In 1989, Alma Sipple of Tennessee would find herself in front of the television, an NBC program called Unsolved Mysteries staring back at her.
The program would tell the story of the late Georgia Tann, a scrupulous mastermind dressed in the brushstrokes of evil, who stole babies – thousands of babies – from the poor and gave them to the rich.
Alma Sipple’s eyes would drink in the image of Ms Tann, a middle-aged woman with rimless glasses, an unremarkable haircut and suitable dress sense.
After 44 years of confusion, broken hearts, guilt and hopeless desperation, Alma Sipple had finally and accidentally stumbled on the woman who stole her baby.
“When they showed her picture,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1990, “I let out a scream. I said, ‘That’s the woman that took Irma!’ My husband said I turned white. I felt like going through the television.”
To the naked and uninitiated eye, Alma Sipple’s tale sounds remarkable. Tragically so. But the remarkable part of her tale actually lies in the unremarkable.
Alma Sipple was one of thousands of women who, in their trusting vulnerability, gave their babies to the nice, responsible woman who was Tann. The nice responsible woman who promised, with what appeared to be an open heart, helpful hands and the air of authority, some support. For Sipple, it was the offer of taking her baby on a quick trip to the doctor.
She never saw her baby again.
This was the very essence of who Georgia Tann was and what Georgia Tann did; a methodically organised black market of babies.
Between 1924 and 1950, Tann was the head of what many then considered a reputable charity organisation called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. In those 26 years, it’s estimated that over 5,000 children were stolen by Tann and more than 500 died of disease, poor care and alleged abuse.
Of course, Tann and her loyal comrades did not document which children died, how they passed and who they were. It would be another thread in an evil and callous narrative of neglected and stolen children, of heartbroken, lonely parents.
Lena Mae Howell was another such parent. In 1937, Howell became pregnant out of wedlock, and made her way to Memphis to stay at a home for unwed mothers that was part of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.