April 12, 1998
Did local health care provider once sell babies on the side?
Living legacies seek answers
Author: JANE BECKERDITE
Ruby Hightower owned and operated Hightower Health Home in Texarkana, Texas, more than 50 years ago. There she helped care for the ailing. And some, like Chetene Gooch, say she also sold babies. Gooch says she was sold by Hightower when she was only a few days old to a Linden, Texas, couple for $500. She and others believe many other people still are living who were separated from their birth parents in a baby-selling operation in Texarkana.
"My father told me that my mother wanted a baby really, really bad. A friend told her about Ms. Hightower in Texarkana. Daddy came home from work one day and Mother asked Daddy how much money he had on him. They then drove to Texarkana and went in Hightower Home. Daddy gave Ms. Hightower $500 and she gave him a baby - me," Gooch said.
Many people maintained then - and still do today - that before her death in 1969, Hightower - a high profile business owner with well-placed political friends - sold newborns to leading families in Texarkana and
other parts of the country.
Another woman from Foreman, Ark., who asked not to be identified, said she gave birth to a baby girl in May 16, 1954, but was told her baby died. Years later, the woman's dying aunt revealed that the baby was very much alive.
"It really threw me. So I went to St. Michael to look for my records," the woman said. "I had registered there under a different name then because I was a teen-ager, unmarried and poor. Later I found a live birth certificate with my name on it and it showed that I was married. Both my mother and grandmother worked for Ruby Hightower during the time I gave birth," the woman said, adding that she believed Hightower sold her daughter.
Some other women believe the babies they had at Meagher Hospital were adopted through some kind of alliance with Hightower, after they were told the babies died.
Don Beeler, administrator of St. Michael Health Care Center, which began as Michael Meagher Hospital, was not around when the alleged black-market baby operation flourished in the '40s and '50s. But the St. Michael CEO denies such a thing ever took place. Beeler chalks up the questions about black market babies as nothing more than an unfounded conspiracy theory.
"I'm not aware of any relationship between St. Michael and Ruby Hightower," he said. "It would be somewhat incredulous to believe that this could happen. You'd have to have a huge conspiracy to do that. There would have to be so many people involved."
But that's what Clorene Griser, 78, says happened - that many people were involved with the loss of her baby.
"Patricia was alive and crying when she was born," Griser recalls of her firstborn daughter. "She had thick, black hair and long fingernails. I delivered her at 2:30 in the morning on Oct. 2, 1946, at Michael Meagher. After delivery, they put my daughter in a glass incubator beside my bed. I laid there and watched her."That was the last time
Griser saw her baby.
Because Griser was unable to deliver the placenta, she says her doctor "put her to sleep" to perform minor surgery."When I woke up from the surgery, I asked to see her. They told me my baby was born dead. I never saw her again," she said.
A year after she delivered Patricia, Griser bore another daughter, Sheila. Sheila Bryan, who lives in Houston, has made it her mission to track down the whereabouts of her sister because she said she firmly believes the infant was not born dead.
And always trustful that her daughter was alive, Griser said she tried for years to get a birth, death or stillborn certificate on her child. Forty-five years of writing to the hospital and to the vital records
department of the Arkansas Department of Health produced nothing, she said.
Though her mother was unsuccessful in obtaining information about the baby, Bryan took a more firm approach. "After receiving a power of attorney over my mother's affairs, I began a letter-writing campaign of my own," Bryan said. "The hospital replied, denying that my mother was ever a patient there and that she never had a child there. After a dozen of the calls and letters, I drove to the hospital and told them I would sleep in the hallway until they found my mother's records. I told them we had a grave and they had better come up with something."
St. Michael was able to verify that Griser had indeed been a patient at Michael Meagher. And later, Beeler produced a stillborn certificate, Bryan said.
Still, Bryan said she thinks her mother's baby was somehow filtered to Hightower and the baby was consequently sold. Some have alleged that Hightower only sold babies who came from poor or unwed mothers, a category Griser would have fit into 51 years ago.
"My mother was married when she had the baby, but she was poor," Bryan said. What most convinced Bryan the baby did not die at birth stems from what happened in 1994, she said. Drawing from her family's recollections, Bryan related the day Patricia was buried and how even back then things didn't add up.
"The baby was to be buried in Canton, Texas. So my father and my aunt went to the funeral home to pick up the casket. It was already shut. They told my father it was shut because the baby was too bruised to see," Bryan said.
Bryan was finally able to convince a judge to order Patricia's grave exhumed four years ago. No one was surprised at what they uncovered.Nothing. "The grave was empty except for nails, rusty hinges and rotten wood. We videotaped the exhumation. There was no trace of a child," Bryan said.
Griser wasn't shocked to learn the casket was empty."I don't know if she's alive now but I know she was alive that night I delivered her. I always had the feeling there was some kind of game going on there. This has caused me such heartache over the years. She was a beautiful baby and I'd just like to know if she's doing all right."I wouldn't want to disturb her life. I just want her to know I didn't abandon her," Griser said.
Though no one knows for certain whether Hightower had a hand in Griser's case, Hightower's last known living relative, Bettye Brown, said she believes her grandmother may have been involved in baby-selling in
Texarkana. Brown said she grew up believing her grandmother was an influential woman who cared for the sick. The Hightower Health Home was a place where people could recuperate from a variety of ailments and avail themselves of restorative cures such as therapeutic baths. But now Brown said she also believes Hightower had a life she knew nothing about.
"My memories of my grandmother were normal, everyday memories. I never had any idea of this other at all," Brown said.Asked about her grandmother's alleged involvement with selling babies of poor and unmarried women, Brown sighed, began to speak, then paused. "I'm sure that happened. I think it's terrible if somebody went to have a baby and they were told the baby had died. It sounds like a third person had to have been involved with it. I certainly believe that babies were sold back then. And apparently there was enough proof that this actually took place."
Brown quickly pointed out that she did not believe her grandmother was a malicious person. "I don't think she was vindictive about it. I think (she thought) it was to serve a purpose," Brown said.At the time, having babies out-of-wedlock was scandalous.
After Hightower died, Brown said she never gave much consideration to a trunk her grandmother bequeathed her. The trunk was filled with medical papers and other documents - items that meant little to Brown at the time."I had no reason to go through (those papers). What was I looking for? This was just stuff from her nursing home that she kept," she said. But after Brown received repeated telephone calls from strangers wanting old medical records and other information about Hightower, Brown said she and a friend took a serious glance inside the trunk and found plenty of information regarding her grandmother's business affairs.
"It was eye-opening. It's hard to describe because I knew my grandmother as the doer of good deeds. And this was like turning this over and seeing a whole new perspective of this person. This was a person I didn't know. I never saw that side," Brown said.
One of those eye-openers for Brown were several yellowed newspaper clippings. A 1950 article in the Texarkana Gazette showed Hightower had been charged with two counts of kidnapping. Two unmarried teenage mothers charged Hightower refused to disclose the whereabouts of their newborns. The two teens had recuperated at her home health establishment after giving birth. Hightower was never indicted.
Also discovered in her grandmother's truck was a 1954 Look Magazine article written by Ernest Mitler. Mitler, a former assistant district attorney in New York working undercover to expose illegal adoptions ,
tried to buy a newborn baby from Hightower. Brown called the article a "revelation" for her. In the article, Mitler wrote that Hightower admitted to operating a black market baby business in Texarkana and offered to sell Mitler a baby. Hightower later argued the nature of their discussion was taken out of context.
Even though it's been 44 years since Mitler wrote the article, he recalls his conversation with Hightower with remarkable clarity. After investigating thousands of similar cases around the world, Mitler said it was common practice back then for adoption dealers to tell mothers their babies had died.
"I taped everything Mrs. Hightower told me. I came in and said I wanted a baby. As I remember, she practically - right away - said -'yes.' She was a very blunt person. She was not a sophisticated, international wit. She was a straightforward woman. I do believe she did exploitation of the people in her home and I think it was well-known i n the community," Mitler said during a telephone interview from his New York apartment.
Mitler also said he believes Hightower was not in the black-market baby business for money alone. She liked the attention, he said."To be benevolent about it, I don't think it was wild greed. I think she liked having a certain amount of power. I think Mrs. Hightower back then was pleased to have people come there. There's a lot of attention you get from making arrangements for people who are craving a child. I think she had a good feeling about being liked and well-connected."
Hightower maintained her innocence against this and other allegations in what Brown and her friend believe to be Hightower's private journal. In it, she defended herself by taking somewhat of an altruistic stance.
"Since the early 1930s, I have been accused of being an abortionist, a bootlegger dope seller. I am not guilty of any sort of abortions. I am, not guilty of any sort of misuse of any sort of medicines. I am not guilty
of any sort of liquor dealing, nor am I guilty of any sort of black market. "I have protected the good name of many girls and women by giving them food and shelter, a doctor's care and his prescribed medicine, and put
them on the road to right living," Hightower wrote.
"I am aware that there has been an undercurrent of gossip these 20 years regarding those ugly stories and I am sorry. But (there's) nothing I could do to stop gossipers. I knew if any of it had been true I would have been in the penitentiary. I felt sure my public felt the same.'The journal entries reflect Hightower's wishes that "the people who value the reputation of Texarkana" would stand up for her and help her attorneys
in her libel lawsuits.
Shortly after the Look Magazine article was published, the Texarkana Gazette ran portions of the article in its daily publication. Hightower consequently attempted to sue both Look and the Gazette but eventually
dropped the suits.It has been more than four decades since Hightower's allegedly legal activities took place. But to her accusers-who wonder where their children are or wonder if their mothers were told they were dead - time has not lessened the severity of what is alleged to have occurred. These women insist they will forever suffer the aftermath of what happened to them in Texarkana. And they wonder if they are not alone.
"There are a lot of these cases, more than you realize," the Foreman, Ark., woman said. "It's really sad. It wasn't right. I'm learning to forgive those who did this but I'm never going to give up my search."