Ruby Myrtle McCollum was born on May 31, 1909 in Zuber, Florida, a small farming town just north of Ocala. Her parents scraped 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. They had two children together and lived in the finest black home in Live Oak.
All appeared well for the couple, but beneath it all there were problems. Sam had taken up with a high-yellow schoolteacher in Tampa and was spending a lot of time on the road, supposedly on Bolita business. Ruby was devastated. Sam’s cheating led her to take up an affair with Dr. Leroy C. Adams, the town’s most prominent white doctor.
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.”[i] 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.”[ii]
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.”[iii] 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.”[iv] Adams would not hear of aborting the pregnancy. He told Ruby, “You know I want all of my babies.”[v] 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?”[vi]
It all came to a head on the morning of Sunday, August 3, 1952. Ruby donned a brown dress, put her two small children into the back seat of her car and drove downtown to the doctor’s office in the Parshley Building. Ruby used the ‘colored’ entrance, entering from the alley and walking past black patients who were waiting to be seen. She confronted the doctor. 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 blue two-toned Chrysler, made sure her two small children in the back seat were all right, then drove home. Within an hour every police car in the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office encircled the McCollum home. By sundown the next day, practically every adult in Florida, black and white, who could read and write, knew her name. Later reports said the confrontation was over a bill that was owed.
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.
A motion for a change of venue, based upon massive local media coverage about the case, was submitted by her lawyers. Ruby was not defenseless. She had two expensive white lawyers, from Jacksonville, Frank T. Cannon and P. Guy Crews, defending her, and a black attorney, Releford McGriff, who stayed in the background because his presence in court would have created a disturbance. 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 had 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 public face which the prosecution advanced was that Ruby’s motive for the killing was a disputed medical bill. This is hardly plausible since Ruby McCollum had plenty of money to pay her bills. In the South at that time, sexual relationships between prominent white men and black women was a taboo subject. The McCollum case brought this issue into the public eye. For the defense, the sexual relationship was crucial to understanding McCollum’s motive. When a black nurse, Thelma Curry, who worked for Doctor Adams, tried to testify about an argument she overheard between Adams and McCollum a few days before the murder, she was jerked from the stand by the prosecution.[vii]
During Ruby’s trial, her lawyers tried to describe the affair but 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. When Ruby took the stand to explain what happened and why she killed the doctor, the State would not allow her to do so. “Ruby was allowed to describe how, in about 1948, during an extended absence of her husband, she had, in her home, submitted to the doctor. She was allowed to state that her younger child was his. Yet thirty-eight times Frank Cannon attempted to create the opportunity for Ruby to tell her whole story and thus explain what to her were her motives; thirty-eight times the State objected; and thirty-eight times Judge Adams [no relation to the slain doctor] sustained those objections.”[viii]
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 AM, the case went to the jury. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder at 2:25 PM. 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 be 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 there . . . 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.”[ix]
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.
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. Ruby was placed in foster care in Ocala near Silver Springs. She died of a stroke on May 23, 1992, at the age of 82.