Georgia Tann lead one of America's biggest black market adoption schemes, stealing babies from poor families off the streets, and out of day care centres and selling them to the rich.

In a new book, by Lisa Wingate, titled Before We Were Yours, the shocking crimes and emotional impact on Tann's victims have been revealed.

Tann lead the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, a supposedly charitable organisation that turned out to be sinister.

She orchestrated the theft of babies from hospitals right after birth and taken to dismal orphanages, or sent to their new families, with their identities wiped.


Most of the children who were stolen by the Children's Home Society never saw their birth parents again.

Tann's organisation terrorised poor families in the south of America for almost three decades and specialised in stealing white babies, especially those with blonde hair and blue eyes.

It was estimated that Tann was responsible for stealing over 5000 children from 1924-1950 and over 500 babies are said to have died as a result of the poor care and abuse endured at the hands of her organisation.

Newborns were most at risk, and in 1945 over 50 children perished due to dysentery while they were in her care.

To cover her tracks, Tann and her organisation falsified adoption records and destroyed any trace of where the children had come from, or who they had been before.

Joan Crawford's twin daughters Cynthia and Cathy were unknowingly adopted from Tann's black market scheme. Photo / Getty
Joan Crawford's twin daughters Cynthia and Cathy were unknowingly adopted from Tann's black market scheme. Photo / Getty

Wingate's book tells of two families, one wealthy and one poor, who were connected through the terrible events that took place in Tennessee.

Wingate told the New York Post that Tann would tell the new families 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 are all their own," says Wingate.


Tann was not alone in her schemes and had police, hospital workers and even a judge working on her side.

Camille Kelley, a juvenile-court judge, pretended to act in the best interests of the children and would legally remove the parental rights of the children and transfer them to Tann.

Tann came into big money when interstate adoptions took place, most from New York and LA. The agency was able to charge as much as $5000, which was mostly pocketed by Tann.

Among the Tennessee Children's Home Society's clientele was Joan Crawford, who adopted her twin daughters Cathy and Cynthia through the organisation in 1947.

Hollywood power couple June Allyson and Dick Powell also used the agency when adopting their daughter, Pamela and future pro wrestler Ric Flair was amongst those that Tann's abducted.

After years of Tann getting away with her crimes, eventually her act caught up with her and adoptive parents began to object.

June Allyson adopted her daughter Pamela from Tann. Photo / Getty
June Allyson adopted her daughter Pamela from Tann. Photo / Getty

In mid-1940s Tann was diagnosed with uterine cancer and in the final months of her life was investigated and the case against her was announced several days before her death 1950. She was 59-years-old.

Even after charges were laid, Tann was only considered guilty of pocketing money from the state and not kidnapping.

She never had to face the music for her crimes and the Tennessee Children's Home Society closed two months after her death.

Tann's crimes became national news in the US, however few attempts were made to reconnect birth parents with their stolen children.

After Tann died, her co-conspirator Kelley announced her retirement as a judge and also avoided prosecution, dying from a stroke in 1955.

The legacy left by the Tennessee Children's Home Society and Georgia Tann is painful and complicated for those involved.

While Tann was able to achieve some form of good with her acts, by popularising adoption for parents who are unable to have children on their own, obviously the bad far outweighed the good, with legislation for closed adoptions and sealed records only being lifted in Tennessee in 1999. Many states still having the legislation in place today.

The impact of Tann's scheme lives on today, with thousands of families not knowing where they came from after being torn apart and separated from their parents and siblings.

Lisa Wingate believes it's a story you couldn't make up if you tried: "If you'd invented that story, it would seem so far-fetched that you would think, 'That could never happen. Not in this country,'" Wingate says. "And yet, it did, and it did for a long time."

For Wingate, the story isn't over: "It 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 above board or are corrupt, where children are being used for profits of one kind or another. That's on all of us, as a public."