Wednesday, July 27, 2016

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES: "RUBY McCOLLUM - Justice in Black and White" by Earl Staggs

As July draws to a close it is time once again for the latest “History’s Rich With Mysteries” column by Texas author Earl Staggs. This time he looks at the case of Ruby McCollum. What happened is just stunning.


When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.

RUBY McCOLLUM - Justice in Black and White
by Earl Staggs

On Sunday morning, August 3, 1952, in Live Oak, a farming town in north Florida, forty-three-year-old Ruby McCollum, the wealthiest black woman in town, entered the office of Dr. C. Leroy Adams, a prominent white physician, and shot him dead. 

Dr. Adams treated many of the black families in town, including Ruby's, and had recently been elected to the state senate. He was known as the “poor man’s doctor,” the “best friend a man ever had,” and the “only doctor who visited coloreds.” His funeral was the largest in the history of Suwannee County. Newspapers said the “beloved Dr. Adams” had been murdered by an angry “Negress” over her doctor bill.

She was born Ruby Jackson in Zuber, Florida, in 1909, and in 1931, married Sam McCollum, the operator of a large and prosperous gambling enterprise. Their holdings grew to include a number of bars which sold illegal liquor and flourished by paying off local law enforcement officers. They also owned several large farms in the state and a local funeral home. They settled into a large two-story home in Live Oak, a small town with a population of about 4,000 people, where they raised four children, were well-respected in the community, and contributed liberally to their church

Ruby's trial that year was a sensational one widely covered in the United States press, as well as by international papers. The prosecuting attorney claimed Ruby shot him when they argued about a disputed bill. 

Ruby testified that Dr. Adams had been forcing her to have sex with him for several years, that he was the biological father of her youngest child, and she was pregnant by him for the second time. She said she fired at the doctor in self-defense when he attacked her.

She was not allowed to say much more than that. Her testimony was continuously interrupted by objections made by the prosecutor and sustained by the judge. The jury, made up entirely of white men, did not learn from her that she was torn between her husband who threatened to shoot her if she had another white baby and Dr. Adams who threatened to shoot her if she aborted his child. 

Zora Neale Hurston, a noted black journalist, novelist, and anthropologist who covered the case for The Pittsburgh Courier, maintained that Ruby's trial was the first time in history that a certain unwritten but widely recognized antebellum law was called into question. Known as “Paramour Rights,” it gave white men the right to a "Negro" woman even if she was married and placed no responsibility on the white man for support of the women or their offspring. As hard as it may be to believe, it was a common practice since before the Civil War and it continued well into the 20th Century. 

Ms Hurston, who was forced to observe the trial from the second-floor gallery reserved for black people, wrote, "I had the feeling that the trial was a conspiracy of silence. The real story took place behind a curtain of secrecy."

Staid members of the Segregationist South considered the relationship between Ruby and Dr. Adams nothing more than an instance of Paramour Rights rather than one of sexual abuse and certainly not something that needed to be discussed in public. 

Ruby served as bookkeeper for her husband's varied businesses, and many prominent members of the white community knew their names were recorded in her ledgers, along with a record of "no-interest loans” from Sam McCollum. 

Then there were rumors about Dr. Adams having his hand in Sam’s gambling operation, serving as the connection with the white establishment which provided immunity for Sam’s illegal gambling and liquor operations in Suwannee County.

None of these issues were brought out in the one-sided trial. From the time she was arrested and throughout the trial, Ruby was placed under a gag order by the judge and was not allowed to speak with anyone except her attorneys and immediate family.

On December 20, 1952, Ruby McCollum was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. 

On appeal, her case was overturned by the State Supreme Court on July 20, 1954. Prior to the second trial, however, she was examined and declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the state mental hospital at Chattahoochee, Florida, an institution known for mis-treatment such as keeping patients on Thorazine and giving electroshock therapy. 

She remained there for twenty years. In 1974, her attorney obtained her release under the Baker Act as she was not considered a danger to herself or others. 

In November, 1980, Ruby was interviewed at a rest home in Silver Springs, Florida. As is  common after electroshock therapy, her memory of the entire ordeal with regard to Dr. Adams and her trial for his murder had faded.  (The process of electroshock therapy as it was used in those days was well-known to produce the side effect of memory impairment.)

On May 23, 1992, Ruby McCollum died of a stroke at the at the age of eighty-two. She was buried beside her brother who died a year earlier in a cemetery behind the New Hope Baptist Church near Ocala, Florida.

While it cannot be denied that Ruby took a man's life, we can look back now and reflect on all she suffered. We can consider the mitigating circumstances of her actions and her inability to tell all of the details of her story in court. She was robbed of the opportunity a second trial might have afforded by being conveniently declared mentally ill and institutionalized where her memory was erased. 

Others have looked at the facts of Ruby's ordeal and called it a landmark case with a positive influence on the civil rights movement. Never before had a “Negress” talked in open court about her sexual abuse by a white man and being forced to bear his children. They point to the fact that her case was the first ever to bring the so-called “Paramour Rights” issue into the open. They can say her case sounded the death knell of that last vestige of slavery in this country which provided no protection for a black woman against rape by a white man.

While some people think along those lines, I find myself more concerned about the horrible subjugation and deprecation Ruby and certainly thousands of other black American women had to endure during the many decades Paramour Rights were practiced in this country.

Earl Staggs © 2016

Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as
Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


jrlindermuth said...

Given conditions in the South at the time, it's easy for us now to accept Ruby's story as true. The very idea of 'paramour rights' is sickening. Another well-told story from history, Earl.

Susan said...

I had never heard of Paramour Rights before. Thanks for showing some light into this dark corner of history.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'd never heard of Ruby McCollum before this, nor of Paramour Rights. I think of how much she suffered to be driven to that act, and then how horribly she was treated by our justice system. Thanks for finding and sharing this, Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, John. I was surprised -- and shocked -- to learn about this myself. It is both sickening and sad that it happened.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, I'd never heard of it before either. Ruby found herself caught between her husband
and Dr. Adams in a drastic situation which required desperate measures.

Earl Staggs said...

I'd never heard of Ruby until recently, Susan. The term "Paramour Rights" was actually coined by someone after Ruby's plight came to light. Before that, it was nameless but understood and accepted by everyone in the "old" south. Hard to believe it was still going on in the 1940's.

Larry Chavis said...

It is truly sickening how much human depravity hides under the mask of 'genteel society.' Thanks for this well-written piece, Earl.

Marja said...

I don't know what to say. I'm shocked when I hear stories about how things were handled in the "old days". My heart breaks for Ruby, along with all of the other women (regardless of ethnicity) who were subjected to atrocities in those days.

Earl Staggs said...

You are so right, Larry. Ruby's story certainly proved that things are not always what they seem and people are not always how they appear to be.

Earl Staggs said...

Ruby's story shocked me, Marja. It's nice when we can think of the good "old days" but some of those days were not good at all. If we're smart, we learn from them.

Jan Christensen said...

Amazing and sad story, Earl. I'm curious to know how you found it. Your stories have been fascinating, and I bet you often get lost in the research.

Cindy said...

Great piece, Earl. A heartbreaking look into our past. I wonder if Ruby have that last baby?

Cindy said...

Great piece, Earl. A heartbreaking look into our past. I wonder if Ruby have that last baby?

Earl Staggs said...

Jan, my wife and I watch a lot of true crime documentary shows on TV, and one of them told about Ruby's case. I was fascinated and had to know more. You're right about the research. It's easy to get lost in it. I was surprised to learn I enjoy digging into the past.

Earl Staggs said...

Glad you liked it, Cindy. I saw no mention of that child after Ruby was arrested, and I assumed she had the child. Now I'm curious. If I learn something different, I'll let you know.

Kaye George said...

Absolutely heart-breaking. Poor women, and so many others like her who didn't get to the point of killing the rapists. My race has much to answer for.

Earl Staggs said...

You are absolutely so right, Kaye. Much, much to answer for. You don't want to get me started on what we did to Native Americans.

Kaye George said...

Hey, don't get ME started on that, either!