From 1924-1950, Georgia Tann sold more than 5,000 children and was responsible for the death of so many others in her charge that, for a time, the infant mortality rate of Memphis, Tennessee, soared to the highest in the USA.
Tann had set herself up as a saviour of children, finding good middle class foster homes for children suffering from neglect and poverty. When her home for orphaned children could not provide such a child, she sent out “baby scouts” to find them. Poor families and families with sick children were particularly vulnerable. Children were handed over to her care, with the expectation that they would be looked after and returned. Most of them never were.
With the collusion of corrupt political boss, Edward Hull Crump, who legitimised her status as a welfare worker, and co-operative judges, who ruled that the children would do better by being removed from their families, the children were placed for adoption. How could such a monster gain so much power?
A series of yellow fever plagues in the late 19th century had turned the once prosperous commercial city of Memphis into a demoralised and struggling community of survivors and new arrivals. The plagues did not affect young as much as the old, and residents developed an unquestioning admiration for those who looked after the children in their midst.
By the early 20th century, the city had a burgeoning population of needy people, depleted of its traditional leadership. There was rising crime and gangsters. It was an environment easily exploited by opportunists such as Crump, a crude strongman, who gained political control in 1907 and monopolised it for decades.
Though she appeared to be a do-gooder, Tann was a woman driven by thwarted ambition. She had wanted to be a lawyer, but instead sought power and prestige through the emerging profession of social work. Outwardly cool, professional and efficient, she was privately cold and abusive. She treated her young charges so harshly, and neglected their health needs so cruelly, that many of them died. She also physically and sexually abused them, particularly little girls.
Tann had successfully created a network of powerful and influential supporters, not only in Tennessee but across America. As well as corrupt officials, others became enmeshed because Tann had provided them with the most precious of gifts - a child. Tann had succeeded in making adoption a success story.
Until the 1920s, society had become so enthralled to the eugenics movement that the idea of adopting a baby - someone else’s blood - was considered risky. Tann succeeded in finding babies for infertile middle-class and upper-class families, often using direct newspaper ads offering individual children for adoption.
As Raymond points out, adoptive parents were “unscreened for anything but wealth”. Many of those who responded were Hollywood stars and leading political figures. She cultivated these influential connections. Celebrities such as Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell, and their adopted children, were featured in magazines. Of course, Tann charged them outrageously for the privilege. Directly pocketing the proceeds, she became a wealthy woman, further adding to her aura of success.
Barbara Raymond argues that Tann’s activities not only contributed to commercialising adoption and making it socially acceptable in the USA, she also helped create the closed-system of adoption. Secrecy was important to protect both herself and her clients. Some of the children ended up in loving families, but others were treated as domestics and farmhands, starved, beaten and abused physically and sexually.
As she listened to the voices of Tann’s many victims - the families she tore apart and the children she abused - Raymond confronted her own experience as an adoptive mother. She openly and honestly traces the echoes of the past in adoption today, including intercountry adoption.
Though current practices are light-years ahead of those in Tann’s era, there remain ethical concerns about market forces in adoption and the transfer of children from the poor to the relatively well-off. Today, there is more recognition of the rights of birth parents and more direct assistance to help them to parent rather than to relinquish a child.