Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Historic Bolivar, Final Stop

When I first came to West Tennessee, I often heard people speak of someone "going to Bolivar," having "been in Bolivar," needing to be "sent to Bolivar." I soon learned that it was a euphemism for mental illness and hospitalization. I would also hear people say the buildings were beautiful (at least when viewed from a distance).

Western Mental Health Institute (formerly Western State) is easy to find, located directly across the highway from the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Passers-by often comment on these impressive Gothic and Italianate structures. I took numerous photographs the day I was there, but none turned out. I decided to go ahead with this post using stock photographs found online. The story's a sad one, and one that's been told before. Still, it's worth repeating, and the lessons are worth remembering.

Western State Mental Hospital was the last of Tennessee’s state mental hospitals to be constructed (in 1889) and habitually the one least funded. From its original one building, presently used as the administration building, it grew to, at one point, 1,140 acres with seven buildings housing patients. The institution's patient population grew from a few hundred in the 1890s to over 2,000 in the 1960s (as patients remained hospitalized for decades). Many were crowded into large dormitories and had little privacy. With a limited number of doctors and attendants and a large patient population, many were simply "warehoused."

Patients at Western State received the treatments available in their period of institutionalization. These treatments ranged from hydrotherapy and insulin shock therapy to lobotomies and electric shock therapy. With the severe staff limitations, however, patients were fortunate to receive ten minutes per week with a psychiatrist.

The facility once had a very unfortunate connection with the infamous Georgia Tann, who operated the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Tann used the unlicensed home as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme from the 1920s until a state investigation closed the institution in 1950. Tann died of cancer before the investigation made its findings public.

"Angel of Mercy," Georgia Tann

Inmates at Western State were one source of babies for Tann’s operation. Records were either sealed or falsified. Tann often arranged for what her victims refer to as kidnapping. In some cases, single parents would drop their children off at nursery schools only to be told that welfare agents had taken the children. In other cases, children would be placed with the society because a family would be in the midst of illness or unemployment. They would later learn that the Society had either adopted them out, or had no record of the children ever being placed.

Tann was also documented as taking children born to unwed mothers at birth, claiming that the newborns required medical care. When the mothers would ask about the children, Tann would tell them that the babies had died. In reality, they were placed in foster homes or adopted out. Mary Tyler Moore won an Emmy award for her portrayal of Tann in the television movie, “Stolen Babies,” 1993.
Tennessee law at the time, the Home charged about $7 per adoption. Adoptions in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri could be arranged for $750. But Tann also arranged for out-of-state private adoptions where she charged a premium - upwards of $5,000 per child - for her "services." It is alleged that she pocketed 75% of the fees from these adoptions for her own personal use, and failed to report the income to both the Society Board and the Internal Revenue Service. She was the first to create new birth certificates for adopted children; the practice became widespread.
Tann's standards for suitability of adoptive parents seemed to be based strictly on financial status. Notable personalities who used Tann's services (but were not aware of the tactics used by Tann) included actress Joan Crawford (daughters Christina Crawford, and twins Cathy and Cynthia were adopted through the agency). June Allyson and husband Dick Powell also used the Memphis-based home for adopting a child, as did New York Governor Herbert Lehman, who signed a law sealing birth certificates from New York adoptees in 1935.
Tann could not have done all this alone. She was assisted by powerful friends, including Family Court Judge Camille Kelley and Memphis Mayor E. H. Crump (head of the powerful Crump “political machine”). Tann enjoyed Crump's powerful protection as she illegally placed babies in adoptive homes. Tann's legacy—and by extension, Crump's—lives on today, in that 32 states (as of January 2007) still have sealed birth certificates for adoptees.
I know a man in Jackson who says he was one of "Georgia Tann's babies." He was adopted by an older couple, a minister and his wife. He says he was well-treated, but will always wonder about his birth parents ... and what might have been .....


  1. Hi Bill

    I have enjoyed your Historic Bolivar, thank you. Not so sure I like the story in this last one though. I was a Nursery Nurse and the home I worked at in the late 60's was also used for adoptions, it was run by nuns but also an official adoption society. I am not a cinema goer so I don't know about the film you mentioned.Those poor mothers having their babies taken away from them and being told they had died. Jackie.

  2. What a great ending. I worked for a State Hospital in Missouri for years -- beautiful building -- was sad to see it being torn down. The kitchen pastry marble, however, lives at LInderhof!

  3. What a sad tale Bill, But all so true. Its ashame there are people in this world who enjoy taking advantage of the less forunate for personal gain. I'm sure the devil is enjoying Ms. Tanns company.I certainly would not want Joan Crawford as a mother.Thats another whack job.
    All in all I'm glad you had a nice time in Bolivar. You really have some awesome photos. I felt I was right there. Thank you so much .XXOO Marie Antionette

  4. It would seem this practice went on in many hospitals. I remember the term "butterbox babies" used to refer to the less than perfect babies who were starved to death in a hospital/maternity home in Nova Scotia. If they didn't meet the criteria for the adoption such as dark skinned they were fed only molasses and water until they succumbed in about 2 weeks. They were often buried in the dairy boxes.

    This husband and wife team sold babies to many Jewish couples in New Jersey. They also made the poor birth mothers work off their care in the home all the while being told their babies had died.
    We had a very large mental institution here that used all of the same treatments you talk about. It is closed down now but it is desperately needed in an upgraded fashion. Our streets are filled with mentally ill people who should be cared for.
    The grounds of this hospital are also an arboretum of sorts with fabulous specimen trees planted everywhere. A treasure trove for the tree lover.

  5. WOW. What a history lesson. I remember watching the tv movie about Tann and her adoption scheme. Crazy stuff for sure.

  6. When growing up, I remember hearing many of the stories about the instituation. I did not see the movie, but do remember hearing many of the stories about her adoption practices - So sad.

  7. Very fascinating, Bill....what a story. Too bad this Tann woman didn't spend all that effort on doing something good for the children and their parents that were down on their you believe in karma????

  8. Wow...that is soooo sad. :-( Evil place, evil woman, evil judge.

  9. Bill what a wonderful post, I saw that movie, so hard to believe that it was true..even worse that these children will never know their real stories, real families, just heart breaking..thank you for sharing it and the lovely pictures. Rose

  10. Bill:
    What a wonderful post and powerful story. It's so sad. It's makes us realize that although awful things still happen, we've come so far as a country.
    Thank you for digging out the history.
    - The Tablescaper

  11. Beautiful buildings, but you're right---a sad story! Patti