The Ugly – Doris Payne

This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.

The Ugly – Doris Payne

Yeah, she’s bad, but she’s fun to write about.

Doris Payne

Doris Marie Payne was born in Stab Fork, West Virginia on Oct. 10, 1930, the youngest of six children born to a coal miner and a part-time seamstress. Her father was African American and mother was Cherokee. Apparently her mother was so beautiful that her father would “beat the pretty out of her.” Payne wanted to get her mother out of that situation.

When she was a teen, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. One day, her mother gave her $5 – $2 was for Payne to get her hair straightened and the rest to pay a bill at a local store. The store was owned by Bill Benjamin. After Payne told Benjamin that she was going to get a watch from her mother if she got good grades, he showed her some watches. She tried some on, but as she did, a white customer came in. Not wanting to be seen being nice to a black girl, Benjamin rushed her out the door. When she got to the door, she noticed she was still wearing a watch. She pointed it out to the store owner, who then grabbed it off her wrist. It was then she realized that people forget.

Payne and her friends turned it into a game. She would try on so many watches that the clerk would forget how many she tried on. She would keep one on her arm just to show the clerk how easy it was to steal.

After graduating high school Payne and her mother lived together after her mother left her abusive husband. Payne was pregnant and would give birth to a son and later a daughter. At the time she worked at a nursing home. It was about this time that Payne told her mother that she knew how she could get money for them and explained what she did as a teen with the watches. Her mother disapproved and it was never mentioned again.

Payne started working on her plan. She knew jewelry shops wouldn’t want to help her if she didn’t dress and act the part. She dressed up was a wealthy woman and went to some of the bargain stores, but they played by the rules and would only show one item at a time. At age 23, she took a bus to Pittsburgh and visited a jewelry store there. In no time, she walked out of the store with a $22,000 diamond ring – that’s over $181,000 today. It was so easy, but she didn’t think about how to sell it. She remembered a song about pawn shops so she headed to a broker and offered to sell the ring for one-third the price. She made $7,500 with no questions asked.

Burglary came easy to Payne. She even received help from her boyfriend who would call stores, pretend to be a lawyer, and say he had a wealthy client coming. But for the most part, she was a one woman show. She would come up with a story and the jewelers would believe her. In one case, she went to a fine dress shop wearing a ring she had just stolen. As the sales lady commented on the ring, Payne with crocodile tears said that she had to sell the ring due to a divorce. The sales clerk told the store owner and the owner paid $3,500 for the ring.

In the 1970s, Payne went international. In Monte Carlo she stole a $500,000 platinum diamond ring. As she at the airport in Nice, she was stopped by customs who believed she had the ring. But they could not find it. Authorities kept her in a cheap motel while they searched for the ring. When they were not around, Payne pried the ring from the setting, threw the setting into the Mediterranean Sea, and sewed the diamond in her girdle. She made off with the diamond.

She did get caught a few times with the longest sentence at five years in Colorado in 1998. She stole a $57,000 diamond ring from Neiman Marcus. Stealing the ring, she sold it and went to Europe. The FBI searched her home in Ohio and found $10,000 in cash and several passports. Over the years, she has used at least 22 aliases. But no matter the name she used, she was always pleasant, refined, and sweet – which allowed her to get away with so many thefts.

Doris Payne in 2005
Doris Payne in 2005

At age 75, Payne swore off stealing. But in 2010, she was arrested from removing the tags off of a $1,300 coat, The next year she was sentenced to 16 months in prison for stealing a one carat diamond ring. At age 83, she was arrested for stealing a $22,500 ring. She was sentenced to two years and prison and told to stay away from jewelry stores. She was released early and in 2015 may have stolen a $33,000 ring but she did steal earrings valued at $690. Her most recent arrest was on Dec. 13, 2016 for larceny.



Doris Payne. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 24, 2017, from

Wagner, Angie. (2005, November 11). 75-year-old jewel thief looks back. NBC Retrieved February 24, 2017, from


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