© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Orphan Victims Of A Black-Market Baby Business Share Their Stories

"Before and After," by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)
"Before and After," by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)

From the 1920s to 1950, babies were sold on the black market from a Memphis children’s home. We unspool the sordid story and talk with survivor families.


Lisa Wingate, co-author of the new book “Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home.” Author of the No. 1 New York Times-bestseller “Before We Were Yours,” a novel about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal. (@LisaWingate)

Peggy Koenitzer, Georgia Tann kidnapped her mother Norma Sue and five of her siblings in 1942. Norma Sue was then adopted with her twin sister by a couple in Philadelphia.

Interview Highlights

On how Georgia Tann, of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, would kidnap children

Lisa Wingate: “She would take children off the street, off front porches. She would canvas poor parts of town, shanty towns along the river. If she saw availability, she took advantage of it. And, it was a different time. There was no air conditioning. People used to leave children out to sit in the yard, or put a crib out on the porch. Children played outside. That was before the day and time, ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ and, ‘Don’t get in a car with anybody.’ And, so, it was very easy for her to roll up. Many children had never been in a car, during those years. And, so, it was very easy for her to roll up and say, ‘Hey, would you like a ride in my nice car?’ And she’s this grandmotherly looking woman. And in the children would go.”

On the children who died while living in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society

Lisa Wingate: “Some 500 to 600 are estimated to have died in the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, because it was a for-profit industry. So, if a child was sickly, or had a birth defect, or a health problem, or it was just too fussy, or not cute enough — not marketable, in other words. She had people to send the child [away]. … And that person’s job was to not bring the baby back, wheel the baby out in the sun or whatever, and let it expire. And there were times when epidemics swept through the main orphanage. Doctors were telling [Georgia Tann] to quit bringing in more babies. She wouldn’t listen. And children — dozens of children — died within short periods of time.”

Peggy Koenitzer, on her mother’s story

“My mother was one of seven siblings. She lived with her mommy and daddy in a little shack along the Mississippi River. They were very poor. And my mother was 8 years old at the time when a limousine pulled up. … The children would play outside. They were outside playing, six of them. And the limousine pulled up, and somehow lured them into the car, and took them to the orphanage. There, they were separated from all their siblings, and they were adopted out across the country. My mother and her twin sister were taken to Philadelphia and adopted to a couple, a very nice couple in Philadelphia. And as soon as they got off the train, they were told, ‘We’re your new mommy and daddy.’ My mother said, ‘No, you’re not. I have a mommy and daddy.’ My mother and her twin were 8 years old at the time. And Georgia Tann told their adoptive parents that they were 6 years old. So, just imagine being 8 years old, and then being told, ‘No, you’re 6 years old. And now you have a new mommy and daddy.’ So, my mother never got over the trauma of being taken from her parents, of being separated from her siblings. She never forgot them. She always longed for her biological family. She never accepted the fact that she was now a part of another family. She lived a very sad life, even though she went on to have five children of her own. She was a very unhappy person. She could never get over the trauma of being taken from her parents, and thrown into another situation. Which was not her choice at all.”

On what we learn from Peggy Koenitzer’s story, and her mother’s kidnapping

Lisa Wingate: “I think what we learned from Peggy, and her sisters, and the people of the next generation, and the next generation — even in cases where sometimes some of the adoptees are more blasé about it and say, ‘Oh, it didn’t affect me. I had a good adoption.’ … But, you talk to the next generation, and the next, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, the adoption — what happened, the way it was done — it has informed every decision my parent or grandparent ever made.’ And, so, it travels down through the generations. It is a legacy which I didn’t really realize when I worked on the book — until I started meeting next generation, two generations down the line — that this isn’t something that ends with the children, those 5,000 children. This is something that travels through the generations, in the next generation, and the next. And, also, the other side of this story is you have thousands of families out there who have these severed limbs in their family. These birth families who have these shadow children who, maybe, were never found. Or, maybe, were reunited years later. So, you have families on both sides of this who’ve had this lasting generational effect.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Before and After” by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate

Chapter 1: Real-Life Adoptees

“Have you considered a reunion?”

Connie Wilson is relaxing in her condo in Southern California with her beloved Labradoodle, Jackson, when the email arrives.

“Oh my gosh, Connie!” a book-club friend from Arizona writes. “Have you read Before We Were Yours?”

It’s June 2017, and the novel by Lisa Wingate is brand-new. Connie has not heard of it. But faster than her pup can nudge her to play tug-of-war, she downloads a digital copy. In only forty-eight hours, she devours it, tamping down emotions as she reads. The fictionalized story about children adopted through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society is oh so familiar to her.

Connie’s life is historic in a way she would rather have avoided: she is one of the last babies placed by the scandal-ridden orphanage. In her late sixties when she, Lisa, and I meet, Connie is one of the youngest members of a unique and uncomfortable club—living adoptees connected to TCHS. People whose lives were irrevocably altered at the hands of Georgia Tann. For Connie and thousands like her, events that took place decades ago are difficult to place in the past. The effects remain ever present.

On September 11, 1950, just two months after Connie’s birth, a criminal investigation into Tann’s adoption practices was announced. Orphanage funds were cut, and the babies on hand were left in limbo. Connie’s adoption was held up, and her guardianship was transferred from TCHS to the Tennessee Department of Public Welfare. That was when she joined the tail end of a decades-long line of sad statistics.

Under the autocratic control of Georgia Tann, and thanks to her effective grip on look-the-other-way political and civic leaders, TCHS managed to operate in Memphis from 1924 to 1950 without scrutiny or interference. Approximately five thousand children, many of whom were not actually orphaned, passed through the agency’s doors. An unknown number, estimated at five hundred, perished in unregulated, often squalid, holding facilities. Others were delivered into homes that faced little to no scrutiny, to parents who, for a host of reasons, could not adopt conventionally.

These real-life stories left their mark on ordinary people, now in the final season of their lives, as they pass along their experiences with TCHS and Tann’s deeds to future generations through their personal accounts of what happened . . . and through their DNA.

A blend of what was happening in the world, from the Great Depression to World War II and the Holocaust, and including the stigma of unwed motherhood, led to the growth of Tann’s network for obtaining and placing children. Poverty-stricken mothers gave up babies out of desperation; unmarried young women were not allowed to keep their newborns because of the taint of illegitimacy; and poor parents, hard at work, often unable to afford babysitters, found their children lured from front yards and into Tann’s chauffeur-driven black limousine as it glided around Tennessee and Arkansas. With her paid network of doctors, social workers, and even boardinghouse owners, Tann snatched babies up as soon as they became available.

Some frantic birth parents—along with the occasional physician—attempted to challenge Tann, a stern-looking woman with short hair and glasses. Tann, however, had political clout and immense wealth, built on the backs of children sold for profit, some of it from checks made out to her personally. With the help of her connections via Memphis mayor E. H. “Boss” Crump, a political kingpin with powerful ties throughout the state, and others in positions of authority, she deflected inquiries with the ease of swatting a mosquito on a Tennessee summer afternoon.

But now, in 1950, the year of Connie’s birth, the end of Tann’s reign of terror nears. Tennessee politics are changing. Crump is out. The new Tennessee governor, Gordon Browning, appoints attorney Robert Taylor to ferret out the grisly truth of TCHS’s Memphis operations. He has already discovered damning evidence. Only a small network of co-conspirators know the truth. With the investigation under way, they flee into the crevasses of Memphis and disappear like rats running into the city’s sewers. Although some community leaders— powerful, wealthy, political—have undoubtedly been complicit, all the blame is conveniently assigned to Tann.

She holes up in her home, reportedly in the last stages of uterine cancer—too ill, it is said, to respond to the charges or face the public. Governor Browning releases Taylor’s shocking initial report, which details Tann’s years of nefarious dealings in the adoption market. She has, the governor reveals, made herself rich and completed an unknown number of horrendous deals involving flesh-and-blood products.

Within days, on September 15, 1950, it is announced that she has died. Tann, fifty-nine, never married, leaves her estate to her mother, an adopted daughter, and an adopted sister. The orphanage is not mentioned. The Tennessee State Legislature quickly and quietly seals the paperwork of thousands of TCHS children, which will leave adoptees desperately searching for decades to uncover the truth about their heritage. The investigation concludes that Tann profited from the operation of TCHS in Memphis in excess of five hundred thousand dollars in the last ten years of her life—taking in today’s equivalent of between five and ten million dollars.

During that period, the investigation found, she placed more than a thousand children for adoption outside the state of Tennessee, principally in New York and California, the exact number not known.

If Connie, the baby girl born just two months before Tann’s death, and these thousands of other children were characters in a novel, justice as well as blame might have landed squarely on Tann’s head. Police would swoop into her Memphis Receiving Home, rescue her remaining charges, shackle Tann, and whisk her off to jail. She would endure a trial and be forced to stand eye to eye with children she procured in the 1920s or 1930s or 1940s, or with parents whose babies were snatched, or with people in California and New York who paid extra for children because they sensed that if they didn’t, their in-process adoptions might suddenly go wrong.

But real life does not happen that way.

Excerpted from BEFORE AND AFTER by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. Copyright © 2019 by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Watch on YouTube.

Shreveport Times: “Authors team up on nonfiction follow-up to ‘Before We Were Yours’” — “My storytelling journey has taken me down many fascinating roads, and none has been more meaningful to me than my next book: ‘Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.’

“I’m excited to tell you about ‘Before and After’: a nonfiction book co-authored with friend and bestselling author Lisa Wingate, to be released by Random House on October 22 in hardcover, audio and e-book formats.

“Lisa wrote ‘Before We Were Yours,’ which has sold more than 1.5 million copies and just came out in paperback last week. Two years ago, when I read an early copy of that novel, I mentioned here that it was one of the best books I’d read in a long time – in part because it was inspired by a piece of little-known and gripping Southern history and Lisa had written such a compelling fictionalized account.”

Commercial Appeal: “Georgia Tann victims recount tales of lives lost in infamous adoption scandal” — “An infant cried softly off to the side as Georgia Tann put the hard sell on the couple at the door.

“‘She was saying, “He’s so cute, he’s so happy,” ‘ Theresa Jennings says of the beautiful baby boy Tann cradled in her arms, retelling a story as it was told to her so many times.

“‘But my father kept hearing this noise and asked, “What is that?” Georgia Tann said, “Oh, don’t worry about that” and kept talking about the baby boy. But my father was insistent, and so he and my mother walked to the crib where I lay. I was 13 days old. My tongue was literally tied to the bottom of my mouth, and I was covered in a scaly rash. I must have looked horrible.’

“The couple left with the infant girl, telling Tann she could ‘give that boy to anybody,’ Jennings says. Her new adoptive parents took their infant daughter to a pediatrician who gave them salve for the rash and put her on goat’s milk to replace the cow’s milk to which she was obviously allergic.

“‘I had been left there to die,’ Jennings, now 71 and living in Memphis, recalled Sunday. ‘But I’m still here, and I’m doing fine.’

“Jennings is part of the dark legacy of Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. She and several other victims made appearances around Memphis over the weekend with author Lisa Wingate, who was in town to discuss ‘Before We Were Yours,’ her fiction best-seller based on Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home black market baby scandal.”

WREG Memphis: “Stolen babies: How a Memphis woman’s adoption scheme took from the poor for decades” — “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.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

More On This Topic