Ruby McCollum, born Ruby Jackson (August 31, 1909 – May 23, 1992), was a wealthy married African-American woman in Florida known for killing a prominent white doctor in 1952 who had been elected to the state senate; she said that he had forced her to have sex and bear his child.
McCollum was tried and convicted in Florida that year for the murder of Dr. C. Leroy Adams, and sentenced to death. The sensational case was covered widely in the United States press, as well as by international papers, but McCollum and the attorneys were covered by a gag order. Her case was appealed and overturned by the State Supreme Court. When it came time for a second trial, McCollum was examined and found mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the state mental hospital at Chattahoochee, Florida, for what would have been a lifetime, had not her attorney, Frank Cannon, obtained her release under the Baker Act in 1974, as she was not considered a danger to herself or others.
In the 21st century, McCollum and her case have received renewed attention, with new books and three film documentaries exploring the issues of race, class, gender and corruption in local politics. In the long term, McCollum's case was considered a landmark trial in the struggle for civil rights, and instrumental in changing attitudes about the practice of "paramour rights". McCollum's African-American attorney, Releford McGriff, was also part of a team who was crucial in changing Florida's Jim Crow practice of selecting all-white male jurors.
Ruby Jackson was born in 1909 to Gertrude and William Jackson in Zuber, Florida. She was the second child and first daughter among her six siblings. They attended local segregated schools. Ruby's parents recognized her intelligence and sent her to a private school, Fessenden Academy, where she excelled in bookkeeping.
Marriage and family
In 1929 Ruby Jackson married Sam McCollum, and they moved to Nyack, New York, as part of the Great Migration of rural blacks out of the South in the early 20th century. During the five years that they lived there, she had a son, Sam, Jr.
In 1934, the couple relocated to the area of Fort Myers, Florida. Sam's brother Buck McCollum had amassed considerable wealth managing a Bolita gambling business. Sam went into business with him and was reported to be a player in North Florida gambling. By the 1940s and early 1950s, he was reported to have "amassed a fortune."
Sam and Ruby owned a "stately, two-story home," in Live Oak, Florida, a small town of 4,000 people. Ruby McCollum drove a Chrysler automobile. They also had a farm outside of town. She was described as the wealthiest black woman in town, and the couple were considered a success. Their son Sam Jr. had started college at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) by 1952.
Florida was a segregated state where blacks had been essentially disfranchised since the turn of the century and passage of a constitution and laws imposing poll taxes, literacy tests and other means to suppress black voting. The exclusion from voting meant that African Americans could not serve on juries and they were generally excluded from any political office. The white Democrat-dominated state legislature following the Civil War had passed laws to create legal segregation and Jim Crow, which kept African Americans in second-class status until a swing in the Democratic party in the 1960's overturned these laws with the passage of the Civil Rights Act under President Lyndon Johnson.
The power relations of white men taking sexual advantage of black women had a long history dating to slavery time, when some women slaves were forced to serve as concubines or occasional liaisons. From the 17th century, Virginia and other colonies established laws making children of slave mothers automatically slaves, regardless of their paternity, under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem'. An assumption that powerful white men could take black woman as sexual partners regardless of their desires or social status underlay some 20th century relations. This was called "paramour rights" at the time of the trial.
Ruby McCollum used a white physician in Live Oak, Dr. Dillard Workman. He was an associate of Dr. C. Leroy Adams, who had a reputation as a "benevolent and popular doctor who administered to the needy." In 1952 he was elected to the state senate, with Workman campaigning for him. Adams was considered to have a potential political future as governor.
Shooting of Dr. C. Leroy Adams
On Sunday morning, August 3, 1952, Ruby McCollum met Dr. C. Leroy Adams, a prominent white physician and state senator-elect, in his office in Live Oak, Florida. She had driven there with her two young children in the car. She later admitted that she shot him four times with a revolver, after he would not agree to leave her alone. She said that over a period of years, he had repeatedly forced her to submit to sex and bear his child, and that her two-year-old daughter, Loretta, was his.
In notes and letters, McCollum said that he had abused her, and that she was pregnant with another child by him when she killed him. She also said that Adams took part in her husband Sam's "illegal gambling operation." An employee at the doctor's office later described seeing the doctor accept "large deliveries of cash in examination rooms."
McCollum was arrested and taken to the state prison 50 miles away temporarily, for protection, according to contemporary accounts.
Her husband Sam died the next day of a heart attack in Zuber, Florida, where he had taken his children for safekeeping with Ruby's mother. The case was first covered for a newspaper outside Florida by anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was on assignment from the Pittsburgh Courier. She had to sit upstairs in the segregated gallery, in view of Ku Klux Klan members who were no doubt present. Her coverage helped McCollum gain a national and even international readership.
McCollum was defended by Frank Cannon, a District Attorney from Jacksonville, Florida. The case was prosecuted by state's attorney Keith Black, and presided over by Florida's Third Circuit Court judge, Judge Hal W. Adams (not related to the doctor, but an honorary pallbearer at his funeral). The jury was made up of all white men, some of whom had been Dr. Adams' patients.
McCollum testified that Adams had forced sex upon her, that they had sex at her home and in his office (located immediately across the street from the courthouse), and that he insisted that she bear his child, but her defense attorney was prevented from presenting their relationship more completely. All of Cannon's efforts to introduce the doctor's pattern of repeated physical abuse of her at the office were objected to by the prosecutor and upheld by the judge, except for her testimony about events on the day of the murder. She said he had struck her repeatedly that day and they struggled. Essentially McCollum was silenced in court regarding testimony that would have established mitigating circumstances. According to Zora Neale Hurston, who reported on the trial for the Pittsburgh Courier:
"Ruby was allowed to describe how, 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 youngest child was his. Yet thirty-eight times Frank Cannon attempted to proceed from this point; thirty-eight times he attempted to create the opportunity for Ruby to tell her whole story and thus explain what were her motives; thirty-eight times the State objected; and thirty-eight times Judge Adams sustained these objections."
The judge also imposed a gag order on McCollum, preventing the press from interviewing her.
Hurston writes that defense attorney Frank Cannon, frustrated by the persistence of the state prosecuting attorney in objecting to have evidence introduced about her relationship with Dr. Adams, turned to the judge and said, "May God forgive you, Judge Adams, for robbing a human being of life in such a fashion."
The prosecuting attorney said that McCollum had shot Adams in anger over a disputed bill. But she was a wealthy woman, and she and her husband were known to pay their bills promptly.
Her case was appealed. During that period before the appeal was decided, McCollum was held in the Suwannee County Jail. Her conviction and death sentence were overturned on a technicality by the Florida Supreme Court on July 20, 1954. The court cited Judge Hal W. Adams, the presiding judge, for failing to be present at the jury's inspection of the scene of the crime.
Concerned for her mental health, defense attorney Frank Cannon arranged for McCollum to be examined in the county jail, where she had been held for about two years. At the second trial, he entered a plea of insanity. Upon receiving the results of an examination of McCollum by court-appointed physicians, including Dr. Adams' associate Dr. Dillard Workman, the state attorney Randall Slaughter agreed to the plea. McCollum was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the Florida State Hospital for mental patients at Chattahoochee, Florida, where she remained until her attorney, Frank Cannon, successfully filed for her release in 1974 under Florida's recently-enacted Baker Act.
There was extensive coverage of the trial at the time, but the judge put all participants under a gag order, and the press was never allowed to interview McCollum. The noted African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston covered the trial for the Pittsburgh Courier from the fall of 1952 through Ruby McCollum's conviction just before Christmas that year; she was forced to sit in the segregated second-floor gallery of the courtroom. From January–March 1953, the Courier published Hurston's series entitled, "The Life Story of Ruby McCollum."
Hurston, who was unable to attend the appeal or the second trial for financial reasons, contacted journalist William Bradford Huie to interest him in the case, as they had worked together before and he had taken on controversial cases. She shared her notes from the first trial and corresponded with him to funish additional information. She also asked for bus fare to attend the trial, but Huie did not respond. Huie thereafter investigated the story and, after attending the appeal and second trial, published Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956). This book became a bestseller, although Huie asked his publisher not to distribute the book in Florida due to his continuing legal troubles there. Huie's book also addresses his effort to fight Judge Adams' gag order against the press. He filed a First Amendment challenge, claiming freedom of the press to speak to the defendant, but did not succeed in his suit.
At one point, Adams charged Huie with contempt of court for his actions in investigating the case. The journalist served overnight in jail as a result of not paying a fine the judge had imposed in the contempt charge. During that period, Huie met the director, Elia Kazan. In 1960 they had discussions about Kazan's directing a film to be adapted from Huie's book and entitled The Ruby McCollum Story. While other films based on Huie's books were produced in the 1960s and later, a film on the Ruby McCollum story was not produced.
Huie says in his updated, fourth edition of his work (1964) that he was denied entrance to the Florida State Mental Hospital in Chattahoochee, Florida where Ruby McCollum was held. But, Jet Magazine reporters visited Ruby McCollum there in 1958 and published their interview with her. Huie never interviewed McCollum.
McCollum's later years and death
In 1974, attorney Frank Cannon visited McCollum in the mental hospital. Without asking for any legal fees, he filed legal papers to have her released under the Baker Act, which allowed mental patients who were considered not a danger to be released to their families. Her initial commitment was due to her being found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
McCollum lived after her release in a rest home in Silver Springs, Florida, funded by a trust set up by author William Bradford Huie. He had paid her $40,000 for the right to feature her in a movie he hoped to have adapted from his book about the case, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1964, 4th edition).
McCollum did get to see her children again. But, Sam Jr. followed his father into gambling, and in 1975 was convicted in federal court on 10 counts of gambling. He had been living in the McCollum homestead, from which the FBI confiscated $250,000; they later returned a good portion of it to him, after IRS deducted appropriate taxes and penalties. McCollum's daughters Sonja and Kay both married and lived in Ocala, Florida. Kay Hope died in a car accident in 1978 and Sonja Wood died of a heart attack in 1979.
In November 1980, Al Lee of the Ocala Star Banner interviewed McCollum at the rest home in Silver Springs. Lee wrote that McCollum had no memory of her ordeal. He reported that psychiatrists said that she may have suffered Ganser syndrome, or the suppression of painful memories In those years, the State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee was investigated more than once over issues of patient treatment, overuse of medications including Thorazine, and administration of electroshock therapy, which can affect memory.
On May 23, 1992, at 4:45 a.m., McCollum died of a stroke at the New Horizon Rehabilitation Center, at the age of eighty-two. Her brother, Matt Jackson, had died less than a year before. The family arranged for her to be buried beside him and his wife in the cemetery behind Hopewell Baptist Church, Live Oak. Her name was mistakenly spelled on her death certificate as "Ruby McCollumn".
The case has continued to haunt people, in part because Judge Adams had placed a gag order on Ruby McCollum. Commentators believed the silences were to preserve white supremacy and secrets of the powerful, which included white participation in Sam McCollum's illegal bolita operations where untaxed money was used to finance many of the businesses in town. Judge Adams upheld prosecutor's objections during the trial so that Cannon could not introduce much of the evidence related to Adams' sexual abuse of McCollum. She was allowed, however, to witness to her being forced to have Adams' baby, which was the first time that a black woman had ever been allowed to do so in this country. This established the trial as a landmark case.
In the 21st century, new non-fiction and fiction books continue to be published about McCollum and the case.
C. Arthur Ellis, Jr. published a compiled and edited transcript of the trial in 2003, with a revised edition in 2007. His associated commentary describes the importance of this trial in the history of Civil Rights as the first time that an African-American woman testified in court against a white man to say that he had forced sex upon her, and testified to his paternity of their child. Until this time, Ellis notes, African-American women were afforded no protection under the law for rape by a white man. Ellis states that he was motivated to publish this transcript since many scholars were stating that Ruby McCollum did not testify at her trial. He also discussed the intertwining of personal and professional relationships among the figures prominent in the case and the trial. He noted that late 20th and early 21st-century professional standards related to conflict of interest would likely classify certain figures as having violated those standards. As an example, he notes that Dr. Dillard Workman was Adams' medical associate, and he treated Ruby McCollum for her prenatal care of her child by Adams. Workman campaigned for Adams in his state senatorial race, but he was commissioned to conduct Adams' autopsy. He testified about the autopsy during the murder trial. In addition, he testified as an expert witness as to McCollum's sanity at the second trial. The judge who presided over the trial was a pallbearer at Dr. Adams' funeral.
In 2006, Tammy Evans published The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South, released by the University Press of Florida. As the reviewer Elizabeth Boyd writes, "The starkness of the crime was matched only by the evasiveness that characterized its aftermath, and it is this prevarication--this collective dissembling on the part of Live Oak folk, white and black--that is the true subject of the book."
Representation in other media
- In 1999, Thulani Davis wrote a play, Everybody's Ruby: Story of a Murder in Florida, which premiered in New York at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, directed by Kenny Leon and starring Viola Davis as McCollum and Phylicia Rashad as author Zora Neale Hurston.
- In 2009, C. Arthur Ellis wrote a historical novel, Zora Hurston And The Strange Case Of Ruby McCollum, based on Hurston's articles for the Pittsburgh Courier and his own research for his non-fiction book on the trial. Ellis is a native of Live Oak and knew all of the characters in the story.
- In 2010, "The Ballad of Ruby McCollum", a song performed by Peg and Chip Carbone, written by Peg and Chip Carbone and David Schmeling, was recorded at Reveal Audio - Atlanta.
- In 2012, The Other Side of Silence (film) is a documentary about McCollum and her case by Dr. Claudia Hunter Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize nominee. It contains an interview with A. K. Black, the prosecutor in the case, as well as the floor plan of Adams' office, courtesy of C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., Ph.D. She reports receiving a death threat while working on the film. The film was the official nominee at several film festivals in 2012.
- In July 2013, You Belong to Me (documentary), a feature-length documentary about Ruby McCollum and her case, started shooting in Florida. It is being produced by Hilary Salzman and Jude Hagin, former state film commissioner, and Deliberate Murder company. It is being written and directed by John Cork.
- In June 2014, Curtain of Secrecy: The Story of Ruby McCollum (documentary), a feature-length documentary about Ruby McCollum opened at the San Marco Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. It is produced by the Art Institute at Jacksonville, Florida and is directed by Ramona Ramdeen, who interviews Dr. C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., the only living historian who knew all of the characters in the story. Ms. Ramdeen was part of the production team that won this year's Student Oscar for PERSON, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.
- C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., Zora Hurston and The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum (Gadfly Publishing, 2009), p. i. Ellis attributes the term "paramour rights" to Zora Neale Hurston.
- Al Lee, "Memory of Murder Fades After 28 Years", Ocala Star Banner, 13 January 1980
- "Production begins on “You Belong to Me,” feature of Ruby McCollum’s life story", Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, University of Florida, 19 August 2013, accessed 18 March 2014
- "Misfortune Follows McCollum Principals", Ocala Star-Banner, 13 January 1980, accessed 18 March 2014
- Wadsworth, Louie. "Dr. Adams Slain by Negress," Suwannee Democrat, 8 August 1952
- Elizabeth Boyd, "Disquiet", Review of Tammy Evans, The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South, H-Net Review, July 2008, accessed 18 March 2014
- C. Arthur Ellis, Jr.State of Florida Vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant, Lulu Publishing, 2007, pp. 283-284
- Zora Neale Hurston, quoted in William B. Huie. Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1956), pp 99-100.
- State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant.
- "Chair for Ruby: Found Guilty of Slaying Florida White Doctor," The Pittsburgh Courier, December 27, 1952
- Circuit Court of the Third Judicial Circuit of Florida, in and for Suwannee County.
- "Opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida," filed July 20, 1954.
- C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant (LuLu Press, 2007), p 74
- "The Press: Case of Ruby McCollum", Time, 25 October 1954
- "Writer Discusses 6 Film Properties", New York Times, 10 February 1960, accessed 19 March 2014
- "Ruby McCollum Talks: Ends 5-year Silence in Insane Asylum," Jet Magazine, 20 February 1958
- State of Florida, Office of Vital Statistics. Death Certificate No. 92-057582, local file No. 1238.
- Peter Marks, "In Black and White: Cold Blood or Hot Rage?", New York Times, 10 March 1999, accessed 19 March 2014
- “The Other Side of Silence”, Official website
- Erica Taylor, "Little Known Black History Fact: Ruby McCollum", The Tom Joyner Morning Show, 2 June 2013, at BlackAmerica Web.com, accessed 18 March 2014
- Curtain of Secrecy: The Story of Ruby McCollum (documentary), produced by the Art Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, Ramona Ramdeen, director.Curtain of Secrecy trailer
- Diaz, John A. "Woman Chased by Mob After Slaying Doctor: Murder of White Medico Touches Off Powder Keg." (Pittsburgh Courier, August 16, 1952)
- Ellis, C. Arthur (Jr.) and Leslie E. Ellis, The Trial of Ruby McCollum: The True-crime Story That Shook the Foundations of the Segregationist South! 1st Book Library, 2003. ISBN 1410775445.
- Ellis, C. Arthur (Jr.), State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant (Morrisville, N.C.: Lulu Press, 2007). ISBN 978-1-4303-1150-8.
- Evans, Tammy. The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2006). ISBN 0-8130-2973-2.
- Huie, William Bradford, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956). 2nd Edition (title change only): The Crime of Ruby McCollum. (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1957). 3rd Edition: The Crime of Ruby McCollum. (London: Grey Arrow, 1959). Fourth Edition (revised and updated): Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail. (New York: Signet Books, 1964).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. Series of articles covering the trial: Pittsburgh Courier, October 1952-January 1953. Also, "The Life Story Of Ruby McCollum", Pittsburgh Courier, Jan-March 1953.
- Davis, Thulani. "Everybody's Ruby" (Samuel French, Inc., 2000, 79 pages), drama play, ISBN 0-573-62712-6.
- Ellis, C. Arthur (Jr.). Zora Hurston And The Strange Case Of Ruby McCollum, historical novel based upon actual events, written by an author who knew all of the characters in his hometown of Live Oak, (Chattanooga, TN: Gadfly Publishing, 2009). ISBN 978-0-9820940-0-6.
- "Psychiatrists Report Woman Slayer Insane," “Daytona Beach Morning Journal, 24 September 1954.
- “Ruby McCollum’s Fate Is Mulled,” St. Petersburg Times, 10 December 1973.
- “Woman may be freed in Fla. doctor’s death,” The Afro American, 26 January 1974.
- “Judge strips 135G McCollum Estate,” Baltimore Afro-American, 31 March 1953.
- "Interview with C. Arthur Ellis, re: novel, Zora Hurston and The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum", NPR, available on YouTube, 5 June 2009
- "A Guide to the Documents Relating to the Trial of Ruby McCollum for the Murder of Dr. LeRoy Adams, Live Oak, Florida, 1954", University of Florida Smathers Libraries - Special and Area Studies Collections
- Ruby McCollum's headstone at New Hope Baptist Church, Findagrave
- Dr. C. L. Adams, Jr. headstone, Live Oak, Florida city cemetery, Findagrave
- Ruby McCollum story movie rights, Ocala Star Banner