Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters, the image of the modern jewel thief typically features a dashing leading man who can charm anyone. However, America’s top jewel thief is a Black woman by the name of Doris Payne, who was so infamous at her craft that she was hunted internationally by Interpol.
Ms. Payne, 86, celebrated a birthday on October 10. The Slab Fork W. Va. native was raised the daughter of a Black coal miner and a Cherokee mother. At 13, Payne caught the thievery bug after stealing a watch by distracting a store owner. By the time she reached her 20s, Payne was firmly settled into her life as a career criminal.
According to the 2013 documentary, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, Payne’s crime spree began in early ’50’s when she allegedly walked out of a Pittsburgh store with a diamond worth $22,000. Payne disarmed wary store owners unaccustomed to a Black woman in their stores with her charm and classy image. By the time she regaled the store owner or clerk with her lavish tales, she’d already made off with one or two coveted pieces.
Payne’s most notable theft is when she stole a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo valued at that time at $500,000. Although she was able to get away by traveling to France and then Italy, she was arrested in Nice and served nine months in prison in Monte Carlo. However, the stolen item was never found because she hid the diamond in her girdle.
Despite the several arrests and jail time she’s served over the past sixty-plus years, authorities have had difficulty making charges stick long enough to keep Payne from enacting another clever heist. According to recent interviews, Payne was aware of her crimes but has never expressed remorse nor apologized for her ways.
In 2015, Payne was wanted in connection with the theft of a $33,000 diamond ring in Charlotte’s SouthPark Mall. Later the same year, Payne was charged with lifting a pair of $690 earrings from an Atlanta store in the city’s Buckhead section.
Reports have been published stating that Payne has used over 20 aliases and over 10 different social security numbers. She was wanted in Europe and the United States for her crimes and has stolen an undetermined amount of diamonds, numbering into the tens of millions by some accounts. Her exploits have been fodder in the jewelry industry since the ’70’s.
Payne has little regret about her life and says she did it mostly because it was easy to do, not just for money. While she did use her crimes to support her lifestyle and her two children, she claims to not have made much money doing so and was reportedly homeless as of last year. In a 2016 interview, Payne hopes that if a biopic is made about her life that Scandal actress Kerry Washington plays her in the film. Halle Berry was once attached to Doris Payne biopic, but it’s unclear if that project will move forward.
PHOTOS: Doris Payne mugshots
The Ten Most Interesting Little Known Black History Facts
1. The 6888th Battalion was the largest all Black female military unit in World War 2.Source:U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain 1 of 10
2. The Fultz quadruplets were the first surviving identical African-American quads.Source:Library of Congress/Public Domain 2 of 10
3. The Muse BrothersSource:Public Domain 3 of 10
4. Gerald LawsonSource:Wikipedia/Fair Use 4 of 10
5. Frederick JonesSource:Minnesota Historical Society 5 of 10
6. Sarah RectorSource:Public Domain 6 of 10
7. Sarah BaartmanSource:Public Domain 7 of 10
8. Philippa SchuylerSource:Library of Congress, Public Domain 8 of 10
9. Millie and Christine McKoySource:John H. Fitzgibbon (Collection of Robert E. Green) Public Domain 9 of 10
10. Leonard NimoySource:PR Photos 10 of 10