The Commercial Appeal
“Is that Pat?” Bruch asked. “It is.” “We have the same mama!” Bruch said.
“And she’d be so proud,” Wilkes responded.
The tear-filled reunion comes almost 60 years after authorities dismantled the illegal baby-selling operation led by Georgia Tann, a seemingly benevolent adoption expert who, from 1924 until her death in 1950, sold an estimated 5,000 stolen babies to wealthy couples in cities across the United States, generating millions of dollars in fees.
Many were stolen from mothers who were poor, uneducated and helpless.
And while some went to stable homes and wealthy celebrities, including Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell, many died in a large house on Poplar in Midtown where Tann ran her business, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Tann’s illegal operation remained under the radar for years largely because, according to numerous accounts of the story, she bribed judges and city officials to not ask questions. Not until the late 1940s did adoptive parents begin to complain about Tann’s methods.
Tann was never prosecuted. Three days after state investigators learned of her baby-selling scheme and closed the Poplar orphanage in September 1950, Tann died of cancer.
Yet, the lasting effects of the baby scandal continue to ripple through families across the U.S.
Just as Bruch and Wilkes met for the first time, nearly 70 years after their birth, another Georgia Tann victim continues her search for lost relatives in the Memphis area.
Pat Schlothauer, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., has spent the better part of two decades looking for family, after discovering that she was also a stolen baby.
Born Hallie Mae Stovall in 1944, Schlothauer was one of four children yanked by Tann from an impoverished Memphis couple, Iverson and Lucille Stovall.
According to Schlothauer, Tann took the children under the auspices of providing temporary help.
And while the Stovalls were led to believe the children had either died or disappeared, the four kids were secretly shuttled to separate families around the country. Schlothauer, then 3, wound up with a wealthy couple in Los Angeles.
Schlothauer said she suffered an unhappy childhood under the care of a cold and unloving adopted mother.
She also grew up not knowing the circumstances of her adoption, beyond a scrapbook her mother made.
But a 1990 episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” launched a decades-long search to find her family, including two brothers and a sister.
“Until you find a family member, you don’t have a past,” Schlothauer said. “And then you see this birth sister, an actual blood relative. It’s fascinating and wonderful.”
While Schlothauer, 65, has reunited with many of her relatives, she is still looking for her father’s family, believed to be in the Memphis area.
Back in Germantown, Bruch shares a different adoption story.
She, too, was stolen, from a 19-year-old single mother on the night of her birth and shuttled by Tann to her adopted family in Pennsylvania. But unlike Schlothauer, Bruch recalls a blissful childhood raised by loving and educated parents.
“They were wonderful to me and gave me a wonderful life,” Bruch said, adding she had no desire to research the details of her adoption until her parents’ death.
“I felt it would be a betrayal,” she said.
But earlier this year, after reading a book about Tann, Bruch’s eldest daughter asked if she could research the story of Bruch’s birth.
A records request through the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services produced 82 pages of pictures and documents detailing Bruch’s early story and revealing that she was born Nell Howell in Memphis.
Through further research, Bruch and her daughter discovered an entire family of relatives, including a sister, who was born to Howell years later and lived her life believing she was an only child.
The women both described the disbelief at discovering a sister at such a late age, and later the blessing at learning of extended family.
“It’s taken some getting used to but it’s definitely shaken up my life,” said Wilkes, who shares Bruch’s small size and blue eyes.
Bruch, who is writing a book of her experiences, added that she’s always longed for a big family.
“And here at 72 I found a big family,” she said. “These are my roots, these are the early beginnings of my life.”
— Alex Doniach: 529-5231