Beulah George Tann

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Georgia Tann, 1947.

Beulah George Tann, better known as Georgia Tann, (July 18, 1891 – September 15, 1950), was an American child trafficker who operated the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Tann used the unlicensed home as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme from the 1920s. Young children were kidnapped and then sold to wealthy families, abused, or—in some instances—murdered. A state investigation into numerous instances of adoption fraud led to the closure of the institution in 1950. Tann died of cancer before the investigation made its findings public. Tann's custom of placing children with influential members of society normalized adoption in the U.S., and many of her adoption policies (often designed to obfuscate the origin of her adoptees) have become standard practice.

Child Abuse

In Memphis, Tann was hired as the Executive Secretary at the Shelby County branch of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Its offices were located on the fifth floor of the Goodwyn Building downtown. The society was the largest in the state, and had branches in Jackson, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Tann used aggressive tactics to eventually take over the organization. In 1924, Tann began trafficking children.

While Tennessee law permitted agencies to place children with appropriate applicants, in an effort to ban the selling of children, agencies could charge only for their services. In keeping with the law, the society charged about seven dollars for adoptions within Tennessee. However, Tann also arranged for out-of-state, private adoptions for which she charged a premium. As many as 80 percent of these adoptions were to parents in New York and California. Adoptions in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri could be arranged for $750. Records indicate that between 1940 and 1950, the agency placed 3,000 children in just those two states.

While in her care, the children were mistreated by Tann, with reports of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and murder. With no housing facilities, the society held children awaiting placement in public facilities and foster homes. In the 1930s, Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, largely due to Tann. In 1943, a wealthy businessman donated the mansion at 1556 Poplar Avenue to the society. The offices and intake rooms were put on the bottom floor, while the nurseries were upstairs.

The all-female staff wore all-white nursing uniforms, despite the fact that they were mostly untrained and even substance abusers. The children were frequently sedated and those who were difficult to place were allowed to die of malnutrition. Tann regularly ignored doctors' recommendations for sick children, denying them care or medicine, which often led to preventable deaths from illnesses such as diarrhea. While some of her victims are known to be buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, other children were never accounted for, and the exact number of deceased children remains unknown, with estimates of about 500 deaths due to mistreatment.

Black Market Adoptions

At the time, so-called "black market" adoptions were not illegal, but were considered ethically and morally wrong. Reasons of the day included the fact that young, unwed mothers were often coerced to give up wanted children, the suitability of the parents was often ignored, information about the child's heritage and medical history was lost, and adoptive parents were unaware of any physical or mental illness.

The Tennessee governor of the time, Gordon Browning, launched an investigation into the society on September 11, 1950, after receiving reports that the agency was selling children for profit. He assigned Memphis attorney Robert Taylor to the case. Two days later, the story was published in the media nationwide, including in the Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal and The New York Times. Public Welfare Commissioner J. O. McMahan accused Tann and her cohorts of receiving as much as US$1 million in profits. The Tennessee Children's Home Society was closed in 1950. The state of Tennessee sued Tann's estate for $500,000.

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