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Sun, 08.03.1952

The Ruby McCollum Case Begins

C. LeRoy Adams and Ruby McCullum

*On this date 1952, a Black woman murdered a white man in Florida.  Ruby McCollum murdered Dr. C. Leroy Adams. This shooting was as noted in African America as the O.J. Simpson Murder trial 43 years later.

It happened in Live Oak, a small farming town in north Florida.  After the shooting Ruby McCollum put her nickel-plated Smith & Wesson away, locked up his office, and walked to her 1951 two-toned blue Chrysler. Checking on her two small children in the back seat, she drove home.  In less than an hour, every law enforcement vehicle in Suwannee County was parked in front of the McCollum home.

Accompanied by a squad of Florida Highway Patrol cars, and under direct orders from Governor Fuller Warren in Tallahassee, Ruby was rushed over 50 miles away to the Florida State Prison Farm in Raiford, the home of Florida’s electric chair.  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.  McCollum also said that Adams took part in her husband Sam's "illegal gambling operation." Employees at the doctor’s office later described seeing the doctor accept "large deliveries of cash in examination rooms." The day after McCollum’s arrest, her husband Sam died 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. This was by anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, assigned from the Pittsburgh Courier.  She had to sit upstairs in the segregated gallery, in view of Ku Klux Klan members who were present.  Her coverage helped McCollum gain a national and even international readership during her two trials.

In the first trial, Frank Cannon, a District Attorney from Jacksonville, Florida, defended McCollum. 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 who 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 additional testimony that would have established mitigating circumstances.

According to 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, and preventing her attorneys the opportunity to determine whether speaking with the press or not would be to her advantage.

Hurston wrote that defense attorney Frank Cannon, frustrated by the persistence of the state prosecuting attorney in objecting to have all of the evidence introduced about her relationship with Dr. Adams without objection, turned to the judge and said, "May God forgive you, Judge Adams, for robbing a human being of life in such a fashion." While this is written by Hurston, and quoted by Huie, there is no record of the statement in the trial transcript, as there is no record of Hurston's reporting of Thelma Curry, a witness, being thrown off the witness stand and being told to go back where she belongs. The prosecuting attorney said that McCollum had shot Adams in anger over a disputed bill, which was supported by three witnesses during the trial. McCollum herself testified that she had discussed a bill with Adams that day, but maintained that she fired at the doctor in self-defense when he attacked her. Residents of Live Oak knew that McCollum was a wealthy woman, and she and her husband were known to pay their bills promptly. The jury with the first-degree murder charge convicted McCollum on December 20, 1952.  She was sentenced to death in the electric chair.

Her case was appealed. During that period before the appeal was decided, McCollum was held in the Suwannee County Jail. The Florida Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence on a technicality 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.  Had Ruby McCollum been an ordinary colored woman, she would have been promptly transported a mile away to the Suwannee County jail, a two-story red brick building on the grounds of the county courthouse in downtown Live Oak.  Ms. McCollum was no ordinary colored woman she was married to “Bolita Sam,” the gambling kingpin of Suwannee County.  Sam McCollum’s bolita business operated under their full police protection for “cash money,” paid in return. Also many prominent members of the white community were aware that their names were recorded in Ruby’s ledger, along with a record of no-interest “loans” from Sam McCollum.

After the funeral, the town’s weekly newspaper, the Suwannee Democrat, ran the story of the murder with the headline, “Dr. Adams Murdered by Negress.” Adams’ campaign photograph appeared beneath the headline with the caption, “Murdered.” Needless to say, this caption had a tremendous impact on readers who had grown to associate Adams’ image with campaign promises of no new taxes, free medical care for the elderly, exemption of barren land from taxes for 10 years, better schools, a medical school in the state, and a greater share of south Florida’s race track taxes. The Democrat went on to describe the doctor’s funeral, the largest in the history of Suwannee County. The newspaper referred to the “beloved Dr. Adams” as “noble,” and characterized the murder as a senseless slaying by an angry “Negress” over her doctor bill. Newspapers around the country picked up the story, echoing the assertion that the murder, perpetrated by Ruby McCollum the “Negress” in question happened during a heated dispute over her doctor bill. While the newspapers perpetuated the officially sanctioned version of the story, the citizens of Live Oak knew better.

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. After her release, McCollum lived 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 and 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.


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