The Saga of Dr. Hicks by Patrica Dusenbury

Pat Dusenbury signature

A state line can come in handy. Dr. Thomas Hicks started out in Copper Hill, on the Tennessee side. He sold narcotic painkillers to a returned WWI veteran who turned out to be working undercover for the FBI. It was a criminal act that could also have been one of mercy. Regardless, conviction sent Dr. Hicks to federal prison and cost his license to practice medicine in Tennessee.

Upon his release, Dr. Hicks settled in McCaysville, on the Georgia side. He obtained a license to practice medicine in Georgia and re-opened his clinic, two blocks away from the old one. The Hicks Community Clinic provided basic health services to the people of McCaysville, Copper Hill, and nearby settlements. The good doctor provided free medicine to those who couldn’t pay and made house calls if people were too ill to come to the clinic. He donated money to community causes and to his church.

Dr. Hicks’ generosity was supported by the abortions he provided upstairs from the community clinic. From the 1940s through 1964 when he was arrested again (on abortion charges that were eventually dropped), this medical Robin Hood subsidized health care for poor locals by providing illegal abortions to women able to pay.

The abortion clinic was an open secret. Residents saw the limousines bringing women from Atlanta and Birmingham and Chattanooga, small planes landed on a dirt airstrip outside town, but no one told. Perhaps because Dr. Hick’s illegal activity could, once again, be viewed as merciful. Women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies were risking their lives in alleys and backrooms. Dr. Hicks offered a safe alternative. However, his story doesn’t end here.

Dr. Hicks began selling babies. He convinced some of his would-be abortion clients to carry their babies to term. Or maybe they couldn’t pay, and he offered them an alternative. Regardless, he provided these pregnant women with lodging at his farm or in town and, when they delivered, arranged “adoptions.” Thanks to a cooperative county clerk, the babies came with birth certificates that listed the purchasers as the birth parents.

Couples seeking babies came from an even larger market area than the women seeking abortions, and they paid higher fees. Dr. Hicks charged a thousand dollars for a baby and may or may not have given the mother a cut. Selling babies is tough to justify as merciful—there were alternatives, homes for unwed mothers that arranged legal adoptions—and his black market babies, now called Hicks babies, have brought him posthumous notoriety.

In 1989, an Ohio woman whose parents had told her the true circumstances of her “adoption” traveled to McCaysville, seeking information about her birth mother. Jane Blasio walked around McCaysville and Copper Hill, staring at faces, looking for someone who might be a relative. Her quest led her to Blue Ridge, the Fannin County seat, where birth records are kept. There, Ms. Blasio found an ally in a Georgia probate judge, and the web of lies began to unravel.

According to Fannin County birth records, more than 200 women from cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan, and as far away as Arizona came to Dr. Hicks’ clinic in the isolated little town of McCaysville to deliver their babies. This phenomenon began in 1951 and ended in 1965. Jane Blasio’s mother was one of those women. The information was all there, it had been sitting there for decades, and it was all lies.

Widespread media coverage brought forth more women who had “adopted” babies from Dr. Hicks and more adoptees who wanted information about their biological parents. It’s not an easy search. The birth records list only the purchasing parents, and no records of the birth mothers, if there ever were any, have been found. Dr. Hicks, his nurse, and the cooperative county clerk are all dead. If anyone still living knows anything, they aren’t talking.

The story continues. A confidential DNA registry has been set up for Hicks babies, Ancestry.com is providing free services, and long-time residents are being asked to contribute samples. People still come to McCaysville/Copper Hill and walk around, looking for someone who looks like family. The most recent reunion story I found was in a newspaper dated less than a year ago. The judge who helped uncover this black market in babies said it best:

”This is just too bizarre for real life,” said Judge Linda Davis of Fannin County Probate Court, who has risked the ire of people in her county to help Mrs. Blasio in her quest through county birth records. ”If I wasn’t so personally involved, I’d think they were making it all up.”

  • The New York Times, August 23, 1997

I grew up in a small town. I don’t think this could have happened there, but I don’t know. Do you think this could this have happened in your hometown?

***

Pat DusenburyBefore she became a writer, Patricia Dusenbury was an economist and the author of numerous dry publications. She is hoping to atone by writing mystery stories that people read for pleasure. Her first book, A Perfect Victim, was named 2015’s best mystery by the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition. Book 2, Secrets, Lies & Homicide, is a finalist in the 2016 EPIC award and was a top ten finalist in the Preditors and Editors 2014 readers’ poll. Book 3, A House of Her Own, released in October 2015, completes the trilogy. It has been nominated for InD’tale’s RONE award. Pat’s newest book, Two Weeks in Geary, is a finalist for the Killer Nashville 2016 Claymore Award.

When she isn’t writing, Patricia is reading, gardening, hanging out with the grandkids, or exploring San Francisco, the fabulous city that is her new home

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrShare on Reddit

17 thoughts on “The Saga of Dr. Hicks by Patrica Dusenbury

  1. Kenneth Weene

    One of my uncles went to prison for providing abortions. The reality is that many women during that time frame were forced to either break the law or to have children whom they for whatever reason couldn’t raise. Baby selling, while awful is just one fruit of a system that oppresses women.

    Reply
  2. Micki Peluso

    Pat, this was really interesting, especially to me since I don’t know my birth father and it’s so frustrating, especially when wondering where a genetic disease might have come from. Did the good doctor get arrested for his final atrocity–selling babies? Although, they at least got to live and grow up with families that wanted them. I grew up with an abusive step-father who did adopt me but all my life there’s been an empty spot in my heart where my birth father belongs.

    Reply
    1. Patricia Dusenbury

      The doctor never returned to jail after that original stint in TN. In 1972, aged 83 and a respected member of the community, he died of Leukemia. There are a lots of shades of gray in this story; people are complicated. Sending hugs.

      Reply
  3. James L. Secor

    I’m not sure it’s just oppression of women, Ken. The anti-abortionists are, in fact, anti-life, for once the foetus becomes a child, they forget about it. Let it die of starvation, neglect, abuse–that’s not their problem. Something here about ideologues and responsibility. I can see a black market for babies in the present time: good for women who want one (or more) and physically can’t, good for women (parents?) who can’t give a child a life. Dusenbury found a story with desperation wrapped all round it. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Reminds me of the outcome to O. Phillips Oppenheim “crime” stories. Raises the question of “just”? However you fit this into a story, let me know when it’s done! (I have more of a problem with the FBI drug buster.)

    Reply
  4. Miki Thornburg

    I’ve lived in several small towns, and I know of situations — not exactly like this one, but in some ways similar. I believe there’s a delicate balance at work. The doctor has to be respected, or maybe feared. Or maybe a little of both. He and his accomplices, like the clerk, have to be lucky; if someone powerful enough and brave enough to confront him were to have a reason to confront him, it could all get out of hand fast. The wealthy people who used his services have to be motivated to keep the secret. Eventually, as in Dr. Hicks’s case, it would come unraveled, but it could go on — and I suspect it HAS gone on — for a long time.

    Reply
  5. Richard Sutton

    What an amazing twisted tale, Patricia. Having grown up in several really small towns, I can well believe it. I can remember all kinds of things that were “known silently”. People turn their backs pretty easy after all.

    Reply
  6. James L. Secor

    I would find nothing wrong with selling babies IF the money was put back into his clinic or donated somewhere. All of it. His life sounds like the “lives” of literary tricksters who find something wrong with the world and go out and try to establish their own better place. it is obvious to me that he was trying to circumvent irrational laws established via someone’s shaming and their disgust. . .even “I’d never do that.” He knew what would happen to him and he still continued. The judge is another matter: helping someone find their birth parents is good but, in this context, it may just destroy the community and the lives of the parents. . .because of shame and disgust and the need to keep up face in an irrational, oppressive situation.

    Reply
  7. Yves Johnson

    I thought it was a great story that you developed. I later looked at the comments to learn it was true. Your story was great. Regrettably, it was true. Thanks for shedding light on this subject.

    Reply
    1. Patricia Dusenbury

      All true and probably there is more than I learned about. These events, to me, have levels of moral ambiguity – as other commenters have noted. I’m still not totally sure what I think about Dr. Hicks.

      Reply
  8. John

    Hi Patricia,
    This story has been in and out of the news since 1996/1997. Yes, I believe this can happen in a small town. I spent the first 19 years of my life in McCaysville (born in 1955). I would need to get my birth certificate, but I believe Dr. Hicks was the one who delivered me, at home. As a child, I knew who Dr, Hicks was; Halloween candy from his home in Copperhill was always a good treat. I was one of a few who was allowed to fish in the many ponds on his farm.
    There was always lots of “talk” of Dr. Hicks and illicit drugs. I can remember hearing some talk about children being sold but I wasn’t old enough to discern the reality or even if it was a problem.
    My mother worked as a server at the New York hotel for all the years of my youth. I would spend many summer daytime hours, and Saturday/Sunday afternoons there while she worked. I have no recall of any pregnant women coming in/out of the eating area nor ever around the hotel. This would have been around 1959-1966. If you dig deep enough in these files, The New York is mentioned as one place where Dr. Hicks “stashed” his child bearing women. My mother would have seen these women, if they were there, but sadly she passed in 2006.
    I don’t have much more info to share on this but I do want to wish those who are still trying to find their families all the best wishes in the world.
    This is a link of the doctors of Polk County Tn (you will see Dr Hicks) but also look at the names of those from the 1950s-1960s (Layne, Lee, Kimsey Hyatt, Campbell, etc). It would be hard to believe none of these had any idea of what was happening. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tnpchgs/polk_7.htm

    Reply
    1. Patricia Dusenbury

      John.
      Somehow I missed your comment, and I’m sorry because I’d really like to talk to you. I live part-time in Blue Ridge, the rest of the time in San Francisco, where I am now. Someday, I want to write a book set in the Copper Hills as they were called. The place fascinates me, and Dr. Hicks is just a tiny part of it. If you by some lucky chance see this, please e-mail me: my name, all one word, at gmail

      Reply
    2. Patricia Dusenbury

      John,
      I’d love to get in touch with you to learn more about MacCaysville – as noted before, this area fascinates me. I live part-time in blue Ridge. If by some lucky chance you see this, please email me its my name, all one word no caps at gmail dot com

      thanks,
      Pat

      Reply
  9. John B. Rosenman

    I enjoyed your post, Patricia. It’s troubling and hard to forget. Yes, there are shades of gray in this story, and moral ambiguity abounds. Was Dr. Hicks right or wrong? More right than wrong? It reminds me of an old saying: You can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs. Women are oppressed in this country more than in some others, but of course, in some countries they are oppressed far more. I don’t know if this could happen in my hometown. Probably it couldn’t for long, since I live in a city. Recently a “massage” parlor was outed as giving improper massages. I suspect it’s easier to hush things up in a small town because it’s easier “to keep things to ourselves” against the larger world.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *