Barbara Jean Haggerty counts the days on the calendar, not knowing if the day is her birthday. She has no inkling of how many candles should be placed on her cake. Only one baby photograph of her exists. Barbara Jean was one of hundreds of children stolen and sold through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a black-market baby business operating from the 1920’s to 1950 by Memphis multiple murderer, child molester, and baby thief Georgia Tann.
The city of Memphis, Tennessee has a rowdy and rancorous history. It is famous for music, food, and crime. In the last few years FBI data has consistently placed Memphis in the top 20% in United States cities with the highest crime rates. Along with Graceland, soul food, and Beale Street, murder, theft, and gang activity have become parts of the city’s landscape. In the late 1940’s, crooked politicians and law enforcement tactics greased the city’s financial wheels. It was a perfect setting for Georgia Tann. And Georgia Tann loved Memphis.
Beulah Georgia Tann (1891-1950) a matronly, smiling woman, created the Memphis-based Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It appeared to be a loving, nurturing orphanage. Behind its doors, the Society was an unlicensed black-market baby operation. One of the babies who came through that door was Barbara Jean Haggerty, who was stolen and then sold when she was about two days old. Barbara Jean now explains, “I was one of the ‘best selling’ babies because of my blonde hair and blue eyes. Of course (the Home Society) only dealt in white children.” Babies who did not sell quickly were murdered.
|Georgia Tann (1891-1950)|
During this time period, it was normal for children to be advertised in city newspapers for adoption. People ordered children as if ordering furniture; Tann gladly supplied the demands, charging astronomical figures. “(We have) the merchandise in hand and in stock to deliver to you” a 1944 Tennessee Children’s Home Society letter read to a prospective client. “We can never tell when we can fill an order,” another letter explained to parents waiting to purchase a child. (Raymond)
Tann employed “spotters” to scout for children to steal and parents to scam. A Tann spotter might walk into an elementary school, public playground, or low socioeconomic neighborhood and walk away with a child, both never to be seen again. A Tann spotter, disguised as hospital staff or a visitor, would casually stroll into a maternity ward, scoop up a newborn, and disappear out a door. The spotter might visit an unwed mother to make a deal: “We’ll take care of your baby for you, save you the expense and shame... and pay you.” In desperation, the unwed mother would allow the exchange. Barbara Jean Haggerty believes the latter scenario may have been her case.
Georgia Tann hired a staff for the home, eschewing employee background checks and personnel paperwork. Thus, molesters, parolees, and abusers were employed at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Tann herself sexually abused her charges; behind that matronly appearance laid an abusive and cold woman. Barbara Jean is thankful she did not stay at the home for long.
Tann sold or exchanged babies, as well as monetary gifts, between media, court judges, law enforcement, movie and music stars, and elected officials in exchange for political favors and legal protection. Her political connections, including the Mayor of Memphis, assisted in skirting adoption laws or creating legal loopholes from which to operate. Tann sold children to mobsters, child molesters, abusers, and for hard labor (one child was recorded as having toiled in a field at 18 hour days, eventually running away from the adoptive family). The repercussions of Georgia Tann’s crimes have caused a ripple effect lasting decades.
Camille Kelley was an author and the Shelby County juvenile court judge in Tennessee from 1920 to 1950. Kelley looked like a kindly grandmother, and spoke of treating children with kindness and sympathy. Like Tann, Judge Kelley was well known and revered in Tennessee. Many of their admirers were unaware that Tann and Kelley were lovers; they were conspirators in the illegal adoption process of the stolen babies. Approximatelt 20% of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society adoptions were processed in Judge Kelley’s court; Kelley illegally removed parental rights and drew up fake documents to place the children as Tann would instruct. One of those children was Barbara Jean Haggerty. With Tann’s assistance and Kelley’s falsified documents, Barbara Jean was sold to the Childs family.
|Camille Kelley (1879-1955)|
Alveretta (Riley) and Jesse Aubrey Childs, both in their late twenties, were living in Shelby County, Tennessee. Alveretta and Jesse owned a popular diner called “Mamma Child’s.” Judge Kelley favored this restaurant. “I can remember, as a little girl, seeing Judge Kelley at the restaurant, laughing and talking and visiting with my mother,” Barbara Jean recalls. Even at that age, she has no doubt who Judge Kelley was; everyone in Memphis knew the woman fondly dubbed “The Little Irish Judge.”
Barbara Jean believes Alveretta confided in Judge Kelley that Alveretta was unable to conceive, and longed to be a parent. Georgia Tann charged Jesse and Alveretta $5,000 to “adopt” Barbara. Kelley assisted by destroying legal documents and creating a new history for Barbara Jean. Barbara Jean had a new birth certificate bearing Judge Kelley’s signature. (Some years ago, a private investigator “borrowed” the certificate for research and never returned it.) Barbara Jean grew up knowing she was adopted, but
considered her adoptive parents “my real mom and dad.” In her later years, Alveretta would finally admit to family, “I purchased Barbara Jean for $5,000 off the black market.” But in Barbara Jean’s early years, Alveretta would amend or outright lie about the origin of Barbara Jean’s adoption. "She didn’t want to hurt my feelings, so sometimes she lied, or changed the story a bit,” Barbara Jean explains. She is not angry with her parents, nor does she hold grudges against the lies and deception. She knows she was loved.
|The sole baby photo of Barbara Jean Haggerty, |
with her adoptive mother
Barbara Jean Haggerty is one of hundreds of children from Tennessee Children’s Home Society who were stolen and sold. At least 40-50 children died in less than four months while housed in the illegally operated home in 1945 alone. Children were starved, beaten, molested, mentally abused, and never received medical attention. Unwanted babies were left outside on the lawn in their cribs in the hot Tennessee summers to slowly wither away.
Barbara’s granddaughter is assisting her with trying to unearth her past, but the digging is slow. There are names and dates, but little more:
Alveretta Riley (1917-1997) was born in Arkansas to Thomas O’Riley and Willie Rogers. She married several times:
She divorced her first husband (name unknown) and moved to the Shelbyville, Tennessee area in 1940 at 23 years of age.
Jesse Aubrey Childs (05-20-09 to 12-28-75), an electrician, was her second husband.
Alveretta’s third husband was Dalton Marshal.
Besides Mama Child’s, Alveretta and Jesse owned “Top Hat” (which later became Sonic Drive-in), a third restaurant, and three nightclubs. Records indicate Alveretta also worked as a “casing worker.”
Barbara’s real name may be Belinda Diane Bullard, born October 2 or in July around 1945; she is now approximately 68 years old.
One baby picture exists of Barbara (see accompanying photo).
Barbara may have three siblings: a sister who died in a car wreck and two brothers who were lost in the Vietnam War: Winnie Lee, Sidney F., and Thomas R.
Tann was never prosecuted and died a very wealthy woman. Judge Camille Kelley resigned in 1950 due to a special investigation into the tactics of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society; she died in 1955 having never been prosecuted. Her portrait hangs in the Memphis courthouse. Their legacy continues: corruption in the Memphis Youth Courts, laws created to protect adoption wrongdoings, and people who have no idea of their true heritage because it was all stolen from them, including Barbara Jean Haggerty. “I’m not bitter or mad. I just want to know if I have brothers and sisters,” she says wistfully. “I want to know my real birthday and how old I am. I’d like to know about my blood relatives.” She shrugs. “I guess some people may think it’s silly, or too late. But I just want to know: who am I?”
Judith A. Yates is an award winning true crime author and criminologist. Click here for her website and book information.