You could never sell the story of Georgia Tann as fiction. Imagine trying to peddle a novel about a butch lesbian—in Depression-era Memphis, of all places—with a taste for fine cars and fancy houses, who makes a fortune stealing children from poor folks and selling them to anyone anywhere with sufficient cash. This she-devil is assisted by dozens of accomplices, including a crooked judge and the most powerful politician in the state. She's also a pedophile, molesting the little ones before putting them up for sale. She operates virtually unhindered from 1924-1950, then conveniently dies just as she's about to be exposed. Any publisher would reject such a tale as absurdly implausible, not to mention politically incorrect. Sadly, Barbara Bisantz Raymond didn't have to worry about that with The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption (Union Square Press, 320 pp., $12.95). Tann's crimes were all too real, and Raymond recounts them in carefully researched, awful detail.
The general outline of the scandal is fairly well known, thanks to a 1991 Good Housekeeping article by Raymond and a subsequent segment on CBS' 60 Minutes. The story received more media attention in the late '90s, when a number of the children Tann sold were active in the legal battle to open Tennessee's adoption records. The Baby Thief examines events in greater depth, with a thoughtful look at Tann's biography and first-person accounts from many of her victims.
Raymond paints Tann as the villain she clearly was, but she also attempts to understand what shaped Tann's behavior. Born and raised in tiny Hickory, Miss., Tann was an ambitious woman and a lesbian in a time and place that tolerated neither. As Raymond observes, "Georgia was a woman unable to directly partake of the traditional source of female power: marriage and the bearing of children." By taking control of other women's babies, Tann acted out her resentment, and at the same time enjoyed a vicarious sense of maternity.
Raymond, herself an adoptive mother, has a harder time grappling with the ambiguity of Georgia Tann's legacy. She concedes that, as horrible as Tann's crimes were, she probably did provide better lives to at least some—though "an unknowable percentage," as Raymond admits—of the children she sold. Moreover, her highly publicized adoptions were largely responsible for making the practice acceptable in America. Prior to 1920, unwanted and orphaned children were generally institutionalized, and often simply allowed to die. That fact does little, however, to soften Raymond's disgust at all the heartbreak and abuse Tann fostered. "I want you to know I paid $500 for you," one of her customers told his adopted child, "and I could have gotten a good hunting dog for a lot less."