From her orphanage on Poplar Avenue, Georgia Tann and her Tennessee
Childrens Home Society attained national prominence in the
field of child adoption with the help of Judge Camille Kelly. After
over two decades, the truth began to surface to reveal a shame that
Memphis had to endure.
Georgia Tann was born Beulah George Tann in Hickory, Mississippi
in 1891. At some point, she relocated to Memphis and by 1924 was
working for an orphanage called the Tennessee Childrens Home
Society. Her society specialized in adoptions, which in Tennessee,
as in most states, meant that most of the records involving the
adopted child and birth parents were kept private.
Judge Camille (McGee) Kelly
Judge Camille (McGee) Kelly was from Tennessee, the daughter of
a doctor. She had spent two years in medical school before marrying
a prominent Memphis attorney, Thomas Fitzgerald Kelly. She became
the first female Juvenile Court judge in the south and the second
in the US. In time, she became a judge in the Shelby County Family
At some point, Judge Kelly and Georgia Tann appeared to have reached
a business agreement. As a child custody case was brought before
the court, the judge would award guardianship of the child to the
Tennessee Childrens Home Society. From that point, the child
would be adopted out, legally, to those seeking children. The society
recieved seven dollars for each child adopted out to a family within
the state of Tennessee. However, an out-of-state adoption sometimes
cost as much as five-thousand dollars per child. The money was then
split between the judge and Georgia. It was very profitable to market
the children to out-of-state wealthy people.
The Wealthy and Sometimes Famous Clients
Some of these people were quite famous, such as actress Joan Crawford,
actor Dick Powell and his actress wife, June Alyson and western
movie sidekick, Smiley Burnette. These people had no way of knowing
the unscrupulous methods used in acquiring their adopted children.
In fact, Georgia Tann came highly recommended for her supposedly
kind work and devotion to her children. Judge Kelly was even
visited by the first lady and in her daily newspaper column on November
22, 1937, the first lady wrote of this visit. Read it here
Acquisition of Children
Behind the scenes, out of public view, the court system and the
orphanage targeted poor families, widows, divorced mothers, unwed
mothers, pregnant women in prison and mental institutions.
Usually a nice lady would show up at the home of a poor family,
offering to provide a good home and upbringing for one or more of
their children. If the family didnt agree to release their
child, the court would issue an order signed by Judge Kelly. The
judge also denied mothers the right to contact the children in any
way following the childs separation from the mother.
In the case of unwed mothers, the child would be taken at birth.
When the mother requested to see her newborn, she would be told
that the child was too ill for her to see at that time and must
receive immediate medical attention. She would later be told that
her newborn had died. In some cases, the mother would be told her
child was stillborn.
In other cases, a child attending a nursery or school in Memphis
would simply be picked up by welfare workers during the school day!
After having been adopted, many of these children were used as
child labor on farms or other family-owned businesses. Many were
placed in what turned out to be abusive situations.
There were cases in which children were not adopted out. These
became financial losses for the society and it was later discovered
that some of these children died from malnutrition and neglect!
In her book, The Baby Thief, Barbara Bisantz Raymond states
that the number of children that died under the guardianship of
Georgia Tann was so great that the infant mortality rate of Memphis
was the highest in the country!
Complaints and Investigation
However, complaints from the impoverished families who had lost
children to the legal system and the society fell on deaf ears.
During the nineteen forties, suspicions began to arise about Tann,
who had difficulty balancing the books for the charitable organization,
while living in a luxurious home and being chauffeured around in
In 1941, the Child Welfare League of America withdrew its endorsement
of the Tennessee Childrens Home Society when it learned that
Tann was routinely destroying records. Her argument was that it
was legal practice to keep secrecy about the children and the poor
birth parents. As a result of this, children simply disappeared
with no trace of their origins. Georgia Tann continued to operate,
claiming that the society did so under a mandate, directly from
the Tennessee State Legislature.
Finally in the 1940s, complaints from both, the adopting parents
and the childrens birth parents began to get the attention
of Tennessee authorities. An investigation of the Tennessee Childrens
Home Society and its hidden Board of Trustees was begun.
In September of 1950, Georgia Tann died of cancer before the results
of the investigation were made public. In the same year, Judge Kelly
resigned after twenty years on the bench; she died in 1955 without
having ever been prosecuted for her part in the illegal activities
uncovered during the investigation.
Following the investigation, the Tennessee Children's Home Society
was permanently closed.
The investigation Uncovered the Following:
The Tennessee Children's Home Society was a front for a vast
illegal black market child adoption ring.
Birth Certificates, biographies and histories of the adopted
children were falsified, making it almost impossible for the
real families to be traced.
Georgia Tann recieved as much as 80% to 90% of the money
recieved for out-of-state adoptions.
Judge Camille Kelly routinely sent children to the Tennessee
Children's Home Society, in exchange for money. Hundreds of
cases were initiated without consideration of Tennessee adoption
Various illegal methods were used by Georgia Tann and Judge
Kelly in the acquisition of children.
As a result of the investigation, in 1951, Tennessee adoption laws
were changed. Within the changes was the provision that if anyone
had evidence that he or she was adopted through the Tennessee Childrens
Home Society, he or she would be allowed access to any records that
may exist concerning the case.