Stolen babies: How a Memphis woman’s adoption scheme took from the poor for decades

Georgia Tann

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s a real-life horror story.

There’s talk a Hollywood icon could soon be transforming Memphis history into a major motion picture. This history, though, is not something so openly discussed.

From 1924 to 1950 Georgia Tann sold babies and children to wealthy families throughout the country.

The children came from right here in the Mid-South.

How she got the children was often sinister — stealing babies, sometimes scooping them off the streets, away from their families and delivering them to other families who did not know the children were stolen.

The historical Elmwood Cemetery in South Memphis is the final resting place for many prominent figures in the Mid-South dating all the way back to the Civil War.

It’s also the burial spot for 19 children. The children, part of an elaborate adoption scheme, were often snatched from unsuspecting, poor parents.

Nineteen children, never able to fulfill their lives are buried in the cemetery but researchers believe perhaps hundreds died at the hands of Georgia Tann, their caretaker. Authors over the years have worked to tell her dark story and soon, this bizarre, twisted tale could be on the big screen.

“It’s important to know who you are and why you’re here,” Jimmye Pidgeon said. “Everybody needs to know who they are.”

At 75, Pidgeon knows who she is.

Pidgeon, who lives in Memphis, was adopted out by Georgia Tann to a wealthy, well-known family in 1942. Her birth mother surrendered her.

"At the time Shirley Temple was in style, so mother wanted a little girl to do her dancing and everything else that I did not turn out to be."

That was how Tann operated. A family had an order, Tann found a way for it to be filled.

Her customers were famous, like Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell.

Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society, off Poplar Avenue, from the 1920s until her death in 1950.

"She had no respect for children when they were poor," Barbara Raymond said. "She did not treat them well. Children died in her care."

Raymond, author of "The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption," spent 17 years studying and investigating the life of Tann.

She's also an adjunct Professor at John Carroll University in Ohio, where we spoke by Skype.

"It really is a story that's almost stranger than fiction."

Raymond says Tann, driven by her hunger for power and money, was backed by powerful leaders in Memphis.

She would prey on poor families, promising to take sick children to the doctor but those children never returned home.

"Children were stolen from delivery rooms by women who sometimes they were nurses and sometimes they were simply dressed up as nurses," Raymond said.

"Women then waking up from what they said was twilight sleep would be told that the baby was born dead and the mother would say, 'No I heard a baby.' And they would say 'Oh no that was another baby. We know you're poor. The state put the baby in the ground.'"

In one three-month period in 1945, Raymond said 40 to 50 children died because she would not separate the sick babies from the healthy babies. In fact she would put them all in the same crib. She would put five to six children in one crib. If one kid was sick, soon they would all be sick.

Tann's wrath has been made into a movie before — in 1993, Mary Tyler Moore won an Emmy award for playing Tann in a TV movie called "Stolen Babies."

Raymond says she's been contacted by Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who is interested in turning this sad story into a movie.

"I think it's great and I think it will reveal so much to people who are absolutely clueless as to what it involves to get a child and be a good parent," said Pidgeon.

Pidegon, who calls herself lucky, wrote a book herself about her experiences. She hopes people can learn from Tann's painful legacy.

"It's something that needs to be known because I'm sure it's something that's happening with people from other countries that people are getting."

Raymond hopes awareness for adopted children's rights are brought to the forefront.

Raymond has also been speaking with others who are interested in revisiting and investigating the case of Georgia Tann.

They've posed the question, who is speaking for these children? Who is speaking for the children who never made it out of Tann's network?