The Georgia Tann case: between 1924 and 1950, Hollywood stars adopted abducted children


Between 1924 and 1950, a woman named Georgia Tann was responsible for the largest child trafficking in the United States. Children abducted and sometimes sold at exorbitant prices to wealthy families, including Hollywood stars, and not the least…

If Hollywood is a machine always quick to manufacture and sell dreams, its back kitchens are studded with stories, each one more sordid than the other.

Sodom and Gommorrah flaunting its mores and its vices which horrified deep America. Murder very likely disguised as suicide like that of George Reeves, adored by the public for having embodied Superman on the small screen. Actress unable to fit into the Hollywood mold to the point of being committed to a mental asylum. Racketeering and extortion by the mafia. Clandestine abortions performed by force on actresses so as not to destroy their glamorous and immaculate images patiently fashioned by the Majors… The list is very long.

We can add to this picture, which is already hardly brilliant, another story, just as sordid. That of Georgia Tann, baby trader and purveyor of children to adopt previously stolen from their biological parents. Many of these children were purchased by Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford, who adopted two daughters, Cindy and Cathy, from the one responsible for the kidnapping of nearly 5,000 children between 1924 and 1950.

A sleazy social worker

Born in 1891 and originally from Hickory, Mississippi, Georgia Tann had plans for a career in law, but her father found the profession too masculine for his only daughter. Forced to study music, she taught for a while before finding a job in the still nascent field of social work in 1916.

working for the Mississippi Children’s Home-Finding Society located in the city of Jackson, she began her deviant career by placing poor children in adoptive homes, without the consent of both biological parents. Expelled from school after the discovery of his more than questionable methodsshe moved to Memphis, where she found work with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Wikimedia Commons

Georgia Tann in 1947.

Beneath the affable demeanor was actually a cunning person. Georgia Tann managed to rise fairly quickly to the management of this establishment. In 1924, she then began to set up a real black market by selling the children to the applicants. In a tragic irony, the sale of children was not considered illegal, although morally wrong. A bewildering practice that has persisted in the United States, under the name of Rehoming.

Midwives and supportive doctors

Still, Tann set up a smooth organization. She bribed nurses and doctors in delivery rooms, asking them to tell new parents that their babies were stillborn. Kidnappings of babies born in prisons and psychiatric services, children stolen in the middle of the street by Tann’s henchmen… She even went so far as to publish newspaper adsfeaturing beautiful children, with captions such as “They would like to be your Christmas present!”

An ad placed by Georgia Tann…

To cover their tracks, his organization falsified adoption records and destroyed all traces of the children’s origins. Between 1924 and 1950, it is estimated that approximately 5,000 children were victims of his traffic. Especially since some died as a result of ill-treatment received. In 1945 alone, around fifty of his unfortunate young victims died of dysentery. Nearly 500 children are said to have died after passing through the hands of his atrocious organization.

80% of the children were adopted by wealthy families from the East Coast and California, for a check of $700 to $5,000 per child. All the sums collected were going to feed a bank account opened in the name of a fictitious company. When the case is revealed in 1950, the investigation will show that 80 to 90% of the sums collected for these adoptions were used for the personal expenses of Georgia Tann.

Georgia Tann’s house in Memphis.

Many buyers of these children found their account through the services of Georgia Tann, buying them at exorbitant prices to avoid much longer delays in traditional adoption institutes. Or even to avoid pregnancies. Among its buyers will be renowned Hollywood talents, such as Mary Pickford, Lana Turner, actress June Allyson and her husband Richard Powell, or even, mentioned above, Joan Crawford.

Not wishing to go through traditional agencies with rigorous adoption conditions, divorced, she therefore went through the services of Georgia Tann. While she had previously adopted two children from other agencies, in 1939 and 1943 respectively, she contacted and paid Tann in 1947 to purchase and adopt twin daughters, Cindy and Cathy.

The Fall of House Tann

The atrocious business of Georgia Tann will last until 1950, the year of its fall. Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning ordered an investigation into the company on September 11, 1950, after receiving damning reports about it. In particular, it read:

“While Miss Tann’s financial dealings were shocking enough, other facts came to our attention which troubled us even more. We found that on numerous occasions babies had been taken from their mothers in hospitals when they only had a few hours, and placed in nurseries in Memphis where they were without medical care.

Many of these children died. On top of that, children housed in the Memphis facility were not properly cared for, and many children died there as a direct result of violations of doctor’s orders. Doctors were prescribing prescriptions and medications that were completely ignored on the orders of the director of the Memphis house.”

YT screenshot

Cathy & Cindy Crawford, and their mother Joan.

Two days after the announcement of the opening of the investigation, the regional and national press took up the case. Georgia Tann will unfortunately escape prosecution. Barely three days after the announcement of the opening of the investigation, she succumbed to cancer of the cervix. There Tennessee Children’s Home Society was closed in 1950.

In 2015, a memorial was erected in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, in memory of nearly twenty children who had lived directly within the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Ddeceased due to abuse and negligence, they had been buried there under their first names only, in a small room of 4.30m x 4m, bought by Georgia Tann.

A painful epilogue

After their mother Joan Crawford died in 1977, Christina and her adopted brother Christopher discovered that Crawford had disinherited them from her $2 million estate. In November 1977, they brought an action for annulment of their mother’s will, which she had signed on October 18, 1976. The judgment will be rendered on July 13, 1979, and will award barely $55,000 to the two plaintiffs.

The children tore about their mother, and not just over inheritance; twins Cathy and Cindy, adopted from Georgia Tann, did not share Christina and Christopher’s resentment.

Paramount Pictures

Faye Dunaway in “Dearest Mom”.

In 1978, Christina Crawford published a book that made a lot of noise, dear mother. The charge against Joan Crawford was terrible. She accused her mother of abuse, physical and psychological, of having been an alcoholic, negligent towards her two eldest children. Cathy Crawford will even file a complaint against her sister, and will win for defamation. The book will be the subject of an adaptation released in 1981, in which Faye Dunaway lends her features to Joan Crawford.


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