1920s Tennessee Black Market Adoptions Still Having Ramifications Felt Today

  • Some monster don't just exist in folk tales.

Photo by Hoshino Ai on Unsplash


Ever heard of Gryla, the Yule-tide monster? A child-eating witch. For those who haven’t heard her, she is a witch who, in Icelandic Yule traditions, could smell naughty children. Gryla would take them and eat them. When she took them they were never seen again. Tennessee had its version of Gryla…

‘Social Worker’

In the 1920s-50s, an estimated 5,000 babies were stolen from streets by strangers in passing cars or taken from care centers and church basements, where they played. They were even taken from hospitals, right after birth. They were handed to a ‘social worker,’ before disappearing. Some were sent to orphanages, others to a new family, their identities wiped, most not knowing better. Not all of them made it, an estimated 500 died.

Children’s Home Society, Led By Georgia Tann

A supposed charity organization, by the name of Children’s Home Society, was a Black Market. Georgia Tann was the mastermind behind the black market for, specifically, white, blue-eyed, blond babies. The society ran between 1924 and 1950, 500 died as a result of poor care, disease, and, it’s suspected, abuse. In 1945, 50 children went missing. A precise description or details were never seen. Tann would take the children and sell them to her wealthy costumers. She would bribe the nurses and doctors in birthing wards, and they would tell the parents that their babies were stillborn. Any children who were taken off the streets that were old enough to remember their parents were told that they (the parents) had died. The organization covered their tracks with fake adoption records and by destroying any evidence of the kids’ past.

There Was A Book Written By Lisa Wingate About These Horrid Crimes, ‘Before We Were Yours’

Tann would tell the adopters that the children were ‘blank slates.’ “What really resonated with me is that they’re not. Foster kids, adopted kids, they’re not blank slates. They’re people. And they have genetic tendencies and… Talents and abilities that were all their own,” Lisa Wingate told NYPost. 

Tann was born in 1881, Hickory, Mississippi. Her father was a judge who dealt with homeless children that were wards of the state. It is said that Tann’s brother may have been one of these children. Tann had wanted a career in law, but her father had told her that the profession was to ‘masculine’ for his only daughter. She was forced to study music, and she taught for a while before becoming a social worker in 1916.

What Was Her Job?

Tann worked as a field agent for the Mississippi Children’s Home-Finding Society in Jackson. There she got a taste for power, and eventually started placing poor children in adoptive homes, without the consent of the parents. Child welfare wasn’t as strict as they are today, allowing Tann to take the children. However, she wasn’t careful, and at least one birth parent had sued for their children. Since Mississippi wasn’t working for her, she moved to Tennessee to help with their Children’s Home Society in 1924. Soon she opened her business. She would post ads in the newspapers. One of her ads read “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” and had pictures of smiling infants.

Really? As If They Were Toys?

Tann presented herself as a kindly matron and pioneer of a new kind of social work, all while destroying the lives of thousands of families. The famously corrupt political machine in Memphis, headed by E.H. ‘Boss’ Crump, abetted Tann. Crump, also a transplanted Mississippian, was the mayor and leader of politics in the city for the first half of the 20th century. Tann paid Crump off and brought the fame of her society to Memphis. He, in turn, protected her from prying investigations, while the city police ignored complaints about the families who’d lost their children, even helping her seize them! Juvenile court judge, Camille Kelley, would help Tann by moving all parental rights of the children to Tann, clearing the path for adoption.

Pro Wrestler Ric Flair Was Among The Abductees

Word of Tann started to spread, and some of the parents started to object. However, Tann told the parents they may lose their children if they complicated her operation. For years, she was too well connected for anything to stick. In the mid-1940s, Tann was diagnosed with uterine cancer and could sense her operation begin to unravel. Crump’s influence started to wane.

Crump Enemy Gordon Browning

Gordon Browning was elected governor in 1948. When the rumors reached his ears, he saw a way to humiliate his political rival. Browning sent a special investigator to look into Tann’s organization. Tann’s connections stood strong until the day before her death in 1950 when a case against her was announced. Even then, the accusations were only her pocketing money from a state-funded enterprise, not kidnapping. Georgia Tann was 59 and died at home from her cancer. She never faced justice for her crimes. She left no money for the children. and the home was closed two months later. News of Tann’s actions became national news. There were several attempts to contact the birth parents of the children, even though she had kids from several states.


Kelly too, protected by Crump’s machine, avoided prosecution and died in 1955 from a stroke. Crump died in 1954 from yellow fever. He still controlled Memphis till his death. Today the legacy of Georgia Tann is a painful complicated one. Ironically, an accidental benefit of her work was it was that the majority of those who adopted were parents who couldn’t conceive. Before Tann, adoption was really uncommon in the US, but the stigma over the practice was largely lifted. Not saying what she did was right, but it did do some good. Unfortunately, as a result of Tann’s actions, adoption records were sealed and adopted children were barred for learning the identities of their birth parents. This legislation is still in place in many states. Tennessee was the first state to lift these laws.


“If you’d invented that story, it would seem so far-fetched that you would think, ‘That could never happen. Not in this country.’ And yet, it did, and it did for a long time,” said Wingate. For Wingate, this story “still matters today, because there are still so many kids that need that one advocate, that one place to be, that one person who will step in. We do have to still be watching for things that are not aboveboard or are corrupt, where children are being used for profits of one kind or another. That’s on all of us, as a public.”

You can read some of the kids telling their stories on Insider or in Wingate’s story ‘Before We Were Yours.’ 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.