By Aimee Braniff Cree


TAKE A LOOK behind the walls of an abandoned mental asylum where controversial psychiatric practices were pioneered including lobotomies and is reported to be a source for a Hollywood-funded black market baby ring.

Images from the location where legendary actress Joan Crawford’s adopted children could have been snatched from, show a dilapidated building with coats still hung on the wall, a child’s restraint chair and pictures of staff and patients left discarded.

Perhaps one of the most jarring images is a library card for a Mr Fred Kessler where he is asking to check out his books to, “Someone who cares (volunteers)”.

The Western State asylum built between 1886-1889 is cloaked in scandal, in 1919 Dr. Edwin W. Cocke introduced new and dangerous treatments including fever therapy, prefrontal lobotomies, Metrazol injections, and insulin shock therapy, while still relying on occupational therapy.

It is also believed the women’s ward was a source of babies for a career criminal named Georgia Tann who realised she could make money selling babies for adoption.

She is reported to have placed babies with Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner and Joan Crawford for an eye watering fee, some babies having been sold for up to £70K each in today’s money.

Tann falsified babies records and they were in fact not given up for adoption, she stole them from mentally ill mothers on the ward and sold them for profit.

Tann had extremely strong political connections with the Tennessee Legislature and managed to stay in business for 26 years before an investigation was launched because 40-50 children died while in her care within four months.

Her ‘adoption agency’ was shut down in 1950 and Tann died of cancer the same year. The asylum closed in 1987 and part of the site has been revamped into a modern state-of-the-art $58.5 million psychiatric hospital, which opened in 2010.

A haunting image of a lone suitcase in a large hall.

These images were captured by urban explorer Leland Kent known as Abandoned Southeast online in Staunton Virginia USA.

“The asylum was the last of Tennessee’s three major mental hospitals built in the Victorian era, constructed in 1886-1889, and the only one to remain in operation,” said Leland on his blog.

“The administration building is one of the most significant examples of Gothic Revival institutional architecture remaining in Tennessee.

“It was the last state mental hospital constructed and habitually the one least funded.

“Male and female patients were housed in separate wings, separated by a central administrative core with offices, support facilities, and staff apartments.

“Each wing was subdivided into wards separated by polygonal stair towers. As part of the treatment method, asylums on the Kirkbride Plan were often placed in secluded sites with expansive grounds, landscaped gardens, and farmland that were largely self-sufficient.

“Construction of the $250,000 four-story facility included rooms for 300-350 patients. Officially opening on November 22, 1889, the asylum accepted 156 patients from an overcrowded Nashville institution.

“In 1892, 319 patients were living at the mental hospital. Tennessee’s segregationist policies were manifest at Bolivar in the separate, two-story “Negro Ward” the state built for African American patients in 1895-1896, later expanded in 1913 with a dormitory for African American staff members.

The halls are crumbling. y.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, the Negro Ward was enlarged with separate buildings for administration, laundry, and receiving patients.

“In 1948, the original hospital building from 1895-1913 was demolished and replaced with a three-story, mid-century modern building called Luton Hall.

“By 1900, the hospital was overcrowded with 594 patients. The system for securing financing for patient care limited the operating budget.

“In Tennessee, there were three classes of patients: the state-pay patients, the county-pay patients, and the private-pay patients.

“State agencies agreed to pay for one patient out of a population of 1000. Once this portion of the payment had been satisfied, the county was responsible for additional costs.

“During the 1920s and 1930s, patient therapy tended to be highly eclectic. Patients at Western State received the treatments available in their period of institutionalisation.

“Dr. Edwin W. Cocke began working at the hospital in 1914 as an assistant doctor, eventually becoming a supervisor in 1918.

“These new treatments included fever therapy, prefrontal lobotomies, Metrazol injections, and insulin shock therapy, while still relying on occupational therapy.

“In addition, a dietitian and a dentist were hired. Dr. Cocke served dual roles as the Commissioner of the Department of Institutions and supervisor of Western State from 1933 to 1936, resigning to enter into private practice.

“The emphasis on treatment was not on care and custody, but on medical and empirical research and experimentation.

“Many patients were crowded into large dormitories and had little privacy. With a limited number of doctors and attendants and a large patient population, many patients were simply “warehoused.”

“With the severe staff limitations, patients were fortunate to receive ten minutes per-week with a psychiatrist.

“One of the darkest stories about Western State is the institution’s connection to Georgia Tann, who operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis.

Suitcases of patients never collected.

“Tann, operated a black-market baby adoption agency that became a nationally recognised organisation that would later become a national scandal.

“Tann began at the Mississippi Children’s Home Funding Society around 1920 and initially placed orphans for adoption but quickly realised she could charge hefty adoption fees placing children who had been kidnapped from poor women.

“In 1924, she started working at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society where she turned part-time baby snatching into a highly profitable business.

“Tann sold babies to adopting parents throughout America, including movie stars in Hollywood. She charged wealthy clients up to today’s equivalent of $100,000. Actresses Lana Turner and Joan Crawford adopted children through the agency.

“June Allison and her husband, Dick Powell, also adopted a child from Tann. Professional wrestler Ric Flair, in his autobiography, claimed that he had been illegally taken from his natural mother and sold through the agency to his adoptive parents.

Tann would falsify background records and place children for adoption for as little as $7 in Tennessee.

“One of Tann’s sources for children was women at Western State. It is rumoured that babies were taken from women in the wards.

“Young patients were raped and forced to have sex with each other or for money with security guards and local residents.

“For nearly 30 years, all of the babies that were born at Western State were sent to Georgia Tann’s adoption agency.

“Patients at Western State were free to roam the grounds until the 1980s. It was not uncommon for someone to escape, or simply go missing by walking off the property.

“Many of the patients that died at Western State are buried in several cemeteries scattered throughout the campus.”

Find out more on Lelands Blog.