Between 1924 and 1950, a woman named Georgia Tann abducted and separated more than 5,000 children from their parents, many of whom were poor and unwed mothers. Tann looked like a grandmother, and few families had any idea that she was actually a Tennessee baby farmer.
During her time working at the Tennessee Children's Home Society, she and her network of social worker "spotters" would search for children to pull into their operation. With the help of politician friends, Tann was able to legally separate parents from their children by citing neglect. The most attractive children were sold to wealthy families, including celebrities.
Hundreds of unwanted and unadoptable children died under Tann's care, often due to neglect and starvation. It's believed that some of the children's bodies may still be buried on the grounds of the children's home where Tann operated.
Tann spent more than 25 years kidnapping children and profiting off of the poor. Although she isn't the first woman in history to separate children from their families, her story is one of the most bizarre and disturbing out there.
Some of the children in Tann's care suffered greatly both before and after they were placed with their adoptive parents. According to Barbara Bisantz Raymond in her book The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, Tann allegedly molested some of the girls she abducted, and sold teenagers to single men who were possible pedophiles.
She ordered older kids to sit on men's laps and say "daddy." Some children were bought by adults to serve as farm hands or domestic servants, and others were neglected by their new families, enduring beatings, starvation, and sometimes rape.
One of the children Tann sold off, Jim Lambert, recalled Tann removing him and his three siblings from their mother in 1932. He was later abused by his adoptive mother, and when he finally found information about his biological mother, he found out she had already died.
In the late 1940s, the Tennessee governor tasked attorney Rober L. Taylor with investigating Georgia Tann and judge Camille Kelley, who helped Tann push through suspicious adoptions. What Taylor found was hard to believe. When he visited Tann's orphanage, Taylor noted, "Her babies died like flies."
Taylor speculated that Tann made more than $1 million selling children. It was common for the kids to be transported out of state at night to meet their adoptive parents, with many of the children going to California and New York.
Under Georgia Tann's directive, children were abducted from the streets, daycare centers, and even churches. She and her operatives took kids born to mothers serving time in prison or placed in mental hospitals. Others were stolen from the hospital shortly after they were born.
Doctors, nurses, and "social workers" were in on Tann's operation together, whisking the infants off before anyone noticed. Some doctors would even take bribes to tell new parents that their babies had died at birth. A number of the abducted children died, and others were adopted out. But their real identities were kept secret, and records were falsified. Few would ever reunite with their birth parents.
While Georgia Tann was executive director of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, numerous children died under her care. At the time, the infant mortality rate in Memphis was considerably larger than anywhere else in the United States. It's believed that as many as 500 children died due to disease, inadequate care, and possibly abuse.
Despite this alarming statistic, Tann was praised for the work she performed. The media at the time praised her as "the foremost leading light in adoption laws." Eleanor Roosevelt consulted with Tann over child welfare, and President Truman asked her to attend his inauguration.