The Ruby McCollum story is one of Florida’s most compelling stories. It has all of the elements needed for a blockbuster tale; sex, race and murder. Ruby Myrtle McCollum was born on May 31, 1909 in Zuber, Florida a small farming town just north of Ocala. Her parents scrapped together a living to support the large family into which she was born. Around 1931 she met and married Sam McCollum and the couple moved to Live Oak to make a start selling numbers or “Bolita” as the gaming was called.
They became rich eventually purchasing several hundred acres of good farm land and were making money from it as well growing tobacco. They had two children together. They lived in the finest black home in Live Oak.
All appeared well for the couple. But on the morning of August 3, 1952, a Sunday, Ruby put her two small children into the back seat of her car and drove to the office of Dr. C. Leroy Adams, the most prominent white doctor in town. She used the “colored” entrance walking past black patients who were waiting to be seen. She confronted the doctor. Later reports said the confrontation was over a bill that was owed.
Witnesses would later testify that Ruby pulled her .32 caliber Smith & Wesson nickel-plated pistol and fired three shots into the doctor. After he fell she pumped more shots into his body. The waiting black patients fled the doctor’s office as Ruby took a few minutes to collect herself. She then walked calmly to her 1951 two-toned Chrysler, made sure her two small children in the back seat were alright then drove to her home, which was one of the best homes white or black in Live Oak. Within an hour every police car in Suwannee County was around Ruby’s home.
It had all of the ingredients of a blockbuster of a story; money, race, sex and murder. But, of course, the sex topped all other aspects of the story. I was twelve years old and living in Miami when I, with my marbles-playing self, heard of Ruby McCollum. If I heard of her EVERYBODY heard of her.
As it turned out, Ruby and the doctor had been carrying on an illicit sexual affair for years. They had a daughter together, Loretta whose picture I remember seeing in Jet Magazine. She was the first inner-racial person I had ever seen. She looked exactly like the doctor. So, the affair was not a secret even to Ruby’s husband Sam who had his own string of illicit affairs going…
Nobody believed that this was over a disputed medical bill. Why would the richest black woman in the county not pay a simple doctor’s bill? There were deeper levels of evil to this killing. For one thing, when Ruby shot the doctor that Sunday morning she was pregnant with his second child.
Ruby McCollum was nobody’s maid. She was the richest black woman in the county and now she had killed the town’s iconic white doctor. Why? The couple had had a long-term sexual affair. Once Ruby found out that her husband was cheating on her she made the decision to become involved with Adams. She succumbed to his advances and became pregnant with his child a girl they named Loretta. At the time of the murder Ruby was pregnant with the white doctor’s second child. Even her husband knew of the affair and by some accounts tolerated it because he wanted his own cheating options.
Whether he knew or not, everyone else did once the child was born because she was the spitting image of Doctor Adams. The doctor had been supplying McCollum with drugs including cocaine. By the time of the murder she had become addicted and dependent upon Adams for her needs. It would later be argued that Adams forced himself upon her and that Ruby wanted an abortion in the first pregnancy but Adams would not allow it telling her, “I want all of my babies, black and white.” The second pregnancy may have led to the shooting.
During her trial her lawyers tried to describe the affair but was were met with a storm of objections from the prosecutor. Ultimately her lawyers were not allowed to bring in anything about the affair other than that Ruby “submitted” herself to the doctor when her husband was not at home.
Dr. Leroy C. Adams
Dr. Adams had just won a primary election for a seat in the state senate and was expected to win easily in the general election. The doctor was also heavily involved in the Bolita business with Sam and Ruby, and very large sums of Bolita money was passed between them. Adams was rich and getting richer. Since the start of health insurance plans such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield, introduced in the late 1940s, Dr. Adams and many other doctors, especially in small towns, made their fortunes offering services to people who previously could not pay their medical bills. “Shots” for all kinds of ailments, real or imagined, were dispensed if the patient had health insurance. “Dr. Adams was called the ‘shot doctor’; Ruby became a ‘shot’ fiend.” Over time, she became addicted to the “shots” administered by Dr. Adams.
Ultimately, Ruby and Doctor Adams became involved in a sexual relationship. There is no claim that Ruby was raped by Adams. In her state of mind at that time, she was vulnerable. Her husband had a tendency to criticize and embarrass her. She was rich and more educated than the woman Sam had taken up with. She was sexually neglected, and Adams was the ticket out of her misery and self-deprecation. According to her own lawyer, “Ruby’s ego needed nourishment. Adams was a big shot, headed for the governor’s chair. When he extended an ‘examination’ in her upstairs bedroom – I don’t want to malign a client, but I doubt that Ruby’s resistance was more than token.”
Ruby became pregnant by the doctor, and when the baby was the spitting image of the doctor, Sam went into a rage. Her lawyer explained, “Sam took it hard. He threatened to kill her-and no doubt there would have been a killing right there except that they reached some sort of adjustment for ‘business reasons.’ It was strange, what the French call ménage a trois. All three of them were in the Bolita business; the doc had Ruby; Sam had the schoolteacher; and Sam and Ruby operated a home and a family together.” But by the summer of 1952, it was clear that Ruby, now forty and carrying Adams’s second child, had psychiatric problems. Adams sent her to three psychiatrists and began to take virtual control of Ruby’s life as she descended into madness and depression.
After the trial, her attorney explained, “The doc put her on dope. Ruby had lost Sam and what has she gained? The doc beat her up, extorted money from her, got her pregnant again, and then, more and more, began to neglect her as he moved toward the governor’s chair.” Adams would not hear of aborting the pregnancy. He told Ruby, “You know I want all of my babies.” Both Sam and Dr. Adams were abusive to Ruby. She reported to her lawyer, “Mr. McGriff, I was just caught between two guns! Either the doctor or Sam was gonna kill me! Both of them threatening me all the time, and the doctor hittin’ me across the face with his fist! What could I do?”The Ruby McCollum Story, p.2.
On April 21, 1952 a motion for a change of venue was heard in Suwannee County. Ruby was not defenseless. She had two expensive white lawyers from Jacksonville defending her. They argued that Ruby could not get a fair trial in Suwannee County noting that up to twenty Florida Highway patrol units were necessary to protect Ruby from mob violence. The motion was denied. On November 18, 1952 jury selection began in a trial that has captured national attention. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in Florida and likely not in the South: a black woman on trial for the murder of her rich white lover.The Ruby McCollum Story, p.3.
Ruby McCollum under arrest
Ruby McCollum was nobody’s maid. She was the richest black woman in the county, and now she had killed the town’s iconic white doctor. The second pregnancy and her descent into depression and mental illness led to the shooting. A second white baby would have driven Sam over the edge. He might well have killed her. Ruby killed Doctor Adams because he would not allow her to abort her pregnancy with his second child. The abortion would have solved the dilemma she was facing. When she went to that office that Sunday morning, she likely intended to kill Adams.The Ruby McCollum Story, p.5.
On December 17, 1952 an all-white, all-male jury was sworn in to determine Ruby McCollum’s fate. The defense objected to the racial composition of the jury. The objection was overruled. On December 20, 1952 at 11:30 0 a.m., the case went to the jury. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder at 2:25 p.m. On January 17, 1953 court convened for the sentencing of Ruby McCollum at which time the Court read the following:
“A jury , having found you , Ruby McCollum, Guilty of Murder in the First Degree, the Court adjudges you to be Guilty of Murder in the First Degree………it is the Judgement of the Court and the Sentence of the Law, that you, Ruby McCollum for your said offense do be remanded to the custody of the sheriff of Suwannee County, Florida, to by him be safely kept in the common jail of said county until the governor of the State of Florida shall have issued his death warrant for your Execution and that after issuance of the Warrant for your Execution by the Governor you shall be conveyed to the State Prison Farm at Raiford, Florida , there to be safely kept until such time as the Governor of the State of Florida may in his said Warrant of Execution designate, and that at the time so designated the said Superintendent of State Prison or one of his authorized Deputies shall cause to pass through your body a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause your immediate DEATH and shall continue such current until you are DEAD. And may God have mercy upon your soul.”The Ruby McCollum Story, p.4.
Her lawyers had argued that the doctor was forcing Ruby to have his children and pleaded mental illness but all to no avail. The McCollum case had allowed the rest of America to peek under the bed sheets of the South, even if only for a moment; and what was seen was disconcerting, a virtual cultural hangover from slavery. Upon sentencing Ruby McCollum was sent here to Florida’s Death Row in the state prison at Starke. She was the third woman to be placed on Death Row in Florida history. The sentences of the two previous women were commuted.The Ruby McCollum Story, p.7.
On July 20, 1954 the Florida Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Ruby McCollum based upon the fact that the trial judge did not attend the viewing of the crime scene with the jury. The Court ordered a new trial. But Ruby’s lawyers argued that their client was too mentally ill to assist in her defense in a second trial. Her doctor said she was suffering from “prison psychosis.” Her behavior was odd. She believed people were trying to poison her. For two years during her confinement in the Suwannee County jail she would only eat food brought in by one of her brothers. On September 24, 1954 the court declared her to be mentally ill and ordered her to be confined at the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee. This became her home until she was released to her family in 1974.The Ruby McCollum Story, p.5.
In 1974 Ruby was placed in foster care in Ocala near Silver Springs. Her spending allowance was $1.15 a day. She also had an allowance from a 40,000 dollar sale of her life story. When asked by a reporter in 1975 about the murder she replied that she just didn’t remember about it. Her caregiver described her as having a touch of aristocracy about her and said she was a stubborn old lady but sweet, easy and quiet. Ruby said she did remember that “We had a lot of money and always paid our doctor bills.” Asked what she wanted to do with the rest of her life she replied, “I’d like to go home and clean up my house.“ But her home had fallen into disrepair many years earlier. Ruby died on May 23, 1992 at the age of 82.