children that he adopted from Georgia Tann and trying to avoid any type of blackmail or scandal going forward that could possibly hinder his own political aspirations.


            Other states followed New York’s lead in passing laws which forever sealed adoption records and the information that they contained forever, eventually including Tennessee.  From the time the child was adopted they were expected to live their entire life under the false pretenses that were invented for them by their adopted family and legitimized by the courts.


            As sealing adoption records became more common a new era began throughout the country. This new era was called the baby scoop era which began following the end of World War II and lasted until the early 1970’s.  During this time there were many children who were given up for adoption, most of them given up by single mothers who were in their teens and early twenties.  These young single mothers were pressured by family, doctors and social workers to give up their children to avoid the shame that would follow her and her child for having a child out of wedlock. With many young women giving in to societal pressures many of the children placed up for adoption were adopted by couples who could not have children of their own or by couples who wanted to ensure the gender of the child they wanted.  In essence the states were legally picking up where Georgia Tann had left off when she died in 1950.


            When the truth of what Georgia Tann had done for almost three decades started to get out many women and couples who were told their babies died after childbirth began to question if their child had actually survived all these years under a different name in someone else’s home.  What they found when they went looking, however, is that after their parental rights had been terminated without their knowledge that no trace of their child existed. (Brennan 2009) What they found was that the only person who actually knew what happened to their child took her secrets to her grave.


            So too, for the first time, did the adoptive parents wonder if the child that they had adopted from Georgia Tann was truly legal or not. For this reason many adoptive parents did not tell their adopted children of their adoption.  But for those adoptees who found out the truth of where they came from they found the truth did not hold much comfort or information. When they contacted the State of Tennessee for their adoption records many found that there was no information to be found other than their adopted parent’s information. Those who did find information in their files often quickly realized that in trying to verify their information most of it led to dead ends or were complete fabrications on the part of Georgia Tann.


            As time has moved on the effects of Georgia Tann continue to be felt by adult adoptees nationwide. While some states, including Tennessee, have opened their records to adult adoptees or are in the process of opening their records, there are still many other states who still keep adoption records sealed under the guise of protecting the anonymity of the birth mother.  


            It has been more than sixty five years since the death of Georgia Tann and over eighty years since Governor Lehman sealed adoption records in New York which started the movement to seal adoption records nationwide.   But the fact that adult adoptees, who were the only ones who never gave consent to their adoption, are still forced to live the lies the courts have legitimized. They have been denied their original birth certificates and all of their information that is contained on them. They are still denied their identity, their medical history, their heritage and their true birth date. Until every state reverses course and gives adoptees full access to their original records the spirit of Georgia Tann will continue to haunt the lives of adoptees nation wide.


Loftiss, Neil. 2009. Georgia Tann Find a Grave Memorial

Brennan, Zoe 2009. The Hollywood Baby Snatcher: The sinister story of the woman who stole children and sold them to the stars.

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