bhm: doris payne, international jewel thief

February 15, 2019
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The jail cell in Monaco overlooked the Mediterranean. She had been arrested, again, on suspicions of stealing the ring she was now disassembling. Doris Payne had hidden the ring from the authorities and was now sewing it into the lining of her griddle, ensuring that it would never be found.

Long before Joanne the Scammer, there was Doris Payne, notorious jewel thief. Payne was born in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1940. Born to a Black father and a Cherokee mother, she grew up in an intensely violent environment where her father beat her mother. Through the abuse, her mother was too poor to leave the man who beat on her as a young Doris watched on. She knew then that she’d never depended on a man in this way and that she would do whatever it took to break free.

By the time the domestic abuse turned bloody, Payne had developed a little trick that she played on store owners around Slab Fork after once being treated less than by a white store owner. At the time, Doris’ mother agreed to buy Doris a watch if she got all A’s in school. And when she did and went to pick out the watch, the store owner attended to her, but only until a white man crossed the threshold of his store. Asking Doris to leave, watch still in her possession, she nearly left before calling out to the store owner that he’d forgotten his watch. And what was a childish attempt to embarrass the man, turned into an adrenaline rush of a game which she showed to her friends. But as things grew worse at home, she turned her sights to actual theft: stealing a piece of jewelry, pawning it, and giving the cash to her mother to leave town.

But stealing jewels and gems wasn’t really a means of survival after that point. For Doris, a lot of it was something of revenge. Doris stole not just for the thrills and cash—she stole to stick it to the White Man. To tell show his cracka ass that she, as a Black woman, could manipulate and outsmart them. To fool them. To turn a poor Black girl from West Virginia into a British trust fund heiress, operating in social circles where, at the time, she would have been working for as a maid.

“Stealing jewelry, it was just exciting. It also became a social outlet for me. That was my everything. I could just be anybody I wanted to be… for a minute.”

Payne’s defiance brought her all around the world, from Geneva, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Berlin, the French Riviera and more. To Cartier, Bulgari, Tiffany, and Chopard. Stealing became an all-access pass into culture and wealth a Black woman of her day couldn’t imagine being a part of. Perhaps it was not the most moral way into this lifestyle, but it damn sure is marvelous to look back on.