The Sad Story of Ruby McCollum

On August 3, 1952, Ruby McCollum walked into the colored waiting room of Dr. C. Leroy Adams’ office in Live Oak, Florida. By the time she walked out and returned home, Dr. Adams had been shot three times in the back and once in the arm. A case that officials wanted to chalk up to a bill dispute quickly became a matter of something else, crossing into civil rights issues, “paramour’s rights,” and mistreatment of the mentally ill.

In the segregated South, Ruby and Sam McCollum lived quite well for African-Americans at that time. In a house that was described as a “two story mansion” by C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., Ph.D. & Leslie E. Ellis, Ph.D. in The Trial of Ruby McCollum, it was suspected that Sam made his money through Bolita, a lottery-type gambling game that was easily rigged. The McCollums were known throughout town as “good pay,” always paying bills on time and never indebted to anyone, black or white. The gossip about town was that Sam had begun cheating on Ruby and, in an effort to exact revenge, Ruby had begun a sexual relationship with Leroy Adams. In July of 1951, Ruby had a daughter, Loretta, and according to Ruby’s testimony, this was Adams’ daughter, not Sam’s. On the day of the shooting, Ruby had opened a bill addressed to her husband, Sam. The amount of the bill is unknown; to this day, the actual bill has never been produced as evidence. Ruby testified that she owed Dr. Adams $6. The Ellises found a number of $116 from some source (also guessing at the procedure in the bill: an abortion for Sam’s girlfriend, something that Dr. Adams, they guessed, refused to perform on Ruby). She confronted the doctor about the bill and he was shot. Thelma Curry, secretary to Dr. Adams, testified that it wasn’t the first argument she’d heard between Adams and frequent visitor Ruby, although the prosecution objected to that line of questioning on the basis that Curry was only there to testify on billing matters. The prosecution also objected to pretty much anything Ruby said when she herself was on the stand, especially if it was about her relationship with Dr. Adams, which they claimed was immaterial and inadmissible. Reading through the court transcript, this objection is repeated over and over:

The question is too broad, vague and indefinite, and it is irrelevant and immaterial; it only tends to confuse the issue that is being tried, and it is inadmissible as to the period of time which is uncertain and too remote and vague.

Zora Neale Hurston was sent down from the Pittsburgh Courier to cover Ruby’s trial. Even though the press were barred from the courtroom, she was able to sit in the balcony and take notes, which she later published as her “Impressions of the Trial.” In her articles, she pointed out the idiocy of the bill as motive prosecution, writing:

It was like a chant. The medical bill as a motive for the slaying was ever insisted upon and stressed. It was freely admitted by all that the McCollums had always been good pay”¦ yet, there was this quick and stubborn insistence that the medical bill, and that alone, could have been the cause of the murder. It was obviously a posture, but a posture posed in granite.

She also noted, as did defense attorney Frank Cannon, the “smothering blanket of silence” that existed in Live Oak regarding the case. Cannon petitioned for a change of venue, but could not obtain any signed affidavits from members of the community, white or black. Cannon stated that this was because they were afraid of repercussions for supporting Ruby (something Hurston echoed in her writing). The prosecution argues that this was because “the reputable citizens and residents of Suwanee County knew that the defendant could get a fair and impartial trail and would not sign such an affidavit.” The judge agreed and denied the motion. This judge, the “honorable” Hal C. Adams (no relation to the deceased), was also a pallbearer at Dr. Adams’ funeral and did not visit the crime scene with the jury (as was standard at the time). After a trial during which Ruby was barely allowed to speak for herself, the jury found Ruby guilty of murder and Judge Adam sentenced her to death by electric chair. The defense’s reaction to this sentence was a harsh condemnation: “May god forgive you for robbing a human being of life in such a fashion. I would not want it on my conscience.”

On appeal, the death sentence was overturned due to the obvious conflicts of interest Judge Adams held. A second trial was undertaken and Ruby was determined to be “insane” by psychiatrists and her sentence was changed to life in a state mental hospital. She was sent to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. Conditions at Chattahoochee were disgraceful and electroshock and Thorazine treatments were the standard there. A lawsuit involving a patient at the hospital being held against his will was the impetus for both the Florida Mental Health Act and the de-institutionalization movement in general. A verdict of innocent by reason of insanity may have saved Ruby from the electric chair, but whether it was a preferable option is a matter of opinion. Prior to the trial, Ruby had been treated for depression and hypochondria and while in prison before the beginning of her hearings, she displayed symptoms of Ganser Syndrome, very common in those who have been through traumatic events. Prosecution used a statement she had signed in prison, claiming Loretta not to be Dr. Adams’ daughter against her, but most likely this was signed out of fear or as an effect of Ganser Syndrome. Ruby also testified that at the time of the shooting, she was two months pregnant with another child of Adams’. It was inferred in testimony that she lost the baby while being held in prison, but the prosecution would not let her directly answer questions about what happened to the baby (again, it was “immaterial” to the trial). While in Chattahooche, no one is quite sure what kind of treatments Ruby received. She was allowed few visitors before her release (thanks to the aforementioned Mental Health Act) in 1974.

In addition to the lack of access to birth control (Ruby used a diaphram, but testified that Adams didn’t let her use it with him) or abortion services (as the Ellises suggest was the tipping point for her anger) and the issues regarding the mistreatment of the mentally ill in Chattahoochee, Zora Neale Hurston brought up in her writing about the case the issue of “paramour rights.” Dating back to Antebellum times, this was the practice of white men taking colored women as their mistresses. Hurston examined the practice in her thesis on the North Florida turpentine camps and considered it to be a large factor in the code of silence that surrounded the case in Live Oak. She considered Ruby’s case to be the “death knell” for this practice.

On Ruby’s character, Hurston noted that during the trial “Ruby did not break down and weep piteously”¦ there was an abrupt halt in her testimony and something rushed forth from the deeps of her tortured soul and inhabited her face for a space. The quintessence of human agony was there.” Ruby’s husband Sam died August 4, 1954, one day after she shot and killed Dr. Adams, an apparent heart attack. In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner in 1990, journalist Al Lee noted that Ruby appeared to have little memory of the time of her trial and incarceration. Ruby died two years later. The Ruby McCollum case is not a landmark one, not one that struck a blow for any legislation and a dark mark on civil and human rights, but it is one that we should know about to understand where we have come from.  Currently in pre-production, a film is being made about Ruby’s trial, directed by James Brolin. News of Brolin scouting one of my old workplaces as a location was what prompted a wiki-search of Ruby’s story, which I found to be profoundly sad. I have hope for the film, but because of the constant denials of Ruby’s First Amendment rights, her lack of access to reporters, and the silence which generations still continue regarding the case, we may never know what Ruby’s story is in her words.  The closest we have is the largest portion of the testimony she was allowed to give on her own behalf:

Dr. Adams came out to my house that afternoon, before the morning of the beginning of this sexual relationship, and he told me that afternoon, “I will be back in the morning as soon as I finish all of my work, I will be back, and I will show you what I was talking about,” and he came back out there next morning about 9:30 and took me upstairs and laid me down on the bed and began the intercourse, and when it was finished he left, and he said, “I will be back some other time. You call me some other time,” and I said, “Yes, I will.” I didn’t call him directly or in three or four days, and so he came out to the house and I wasn’t there; when I got back he was out there, and I said, “I didn’t know you were coming to my house today,” and he said, “You didn’t call me, but I came back out here for the same thing I had before.” I said, “Yes, OK” And he said, “I want you to understand this now. I am not up for any foolishness and you are not green, and if I ever have to tell you about it again you will be sorry of it. I am not afraid, and I don’t want you to be afraid of it. No one is going to bother me. That is definite.” I told him, “OK.” And that made me begin to be afraid of him. In other words, I just was worried, I had to either yield or maybe die, I suppose that was what would happen, so I couldn’t tell him no; any time he came out to my house it was all right, and he continued this for about quite a while. In ’50 was when I spoke to him this way. I said, “I am almost afraid.” And he said, “Afraid of what?” And I said, “Well, you know, what I will be afraid of.” He said, “That doesn’t make any difference.” And I say, “Why not use one of those things?” and he said, “What is that” and I said, “Use a diaphragm,” and he told me, “To hell with a diaphragm. I don’t use such things as that.” Then later on, along about October to November, around November it was, I spoke to him and told him what had happened. He said, “I know it. I knew it to start with. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

I told him that I had not received a birth certificate for my baby yet, and I was supposed to receive a certificate around, if I am not mistaken, the last time, a month after the baby was born, and I asked if he would get it for me, and he told me, “Why, I have it, and I am going to keep it until you tell me, until you do as I say do.”

Sources and further reading:

“My Impressions of the Trial,” signed Zora Neal Hurston, Documents Relating to the Trial of Ruby McCollum for the Murder of Dr. LeRoy Adams, Live Oak, Florida, 1954, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

The Trial of Ruby McCollum: The True-crime Story That Shook the Foundations of the Segregationist South! by C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., and Leslie E. Ellis, 2003.

“Psychiatrists Report Woman Slayer Insane,“ Daytona Beach Morning Journal, September 24, 1954.

“Ruby McCollum’s Fate Is Mulled,” St. Petersberg Times, December 10, 1973.

“Woman may be freed in Fla. doctor’s death,” The Afro American, January 26, 1974.

“Judge strips 135G McCollum Estate,” Baltimore Afro-American, March 31, 1953.

Image of Suwannee Democrat Headline from PRWeb.

 

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