MCCAYSVILLE, Ga. — They came in limos and pickups, rich and poor, to this remote copper-mining town in the Appalachians. Women in "trouble" from miles around sought the help of Dr. Thomas J. Hicks, who advertised his services in messages scrawled in telephone booths and on highway overpasses.
For $100, Hicks performed illegal abortions. And he offered another service: selling unwanted infants on the black market, with no court hearings, no records and no questions.
Hicks died in 1972 at 83. The yellow brick clinic stands vacant. And his story would have been long forgotten if not for Jane Blasio, a Jackson Township, Ohio, woman who was born at the Hicks Clinic and has come here four times since 1989 in search of her roots. As a result of her search, authorities have learned that Hicks sold at least 200 babies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Many McCaysville residents wonder how the Hicks Clinic could have operated here for so many years, and whether the babies Hicks placed got proper homes. Many others, though, wish Blasio had never unearthed the town's long-buried scandal.
"There are some people who are very opposed to this whole thing being brought to light," said Probate Judge Linda Davis, who is assisting Blasio in forming a voluntary registry of Hicks Clinic babies and mothers.
Hicks was a controversial, though well-liked, figure. "There is an air of protectiveness about him," Davis said.
Blasio has long been intrigued about her mysterious past. As a child, she recalled, her curiosity was first piqued when a relative called her a "black-market" baby. Later, as a teenager, she found an embroidered baby pillow in her parents' attic. It bore her name but listed her birth date as Jan. 15, 1965. Strange, because she thought her birthday was Dec. 6, 1964. Blasio knew she was adopted, but knew few details about her origin. "My mother never really said anything," said Blasio, now 32.
It was only after her mother, Joan Walters, died in 1988 that Blasio's father, James Walters, told her the full story. The couple had had a son who died shortly after birth. They tried to adopt but were turned down by local agencies, partly because Jane's mother had been previously divorced.
Through a relative, they learned of Hicks and added their name to his list of prospective parents. They got Blasio's older sister, Michelle, from the Hicks Clinic in 1961, paying $800 plus the cost of a new outfit for the birth mother. In January 1965, they got their second call. They were given 24 hours to come pick up Jane. The fee was $1,000.
After hearing the story, Blasio was drawn to McCaysville, 100 miles north of Atlanta on the Georgia-Tennessee border. "McCaysville is my beginning," said Blasio, who has worked as a private investigator and is studying for a degree in criminal justice.
But she found few residents willing to talk about Hicks, and she made no progress in her search until her third visit five years ago. Then she met Davis, the probate judge, who began looking through birth certificates to see if there were other children like Blasio.
"Lo and behold, there were others," Davis said. When Hicks filed certificates for the babies, he listed the adoptive parents as the birth parents, recording their out-of-state residences.
"Why would anyone drive 12 hours from Akron [Ohio] to a small backwater town clinic, give birth and then turn around and drive back?" Davis said. The out-of-state addresses were a telltale sign that the children were illegally adopted.
Davis found about 200 of the birth certificates recorded between 1952 and 1965, with the parents listed as residents of northern states. Fifty of the children were placed in the Akron area, where a former McCaysville woman had moved and spread the word about Hicks to workers in the tire industry.
None of the babies was legally adopted in Georgia Superior Court, Davis discovered.
It's not surprising, given Hicks' propensity for skirting the law. "The biggest thing about Dr. Hicks--his medical practices were just not on the up-and-up," said Lew Crawford, chief deputy of the Polk County, Tenn., Sheriff's Department.
Hicks got his medical degree from Emory University in Atlanta. About 1920, he established a practice just across the state line in Copperhill, Tenn.
In the 1940s, Hicks served time in prison for illegally dispensing narcotics, Crawford said. Afterward, he reopened his practice in McCaysville, just blocks from his old office but beyond the reach of Tennessee medical authorities.
Despite his shady past, the doctor was embraced by the Georgia community, said Doris Abernathy, who worked as the town's telephone operator and lived next door to the Hicks Clinic.
"He was a memorable person, a charming man," Abernathy said. "When they had tomatoes or whatever, he'd always bring his neighbors a load."
His wife taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church, and Hicks was president of the Kiwanis Club.