Known to millions as The Nature Boy, Ric Flair is considered one of America’s greatest and most popular professional wrestlers. But long before he first took to the ring, his life was derailed by a terrible crime. More than 50 years later, he learned the truth while researching his own autobiography. And as it turned out, he hadn’t been the only victim.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on February 25, 1949, Flair developed a passion for wrestling at a young age. And while his adoptive parents, Richard and Kathleen, enjoyed more high-brow cultural pursuits, their son was always happiest when he was watching sports. Ultimately, as a young man, he would follow his heroes into the ring.
Toward the end of 1971 Flair attended a wrestling camp near Minneapolis in Minnesota. And there, he learned the sport from the famous trainer and promoter Verne Gagne. Eventually, by December 1972, he was ready to make his debut. And the following year, he competed in his first international bouts in Japan.
Under the banner of a number of different promoters, Flair spent the first half of the 1970s competing across Japan and the United States. But then, in October 1975, things took a tragic turn. According to reports, the wrestler was on a flight with four other fighters when the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in North Carolina. And although he survived, he suffered a broken back that nearly ended his career.
For six months, Flair recuperated in the hospital, where doctors warned him that his fighting days were done. But when the wrestler returned to see his promoter, the story goes, he ordered him to remove his medical brace. And within eight months, Flair was back in the ring – although he was forced to adopt a different technique.
After returning to his wrestling career, Flair adopted the moniker The Nature Boy – a nickname that he still uses to this day. And in September 1981, he won his first World Heavyweight title from the National Wrestling Alliance, or NWA. From that point onwards, his career went from strength to strength.
Over the course of the next three decades, Flair competed in numerous bouts in the NWA, as well as the World Wrestling Federation – later World Wrestling Entertainment – and World Championship Wrestling. And in 2012, he became the first wrestler to be inducted twice into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Today, the amount of titles that Flair has won throughout his career is a matter of some debate. According to the wrestler himself, he has been awarded the title of World Champion no less than 21 times. However, others put the number at somewhere between 16 and 25 depending on the source.
By the time that Flair retired in December 2012, his passion had become a family business. You see, in 2016 his daughter Ashley, who competes under the name Charlotte Flair, was named the top female wrestler in the world. Meanwhile, his son Reid enjoyed a short but prolific career before an overdose took his life in 2013.
But while Flair’s wrestling career has secured him a place in the hearts of millions of fans, his real life story has an unexpectedly dark side. Indeed, 70 years ago, he was caught up in a scandal that would tear thousands of families apart. And it’s only in recent times, thanks to the popularity of a best-selling book, that more victims have told their story.
Now, the sordid tale began back in 1891, when Beulah George Tann, known as Georgia, was born in the Mississippi city of Philadelphia. At the time, her father was a court judge whose responsibilities included caring for the state’s homeless children. And ultimately, she would follow in his footsteps – albeit in a far more sinister way.
Initially, Tann, like her father, set her sights on a career in law. However, at the time this was not considered an appropriate profession for a woman, and she settled on social work instead. And soon, she found employment in the state capital of Jackson, working for the Mississippi Children’s Home-Finding Society.
Before long, however, Tann began engaging in some questionable behavior. While working in Jackson, she removed children from homes and placed them with adoptive families. However, in a number of cases, she did not actually have consent to do so. And eventually, her activities resulted in legal action.
Undeterred, Tann relocated to Memphis, where her father was able to secure her a job at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. And there, she began a sinister yet lucrative career sourcing babies for wealthy families across the United States. Unfortunately for the youngsters in her care, however, hers was an unscrupulous – and often deadly – regime.
You see, by 1929 Tann had muscled her way into the position of executive director at the society. And for the next two decades, she ran a brutal operation that saw countless babies and children stolen from their parents. Far from creating happy families, it seems, Tann tore them apart, leaving scars that are still felt to this day.
Apparently, Tann fostered a belief that poor families were unable to provide a happy home. And by taking children – often against their parents’ wishes – and rehoming them with wealthy couples, she believed that she was giving them a better life. Of course, it didn’t hurt that adopters paid her handsomely for her services.
Shockingly, it’s believed that Tann oversaw the removal of some 5,000 children from their families over the course of her career. In some instances, they were simply bundled into cars as they walked down the street. And in others, staff from the society whisked them away from daycares and churches, never to see their families again.
For example, in 1943 six children were snatched from outside their shanty-like home by the river. Apparently, Tann herself approached the young siblings, offering to take them for a ride in her luxurious automobile. In all likelihood, it was their first time seeing a car, and the victims willingly climbed in with the matronly stranger.
Elsewhere, children were snatched from hospitals as well as prisons and facilities for single mothers, reported website INSIDER. And because many families were only interested in adopting babies, Tann teamed up with doctors to spirit newborns away. According to reports, mothers were told that their children had died – and that the burial would be taken care of.
Additionally, it’s believed that Tann’s team would persuade mothers to give up their children while they were still heavily sedated. However, it wasn’t always necessary to use such tactics. Throughout the 1930s and beyond, the Great Depression made life in America tough – and some mothers just couldn’t cope.
For instance, in the small Tennessee town of Tiptonville one desperate woman abandoned her three children on the steps of the courthouse. And before long, Tann had swooped in. According to one of the youngsters, today known as Sallie Brandon, the siblings were whisked away to Memphis where they were paraded in front of potential adopters.
“We were just sitting there when this big black limousine pulled up and this smiling lady gets out and says ‘come with me,’” Brandon told The Commercial Appeal in December 2019. “We were herded into the car and brought back to Memphis…they dropped my two brothers at another holding place and took me to the house on Poplar…they would dress up the children and take them downstairs for a meet-and-greet [with prospective adopters].”
As Brandon continued to explain, “Some of the children would come back, some wouldn’t.” However, it wasn’t all about parties and playing dress-up. In fact, records show that the homes overseen by Tann often operated under terrible conditions. In some places, for example, newborn babies were abandoned without medical care, while diseases such as dysentery were rife. And at times, children were given drugs to ensure that they remained placid while they waited to be adopted.
As a result of these conditions, numerous children passed away while in Tann’s care. In fact, it’s estimated that some 500 youngsters died over the course of her operation – and possibly many more. Meanwhile, survivors have since spoken about the abuse, both physical and sexual, that allegedly took place within the homes.
But how did Tann get away with her actions for so long? Well, at the time, there was still a stigma surrounding adoption. And many couples who could not have children of their own found it difficult to start a family by other means. However, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society popularized the process, and many prospective parents might not have looked too closely at the details.
In fact, Tann’s operation was active across the United States, with children being shipped as far as California, New York and even Great Britain. And in some cases, adopters would fork out as much as $5,000 in fees – most of which went in the director’s pocket. Typically, youngsters with blond hair and blue eyes were the most desirable, and in turn fetched the highest price.
According to the New York Post another reason why Tann’s behavior went undetected for so long was her relationship with corrupt politician E.H. Crump. At the time, he wielded a lot of power across Memphis, and the two soon developed a mutually beneficial arrangement. In return for money, he persuaded authorities and police to give the society a wide berth.
However, it wasn’t just money that persuaded Crump to keep on good terms with Tann. Over the years, the society served many prestigious clients, including actresses Joan Crawford and Lana Turner. And as such, the politician was happy for Memphis to serve as the home of this esteemed organization.
But the bubble that protected Tann and her cohorts would eventually burst. You see, when Crump’s rival Gordon Browning became Governor of Tennessee in 1949, he launched an investigation into the society. And over the course of the next year, lawyer Robert Taylor compiled a detailed report on the operation. Indeed, the truth was about to come out.
Yes, and in 1950 Browning announced to the press that Tann had been operating a profitable child trafficking racket in the city for over 20 years. However, the woman who had torn thousands of families apart would never face justice for her crimes. No, because within days she succumbed to uterine cancer and passed away.
Fast forward to 2017, and the writer Lisa Wingate released Before We Were Yours, a fictional story based on events at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. And as the book grew in popularity, people whose own lives had been affected by Tann began to reach out. The following year, the author organized a reunion of adoptees – many of whom had been taken from their birth parents against their will.
Through Wingate’s work, some adoptees and their descendants have begun to piece together the fragments of their shattered families. But while most of them have gone on to live ordinary lives, there is one famous figure who himself was a victim of Tann. Yes, in 2004 wrestler Flair released an autobiography that talked about his own experiences with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
According to Flair, he was born either Fred Stewart, Fred Phillips or Fred Demaree, the son of Luther Phillips and a woman named Olive. And official records claim he was handed over to the society when his parents chose to abandon him. However, it is unlikely that the real circumstances surrounding his adoption will ever become known.
Whatever the truth, Flair was deemed an abandoned child by the courts and approved as a candidate for adoption. And within days, he was shipped hundreds of miles north to Detroit, Michigan, where his new parents were waiting. There, he was picked up by Richard and Kathleen Fliehr, who eventually raised him in Edina, Minnesota.
Like many of Tann’s clients, Richard and Kathleen had struggled to have children of their own. And even though they were on a relatively low income at the time, they managed to convince the society that they could provide a loving and stable environment for the child.
Today, Flair acknowledges that Tann’s organization was deceitful and that he may never know the truth about how he came into its care. Nevertheless, he describes his relationship with his adoptive family as a happy one. In fact, it was Richard who took the future star to wrestling every year, sparking his passion.
According to Flair, he was never particularly curious about his birth parents – despite the unusual circumstances surrounding his adoption. And even though the official documents were stored in a safe in his home, he did not look at them for many years. In fact, it was only while conducting research for his autobiography that he finally decided to uncover the truth.
Up until this point, Flair claims, he did not even know the name that his birth parents had given him. In the book, entitled To Be the Man, the wrestler explained his attitude. “I was never curious,” he wrote. “I’m still not. I’m an only child, and as far as I’m concerned, my parents have always been my mom and dad.”
Today, many of Tann’s victims and their descendants have spoken about how the society cast a shadow over their lives. But Flair, his own life not short on tragedy, has simply focused on how happy his parents were to adopt. In fact, he recalled, they would celebrate the anniversary of their new son’s arrival as well as his birthday every year.
Unfortunately, not all of the children who passed through Tann’s organization were as lucky as Flair. And in some cases, they carried on the cycle of abuse with their own children. In a December 2019 interview with Business Insider, the daughter of one adoptee told her story. “I feel rather strongly that people should know this doesn’t stop with the victims,” she explained. “The story goes on and on and remains in the DNA of the generations.”