The Unbelievable Story Of How One Woman Made Millions Of Dollars By Stealing And Reselling Children

By Noelle Talmon

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

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.

She Molested Some Girls In Her Care & Sent Others To Live With Suspected Pedophiles

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.

She Made More Than $1 Million Selling Babies

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

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.

Tann Went To Extreme Measures To Kidnap Children, Including Telling New Mothers Their Infants Were Stillborn

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

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.

Before Her Crimes Were Uncovered, She Was Praised For Her Work By People Such As Eleanor Roosevelt

Photo: Unknown/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

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.

Hollywood Stars Including Joan Crawford Adopted Kids From Tann's Operation

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Actress Joan Crawford adopted five children during her life, and in 1947, she found her twin daughters Cathy and Cynthia through the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Contradictory to Georgia Tann's supposed mission to place children in better homes, Crawford allegedly abused her kids. Cindy and Cathy, however, vehemently denied that their mother hurt them.

Actors June Allyson and Dick Powell also adopted a child from the society. So did actresses Lana Turner and Mary Pickford, writer Pearl S. Buck, and New York governor Herbert Lehman.

Professional wrestler Ric Flair, who was born in Memphis in 1949, was reportedly one of the many children Tann had snatched from unsuspecting birthparents.

She Advertised Her Baby Selling Business In Christmas Ads

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Georgia Tann started working for the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1924. It wasn't long before she realized that babies could mean big business. She developed a marketing strategy and paid for ads in newspapers to entice prospective parents. In one advertisement that she placed around the holidays, cherubic blonde babies looked up beamingly as the words "Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” lured in potential buyers.

In another ad from 1935, an adorable little boy holds a ball. The caption reads: "Yours for the asking! George wants to play catch, but he needs a daddy to complete team."

One Woman Found Her Daughter After Watching An Episode Of "Unsolved Mysteries"

Photo: NBC

A woman named Alma Sipple gave birth to a daughter named Irma in Memphis, TN, on August 27, 1945. Her boyfriend, Julius John Tallos, worked in the Air Force and had recently shipped out to Panama. Six weeks after Sipple settled into a one-bedroom apartment, she was visited by Georgia Tann, who claimed she was checking in on a neighbor who was purportedly abusing a child. Tann returned the next day and noticed Irma had a cold. She offered to take the baby to the hospital because Sipple couldn't afford a doctor.

Sipple agreed and tried to visit her baby the next day. But when she tried to see her child, she was told Irma belonged to the Children's Home Society. Then a few days later, Tann told her Irma died of pneumonia. Sipple attempted to arrange a funeral, but Tann claimed she already took care of it. Sipple had no idea that Irma was alive and adopted by a couple in Cincinnati. They renamed her Sandra.

In December 1989, Sipple was watching "Unsolved Mysteries" when she saw a segment about Tann. The show recommended that viewers who had run-ins with Tann reach out to the group Tennessee's Right to Know, who would help families reunite with their children who were kidnapped and adopted out. Sipple and Irma/Sandra were reunited seven months later, 44 years after the baby was stolen from her true mother.

Tann Illegally Placed More Than 5,000 Children With Different Families

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Tann placed an estimated 5,000 children into new families over the course of her career. She outright stole some of them, kidnapped others, and persuaded some parents to relinquish their kids. During adoption proceedings, Tann worked with judge Camille Kelley, whom she paid off, so parents had a difficult time getting their children back.

Even though mothers and fathers went to the police, they were often poorly educated and didn't have a lot of money. They struggled to go up against Tann, who was wealthy and had a lot of powerful and intimidating connections in the legal and political systems.

Most Of The Adoptive Parents Were Unaware Of The Scheme

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Denny Glad, who was president of Right to Know in Tennessee during the '90s, didn't think the majority of adoptive parents had any idea the children they were taking in were obtained illegally. She told the Los Angeles Times:

For whatever reason, most of them had not been able to qualify to adopt in the state in which they lived. Primarily, age was the reason. Most were in their 40s and 50s.

These parents, who were desperate to expand their families, learned about the availability of Tennessee children through the grapevine. The cost to adopt one of Tann's children in California was approximately $750.

Some Believe Tann May Have Wanted Poor Kids To Have Better Opportunities

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Denny Gladd, the president of Right to Know in Tennessee in the '90s, suspected that Georgia Tann could have been motivated by more than just financial gain. Most of the victims her operation kidnapped were children of poor parents or single mothers. They had fewer advantages in their lives than kids who lived with more affluent families. Gladd explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1990:

Miss Tann thought that affluency meant good and I believe that's how she justified what she was doing. She was taking children who never would have had a chance and placing them in homes where they were going to get good educations and all the material things. She just thought that she knew better than God.

Even After Tann's Crimes Went Public, Most Children Were Not Returned To Their True Families

Photo: Ministry of Information/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

In 1950, the governor of Tennessee held a press conference informing the public of Tann's crimes. Yet, most of the children she placed in adoptive homes were never reunited with their biological families. No effort was made to reconnect parents with their children.

In 1995, following years of red tape, the victims were finally allowed to get access to their birth certificates and adoption records. Even then, only a small percentage reconnected with their birth mothers.

Georgia Tann Died Of Cancer Before Being Prosecuted For Her Crimes

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ YouTube

Tann died from uterine cancer at the age of 59 in September of 1950. Just days earlier, the state of Tennessee announced the case against her. The charges did not include kidnapping; rather they focused on her stealing money from a state-funded organization.

Tann didn't leave any of her fortune to the Tennessee Children's Home Society or charitable organizations. The judge she worked with, Camille Kelly, resigned after the investigation and passed away in 1954. The Children's Home Society shut down permanently.

She Started Her Career As A Teacher And Social Worker

Photo: Jerry Skinner/ You Tube

In 1913, Georgia Tann graduated from Martha Washington College in Virginia with a degree in music. She was a teacher for a brief time before committing to a career in social work. In 1920, she took advantage of her father's role as judge of the Mississippi Second Chancery District Court and the absence of laws regarding adoption.

She kidnapped children from poor women while employed by the Kate McWillie Powers Receiving Home for Children in Jackson, MS. However, her acts were discovered, and she was fired for her actions. Tann then moved to Texas before settling in Memphis, TN, where she earned the title of executive director at the city's Tennessee Children's Home Society.

She Used The Practice Of Closed Adoptions To Maintain Her Secrets

Photo: Jerry SKinner/ YouTube

Even though Tann made adoption more socially acceptable, she also used some legal processes that later became controversial. Under her directive, all of the Children's Home Society's adoptions were closed, meaning all information about an adoptee's birth parents was kept private.

The records were shrouded in secrecy, and children were not permitted to find out who their biological parents were. Many states still follow these rules. Interestingly, in 1999 Tennessee became the first state to change its rules regarding closed adoptions.

She Made Adoption More Acceptable

Photo: State Library of Queensland, Australia/ Wikimedia Commons/ Flickrs The Commons

Despite her criminal methods, Georgia Tann also brought more attention to the potential of adoption for many Americans, making it more popular. Before 1920, little was done for orphans. They were often put in institutions and orphanages, and no one cared if they lived or died.

According to Barbara Bisantz Raymond, author of The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, Tann did give some children better homes than the ones they were born into. However, it is unclear to this day how many found better futures and prospects due to her meddling.

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