This is the story of Devy Bruch.
In 1937, an attractive 19-year-old woman from Tennessee named Lena Mae Howell became pregnant out of wedlock. Feeling desperate and ashamed, she secured the help of her half brother to drive her to Memphis to a home for unwed mothers that was part of the unlicensed Tennessee Children’s Home Society run by a woman named Georgia Tann.
Drugged before going into labor, Lena signed a document she thought was an agreement allowing Georgia Tann to temporarily care for her baby. Instead, she actually signed a surrender agreement giving Tennessee Children’s Home Society the right to her child.
Upon waking after giving birth, Lena was told that her baby, a boy, had died during delivery. In actuality, Lena had given birth to a baby girl, who was then sold in an illegal adoption to a wealthy couple in Pennsylvania. Riding in a chauffeur-driven limousine, Georgia Tann and a nurse delivered the infant to her new family just before Christmas. This little girl, born Nell Howell, became Devereux (Devy) to her new parents, Bob and Janet Rose.
Although Devy learned she was adopted at a young age, it was not until many years later that she discovered she was one of the thousands of stolen babies placed throughout the country by the infamous Georgia Tann.
Devy’s birth mother later married and had another daughter named Pat. She never told her family about her first child. Devy’s adopted parents did not know their adoption was illegal and considered Georgia Tann an angel of mercy, placing unwanted children with loving parents.
Between 1925 and 1950, Georgia Tann stole the babies of the young, often poor and uneducated women in her care and sold them to wealthy families as part of her lucrative black market baby trade. During her time as the head of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, she placed over 5,000 babies in homes, most illegally. Few of the adopted couples were checked for suitability as parents; the sole requirement was their ability to pay a small fortune for a baby. Her clients included big-name movie stars of the time – June Allyson, Dick Powell, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner. Many of stolen babies placed in homes experienced abuse. Many more died in Tann’s care. Georgia Tann died in 1950 before she could be prosecuted.
What are your memories of life
with your adopted family?
I lived an idyllic, privileged life. My brother, Dennis, was also adopted, and we were just six weeks apart in age. My parents were brilliant. My mother had a law degree and Daddy was a research chemist. Much of my childhood was spent at a historic home built in 1724, Linden Farm, in Pennsylvania. The property encompassed 109 acres that included a main house, carriage house, barn, vineyard and apple orchard. I have fond memories of caring for the animals on the farm. My love of animals and people began here. My mother, who died at 58, gave me a love of mankind, goodness and humility. My father was stern but he taught me that life is tough, so face it and deal with it straight on.
How did your life change as an adult?
I married young at 18 to a handsome man I met at a debutante party. We had four children together: Robin, Brooke, and the twins, Dirk and Darryl. After 17 years of marriage, my husband left me for my sister-in-law. The children and I were destitute. We had no income and no alimony. I had little job training and needed to find a way to support my children. Daddy had remarried after my mother died, and his new wife “wore the pants” and kept Daddy to herself. He did not give us any emotional or financial support. When Daddy and his new wife decided to move to Florida, they sold everything from the farm at auction. I was not offered anything I had grown up with. I now only have the sleigh bed I slept in during my childhood because I purchased it at the auction!
I worked hard in those years to put food on the table. Later, my children and I moved to Florida to be near my ex-husband’s mother, who was a great friend to me. My father lived only a few miles away, but his wife refused to let him see me and the children for years. I felt abandoned not only by my husband but my father. But I had an inner strength and spunk and survivor genes! I worked several jobs over the years, and while working as a director of medical records, I met a “Renaissance” man, Phil Bruch. We married and enjoyed 27 wonderful years together. He had 4 grown children, as did I, and together we enjoyed a blended family of 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. After Phil was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, we moved to Peachtree City in 2006 to be closer to one of my daughters. Phil died just six months later.
When did you start wanting to find your birth parents?
My daughter Robin initiated the idea of searching for my birth parents. I did not want to do this until my father died. In 2009, Robin began researching my adoption. I was ambivalent about it but told Robin to satisfy her own curiosity. In just two months’ time, Robin had proof of my roots—a package containing 82 pages of documents and photos outlining my birth and adoption. These documents contained a copy of my original birth certificate in the name of Nell Howell, the surrender papers my birth mother signed, and letters from my adopted parents to Georgia Tann. I wept when I read this history.
Robin continued with her search online and found birth family members in Memphis. I began talking on the phone and exchanging emails with my half-sister Pat. Robin and I went to visit the family in 2009. I was 72 years old when I met my birth family! Unfortunately, my birth mother, Lena Mae Howell, had died in 1991, and I only got to visit her grave. It is so sad to me that my mother died never knowing she had another daughter out there in the world. And just recently I discovered I have another half sister through my birth father, so I have more family to get to know!
How has this experience affected you, and what lessons have you learned?
In 2010 I wrote a book about my experiences called No Mama, I Didn’t Die…My Life as a Stolen Baby. If you are interested in reading the book, you can find it at Omega Bookstore in Peachtree City. I wrote the book to make people aware that trafficking in human life continues to be rampant worldwide. I also wanted to share my ideas about the nature of “family.” I know God was sitting on my shoulder during the good times and bad. Put your family first and be happy with what you have. Never be afraid to say you need help. False pride can destroy you. Reach out to other people who need help—the rejected and downtrodden. Give back to people and it will bring you more joy than you can ever imagine. Now, giving love and experiencing joy have brought me enormous peace.
Photos Courtesy of Devy Bruch