As a parent, it’s an unimaginable scenario. You send your children out to play in the front yard of your rural home in the country, and they are never seen again. Because you are poor with no money and limited resources, no one seems to care that your children are missing.
In fact, a social worker is sent to tell you that you’ve been a neglectful parent, and your parental rights are being stripped away. Your children will go to a much better home, a home with rich parents who will give them a better life.
This is only one of the ways the Tennessee Children’s Home Society procured thousands of young children, many of them blonde haired and blue eyed, and then “sold” them to wealthy families for thousands of dollars. It’s hard to believe, but this early child trafficking ring operated out of what was supposed to be a charitable organization and headed by a woman named Georgia Tann.
Tann was born in 1891, the daughter of a Mississippi district court judge. One of his responsibilities was dealing with homeless children who were the wards of the state. When she became an adult, Tann worked as a field agent for the Mississippi Children’s-Home Finding Society in Jackson, and soon overstepped her boundaries by placing poor children in adoptive homes without first getting the consent of the birth parents. After being sued by one of the parents, Tann decided to take her scheme and try it elsewhere, eventually landing in Memphis, Tenn.
There, she set up the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and began carefully networking with local politicians, law enforcement officers, doctors and nurses to basically steal infants and children from poor families and unwed mothers in hospitals. She would give them a cut of the adoption fees to keep them quiet. One of her most ardant co-conspirators was a female judge named Camille Kelley, who presided over the juvenile court in Shelby County, Tenn. for 30 years. Kelley had a spy in the welfare department who would pass along the names of family applying for assistance to Kelley. Then someone would be dispatched to take the children from the home under the guise of “neglect and you can’t care for them anyway.”
Mothers would go to the hospital to give birth and be told their babies were stillborn. They weren’t. And not all the children who were stolen were adopted. At one point the home had an outbreak of dysentery and between 40 and 50 babies died in the year 1945 alone. If babies were too “weak” or stolen children had cognitive or physical impairment, Tann would simply make sure one of her employees made the children “disappear.” Some were buried on the property of the home and about 20 children were buried in an unmarked plot of land within the Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
Records show she charged adoptive families desperate for a child up to $1,000 per child, a lot of money for the 1940s. With interstate adoptions, she charged up to $5,000. She had a team of “nurses” who would transport the babies on airplanes to their adoptive families. Many celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Lana Turner adopted babies from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and pro wrestler Ric Flair claims he was one of her victims as well. Children who were born into Southern Baptist families suddenly became Jewish on official paperwork and then adopted to wealthy Jewish families.
Tann even toured the country lecturing on the subject of adoption, claiming that she could ensure that “poor children” could be remade into a “higher type” by placing them with well-bred families. She would place sickening ads in newspapers, featuring photos of children up for adoption, with captions like “They’d Like to Be Your Christmas Gift.” She also created a baby catalog to send to prospective adoptive parents.
Years later, victims reported they had simply been playing in their front yards when Tann’s sleek black sedan pulled up and she got out, picked up the children, and simply put them in her car. They never saw their birth parents again. Tann ran the society for 21 years and made more than $1 million dollars from the taking and selling of children who were not supposed to be up for adoption.
It wasn’t until 1950 that a local attorney, at the request of a newly-elected governor, began an in-depth investigation into the Children’s Home Society and Tann. It took him more than a year to compile his 240-page report, in which he was horrified by what he uncovered. In September of 1950, the governor held a press conference where he revealed what Tann had been doing for two decades. Unfortunately, no one was ever prosecuted for their role in the child trafficking. Tann, who had been battling uterine cancer, died just a few days after the press conference. Judge Camille Kelley resigned in November 1950.
It’s estimated more than 5,000 were stolen by Georgia Tann. Some of have been reunited with their families, but for many others, they will be unable to find answers on where they came from.
Writers sometimes talk about writing rituals. While I can’t say I have that many besides grinding away at deadlines, I do have a few post-deadline rituals I thought I’d share.
Since April of this year, I’ve been editing two monthly magazines. Both go to the printer around the same time, causing a whole lot of frenzy on my part about the third week of each month. Once I’ve finished wrapping up all the editing, writing captions, copywriting I’m responsible for, and proofreading Pdfs, I often look up and notice my house looks like a bomb went off inside of it. There’s dog hair everywhere, Post-It notes with scribbled notes lying around, along with pens, copies of previous issues of the magazine I use for reference, and piles of dirty laundry.
While I try to delegate some of these tasks to other members of the family, such as making or ordering dinner, vacuuming, washing clothes, we’ve all been working pretty hard since school started remotely for my teens in August. Add in a husband who has been working from home upstairs since mid-March, and there’d bound to be chaos.
Last week was hard. I had a lot of work to do and had trouble sleeping for three nights in a row. This weekend, once the final proofs for the magazines were approved, I began what I call my post-deadline ritual. I vacuumed. I mopped. I ordered all linens changed from family members. I made a half-hearted attempt to clean my bathroom. I did piles of laundry. I then decided I had way too many clothes in my closet that I was no longer wearing so I purged those. Today, after I schedule this post, I’m headed to the grocery store with my list in hand.
I also cleaned out my e-mail inbox. Right after an issue goes to print I like to file all e-mails related to it, comb through my inbox for story ideas for the next issue (yes, planning immediately begins) and I request invoices from any writers who still need to send them so everyone can get paid.
When I worked on my weekly planner for this week, I wrote down “research, write and record a new podcast episode.” But as I sit here halfway through Monday, knowing I have travel plans later in the week, putting out a new episode doesn’t seem feasible. I took last week off from recording because of my magazine deadline. I think I’m better off taking my time on the next couple of scripts (there are some great ones planned) and then getting back on schedule next week. It’s the gracious thing to do for my mind and body since I have a few other freelance projects I’m also working on. The good news is that “Missing in the Carolinas” has officially surpassed 6,000 downloads. I received a lovely e-mail from a family member whose siblings were profiled in Episode 11. I never expected that my little podcast would reach listeners all over the country, but it has and I couldn’t be more proud. That’s why I don’t want to rush the production process unless I have to.
I’m curious if any other writers out there have post-deadline rituals. Do you order dinner in? Go out? Purge your closets? Clean your house? I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this strong urge to get things back in order once a whirlwind of a deadline has passed.
He was incredibly young and he had the face to match. But underneath his youthful demeanor lay the heart of a killer.
Lesley Eugene Warren murdered four women in three different states before finally being apprehended in July 1990. Although this all took place in my home state of North Carolina, I somehow had never heard of the man until recently. His case was the basis for an episode of the Investigation Discovery series titled “Handsome Devils” in 2014.
Warren was born in Candler, N.C. and grew up in an abusive household. He only attended high school for a few months before dropping out. He eventually earned his GED, enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed in Fort Drum in New York State in 1987. Through a fellow soldier, he became acquainted with a 20-year-old young woman named Patsy Vineyard. Her husband reported her missing on May 21, 1987 after he returned home from being out of town and couldn’t find her. Vineyard’s body was later found in Lake Ontario near her home in Sackett’s Harbor, N.Y. She had been strangled to death. Warren was one of 150 soldiers who were questioned in her disappearance, but was not charged at the time of her death.
Warren was dishonorably discharged from the Army, returning back to North Carolina and becoming a truck driver. In August 1989, the body of Velma Faye Gray from Travelers Rest, S.C. was found in Lake Bowen not far from her home. It appeared she had wrecked her car earlier that evening before she went missing.
Jayme Denise Hurley was 39 years old when she went missing from her home in Asheville, N.C. on May 25, 1990. She had met Warren in the early 1980s when he was sent to the local Juvenile Education Center in Swannanoa. According to co-workers. Hurley grew to care about Warren over the years, considering him a bright young man and bringing him books she thought he would enjoy reading. She encouraged him to keep in touch with her even after she left the center in 1988.
Just a few months after Hurley went missing, a young college student named Katherine Johnson, who was visiting her home in High Point, N.C. went missing after attending a party in July 1990.
Each of the missing and murdered women had ties in some way to Lesley Eugene Warren. Investigators were already zeroing in on Warren as a suspect in Hurley’s disappearance when Johnson went missing. They eventually captured him in High Point, N.C. and questioned him about the two missing North Carolina women. Hurley’s body was eventually found in a shallow grave near Asheville. Johnson’s body was found in the trunk of her car in a parking garage in High Point. Warren was later tied to the deaths of Vineyard and Gray—both crimes appeared to be motives of opportunity. Vineyard was with Warren at a bar the night she was murdered and Gray had wrecked her car around the time Warren drove by the scene of the accident in his tractor trailer. Hurley had been a friend and mentor to Warren from his teenage years, and Johnson had met Warren at a party right before her murder.
Lesley Eugene Warren was sentenced to death in North Carolina for the murders of Jayme Denise Hurley and Katherine Johnson and is currently on death row.