Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Georgia Tann: the baby seller who corrupted adoption

By Trevor Jordan - posted Wednesday, 11 July 2007

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.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, Random House Australia, $34.95.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

1 post so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Trevor Jordan is Senior Lecturer in Applied Ethics in the School of Humanities and Human Services at the Queensland University of Technology. His web site on adoption reform issues is at He is also President of Jigsaw Queensland.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Trevor Jordan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Trevor Jordan
Article Tools
Comment 1 comment
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend
Latest from QUT
 The science of reporting climate change
 Why schools need more than a business plan
 Suburban resilience
 Science unlimited
 Wake-up call for science

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy