The Ruby McCollum Case

I love to hear about cases that happened decades ago that I had never heard of before.  On the flip side of that I also get the most frustrated with those types of cases.  While the stories are interesting generally in many areas and often show us how things were in times past, they also often seem to get a life of their own and it makes it more difficult to determine what is fact, and what is fiction.  This particular case is just such a case.  

On August 3, 1952, prominent African American Live Oak resident, Ruby McCollum walked into the office of Dr (now state senator) Clifford Leroy Adams. By the time she left the exam room to go to her car where two of her four children were waiting for her Dr. Adams lay on the floor with four gun shot wounds.  There was little to no secret as to who was responsible considering there were plenty of witnesses in the waiting room and the office.  Ruby was promptly and swiftly arrested.  Over the decades since the crime there has been much made about the fact that after her arrest instead of being placed in the county jail she was driven nearly fifty miles away to the state prison. Officials say this was for her protection and that she was only there a few short months until her trial began. 

This is the type of case that even today would make "headlines." However, we have to not only put this case into perspective as to the time period in which it occurred but we also need to not just remember how the justice system worked at that time, but also how the media, as well as lay people reacted and responded to things.  First we have to remember this is 1952, in the south.  I mean, there is absolutely no way to tell this story without pointing this out.  You have a black woman accused of murder in the death of a white, well liked, prominent man.  We are talking about a time in which things were 'practiced' that were not discussed but were common knowledge among those who lived there.  Reality is that the only things that likely saved Ruby McCollum from being lynched by the local KKK leaders were that she was a woman and the fact that her husband and his family helped run an illegal gambling organization that all but funded the town.  Her immediate death would likely have caused the townspeople more problems.  They had to be careful though, they had to be sure no-one truly talked about the real issues because the FBI was already investigating the gambling issue in the area.  The best way to settle this manner is to make sure people kept their mouths shut and that "justice" in a court room be found.  I put the word justice in quotes because what occurred could never be construed as a fair trial and very few of the actual issues and reasons for the crime were allowed into the court room.  

I mentioned in my last blog how a prosecution often comes up with a theory in which they believe the crime is committed and often the motive as to why.  It is not uncommon for a prosecutor to bend the facts and evidence to fit their theory but this case is one in which not only did this occurred it appears the judge and others were determined that their theory and story would be the one that would be told.  Thankfully enough of the story made it out, at least eventually, that their theory and motive are in question to this day.

Now, the prosecution wanted the jury (who were all white men, some of who had actually been patients of Dr. Adams) to believe that on August 3, 1952, Ruby entered Dr. Adams office and had an argument with him over a bill she had received and that in the course of this argument she shot and killed him.  A secretary in the office did hear talk of a bill and even Ruby admitted that while there a bill was discussed but no one could prove, or really believe that the motive for this crime was to dispute a bill.  The McCollum's were very wealthy by anyone's standard, black or white.  They were known to be people who paid their bills on time without question and remained in debt to no one.  In fact, it was said that on the day of the crime Ruby carried about $1,800 in her purse. While the amount, as well as the reasoning, of the bill have never fully been resolved, most reports say that the bill was in the amount of likely $116.00. That being said it hardly seems that a woman who has $1,800 on her person would shoot a man, while witnesses are within hearing shot and her children waited for her in the car over a measly amount of $116.  It seems this was mentioned often among those who dared to whisper about the story.  I will come back to this supposed bill and the rumors surrounding what it was for at a later time.  

During the trial, just as everything else in 1952, especially in the south, the court room was segregated.  While KKK members sat out in the open watching the proceedings, members of the black community, including journalists were relegated to the back and/or upper areas where they were not only less seen but also unable to observe as well.  I mean, come on, is it not more important that we keep our African American "neighbors" in the dark as to what is really going on?  We would not want them to actually figure things out and protest.  By the way, for any of you who may question that, that is sarcasm, but it really was the thinking of the day.  

Reality is that the prosecution had their "man" or woman in this case.  Not only had their been witnesses (at least hearing ones) to the incident but Ruby had confessed to shooting Dr. Adams.  The trial really was expected to be a simple formality in which she would be convicted and life would go on as normal.  As much as the prosecution, the jury and the judge tried to make this possible they luckily failed, just enough at least to spare this woman's life, and get enough of her story out to leave questions. 

Ruby's defense was straight forward.  Although not all of it made into the trial, her claim was that over the years Dr. Adams had been sexually assaulting her and in fact he was the biological father of her youngest child.  She also claimed that at the time of the shooting she was pregnant once again with Dr. Adams' child.  While she did admit discussing a bill with him in his office, she stated that she shot him when he once again was attempting to rape her and would not agree to stop.  Now, this is all that she stated that actually made it into the trial.  She, and her attorney's attempted to say more but there were repeated objections from the prosecution that were sustained by the judge that her testimony seemed "choppy." This tactic was also used with other witnesses for both sides.  For example when the defense questioned the office assistant who overheard the argument in the exam room she began to say that this was not the first argument that she had heard between Ruby and Dr. Adams. But, the prosecution argued that was not relevant and the judge agreed. What did make what little Ruby could get into the court remarkable was that never before had there been an instance in which a black woman was able to testify against a white man (although this white man was dead), or discuss that she had been sexually assaulted in any way in court.  There was a "hush hush" attitude about something called "paramour rights" and this trial shined a bright light on this subject.

You have to live under a rock to not know that dating back to ancient times the practice of white men taking black women as mistresses was a common occurrence.  Of course one of the biggest stories surrounded is issue is with Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, who was actually the half sister of his wife.  Sally's father had been the slave owner to her mother, just as Jefferson was her slave owner and the father of her children.  This was such a common occurrence that laws  were enacted to ensure that children born to slave women were not given any rights and they themselves were considered to be slaves.  It was common knowledge that this went on, but everyone pretended it was a secret, even nearly two centuries later. In fact, it seems that in this case no one seemed to dispute that Ruby's youngest child, Loretta, was in fact, Dr. Adams' child.  It was likely another of those open secrets as it was said that Loretta had fairer skin than her siblings and looked much different. 

Aside from the claim that Loretta was in fact Adams' child the defense was prevented from allowing any other testimony relating to the relationship between Ruby and Dr. Adams except those from the day of the shooting.  The judge had even issued a gag order pertaining to Ruby and her attorneys.  The prosecution had no such order.  Over the last 50 plus decades it has been widely disputed as to the reasoning behind the order.  Some say it was to keep Ruby quiet on matter pertaining to her relationship with Dr. Adams while others say it was to prevent her, or her through her lawyers, to mention anything about the illegal gambling and racketeering going on in the town.  There were still others that believe it was ordered so as to prevent any other "small town secrets" let out or the reputation of Dr. Adams to be tarnished.  At the time of his death he was looked upon with much admiration, at least publicly.  I am sure there were circles around town that talked about the more unsavory side of Dr. Adams.  He had come from a very prominent and wealthy family and he was known to help the poor when needed. In fact, he was one of the few white doctors in the area who treated people of all races. It was apparently discovered many years after his death however, that he had forged letters of recommendation in order to enter medical school, so maybe he was not as well liked as everyone thought.

In the end the trial was just a formality anyways and on December 20, 1952 Ruby was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.  Then in July 20, 1954 an appeals court overturned the conviction based on the fact that the judge had not accompanied the jury when they were taken to the crime scene.  Yeah, that seems rather weak, but at least it worked.  I mean why not overturn it because the judge, Hal W. Adams (no relation to Dr. Adams) had been an honorary pallbearer at Dr. Adams' funeral?  Why not overturn it on the fact that some of the jury members were patients of Dr. Adams?  Why not overturn it because the man who performed the autopsy on Dr. Adams was his associate, Dillard Workman, who had helped him gain his senate seat as well as had been Ruby's doctor when she was pregnant with Loretta?  There were so many reasons to overturn this obviously bias conviction based on an unfair trial but let's just say we'll do it because the judge was not present when the jury observed the crime scene.... UGH!

So as the prosecutor and Ruby's defense began to prepare for a second trial, her lawyer Frank Cannon decided to have her mentally evaluated and when the time came to enter a plea, a plea of insanity was entered.  It was Cannon's claim that the over two years Ruby had spent in prison so diminished her mental ability she could barely function.  The court also decided to have her evaluated.  One of the doctors that evaluated Ruby was one Dillard Workman.  Yes, the same Dillard Workman who had been involved in her previous trial.  To Ruby's defense it seems all the doctors, including Workman, agreed with Cannon and she was unfit to stand trial.  So instead of being sent to prison she was committed to a state mental hospital, you know, those you see dramatized for the criminally insane. She would have likely spent the rest of her life there but in 1974 Frank Cannon petitioned the court to have her released under what was called the Baker Act (aka Florida Mental Health Act of 1971).  It has been revised over the years but basically it was an early law based on what we often hear called a "5150" (which is actually the term more accurate in California).  This is where a doctor (or judge, or even a law enforcement office, at least at the time) can order someone to be committed against their will, started out on a 72 hour hold.  By law they were allowed to keep someone until they are deemed to no longer be a risk to themselves or others.  Frank Cannon successfully argued this for Ruby and she was released in 1974 after twenty years in the institution.  

My research first indicated that immediately upon her release she went into a nursing home in Silver Springs Florida but later research indicated that she may have spent a few years somewhere else first.  Was she with a child?  I cannot say.  Author William Bradford Huie had written a book about Ruby near the time of her trial and had paid Ruby about $40,000 for the rights to her story.  This was long before laws that prevented a convicted person to financially gain from their crimes, but then again one has to wonder if there was an actual conviction on her record.  She granted her first interview about the case in 1980 to an Oscala newspaper journalist.  The problem is that she claimed to remember nothing about the crime and very little about the trial at that time.  We have to consider that she was 70 years old at the time.  Some psychiatrists claimed she may have suffered from what is called Ganser Syndrome.  This is where the mind has the ability to suppress bad memories and all but protect their sanity.  Others argue that during her time in the institution they had been investigated many times over their treatment of patients.  We have to remember that Ruby was a patient at a time in which electro-shock and over medication was the norm.  Ruby died of a stroke at the age of 82 and was buried next to her brother and his wife in Live Oak.

I will update you on some of the other players in this story in a bit but first I want to go back to the day of the crime and discuss that bill again.  Keep in mind that this case is over 60 years old and that some things came out way later, whether it was due to how the trial was conducted, or people finally opening up, some of things may end up being more legend than truth but should still be mentioned.  As I stated earlier, the McCollum's were the wealthiest black family in the area and most of that money came from the illegal gambling business Sam McCollum ran with his brother. The McCollum's also owned a farm on the other side of town where they grew tobacco.  This was probably a front business to explain to those who really cared to look closely where the money they had was coming from.  To put into perspective just how wealthy they were, in 1952, at the time of the crime, the McCollum's oldest child, Sam Jr. was attending college at UCLA. This was likely unheard of and a rarity.  At any rate, there were, or have been rumors, that Sam Sr. was not exactly the nicest, nor faithful man on the planet when it came to Ruby. There has been speculation over the years that the bill that Ruby was discussing with Dr. Adams on the day of the shooting may have actually been a bill addressed to Sam Sr. in which Dr. Adams had performed an abortion on one of Sam's mistresses.  It is theorized that this enraged Ruby because she had attempted to have Dr. Adams perform an abortion on her when she was pregnant with Lucille and he had refused.  Of course, no one knows if this was true or not partially because the day after the shooting Sam Sr. took the children to Zuber Florida where Ruby's mother lived to keep the children safe and he promptly died there of a heart attack. 

William Bradfor Huie, who it should be noted never personally spoke to Ruby, first because of the said gag order, and then for unknown reasons, had a bit of a different take in his book when it came to the relationship between Ruby and Dr. Adams.  It was his theory that was mentioned in a 2015 documentary called "You Belong To Me."  Huie claimed that the relationship was consensual but also surrounded around drugs.  It was his claim that Dr. Adams injected Ruby with some sort of drug (I am unsure that he clarifies or even says what that drug is) and she became addicted.  He is unclear as to whether this was something that Ruby had and continued to ask for or if it was something Dr. Adams used to control her.  Once again this is a theory, one in which has never been confirmed nor will it be. 

The one thing that I found very interesting about this case is that I found many areas in which people involved in the case, as well as with Ruby, were given updates on their lives, but not a single one mentioned anything about Lucille, the daughter Ruby claimed was conceived by Dr. Adams. Ruby's oldest child, Sam Jr. apparently did not seem to do a lot after attending UCLA.  Then again I cannot confirm that he continued his studies after his mother was arrested and his father died. At the time of Ruby's trial in 1952 the FBI as in town and investigating the gambling business that was alluded to.  They had also brought in the IRS.  It was claimed that at some point they seized about $250,000 but that most of that was returned after the IRS got a share.  Sam Jr. was convicted of ten counts related to gambling and apparently spent a few years in jail.  On the day of his release in 1978 his sister Kay was going to pick him up and was involved in a car accident in which she died.  The following year Ruby's daughter Sonja died of a heart attack.  At the time that Ruby was interviewed in 1980 it was said that Sam Jr. lived on the old McCollum estate in Live Oak but that even before the two daughter's death's her children did not visit her often. While she claimed to have little memory of things Ruby said she remembered that she used to have money at some time but she had no idea what happened to any of it.  In fact it was believed that when Sam Sr. took the children to her mother's and then almost immediately died of a heart attack he had $80,000 on him (a HUGE sum of money at that time and era) but no one knows what happened to it.  In 1977 the prosecutor from the case, Keith Black, was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with gambling and racketeering in the area.  He soon after had a severe heart attack and charges were dropped.  

No one will ever know for sure just what happened between Ruby and Dr. Adams but I think that most would agree that any relationship between them would not have been based on affection.  While some argue that the relationship was consensual I believe that if it was it was only in the sense that she did not fight considering the unspoken code and what was expected of her in that era. It is not like she could have gone to the police and reported him and expected anything to be done. In the end this case did put a light on that behavior, even if it was temporarily. One of the things I found even more interesting than the story involved was how the justice system was handled at that time, or at least in this case. Not only was it far from a fair trial with it's contents that was, and was not allowed but some of the players should have, and today would be, dismissed and not allowed to be associated with the trial.  Frank Cannon had asked for a change of venue but that was denied. They all needed to protect their interests and they needed to make sure their secrets did not leave their little town and a lid kept on most of them as much as possible.

Comments

  1. Did Loretta McCallum- Adams change her name? Was she sent out of the USA under a gag order from the government? Does she live unaware of her identity?

    ReplyDelete

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