A Note on ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate


Having spent three months on the New York Time’s Bestseller List, Lisa Wingate’s latest book, ‘Before We Were Yours’, seems to have really struck a chord with people. It’s easy to see why, this compelling read delves into one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals – an unthinkable act that led to heartbreaking consequences.

Lisa Wingate has penned a short article about the inspiration behind the book and how the story of the Foss siblings came to be… 

The Foss children and the Arcadia were formed from the dust of imagination and the muddy waters of the Mississippi River. Though Rill and her siblings exist only in these pages, their experiences mirror those reported by children who were taken from their families from the 1920s through 1950.

The true story of Georgia Tann and the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society is a bizarre and sad paradox. There is little doubt the organization rescued many children from deplorable, dangerous circumstances, or simply accepted children who were unwanted and placed them in loving homes. There is also little doubt that countless children were taken from loving parents without cause or due process and never seen again by their desperately grieving biological families. Survivor accounts bear out that empty-armed birth mothers pined for their missing children for decades and that many of those children were placed in holding facilities where they were neglected, molested, abused, and treated as objects. Single mothers, indigent parents, women in mental wards, and those seeking help through welfare services and maternity clinics were particular targets. Birth mothers were duped into signing paperwork while under postpartum sedation, were told turning over temporary custody was necessary to secure medical treatment for their children, or were often simply informed that their babies had died. Children who live through stints in the home’s custody – those who were old enough to have memories of their prior lives – reported having been whisked from front porches, from roadside while walking to school, and, yes, from houseboats on the river. Essentially, if you were poor and lived, stayed, or stopped over in the proximity of Memphis, your children were at risk.

Blonds like the Foss siblings were particularly popular in Georgia Tann’s system and were often targeted by “spotters” who worked in medical facilities and public aid clinics. Average residents of the city, while unaware of her methods, were not unaware of her work. For years, citizens watched for newspaper advertisements bearing photos of adorable babies and children, underscored by captions like “Yours For The Asking”, “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” and “George Wants To Play Catch, But He Needs a Daddy.” Georgia Tann was heralded as the “Mother of Modern Adoption” and was even consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt on matters of child welfare.

To the general public, Tann was simply a matronly, well-meaning women who devoted her life to rescuing children in need. Her celebration of children adopted by wealthy, well-known families helped to popularize the idea of adoption in general and dispel the widespread belief that orphaned children were undesirable and inherently damaged. Georgia’s high-profile list included political figures such as New York governor Herbert Lehman and Hollywood celebrities such as Joan Crawford and June Allyson and her husband, Dick Powell. Former staff members of Tann’s orphanage in Memphis whispered of as many as seven babies at a time being spirited away under the cover of darkness for transportation to “foster homes” in California, New York, and other states. In reality, these children were often being shipped off to profitable out-of-state adoptions in which Tann pocketed the lion’s share of the exorbitant delivery feeds. When interviewed about her methods, Georgia unabashedly extolled the virtues of removing children from lowly parents who could not possibly raise them properly and placing them with people of “high type”.

From a modern perspective, it’s hard to imagine how Georgia Tann and her network managed to operate largely unchecked for decades or where she found workers willing to turn a blind eye to the inhumane treatment of children in the organization’s group homes in unlicensed boarding facilities, like the one where Rill and her siblings land, yet it happened. At one point, the U.S. Children’s Bureau sent an investigator to Memphis to probe the city’s soaring infant mortality rate. In a four-month period in 1945, a dysentery epidemic had caused the deaths of forty to fifty children under the care of Georgia’s facility, despite the efforts of a doctor who volunteered medical services there. Georgia, however, insisted that only two children had been lost. Under pressure, the state legislature passed a law mandating the licensing of every children’s boarding home in Tennessee. The newly passed legislation included a subsection providing an exemption for all boarding homes employed by Georgia Tann’s agency.

As you close these pages, perhaps you are wondering, How much of this story is true? That question is, in some ways, difficult to answer. If you’d like to dig more deeply into the real-life history of baby farms, orphanages, changes in adoption, Georgia Tann, and the scandal surrounding the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, you’ll find excellent information in Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children by Viviana A. Zelizer (1985), Babies for Sale: The Tennessee Children’s Home Adoption Scandal by Linda Tollett Austin (1993), Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America by Catherine Reef (2005), and The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond (2007), which also contains interviews with several of Georgia Tann’s victims. For a view of the scandal as it broke, see the original Report to Governor Gordon Browning on Shelby County Branch, Tennessee Children’s Home Society (1951), which is available through the public library system. There are also many newspaper and magazine articles available about the scandal as it happened and about the reunions of birth families in later years, as well as coverage in episodes of 60 Minutes, Unsolved Mysteries, and Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women. All of these sources were invaluable to me as research materials.

While Mrs. Murphy and her home in the story are fictional, Rill’s experiences there were inspired by those reported by survivors. There were also many who, due to abuse, neglect, illness, or inadequate medical attention, did not live to tell their stories. They are the silent victims of an unregulated system fueled by greed and financial opportunity.

Estimates as to the number of children who may have simply vanished under Georgia Tann’s management range as high as five hundred. Thousands more disappeared into adoptions for profit in which names, birth dates, and birth records were altered to prevent biological families from finding their children.

One would assume, given these awful statistics, that Georgia Tann’s reign would have eventually ended amid a firestorm of public revelations, police inquiries, and legal action. If Before We Were Yours were entirely fictional, that’s how I would have written its end, with scenes of swift and certain justice. Sadly, this was not the case. Georgia’s many years in the adoption business did not draw to a close until 1950. At a press conference that September, Governor Gordon Browning skirted the heartbreaking human tragedy of it all and instead discussed the money – Miss Tann, he reported, had benefited illegally to the tune of $1 million (equivalent to roughly $10 million today) while employed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Despite the revelation of her crimes, Tann was, by then, beyond the reach of legal action. Within days of the press conference, she succumbed to uterine cancer and died at home in her own bed. A newspaper expose ran opposite her obituary on the front page of the local paper. Her children’s home was closed and an investigator appointed, but he soon found himself stymied by powerful people with secrets, reputations, and, in some cases, adoptions to preserve.

While the closing of the home gave grieving families reason to hope, that hope was quickly snatched away from them. Legislators and political power brokers passed laws legalizing even the most questionable of her adoptions and sealing the records. Of the twenty-two wards remaining in Tann’s care at the time of her death, only two – who had already been rejected by their adopted families -were returned to their birth parents. Thousands of birth families would never know what became of their children. The general public sentiment was that, having been given over from poverty to privilege, the children were better off where they were, no matter the circumstances of their adoptions.

While some adoptees, separated siblings, and birth families were able to find one another through pieced-together memories, documents spirited from courthouse files, and the assistance of private investigators, Georgia Tann’s records would not finally be opened to her victims until 1995. For many birth parents and adoptees, who grieved their losses throughout their lifetimes, that was simply too late. For others, it was the beginning of long-delayed family reunions and the opportunity to finally tell their own stories.

If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from the Foss Children and from the true-life story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, it is that babies and children, no matter what corner of the world they hail from, are not commodities, or objects, or black slates, as Georgia Tann so often represented her wards; they are human beings with histories, and needs, and hopes, and dreams of their own.

– Article by author of ‘Before We Were Yours’, Lisa Wingate

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