New Details Revealed About Woman Behind Child Kidnapping-Adoption Scheme for 21 Years

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Black and white photo of mother holding baby
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Georgia Tann may not be a household name, but her crimes are certainly infamous. For more than 20 years, Tann ran a lucrative child-kidnapping adoption ring out of Tennessee, stealing an estimated 5,000 babies straight from their parents and adopting them out to unsuspecting families. The scheme went largely undetected until 1950, when Tann's "adoption agency," the Tennessee Children's Home Society, finally was shuttered. A recent bestseller has shone a new spotlight on Tann's crimes, as well as the families whose lives she forever changed -- and several of the children are speaking out.

  • Several years ago, Lisa Wingate was watching an episode of Discovery Channel's 'Deadly Women' when she first heard about Georgia Tann.

    Wingate couldn't shake her fascination with the story, and as a fiction author, she decided to do a bit of research of her own. 

    "I wondered if it was all true or was sensationalized for TV," Wingate recently told Insider. "So I started digging. I had to know more."

    Wingate wound up so captivated by what she learned, that her research soon turned into a full-length best-selling novel.

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  • 'Before We Were Yours' was published in 2017, and would go on to sell more than two million copies.

    Described as both "poignant" and "engrossing," Before We Were Yours tells the fictional story of 12-year-old Rill Ross, who was kidnaped one night along with her siblings and thrown into the Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis.

    The novel recounts much of what Wingate would learn about what real-life children endured under the tutelage of Tann at the home. Although elements of it have been fictionalized, to many who wound up reading its contents, it was sadly all too real.

    "People would write or email and say, 'This book is about my mother' or 'I think I might be one of the stolen babies,'" Wingate told Insider.

  • Tann certainly didn't work alone, though. It was later discovered that she had an elaborate network of "co-conspirators" who did her dirty work.

    Black and white image of baby
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    Tann's "favorite scheme" was to drive through poor neighborhoods, pick out out the most attractive-looking children, and then offer them rides in her car, according to Insider. The children had no idea that once they hopped inside, their world as they knew it would change forever.

  • At the time, a lack of regulation and oversight among adoption agencies allowed Tann's operation to fly under the radar.

    Not only were many children abused during their time at the home, but an estimated 500 children died in her care. Others were adopted out to wealthy families at a hefty profit.

    Insider's in-depth report found that Tann was born in 1891, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where her father was a powerful judge. After being forbidden to go into law like her father, Tann settled on social work. But it seems her crimes started early -- she was fired from a children's home in Mississippi not long after starting, when it was discovered that she had "removed children from impoverished homes without cause."

    In 1922, she adopted a child of her own, and in later, in 1943, there's even record of her having adopted Ann Atwood Hollinsworth -- an adult woman who was later believed to be Tann's same-sex partner.

    But in 1929, Tann allegedly staged a takeover of the Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis, where she appointed herself its director. In doing so, she took her child-abduction scam to the next level, stealing and selling children at rapid rates.

  • Now, some of the children who survived are well into their 70s and even 80s -- and beginning to speak out.

    Some who spoke with Insider shared that part of Tann's success stemmed from her unassuming nature -- which belied her true temperament.

    "She was a rounded lady who wore glasses and carried a little purse," Sallie Brandon, who was taken with her two brothers, recently told the outlet. "I remember her being a stern, severe woman." 

    Many of the children she lured into her car had never seen such a fancy car before or even sat in one. Tann knew this, and she used it to her advantage when she preyed upon the poor.

    Brandon recalled to Insider how she and her two brothers were targeted for their blond hair and blue eyes, and later separated and sold by Tann. In the end, she made $2,700 from the Brandon children's adoptions -- which would total $40,000 today.

    Other children who were old enough to remember their time at the home include a woman named Norma Sue, whose daughter, Peggy Koenitzer, was also interviewed in the report. Koenitzer described the months her mother spent at the home doing child labor.

    "Basically, she and her sister had to run and fetch and take care of the babies, changed diapers, stuff like that," Koenitzer explained. 

    In the end, however, Norma Sue was one of the "lucky" ones: She and her twin sister were the only siblings who managed to stay together, and they were adopted out to an affluent family in Philadelphia.

  • Just as Tann preyed upon the poor, she also preyed upon the wealthy.

    In fact, she sold many children to unsuspecting members of the upper class, including famous actors and writers such as Lana Turner and Pearl S. Buck. 

    But her most notable adoption of all might have come in 1947, when the actress Joan Crawford adopted two of her five children from Tann: twins Cathy and Cindy.

  • The child trafficking scam ran for 21 years until Tann was finally exposed in 1950 and the Children's Home Society was forced to close.

    During that time, it's believed that Tann raked in a staggering $1 million -- worth $11 million today. She was also protected by prominent judges, politicians, and other powerful figures who earned kickbacks for their roles in the cover-ups.

    By 1949, however, the tide began to turn. A new governor came into power and began taking a closer look at the Tennessee Children's Home Society. On September 12, 1950, she and her cohorts were finally exposed during a press conference held by Gov. Gordon Browning.

    But if you're thinking this story ends with Tann being led into prison by handcuffs, think again. Just three days later, Tann died. According to Insider, she had been suffering from untreated uterine cancer, and she died after slipping into a coma at home.

    She would never be held accountable for the thousands of children she had stolen, right from under their parents' noses. And it would take decades for the families she had destroyed to know the full truth.

  • With the adoption records legally sealed, many families may still not know what happened to their children. 

    Some, such as Alma Sipple, wouldn't be reunited with their children again until 1990, after an episode of Unsolved Mysteries led her to connect the dots on what happened to her daughter some 44 years before. By then, her daughter Irma -- now renamed Sandra -- was a married mother herself, and was stunned to learn the truth of where she'd come from. 

    Still, the warm embrace of a new family was comforting, even amid the shock.

    “The love they have poured out in this last week has been unbelievable," Sandra told the LA Times at the time. "One of them said it was like having a new baby in the family. It’s kind of neat to feel love from somebody who doesn’t even know you.”

    Others, however, are still in search of the truth.

    For Wingate, she hopes that by unearthing the story once more in her novel, she is doing her small part to spread awareness about the disturbing truth of child-trafficking -- not just by Tann but by others across the globe.

    "I'm hearing from people all over the world who are to this day still fighting very similar things," Wingate told Insider. "One of our takeaways from all this should be that children are still monetized and we have to be on the lookout for situations where money takes precedence over the welfare of kids. We now know the effects of something like this can last lifetimes."