MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - In the middle of a historic cemetery crammed with 75,000 graves, Kim McCollum walks up a grassy slope to a spot beneath some magnolia and holly trees that’s strangely devoid of headstones or markers.
“The lot is right here,” said McCollum, executive director of Elmwood Cemetery. “As you can see, there’s nothing.”
Nothing, that is, to memorialize the 19 tiny graves in the approximately 14-by-13-foot trapezoid-shaped area. Nothing to pay homage to victims of one of the most sordid chapters in Memphis history.
The burials are of babies who passed away in the care of the infamous Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where operator Georgia Tann ran a highly organized and lucrative baby-selling network from 1923 until her death in 1950. Many of the children were stolen, usually from poor, uneducated single mothers, and sold to wealthy people across the nation, including movie stars Dick Powell, June Allyson and Joan Crawford.
Children who were sick or otherwise unmarketable often were allowed to die of malnutrition, neglect or abuse. Many simply disappeared.
At Elmwood, officials are raising funds to buy a monument to honor the 19 victims buried there and “all of the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society,” as the inscription will read. The 64-inch-tall, 48-inch-wide monument is being offered by Crone Monument Co. at the heavily discounted price of $13,075, McCollum said.
As it is, the only documentation of the graves is in a faded lot book in Elmwood’s office. A single page notes that the TCHS bought the lot at a “regular price” and lists the dates of the burials, which began in September 1923 and ended in December 1949. Most of the deceased are identified in the book with just first names, such as “Baby Estelle” and “Baby Joseph,” and for those who are listed with full names, McCollum is dubious.
“She (Tann) went to great pains to erase the identities of the children she took,” McCollum said. “I don’t have any faith that those are the real names.”
Little else is known about the deceased, including how they died. “It might have been pneumonia, it might have been neglect,” McCollum said.
Operating out of a large house at 1556 Poplar, Tann systematically sought out babies delivered by poor and desperate mothers, often approaching them while they still were groggy from anesthesia. She manipulated them into signing papers that ostensibly authorized her to take and care for the babies temporarily. Instead, the mothers never saw the babies again.
Tann’s scheme was abetted by the bribes she paid to nurses, judges and others, according to numerous accounts, but she was a powerful figure in her own right. Widely viewed as a beneficent social worker, she enjoyed the protection of longtime Memphis political boss E.H. Crump and could count on sheriff’s deputies to help round up children from poor people’s homes.
It was only through the persistent complaints of parents whose babies had been stolen that Tann’s scheme finally came to light. But she was never prosecuted, dying of cancer three days after articles about her misdeeds were published in local newspapers.
Many of the 5,000 or more children sold through the scheme spent decades trying to track down their relatives, and researchers and authors would later document Tann’s lasting impact on adoption in America.
“She commercialized adoption. And the other thing is, she was the first to issue false birth certificates for adopted children, a practice that became standard throughout the United States,” Barbara Bisantz Raymond, author of “The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption,” told The Commercial Appeal in 2007.
“She didn’t do it to protect the children, though. She did it to cover her tracks so no one would know that the children had been stolen.”
The Tann scandal represents “one of the more horrendous crimes that’s ever been committed in Memphis,” said Dale Schaefer, retired historian at Elmwood.
“It’s one of those stories where truth is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make this up,” he said.
McCollum has a partly personal reason for wanting the victims of Tann’s operation remembered.
“I’m an adoptive parent, and it bothers me at my core that this was allowed to happen,” she said. “But it disturbs me even more that they haven’t been remembered in death.”
The proposed monument would honor the babies while offering unflinching judgment on Tann and her accomplices.
“Those responsible for the neglect, the abuse and lack of medical care that took the lives of these children will know no peace,” the planned inscription reads.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com
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