In 1990, after 44 long and tortured years, Alma Sipple could still remember the woman she saw that day, even if only for a brief moment: a no-nonsense woman with sturdy brown hair, rimless glasses, and an air of authority. Everything about that woman said “authority,” which is the only reason Alma handed her infant daughter over to her.
The woman was going to take the baby to a hospital for a checkup, but Alma Sipple never saw her baby again. For over four decades, she lived with the pain of her loss, with her gnawing guilt and desperate need to know if her daughter was alive and well. It’s safe to say that Alma lived through every mother’s worst nightmare…
A Little Too Close for Comfort
Back in the ‘90s, the show Unsolved Mysteries aired on NBC, and America was hooked. People tuned in to see stories of real people who were destroyed by real crimes–crimes left unsolved. It was hard not to get lured in. But Alma Sipple never expected that one of those stories would involve her.
On December 13, 1989, Alma was flipping the dials on the TV and stumbled upon an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, not one of the shows she typically watched. Still, she kept the dial on the show and noticed herself sitting at the edge of her seat, transfixed, as the host Robert Stack told a story that was a little too close for comfort…
The Face She Never Forgot
Alma couldn’t take her eyes off the screen as Stack recounted the story of a woman named Georgia Tann, a notorious Tennessee social worker who had made a fortune running a black market baby adoption ring back in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. And there she was – the face of that woman Alma never forgot.
She recognized Georgia Tann immediately, her face and no-nonsense vibe. “When they showed her picture,” Alma recalled, “I let out a scream. I said, ‘That’s the woman that took Irma!’” Her husband, who was sitting next to her at that moment, said his wife turned white. “I felt like going through the television,” Alma described.
Seven Months Later, Her Prayers Were Answered
During that episode of Unsolved Mysteries, an announcement aired that if there were viewers who were searching for their birth parents, or if there were parents looking for their children, they were advised to contact Tennessee’s Right to Know, a volunteer agency that helped reunite families separated by adoption in Memphis.
That’s the thing about the show; it doesn’t just retell gripping true stories. It also tries to solve the mysteries. On January 3, 1990, Alma wrote to the address. Seven months later, with the help of the volunteer group and Marilyn Miller, a search consultant in Harbor City, California, Alma found her daughter.
The Saga Began in 1946
So, what on earth happened? Who is this, Georgia Tann, and how could something like this happen? The saga began in the spring of 1946. Alma, then in her early 20s, moved to Memphis with her infant daughter to be closer to her two-year-old son Robert from a previous marriage who was staying with friends of hers.
Alma’s boyfriend, Julius “Johnny” Tallos, had just been shipped out to Panama. Their plan was to get married, by proxy, as soon as possible. The couple met in Biloxi, Mississippi, where Johnny was stationed with the Air Force, and Alma worked as a bartender. By the time their baby Irma was born, on August 27, 1945, they had been together about two years.
Escaping Her Home in Kentucky
“We were so crazy about each other, it didn’t matter if we were married or not,” Alma recalled. Even though she was only in her early 20s, she had already been through two marriages that had ended in divorce. The first was when she was 14 and had only married to get away from her home in Kentucky.
Home was a scary place for Alma–a place with 17 children and a razor strap as the favored form of discipline. Now that she was in Memphis, she could set her family up in an oil-heated studio apartment.
Six Weeks Later, a Woman Shows Up
In her cozy little apartment, she shared a pullout sofa with her son while her baby girl–with dimples and strawberry blonde hair–slept in a crib. It was nearly six weeks after they moved into the apartment that a woman from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society showed up.
The organization had a flawless reputation for finding homes for orphans. The woman came to Alma’s apartment building apparently in order to investigate an alleged child abuse case involving a neighbor. But on that first day of her appearance, she didn’t talk to Alma.
Hi, My Name Is Georgia Tann
The next day, however, the woman showed up again in her big black limousine. This time, she knocked on Alma’s door and struck up a conversation with Alma. She asked the young mother questions about the whereabouts of the baby’s father.
Then the lady looked at Irma, who had a runny nose. She told Alma, “Your baby’s sick, isn’t she? You should get her a checkup.” Alma explained that she didn’t have money for a doctor. The woman, who identified herself as Georgia Tann, offered to take the baby to Memphis General Hospital for a checkup.
She Knew the “Dumb Ones”
In retrospect, Alma is baffled by her own naiveté. “How did I mess up so bad? I guess she knew the dumb ones,” she said solemnly. One thing she knew for certain at the time was that she was worried about her baby’s health. She also naturally assumed that she would go with them to the hospital.
She even signed a piece of paper. Then, Tann told Alma that it would be impossible for her to come along. “I had a weird feeling, but I thought, ‘Well, you’ve gotta trust somebody.’” Her maternal instinct indeed rang its bell, but her naiveté and worry over her child’s health was louder.
Shocked and Confused
The following day, Alma went to the children’s ward at the hospital, and, yes, she did actually see her baby girl there. In fact, she found Irma “jumping up and down in her bed.” But when she went to the nurse and told her she wanted to see her baby, the nurse replied, “You don’t have a baby in there. Those children belong to the Children’s Home Society.”
Shocked and confused, Alma tried to contact Tann. Over the next few days, her calls to the authoritative woman went unanswered. Finally, Tann called back. “She told me Irma had died,” from pneumonia, Alma recalled.
“I Was Half Out of My Mind”
“Of course, I went into hysterics,” Alma said, who believed what this woman was telling her. (It’s important to remember that this was an entirely different era, and people didn’t jump to conclusions that people were lying to them so easily.)
When the grieving mother said she wanted to make arrangements for the burial, she was snubbed by Tann, who told her that she had taken it upon herself “and had the state put her away.” At that point, Alma “went crazy.” She took her son to Ohio to stay with her mother and returned to Memphis.
None of It Made Sense
She wanted to find the grave. “I was half out of my mind.” It’s something that still hurt her to think about decades later. Alma didn’t find a grave, though, and her calls to the Children’s Home Society only provided the minimal information that “the case is closed.”
They told her that Georgia Tann “has nothing to say to you.” And this was coming from the organization that supposedly had a stellar reputation. None of it made sense. Alma ended up returning to the dreaded Kentucky with her son. After all, it was her where her roots were.
Living in a Nightmare
In Kentucky, Alma had two other young daughters from her first marriage, who had been living with their father. Alma got a job in Cincinnati at a uniform company in order to distract herself from the tragedy of losing Irma.
She was also receiving fewer and fewer letters from Johnny in Panama. “He’d worshipped Irma,” she said, and he simply couldn’t deal with the death. Another way for Alma to escape the nightmare she was living was to drink.
A New Marriage, Old Thoughts
“I thought it would make it easy. All it did was keep me crying all the time.” The last she knew, Johnny was living in Flint, Michigan. She hoped that he would show up, but he didn’t. Before long, Alma married again to a man named James Smith, a steel mill worker.
Their marriage lasted 12 years, and Alma had four more children with him: three sons and a daughter. Still, she could never stop thinking about Irma, despite her husband encouraging her to not think those thoughts. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alma moved on.
There Was No Death Certificate
She married Steve Sipple, a welder, next. They had a daughter together and remained in Kentucky until 1969 when they relocated to California. Unlike James, Steve understood his wife’s grief and her need to find closure over Irma.
He eventually joined her in the search for answers. In 1982, Alma, by then in her 60s, sent a query to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Nashville. She wanted to know if her baby had, in fact, died. She got her answer: There was no death certificate for Irma Tallos. It was a revelation.
One Day, by Chance
After that, however, Alma only ran into brick walls. The district attorney in Memphis couldn’t help her. Same went for the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Then, one day, by chance, Alma happened to tune into that episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
You can only imagine the feeling Alma experienced when she heard the news that her daughter was alive, and she could potentially meet her. Denny Glad, president of Right to Know in Tennessee, was the one who located the adoption records and provided the names of Irma’s adoptive parents.
A Married Nurse, Living in Cincinnati
It was a first step and an amazing one at that. But as soon as she saw the records, she was stumped. The records didn’t indicate which state Irma’s adoptive parents lived in. On July 27, 1990, Alma contacted Marilyn Miller, the research consultant she had been working with.
On August 3, Miller called her back with good news. She was able to get the name and address of Alma’s daughter. Miller knew a few things about Alma’s daughter–that she was a registered nurse who was married and living in Cincinnati. Her phone number, however, was unlisted.
A Basket and a Message
Alma decided to send her daughter a basket of daisies and carnations, with a carefully written message that read: “Please call regarding family matters.” Her daughter, who goes by the name Sandra Kimbrell, was, of course, puzzled. She didn’t know anyone in California.
Curious, Sandra called the California number the next day. She could never have expected that she was, in fact, calling a mobile home park in Carson where her birth mother and her husband Steve lived. The Sipples weren’t at home when Sandra called, but they picked up the message on their answering machine.
Calling Her Long-Lost Daughter
“I could feel my blood pressure shoot up,” Alma recalled about hearing that voice message. Alma now had the phone number of her long-lost daughter. What was she going to say when she called her back? This was a stranger at the end of the day.
This was someone who was once her flesh and blood who grew up to become a woman with no idea of her existence. Needless to say, Alma was scared. Would her daughter reject her? Would she not believe her? So, she sat down, picked up the phone, and made the call.
This Is Your Birth Mother Speaking
“Hello, Sandra?” she said. “You know you’re adopted?” Yes, Sandra knew. “Well, this is your birth mother…” In that moment, Sandra let out such a scream that Alma had to hold her telephone at arm’s length. The mother and daughter talked for an hour.
“She wanted to know what happened,” Alma explained. “How, what I looked like, how many brothers and sisters she had.” Sandra was also very curious about her birth mother’s accent. She could hear Alma’s Kentucky drawl, which she referred to as her “Kentucky hillbilly.”
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati
Sandra reflected on the moment: “At first, it was more than I really could take in. It’s one thing when you find your birth mother. It’s something else when you hear the circumstances that go with it.” Eventually, Sandra learned of her kidnapping.
As Alma mourned and eventually started searching for her lost daughter, Sandra was growing up in a comfortable home in Cincinnati, where she lived with her adoptive mother, who was divorced. Believe it or not, there was a point when Alma lived only a few miles across the river in Kentucky.
The Silver Lining
Sandra grew up an only child with doting parents, now deceased. According to Sandra, she had a “wonderful” relationship with them, even after the split. She always knew she was adopted, but she was happy. She said she never felt the need to search for her biological parents.
Sandra said she was a spoiled child–a “very wanted child.” Her parents always told her that because she was adopted, she was special, chosen. “I had a very, very comfortable upbringing. I don’t think I could have asked for much more.” If anything, it’s a silver lining in a very dark nightmare.
She Lived a Good Life
Sandra’s parents were in their 30s when they adopted her, and they wanted more than anything to have a child. She had it all–the piano lessons, dancing lessons, vacations, everything. Her parents cared very much about education and were “supportive of a working woman.”
In short, Sandra admits that “it’s been a good life.” A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and a registered nurse, she was the head operating room nurse at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati. By the time she heard from Alma, she had been married for 24 years to Bill, a stockbroker.
From an Only Child to One of Nine
Alma also learned that she’s a grandmother to Sandra’s daughter Kara, then 22, a teacher and recent bride. Sandra also has a son, Bill Jr., who was in college at the time. And Sandra was now living in a four-bedroom, French country-style house, a far cry from her very first home – the studio apartment in Memphis.
During the weeks that followed that fateful call from Alma, Sandra thought about the complete twist of events. She tried to absorb the fact that she, raised as an only child, suddenly had eight siblings.
A Hard Pill to Swallow
Alma told Sandra about her four sons and three daughters (as well as Steve’s daughter from another marriage). “It’s like, whoa! My kids always complained they never had aunts or cousins,” Sandra said. Something else that was hard to digest was the story of her own kidnapping.
It goes without saying that Sandra found it difficult absorb the “unbelievable” story of her being taken from her own mother. All she knew until that point was that she was born in Denver and adopted out of Memphis. Other than that, she asked her adoptive parents few questions. “I really thought it would hurt them,” she explained.
A Black Market Baby
If Sandra ever thought about looking for her birth parents, it was mainly because of her interest in her medical history. In the years leading up to 1990, when her life was suddenly turned upside down, she thought about her history more and more.
She realized that her birth parents would be getting older, and if she wanted to find them, it would need to be soon. And then she found Alma, and the truth was hard to swallow. She was a black market baby. It’s not something people want to discover about themselves.
Phone Calls, Letters, and Videotapes
“I figured I was illegitimate,” Sandra admitted. But “whoa! This is bizarre.” She also confessed that it was extremely hard for her to understand “letting someone come in and take your child away… that’s the hardest thing.” She wonders how much she, as a baby, was sold for.
Sandra calls her birth mother Juanita, her middle name because that’s what other family members call her. She and Alma got in the habit of chatting over long phone calls, sending letters, and videotapes. Soon, they started discussing how to get the families together.
The Getting-to-Know-Each-Other Process
Regarding her new-found family, Sandra said, “The love they have poured out in this last week has been unbelievable. One of them said it was like having a new baby in the family. It’s kind of neat to feel love from somebody who doesn’t even know you.”
Alma still calls her daughter Irma, although she constantly corrects herself. The mother and daughter both have reddish hair and do look like each other. During their getting to know each other process, each woman had to figure out where to fit the other.
She Was Just One of Thousands
Unfortunately, Alma Sipple is only one of thousands of victims of the notorious Georgia Tann and her black market baby ring. Denny Glad of Right to Know says they were “overwhelmed” by callers who saw that same episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
“We got over 600 calls,” she said. Most were from Tann’s apparent victims. According to Glad, Alma’s case is one of about 50 that her organization has solved or is near solving. She researched the Tann case extensively and said she “continues to be amazed at the enormous volume of children” who were placed by Tann in adoptive homes.
Even the Judge Was Crooked
Glad discovered that Tann used the cover of being part of the respected Tennessee Children’s Home Society, of which she was Shelby County director. There were children, like Irma, who were simply stolen. There were, however, others who were typically older.
Those children were abducted and taken to Juvenile Court in a first step toward being put up for adoption. There were parents who were forced to give up their children. It turns out that the judge, Camille Kelley, was on Tann’s payroll, and all those parents’ protests fell on deaf ears.
She Stole Over 5,000 Children
It’s estimated that Tann illegally took over 5,000 children. Many of the wronged parents went to the police, Glad explained, but most of them were poor and uneducated, which was Tann’s primary target group.
These unfortunate parents grew frustrated in their efforts to fight the powerful Tann. Complaints were filed, and lawsuits were carried out, but Glad says all of them “would just be dismissed by these local judges. The political machine was so entrenched and so powerful.” These people simply couldn’t fight the machine. It was something Glad could reconcile with.
Taken in One State, Sent to Another
“I understand why people find it incredible,” Glad stated. “It’s taken me all these years to reconcile myself to the fact it really could have happened.” Robert L. Taylor was the attorney appointed by the Tennessee governor in the late ‘40s to investigate both Tann and Judge Kelley.
Taylor estimated that Tann made more than a million dollars selling those babies. Typically, the kids were whisked out of one state and delivered to expecting adoptive parents out of state. Most of them, Taylor said, went to California and New York.
The Cost of a Child? $750
Glad believes the adoptive parents were in the dark and unaware of the deception involved. For whatever reason, Glad explained, most of the adoptive parents didn’t qualify to adopt in the state they lived in.
Age was primarily the reason as most of them were in their 40s and 50s. Through word-of-mouth, they learned that they could get a child out of Tennessee. They also didn’t raise too many questions since they felt lucky to have found this loophole. In California, by the way, the average cost to adopt one of Tann’s babies was just $750.
How She Justified It
Glad has often wondered whether Tann had motives aside from money. In most cases, the victims were poor or unwed mothers. “Miss Tann thought that affluence meant good,” Glad explained, “and I believe that’s how she justified what she was doing.”
Glad believes that Tann must have thought that she was taking children who never would have a chance and placing them in homes where they would get good educations and all the material stuff. “She just thought that she knew better than God.” Tann died of cancer in 1950, three days before the state’s investigators delivered their condemning report.
The Judge Was Forced to Resign
Tann was gone, but Judge Kelly wasn’t. After the state’s investigation, the judge was permitted to resign. She died not long after, in 1954. In the end, the Children’s Home Society was shuttered. Alma’s son Robert–the one she lived with in the apartment in Memphis–lives in Northern California.
Finding his long-lost sister was a thrill. For years after his sister disappeared, he thought (for some reason) that he had killed her by accident–that he bopped her on the head with his toy Jeep.
Feeling Whole Again
As for Alma, finally, after 44 years, she feels whole again. “I feel whole. Ever since Irma was taken from me, I felt something was missing.” She added that “the Bible says you’re not supposed to hate anybody, but I’ll tell you if that woman was still living…”
She can’t help but think of all those people Tann did this to–all those 5,000 children and their families. She thinks of them, and the suffering Tann caused. “And she couldn’t take a dime of it with her.