A.K.A.: "The Zardad's Dog"
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: "Crime of passion"
Number of victims: 5
Date of murder: August 6, 1996
Date of arrest: Same day (wounded by police)
Date of birth: 1941
A.K.A.: "The Giggling Grandma"
Birth name: Nancy Hazel
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - To collect insurance money - Search for "the real romance of life"
Number of victims: 8 - 11
Date of murder: 1920s - 1954
Date of arrest: October 1954
Date of birth: November 4, 1905
Victim profile: Four of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her grandson Robert and her mother-in-law, Arlie Lanning's mother
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Alabama/North Carolina/Kansas/Oklahoma, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty on May 17, 1955, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Died of leukemia in the hospital ward of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on June 2, 1965
On the outside Nannie Doss of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a friendly and happy neighbor, wife, and parent. On the inside lurked a cold-blooded murderess who nearly wiped out her entire family singlehandedly.
Her first victims her own children. Her first husband, George Frazer arrived home one day in 1920 and found the kids lying on the kitchen floor dead. Doss claimed it had been an accidental poisoning but evidently Frazer was not convinced. He left and never went back.
Relatives and husbands continued to die of "stomach problems" and other such ailments until Doss' fifth husband, Samuel Doss sudenly passed away.
The doctor in the case was not as gullible as the previous ones were evidently and didn't simply take Doss at her word. He ordered an autopsy be done, which revealed massive doses of arsenic in the man's system.
The bodies of doss' husbands, relatives, and children were exhumed and tested. It was found that Doss' two infant children, four of her husbands, two of her sisters, her mother, and a nephew had all been killed by arsenic poisoning.
Armed with this information police soon convinced the poisoner to confess and she was sent to prison for life in 1964. She succumbed to Leukemia the following year.
Doss, Nanny Hazel
A daughter of Dixie, born in 1905, Nanny Doss had been molested by a string of local men before she reached her middle teens. At age 16, she married Charles Braggs, bearing him four children in rapid succession. Braggs was mystified when two of them died suddenly, a few months apart, but Nanny could offer no explanation. Each child had seemed healthy when Charles left for work, but they cried at his leaving and died in convulsions not long after breakfast.
Small insurance payments eased the pain, but Braggs became increasingly suspicious of his wife. One afternoon, he took their oldest living child and struck off for parts unknown, leaving Nanny behind with their daughter, Florine. Packing up their meager belongings, Nanny moved to Cedar Town, Georgia, where she met and subsequently married Frank Harrelson. Florine was barely two years old when Harrelson and Nanny hit the road, leaving the child alone in their abandoned house. Neighbors managed to track down Charles Braggs and he came for the child, but Nanny would not see her daughter again for nine years.
Their reunion evidently smoothed things over, and by 1945, Florine now married -- felt secure enough to leave her infant son at Nanny's home in Jacksonville, Alabama, while Florine took off to see her father. Baby Lee survived three days in Nanny's care, his death producing anguished speculation that he accidentally "got hold of some rat poison." Three months later, Frank Harrelson fell suddenly ill and died within the week. Nanny used the insurance money to buy ten acres of land and build a small house for herself outside Jacksonville.
The early 1950s were a lethal time for Nanny's relatives. Her third husband, Arlie Lanning, died at Lexington, North Carolina, in 1952. A few months later, in January 1953, her mother died while Nanny nursed the woman for a broken hip. Two of her sisters died the same year, in different towns; each collapsed while Nanny was visiting, each with the same mysterious symptoms of stomach cramps and convulsions. In 1953, it was husband number four -- Richard Morton -- laid to rest at Emporia, Kansas.
Nanny married her fifth and last husband, Samuel Doss, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during July 1954. He died a month later, and the obligatory autopsy revealed enough arsenic to kill twenty men. Confronted with the evidence of guilt, Nanny Doss issued confessions spanning three decades and at least ten murders, drawing a term of life imprisonment for the Tulsa case in 1955. She served ten years before succumbing to leukemia in 1965.
Throughout her various confessions and the years in jail, Nanny insisted that money played no significant role in her crimes. Despite various insurance payments, her murders were actually motivated by marital boredom, a dream of discovering the ideal husband, as described in her favorite "True Romance" magazines. "That's about it," Nanny told her interrogators. "I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life."
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
Nannie Doss (November 4, 1905 – June 2, 1965) was a serial killer responsible for the deaths of eleven people between the 1920s and 1954.
She finally confessed to the murders in October 1954, when her fifth husband had died in a small hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In all, it was revealed that she had killed four husbands, two children, her two sisters, her mother, a grandson and a nephew.
Doss was born in Blue Mountain, Alabama as Nancy Hazle, to James and Lou Hazle. Nannie was one of five children; she had one brother and three sisters. Both Nannie and her mother hated James, who was a strict, often controlling father and husband with a nasty streak. There is evidence that Doss was conceived illegitimately, as James and Lou married after 1905; census records also show that in 1905 she and her mother were living on their own.
She had an unhappy childhood. She was a poor student who never learned to read well; her education was erratic because her father forced his children to work on the family farm instead of attending school. When she was around seven years old, the family was taking a train to visit relatives in southern Alabama; when the train stopped suddenly, Nannie hit her head on the metal bar on the seat in front of her. For years after, she suffered severe headaches, blackouts and depression; she blamed these and her mental instability on that accident.
During childhood, her favorite hobby was reading her mother's romance magazines and dreaming of her own romantic future. Later, her favorite part was the lonely hearts column. The Hazle sisters' teenage years were restricted by their father; he forbade them to wear makeup and attractive clothing. He was trying to prevent them from being molested by men, which happened on several occasions. He also forbade them to go to dances and other social events.
Doss was first married at age sixteen, to Charlie Braggs. They had met at the Linen Thread factory where they both worked, and with her father's approval they married after dating for just four months. He was the only son of his unmarried mother, who insisted on living with them. Doss later wrote
I married, as my father wished, in 1921 to a boy I only knowed about four or five months who had no family, only a mother who was unwed and who had taken over my life completely when we were married. She never seen anything wrong with what he done, but she would take spells. She would not let my own mother stay all night...
Braggs' mother took up a lot of his attention, and she often prevented Nannie from doing things she wanted to do. The marriage produced four daughters over a four-year period of 1923–1927. Under a lot of stress, Doss started drinking and her casual smoking habit became a heavy addiction. The marriage was an unhappy one, and both suspected each other, correctly, of infidelity. Braggs often disappeared for days on end. In early 1927, they lost their two middle daughters to suspected food poisoning. Suspecting she had killed them, he fled from her, taking eldest daughter Melvina with him and leaving newborn Florine behind. His mother also died around this time. Doss took a job in a cotton mill to support Florine and herself.
Braggs returned in the summer of 1928, with him and Melvina was another woman, a divorcée with her own child. Doss and Braggs soon divorced, and she returned to her mother's home taking her two daughters with her. He always maintained he left her because he was frightened of her.
Living and working in Anniston, Doss soothed her loneliness by reading True Romance and other such reading matter. She also resumed poring over the lonely hearts column, and wrote to men advertising there. A particular advert that interested her was that of Robert (Frank) Harrelson, a 23-year-old factory worker from Jacksonville. He sent her romantic poetry, and she sent him a cake. They met and married in 1929, when she was 24, 2 years after her divorce from Braggs. They lived together in Jacksonville, with Doss's two surviving daughters. After a few months, she discovered that he was alcoholic and had a criminal record for assault. Despite this, the marriage lasted sixteen years.
Melvina, Doss's oldest daughter, gave birth to Robert Lee Haynes in 1943. Doss came to help, and after a painful few hours a baby boy was born, but died soon after. Melvina, exhausted from labor and groggy from ether, thought she saw Doss stick a hatpin into the baby's head, and later told Mosie and Florine. They told her how Nannie had said the baby was dead, and they noticed she was holding a pin. However, the doctors could not come up with an explanation for the death. After this, Melvina and Mosie drifted apart and Melvina began to date a soldier. Doss disapproved of him, and while Melvina was visiting her father after a particularly nasty fight with Doss, her son Robert died mysteriously under Doss's care on July 7, 1945. The cause of the death was diagnosed as asphyxia from unknown causes, and two months later she collected the $500 life insurance she had taken out on Robert.
Death of Frank
In 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied powers at the end of World War II, and Harrelson, Doss' second husband, was one of the many people who celebrated rather robustly. After an evening of particularly heavy drinking, he raped Doss. The following day, as she was tending her rose garden, Doss discovered Harrelson's corn whiskey jar buried in the ground. The rape had been the last straw for her, so she took the jar and topped it off with rat poison. Harrelson died a painful death that evening.
Doss met her third husband whilst travelling in Lexington, North Carolina. He was Arlie Lanning and she married him within three days of meeting him through another lonely hearts column. Lanning was in many ways like his predecessor, Harrelson: he was an alcoholic and a womanizer. However, in this marriage, it was Doss who often disappeared for months on end. When she was at home, however, she played a doting housewife, and when her husband died of what was said to be heart failure, the whole town turned up to his funeral in support of her.
Afterwards, the house the couple lived in burned to the ground. It had been left to Lanning's sister, and had it survived it would have gone to her. As it happened, the insurance money went to Doss, and she quickly banked it. She soon left North Carolina, but only after Lanning's elderly mother had died in her sleep. She ended up at her sister Dovie's home. Dovie was bedridden and soon after Doss's arrival she died.
Doss had joined the Diamond Circle Club, looking for another husband. She had met Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas. While he did not have the drinking problem of his predecessors, he was a womanizer. Before she could poison him, she ended up poisoning her mother, Louisa, on January 1953 when she came to live with them. Morton met his death three months later.
Doss met and married Samuel Doss, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1953. A clean-cut, churchgoing man, he disapproved of the romance novels and stories that Nannie adored. In September, Samuel was admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. The hospital diagnosed a severe digestive tract infection. He was treated and released on October 5. Nannie killed him that evening in her rush to collect the two life insurance policies she had taken out on him. This sudden death alerted his doctor, who ordered an autopsy. The autopsy revealed a huge amount of arsenic in his system. Nannie was promptly arrested.
Confession and conviction
Nannie confessed to killing four of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her grandson Robert and her mother-in-law, Arlie Lanning's mother. The state of Oklahoma centered its case only on Samuel Doss. The prosecution found her mentally fit for trial. Nannie pleaded guilty on May 17, 1955, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The state did not pursue the death penalty due to her gender. Doss was never charged with the other deaths. She died of leukemia in the hospital ward of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1965.
Oklahoma’s Jolly Widow (also known as the original Black widow)
Nannie Hazle,(Hazel), a.k.a. Nancy Hazle, born to Louisa Holder and Jim Hazle (Hazel), about 1905, in Anniston, Blue Mountain, Alabama.
A skeleton in our ancestral closet, but an ancestor none the less.
During the course of genealogical research we come across many people, some notorious for their acts of bravery, some for unlawful deeds, and some who are just plain people like ourselves.
Nannie Doss was one of those people whose deeds will forever be recorded in our history, however cold and malicious they may have been. How could this pretty, romantic girl and later a soft-voiced woman still seeking the “perfect love” lead an incredible saga of murder by poison for over 28 years leaving a trail of victims across half the country before arousing suspicion? This is a puzzle still left unsolved by authorities.
Arrested in 1954 for murder by poison of her present husband and possibly the murder of another, the investigators had no idea what a web they were about to unweave that had been woven by the “Black Widow”
Called the Jolly Widow by many, because of her cheerful disposition, her last victim was the unfortunate Samuel Doss of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sam and Nannie were married in July of 1954 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shortly after that Doss became ill, after a trip to the Hospital, Doss’ condition continued to worsen and by October 1954 he was dead.
After several weeks of investigation into the death of Sam Doss, Oklahoma police had enough evidence to arrest Nannie Doss for the murder of Doss and possibly another.
Nannie faced her interrogators with equanimity on November 26th, 1954 when she was arrested She laughed at the accusation, always stating, “my conscience is clear”. “I married these men because I loved them”.
She told the detectives, “I have never poisoned anyone”. That she read a lot of love story magazines and that her favorite television programs “are of amour”, seems she favored the sophisticated sound of the word. “I’m sure I’ll find my perfect mate yet”, she told the officers. All through the night and into early morning , in two-man teams, detectives questioned the “Jolly Widow”.
During these intervals, she would remove her horn-rimmed glasses stating, “I’m not near or far sighted”, she explained she only wore them for the headaches.
“I’ve had terrible headaches all my life, or rather from the time I was seven. That was when the train hit the buggy I was riding in and I was thrown out”. The smiling suspect never once lost her composure and wore out four teams before they gave up for the night.
While the officers took a few hours of grateful rest, a new force had entered their side of the battle.
Newspapers and wire services had spread the word that Nannie Doss was being questioned in at least one and possibly two deaths caused by poisoning.
By sunrise the Oklahoma police phone was jumping off the hook , more evidence was pouring in by the second against Nannie. Stories of other men Nannie had been married to who had met untimely deaths , the deaths of her sisters while in her care, mysterious death of two of her young daughters, and even the death of her own mother was being questioned. This story began to grow, hour by hour , in length and horror. Apparently anything or anyone that annoyed “Arsenic Nannie” was sure to have a death warrant signed with their name on it.
Once again, the interrogation began, this time the investigators were armed with evidence against her.
Sometime during the next seven hours, she faltered and at times a self-conscience giggle heralded a small admission, “I lied about that”. At last she weakened and admitted that she had poisoned Sam Doss. he had begun to annoy her shortly after their marriage. She stated she felt sorry for him, when she should have felt sorry for herself. “I didn’t know what I was getting into”.
Some of the “little things” he annoyed her with was having to go to bed at dark, and “he wouldn’t let me have a television set or radio or even a fan in the house. She quoted Doss with “Ive been a Christian man all my life and you’re going to be a Christian woman. You don’t need a radio and television.
This “got on her nerves” so bad that she put an inch of rat poison in Doss’ coffee. She apparently overestimated the dose, causing him to retch so violently it saved his life. Afterwards she was “nursing” him back to health and reportedly stated that he was a mean as ever. Again she poisoned his food, that day he died.
After Nannie signed the confession, the investigators began the task of leading this extraordinary woman, like a clock running backwards , over her trail of murders. She would admit a chilling crime and the back off on a minor detail. Her final words on Doss were, “now my conscience is clear”.
She claimed to have met husband #4, Richard Morton, in Birmingham, Al at the bus station. Morton was a 69 yr old native of Emporia, Kansas, after a long period of questioning, she admitted to having poisoned Morton in 1953 as well. Her reason for his death..”he had been making me mad ‘shining up to other women”.
After she signed this confession, once again she stated “ Now my conscience is clear”.
The expectant officers were disappointed when the floodgates of Nannie’s soul did not open up. Without rancor, she continued to verbally fence with the investigators until they trapped her with new confessions. This brought out the confession of the murder of husband #3, Arlie Lanning resident of Lexington, NC. Married in 1952.
Her brow was darkened with one of her infrequent frowns when she recalled the provocation’s that led to the fate of Lanning.
This marriage was the longest of all, five years. He crossed the fatal line in 1952. “He was a womanizer” and “He started running with other women”, she stated. Shortly afterward, she confessed to murdering Lanning with poison. Once again, “Now my conscience is clear”.
The investigators gently led Nannie into a discussion of Frank Harreslon, husband #3, who’s murder would be her first so far as present admissions went. She claims they were married in 1937 in Jacksonville, Al. but, Harrelson’s brother claims they were married in 1945, the year of Harrelson’s death.
Nannie stated she married him for love but, that was a disappointment. “I found out that he was a jailbird and a drunkard”.
Then she enlightened them on that story, “One Sunday I was at my mothers and Frank’s brother showed up stating that Frank wanted to see me”. Frank had been out all night the night before drinking. She went with the brother to the edge of town, where she found him passed out from too much to drink.
After driving him home and helping him inside, she states that “He wanted me to go to bed with him, I refused” Frank then replied, “My God woman, I may not be here next Sunday to go to bed with”. After thinking about what he said, “I went and got the whiskey bottle out of the flour bin in the kitchen and poured poison into it, I thought I’ll just teach him a lesson”.
The next morning the bottle was empty and Frank was sick all week,, by Sunday he was dead. When the investigator asked her, “How’s your conscience now”? She replied, “CLEAR”.
No amount of prodding could evoke more confessions from her. Her soft reply was “You can dig up all the graves in the world and you won’t get anything more on me”.
Although exhumation of more bodies proved that the deaths had been from poisoning, No more confessions were forthcoming.
Returning Nannie to the time when she was a wild and pretty girl of 15 in her home town of Blue Mountain, Al where she met and married Charlie Braggs, it became apparent that she may have included children in her lethal activities. Braggs is known as “the one who got away”.
Unfortunately, not before two of their young daughters died mysteriously. He stated “she was always running off with this man and the other”, he divorced her after one of her escapades when she returned home bringing another man home with her The only statement from Nannie of Braggs was, “she was forced to leave him because of him running around with other women”.
Braggs said he was afraid of Nannnie, as was his family. He never ate or drank anything that she had prepared when she was in a foul mood..
After all was said and done, Nannie appeared as “fresh as a Daisy”. she laughingly outlined a meal complete with coffee she would like to prepare for them.
When ask what she thought they should do with her for poisoning all those people, her answer was,” why anything they like”, she answered calmly, “Anything they do is perfectly all right with me”.
Four confessed murders and at least eight that were still under investigation? What could have cause Nannie to commit such hideous crimes? And some her own children and grandchildren, her sisters, and even her mother and possibly her father. Did she commit even more crimes? After all these years the answer may never be known.
We know that had she continued on, even more would have fallen prey to her. Before Doss died she was corresponding with a farmer in NC, for whom she and baked a cake and mailed to him. he was anxiously awaiting the day when they would meet.
There was even a period unaccounted for in her life where it is believed she lived in New York and Idaho and was possibly married to a man named Hendrix..... did he fall prey to Nannie’s temperament as well?
Was it the head injury as small child, due to the time and era, that possibly lacked for medical attention that could have caused her to be a murderess? We will never know.
Although Nannie’s education is believed to not have reached past the sixth grade, and she probably never read “The purloined Letter’, yet she unerringly executed the bold psychology advocated in that famous story.
She moved so openly and with such guilelessness that she was never questioned although victims dropped around her like winter’s snow.
We are not accountable for our ancestors actions, however it is strongly believed that knowing about them helps us to understand more about ourselves.
It is believed that Nannie died in an Oklahoma Prison for Women, still looking for that “Perfect Love”.
The Giggling Grandma
Nannie Doss, dubbed by the popular press of the time as “The Giggling Grandma” and “Arsenic Annie,” loved to read the pulp magazine True Romance, and she spent most of her life searching for “the real romance of life.”
However, when Nannie didn’t find the love affair she was seeking, she had a strange way of ending the relationship.
Nannie enjoyed killing, and it didn’t matter who the victim was. Born Nancy Hazle and known popularly by the moniker “Nannie,” she was linked to the murders of four husbands, her mother, two sisters, two of her children, a grandchild, and a nephew. She had a successful 30-year murder spree in several states across the south before she was finally brought to justice.
“Very likely there were others who also sampled Nannie’s stewed prunes,” wrote criminologist Eric W. Hickey. “Each of her victims died agonizing deaths after being fed large amounts of rat poison laced with arsenic.”
Nannie was first married in 1921 when she was 15 years old. It turns out that that husband, who by various accounts is named Charles Bragg, Charles Braggs, and George Frazer, was the only one of her five husbands who managed to survive marriage with Nannie. Three of their five children weren’t so lucky. (Hickey uses Charles Bragg as the name of her first husband, while Colin Wilson uses Frazer. Sherby Green, a relative of Nannie, reports that her first husband was Charles Braggs.)
Nannie’s first marriage lasted eight years and according to Bragg(s)/Frazer was stormy from the beginning. Nannie was an insatiable lover who apparently had never heard of the word “fidelity.” She also had a vicious streak that Bragg(s)/Frazer described as “high-tempered and mean.”
“When she got mad I wouldn’t eat anything she fixed or drink anything around the house,” he told reporters years later.
It was his opinion that the only thing that kept him alive was the fact that he was uninsured. When the law finally caught up with Nannie, however, she scoffed at the idea that her motive was money. The meager insurance she did collect backs up her claim that something other than money drove Nannie to kill.
Before her relationship with husband number one ended, one of their children died very shortly after birth, and two others died when they were very young. Some anecdotes report that husband number one returned home one day to find the children writhing in agony on the floor of the cabin that served as a home. There is no evidence to confirm this, however.
“Back at the time, I didn’t know about poison,” Bragg/Frazer said. “The undertakers told me at the time that they were poisoned.”
Nannie and Charles Bragg/George Frazer divorced in 1929, but Nannie wasn’t ready to play the gay divorcee. Placing an advertisement in a lonely hearts magazine, she quickly hooked up with Robert F. Harrelson and the two were wed.
They stayed together for 16 years until Nannie decided the romance had gone out their relationship. One day, Harrelson up and died and when Nannie told the coroner that Harrelson was an “awful drunkard,” the coroner ruled the manner of death to be natural and put down “acute alcoholism” as the cause. Harrelson was buried near his two-year-old grandson.
It wouldn’t be for many years that Nannie would admit that she ended the marriage by putting rat poison in Harrelson’s corn whiskey. At the same time, she admitted that their two-month old grandson “just might have gotten hold of some rat poison.”
Harrelson knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. He did, however, see impending doom.
“I’ll be next,” he said at his grandson’s funeral.
In 1947, two years after burying Harrelson, Nannie met and married Arlie J. Lanning in North Carolina. He managed to avoid the stewed prunes for five years before Nannie dispatched him. She later said she did so because he “was running around with other women.” Just before Lanning died, a nephew living with him died “of food poisoning.”
In 1953, Nannie, using the tried-and-true stewed prune recipe murdered Lanning’s elderly mother with whom she was living.
Later that year, again through a lonely hearts magazine, Nannie met and married Richard C. Morton, Sr. That marriage lasted just four months before Morton died.
Again, when she was finally brought to justice, Nannie blamed Morton’s womanizing as the cause of her anger.
Nannie collected five life insurance policies on Morton, worth $1,400 (approximately $10,600 adjusted for inflation over 52 years).
In the summer of 1954, the 49-year-old Nannie married Samuel Doss, 58 after the two met through a lonely hearts magazine and began corresponding. After they were married Samuel Doss repeatedly became ill with stomach ailments and in October he ended up in the hospital with a severe stomach ache. When Sam Doss recovered and went home, Nannie fixed him a bowl of stewed prunes
Sam was dead the next day. He and Nannie had been married four months. (Nannie admitted feeding Doss the prunes around the time of his death, but some accounts have her confessing that the final dose of poison was administered in a cup of coffee).
Sam’s doctor couldn’t understand how his patient had died so quickly when he was on the mend in the hospital and suggested an autopsy be performed.
However, at that time most states had had a very rudimentary murder investigation process and a great deal of authority was vested in justices of the peace who also served as coroners. Most of these men were lawyers or morticians and had little training in death scene investigations.
“They’d walk around it and then come out in the front yard and talk about it, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah. Old Harry killed himself. It’s a suicide.’ Then the justice of the peace would sign off on it,” Ray Blakeney, a former medical examiner told the Daily Oklahoman in a retrospective on Nannie’s case.
In Oklahoma, authorities who wanted to perform an autopsy needed the permission of the family or a court order if there was probably cause to suspect foul play.
Dr. N.Z. Schwelbein didn’t know if foul play was to blame, but that problem was solved when Nannie for some reason eagerly agreed to an autopsy.
“Of course there should be,” she reportedly said. “It might kill someone else.”
Little did authorities know, but Nannie was already corresponding with a man who she desired as husband number six.
John H. Keel, a 60-year-old milkman from Goldsboro, North Carolina had been exchanging letters with Nannie for some time.
“I’m mighty proud I didn’t meet her and she didn’t come down here,” he told investigators when they contacted him. “From now on I am through with these women who make their matches by mail.”
When the results of Sam Doss’s autopsy came back, authorities found enough arsenic in his stomach to kill 10 people. Nanie played dumb.
“How could such a thing happen?” she asked. “My conscience is clear.”
Unsatisfied, but still unsure if Nannie was to blame, police began digging into her past. They found a string of deaths connected to Nannie Doss and confronted her.
She was caught in a lie when asked about Richard Morton, saying she had never heard of the man.
“Well, I guess I wasn’t telling the truth,” Nannie confessed with a coy giggle. “I was married to him.”
Over the course of the next couple of days, police were shocked by her continuous string of confessions. She was adamant, however, that she only poisoned people “who deserved it” and none of the deaths of her relatives were due to poisoning.
“I never did feed that stuff to my blood kin,” she claimed. The facts showed otherwise. Belated autopsies of her mother who died in in 1953 and a sister who passed on in 1950 both had massive amounts of arsenic in their systems.
Police were amazed at the joy Nannie took in confessing her crimes and reliving the details of her husbands’ deaths. She laughed and giggled like a schoolgirl recounting the events of a pleasant summer vacation, and often gave bizarre little asides that demonstrated her lack of compassion.
“He sure did love those stewed prunes,” she said about one husband.
On May 18, 1955, Nannie Doss pleaded guilty to Sam’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
“Take it easy,” she told her daughter as she was taken away to prison. “Don’t worry. I’m not.”
Nannie died of leukemia in 1965 at the age of 59.
Nannie Doss: Lonely Hearts Lady Loved Her Men to Death
by Joseph Geringer
Recipe for Death
Nannie's Apple & Prune Pie
Approx. Time: 45 minutes
Oven: 350 degree baking temp.
Ingredients: 1 c. water, 1 c. flour, 1/2 c. butter, 3 eggs, pinch of sugar, 4 apples sliced, 1 c dried prunes, dash of granulated sugar, 5 tablespoons rat poison
* Bring to boil water, butter, sugar. At boil, stir in flour.
* Over low heat, continue to stir until able to form doughy ball. Into dough, mix egg mixture (well beaten) until ball is smooth.
* Grease 9-inch pie tin.
* Roll out pastry, lining bottom and sides of pan with pastry dough, clipping excess for pie top.
* Add apple slices and prunes in hearty layers. It is best to soak prunes overnight in rat poison; generic hardware store variety will do quite well.
* After spreading pears and prunes into shell, pour d lethal juice of marinated prunes over apple and prune contents. Juice adds extra flavor - and conceals taste of rat poison. (If sting of arsenic tartness remains, add extra tbsp of sugar for good measure.)
* Cover pie with leftover dough in preheated oven for 45 minutes, checking occasionally. Top with granulated sugar while top crust is fresh from oven.
Guaranteed to be...er, a real man-pleasing treat??
The following biography of poisoner NANNIE DOSS has been compiled by information from various sources, chief among them a member of Nannie's family, Sherby Green, who opened up her research materials to The Crime Library. Much of Nannie's life, however, remains shrouded in mystery and in between Ms. Green's papers and other sources there exists a few blank spots where events can be only conjectured by those who write about Nannie. In those very few instances, I created an assumption based on research available.
Most of the following story, however, is unembroidered.
"I was afraid of Nannie, deathly afraid..."
-- Charley Briggs, 1st husband
For most of her life, Nancy Hazle - later to be called Nannie -- loved two things: romance magazines and prunes. An odd combination indeed, but, oh, so necessary in sustaining herself day to day; that is, to keep her fresh as a daisy despite the reality of the world's disappointments. Romance - or at least the conception of it -- provided her with an escape into a reverie of delightful images of knights in shining armor carrying her off to wonderland.
Prunes, known for their medicinal power of natural elimination, helped her carry out another type of elimination: one husband after another.
When arrested, she chuckled. And she continued to chuckle through the ensuing police interrogation, even as she named the men she killed, prune-fed and unsuspecting. The press dubbed her "The Giggling Granny" and "The Jolly Widow." Whether because of embarrassment or to cover a mean streak that burned rabid inside - a side she wouldn't allow herself to emanate for all to see - she never quite showed remorse, repentance nor, for that matter, a real understanding of her crimes. She went to prison for life, giggling.
Nannie Doss got around. She was found to have killed four husbands - one in Alabama, one in North Carolina, one in Kansas and one in Oklahoma - the last one, Samuel Doss, for whose murder she was eventually tried and convicted. And there are other purported victims as well. Nannie is also alleged to have killed her mother, two of her four daughters, a mother-in-law and other family members, either by her favorite form of homicide, prunes salted with rat arsenic, or through one or another spontaneous means of annihilation.
The Crime Library hails its fortune to have been able to interview Sherby Green, a direct relative of Nannie whose search for her family genealogy brought her to studying Mrs. Doss over the last ten years.
"My great grandmother and Nannie's mother were sisters. That makes me a cousin twice removed. My family doesn't like to talk about Nannie; she's the bloodline black sheep," Sherby confides, "the skeleton in our closet."
Nonetheless, Sherby has found her cousin fascinating in a macabre way: "Nannie lived, she committed atrocities. Good or bad, she's become folkloric here," alluding to the northeastern corner of Alabama where she and Nannie grew up. "In Blue Mountain, where Nannie was born, she's a legend."
Nannie, however, legend and color aside, was a killer. "She killed because she liked it," attests The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Harold Schechter and Everitt David.
And it is a testimony to which Sherby, despite her familial ties, agrees. "Each of us determines our fate or destiny, as well as what type of life we live. No one put a gun to her head or twisted her arm to make her commit such cold, heartless crimes. They were her decision."
Born to poor farming parents in Blue Mountain, a tiny hamlet nestled in the bottomlands of Alabama's northeast hill country, Nancy Hazle's life promised little glamour, meager romance. Glamour did not attract her, but of love; she would spend a lifetime pursuing it. The nearest claim to fame she had, and it was little, was that her Grandma Holder was remotely related to the Lincoln family that produced Honest Abe.
Nancy's mother, Loulisa (Lou) was a caring creature, though deathly afraid of her husband, one hot-tempered James Hazle. "There is some evidence that Nancy was born before Lou married James," says Sherby. "Census records right after Nancy's birth in 1905 show Lou as living alone with a daughter. James appears to have come on the scene later. From where or exactly when he appeared is a mystery."
Nancy's childhood wasn't happy. Nannie - Nancy became known by this nickname at an early age -- wandered aimlessly on an erratic schedule to and from and around school; sometimes she went, other times she didn't. So did a trio of sisters and a brother who came after her. If their father wanted the kids on the farm that morning to help with the fieldwork, the never-ending field work, the entire brood stayed home. After all, James Hazle was the boss and, if rumors are correct, he wouldn't spare the switch - on his daughter nor his wife -- to get what he wanted.
"By the age of five, Nannie was made to cut wood, plough the fields and clear the land of weeds and debris," says Terry Manners in his book on Nannie and other serial killers, Deadlier Than the Male. "Ballgames and seeing friends were forbidden." And when Nannie was able to traipse to school, well, that was hard work too, adds Manners. "It was a two-mile walk there and...two miles back."
Of fun, there was none. If the Hazle's lights stayed on late into the evening it was to finish the pots and pans and the sweeping required in their little house, or to mend a shutter or clean out the dustbin. Before the crow of the cock, it was up and out of bed, Old Man Hazle grunting, Into your calicos, and hurry down to the harvest!
In an interview Nannie gave to Life magazine in her later life, she tended to blame her adult problems on a head injury she received when seven years old. She had gone with her family to visit a relative in downstate Alabama; the train ride was the thrill of her young life; she'd never been off the farm, muchtheless on a vacation, to anywhere. But, when the locomotive was forced to make an emergency stop, Nannie jolted forward to slam her head on the iron seat frame in front of her. She suffered "pains and blackouts for months, and headaches the remainder of my life," she asserts.
While some writers with a social bent point to the train accident as the cause of her dementia-to -come, Sherby Green scoffs. Tongue in cheek, she replies, "No, Nannie just had a plain old mean streak. I am addicted to genealogy, and in studying my family I have learned that many of our members carried a fierce pride and a tough, tough, tough reputation. While they didn't take lives, they were nonetheless hard people. I believe Nannie bore that trait, but simply took her bad humor dangerously further."
According to author Manners, "Nannie, who had terrible mood swings, dreamed of love and of finding her own Prince Charming. Her only interest was her mother's romantic magazines and she would sit for hours in her bedroom just looking at the loving couples staring out at her from the pages. As she grew older, her favorite bits were the ads for the lonely hearts clubs."
The early 1900s were the age of romantic frivolity, when every female wanted to look like a Gibson Girl, cherubic and lovely at all angles. Men were the bosses in their high-starched collars and walrus mustaches, but all of society knew that it was the feminine sex who, under coy smile and blossoming fragrance, really ruled the world.
As Nannie entered dating age, she was held back from the ready boys of Calhoun County by a father who saw Nannie and her three sisters as field hands that he wasn't too eager to give up. He forbade them from attending the church socials and the Saturday night hootenannies at Crispin's Tavern or the community hall. Makeup was outlawed, silk stockings were considered sinful, fixed hair hell-bent and form-fitting dresses absolutely slutty. No daughter of his would tempt the male libido! When the time came, he often growled, [he] would pick the husbands for his daughters.
Weekend nights would find the sisters Hazle staring in sorrow at the flickering lights in so and so's barn down the road where a dance was in progress; they were barred from its premises by Papa Hazle, but at least they could watch the glow of the lanterns bouncing in rhythm to the neighborhood mandolins and the stomp - only a muffle to their far-off ears - of the feet of the rest of Blue Mountain's youths having a hell of a time.
Nannie, however, did manage to sneak away here and there and learned that if the hayloft or the corncrib was the only place to please the boys, and get a little loving herself away from James Hazle's eyes, then where was the harm? The boys liked her; her hair was dark, her eyes were dark, and her giggle was bright. Plus, she was easy. Lou might have known of her daughter's escapades, but kept quiet. Her reconciliation may have been that if Nannie "came with child" then at least she would be able to do something that the mama herself was unable to do: get away from the dictator.
Evidently, Squire Hazle approved of young Charley Braggs, Nannie's attentive co-worker at Linen Thread Company where she went to work in 1921. Tall, handsome, curly-haired, he hung on 16-year-old Nannie's shadow and doted. The elder Hazle noted that, unlike the other boys in Blue Mountain who idled their time in cafes and at parties, playing those crazy, jazzy records coming out of New York, Charley's main preoccupation - even above Nannie - was his mother. His paycheck supported her and he treated the old lady like the Queen of Alabama. That was good, estimated James Hazle; good old-fashioned respect for his elders, something his own daughters could learn.
Braggs was in like flint, and within four months after bringing the boy home for supper one casual day Nannie found herself walking down the aisle on her way to marital bliss. Whether she wanted it or not.
Years later, Nannie wrote, "I married, as my father wished, in 1921 to a boy I only knowed about four or five months who had no family, only a mother who was unwed and who had taken over my life completely when we were married. She never seen anything wrong with what he done, but she would take spells. She would not let my own mother stay all night..."
Rephrased, Nannie hadn't lost a demanding poppa; she gained a mother-in-law of identical cloth. If Nannie wanted to dine out and Mrs. Braggs didn't, the latter would contract a dizzy spell or a stomach cramp until her son was forced to relent; they stayed in. If Nannie wanted to attend the picture show at the Bijou and Mrs. Braggs didn't, the symptoms would return; and they'd spend the evening at home playing Mah-Jongg at the kitchen table.
The Braggs had four daughters within a four-year period, the first, Melvina, in 1923, and the last, Florine, in 1927. Pressures from raising babies, pleasing Mother Braggs and cooking for a ravenous husband mounted - she began to partake of the family's liquor closet and what had been a casual smoking habit escalated to chronic. Eventually these built-up tensions exploded within her. Her only recourse was to cry onto the shoulders of strangers.
Between her pregnancies she found time to seek coventry in Blue Mountain's assorted gin mills where drunken men pawed at her and drooled over her and made her feel that she was still attractive.
Her indiscretions were fairly easy to pull off because she chose to effect them when Braggs himself was inebriated and cozy in the arms of another woman or two on the outskirts of town. He would disappear for days, she later testified, forgetting to remind herself that she looked forward to his binges. And hers.
The marriage was down and up, mostly down, flat on its back. Having both found sexual satisfaction in others, even the marriage bed, the one factor that might have kept them together, albeit carnally, faded. Their sexual AWOLs increased and if the couple happened to be together once a week - say, at the dinner table -- it was quite by accident.
Early in 1927, the Braggs' lost their two middle daughters, both, says Terry Manners in Deadlier Than the Male, to "suspected food poisoning." Each child seemed fine at breakfast, but had died by lunchtime. Although the local medics called their deaths accidental, Charley Braggs wasn't convinced. He evidently had seen something [wrong] in Nannie's coal eyes, up close. He soon bolted, taking his oldest daughter Melvina, his pet, with him. He left newborn Florine behind.
Of the two deceased children, although there is no proof, there is little doubt that their mother consciously slew them. Overwhelmed and unable to cope with the responsibilities of her situation, with her own reality, Nannie simply and cold-heartedly trashed those two extra mouths to feed. To her, it was a matter of deadly economics.
According to family historian Sherby Green, "Braggs has gone on record to state that he was frightened of his wife, as was his mother and the rest of his family. He never drank or ate anything that she prepared when in a foul mood. Those at the time who knew her less intimately than Charley might have laughed at his suspicions, for she always appeared domestic and happy. She ceremoniously outlined every meal, complete with coffee for Charley and milk for the kids."
When hubby left this time with Melvina it wasn't for his usual three or four days; this time he disappeared for months. His mother had died in the meantime, a natural death, and he remained apart from something he was afraid of. Not knowing where he had gone nor if he would ever return, Nannie was forced to take a job at the nearest cotton mill to support herself and Florine.
Charley finally reappeared in Blue Mountain in late summer 1928, a year after he had departed. He brought back with him more than himself and Melvina - he also came arm in arm with another woman, a divorcee, and her own child. Few words were spoken between the awkward adults - and Nannie took the hint. She packed her personal belongings, dressed her two daughters, and left, cursing Charley, cursing Charley's girlfriend, cursing her own bad fortune. Cursing...cursing...cursing.
"Charley is known as 'the husband who got away,'" Sherby reports. "Husbands number two, three, four and five wouldn't see the handwriting on the wall that he had seen. They died horrible deaths."
"If'n you don't listen to me, woman, I ain't gonna be here next week."
-- Frank Harrelson, 2nd husband's final words
After her break-up with Charley Briggs, Nannie found employment in a cotton mill in Anniston, just outside Blue Mountain. Hours were long and hot, but it gave her the excuse she wanted, to get out of the house and away from her nagging parents, to whose house she returned. It was an equal compromise. Mama Lou Hazle enjoyed watching over her grandkids and Nannie appreciated the interested glances she was receiving from the boys in the shop.
But, she didn't want to make the same mistake, marrying another immature dungaree mountain boy with a mother complex - nor one with his wandering ways. (Even though she had spent a good portion of her married life in other men's beds, she acted as if she herself believed it was Charley's womanizing that caused the divorce.)
Nannie turned wide-eyed to the lonely-hearts column in the local newspaper, writing fastidiously to a number of men whose advertisements interested her. Only one of their responses engaged her, however; that from 23-year-old factory worker Frank Harrelson who wrote pretty verse and whose black-and-white Kodak photo looked even prettier, what with dimpled cheeks like Clark Gable and wavy hair like Grant Withers. In return, she sent him a cake, a picture of herself and pert words that edged on the essence of sex. Since Harrelson lived in nearby Jacksonville, he fired up his flivver and headed straight south to Blue Mountain. On her door stoop, waiting, he found an alluring young thing, more magnetic than the photo she had sent. The picture hadn't captured that twist of amour that sparkled so...so afire...in her black eyes.
He proposed; she accepted. "They married in 1929," reads Terry Miller's Deadlier Than the Male. "The rains came and went, the autumn leaves fell and they made love by crackling log fires in the winter. But all the time drink was part of Frank's life. As the months went on the honeymoon period crumbled and Nannie realized that her tall, good-looking husband, with the square chin and rugged features, was an alcoholic."
Not only that, but she discovered much to her chagrin that he had spent time in jail for felonious assault. Gentleman Frank was no gentleman.
When she wed this disappointment-to-be, Nannie had taken her two daughters from Grandma Hazle's tender loving care, a place they liked being, and brought them with her to Jacksonville. There is no recorded testimony of the girls' experience with, nor their opinion of, their stepfather, but they must have been in for a shock. Too young to have clearly recalled the shouting bouts between their natural father and mother, their earliest memories probably lay in their days and nights with Lou Hazle. Now they were old enough to understand what it all meant when the Jacksonville cops showed up at their door a couple of times every week to tell Nannie that Harrelson was in the brig - again -for brawling drunk in a gutter. And they saw Nannie's dark face, and comprehended her dark moods, sometimes sinister, each time she had to fetch the wavering and slur-tongued Harrelson from the hoosegow.
Life went on. Strangely, Nannie abided for many years. Her husband's drinking rarely let up, but she abided. He'd even smack her around in his most drunken state, but she abided. He'd yell at and threaten her growing kids for nothing, but she abided. Black and blue, forlorn and unloved, in tatters and lace, she abided. The marriage would last sixteen years.
"But, don't get the impression Nannie was a sympathetic character," Sherby Green reminds us of her cousin. "She simply had not yet discovered how to rid herself of a husband, that was to come."
Nannie had learned to kill. Perhaps she was merely practicing her skills, and at the same time building her nerve, for the big day when Frank Harrelson was to go. She had already, it seemed, disposed of two infant daughters, so killing children had little effect on her. They were extra baggage.
By the early 1940s, the surviving daughters Melvina and Florine had grown and married. Melvina bore a son, Robert, in 1943, and, in February, 1945, went into labor again. This pregnancy was hard on the smallish woman; frightened and suffering wracking pains this time around, she called for her mother to be by her bedside at the local hospital. Melvina's husband, Mosie Haynes, fetched Nannie. Like a good mother, Nannie remained on duty throughout the night, wiping her daughter's scalding forehead and comforting her during the ordeal; she ordered Mosie to fetch continual glasses of water, wet towels, this and that, and to keep the attending nurses and interns stepping lively dusk to dawn. Mosie, of course, didn't complain. And like a good grandmother, Nannie celebrated with her daughter and son-in-law when Melvina produced a lovely little girl.
Within the hour the child died.
Details are sketchy at best. Mosie had fallen asleep on the chair in the hospital room and Melvina, in a state of semi-consciousness from the surgical ether, lay prone in her bed. At one point, she happened to glance over at her mother and the newborn cradled in her arms. But, Melvina perceived what she was never afterwards able to determine as a truth or a nightmare: She thought she saw Nannie sticking a hatpin into the child's tender head.
The "dream" bothered Melvina, especially since the doctors could not account for the child's death. Back at home a few days later, Melvina told her husband and Florine about what she thought she had seen. Her confidantes startled. They had seen Grandma Nannie toying with such a pin, turning it over and over between her fingers, earlier in the evening.
Six months later, Melvina's son Robert also passed away while in Nannie's care. The daughter had gone to stay with her father, Charley Braggs, after a fight with Mosie, leaving Robert with Nannie. How little Robert Lee Haynes died was a mystery. Nannie seemed heartbroken - she didn't know what happened - the doctors diagnosed his death as "asphyxia" from unknown causes - and she played the grieving grandmother right up to the lowering of his tiny coffin graveside. She fainted, she wailed and she blew despair. Then several months later, she collected a $500 life insurance check on a policy she had taken out on the boy.
Having refined her skills, in murder and theatrics, she was now ready to take on the bigger game: Frank Harrelson. She waited for the opportunity and (perhaps to ease her conscience just a little) a provocation.
International events had thrust America into a world war; American GIs were dying by the droves in Europe and the Pacific, and the world had little time to note the deaths of an infant girl and a two-year-old boy in an out-of-the-way burgh in the foothills of northeastern Alabama. In August, 1945, the last of the enemy powers, Japan, surrendered; the nation thought of one thing: to welcome home its fathers, brothers, sons. In every state in the union, there was hailing and bunting and balloons and all-round ecstasy. Alabama was no exception. On the night of September 15, 1945, Frank Harrelson went out to the tavern to welcome home some friends from overseas. Tonight patriotism had given him an excuse to get loaded.
Arriving home, he was still in a festive mood. He wanted sex, fireworks style, and he wanted it fast. When Nannie refused, he slammed the wall with a ham-size fist and shouted, "If'n you don't listen to me, woman, I ain't gonna be here next week."
She listened to him, just to avoid a broken jaw.
"As they had sex, Nannie stared at the ceiling and vowed to get even," author Terry Manners declares. "The next day, tending the little rose garden she adored, she found her husband's corn liquor jar hidden deep in the surrounding flower-bed. That was enough. She liked to keep her yard pretty. She took the jar to the storeroom, poured away some of the foul drink...and topped it with rat poison. (That evening) Harrelson died of excruciating pain, aged just thirty-eight. An hour later, Nannie washed out the empty-corn liquor jar."
Sherby Green states, "Nannie later stated that she married him for love, but like all her amours - she loved the continental sound of that word - Frank Harrelson was no Sir Lancelot. Instead, he was a jailbird and a drunkard, and now he was a dead husband. Killing husbands became easier after that. Killing, in general, had become a cinch."
"It must have been the coffee."
-- Arlie Lanning, 3rd husband's last words
"There is a brief period in Nannie's life that is unaccounted for," reports Sherby Green, Nannie's descendant and armchair biographer. "It is believed that she traveled around the country by rail, possibly north to New York or west to as far as Idaho. What she did on these excursions is anyone's guess. She may have even been married to a man named Hendrix - certain records indicate that - but the police never really followed it up. Did Mr. Hendrix fall fate to Nannie's temperament?"
Wherever Nannie roamed after Harrelson's death, she eventually wound up in the scenic little town of Lexington, North Carolina, in response to another lonely-hearts column. The year was 1947 and the husband-to-be this time was laborer Arlie Lanning, an ex-Alabaman. After meeting her for the first time, the couple married two days later. Tongue-in-cheek, writer Terry Manners asserts, "Arnie believed their marriage was set in heaven, where he was later to be dispatched."
Life with Arnie wasn't as dramatically chaotic as it had been with Harrelson, partly because for most of the time Nannie wasn't home. Whereas her former spouse had been the prodigal, Nannie now mimicked him. Whenever things got hectic, whenever Arlie drank too much and flirted too much - he, too, like his predecessor, loved his alcohol and his females - Nannie pulled the suitcase from her closet and went away to parts unknown, sometimes for months on end. She would leave without a word. Or maybe she would leave a message on a crumpled piece of paper under the salt shaker: "Gone." Occasionally, Arnie would receive a cablegram, "Send money" or "Be home soon". The wires came from all directions; she seemed not to remain in one place too long; she simply darted as if on an escape route from responsibility.
Out of the blue she would come home. Arlie, not brutal like Frank had been, would merely shrug a hello; that is, if he wasn't unconscious on the sofa from drink. For a while, he and Nannie would play loving couple. He knew the reason she took flight so often was because - or so she claimed - his drinking binges and his womanizing. So, upon her return, he always committed to the dry wagon, a promise that she, and probably he too, knew would be busted maybe days, weeks or, if luck was with them, months ahead.
When on the homefront, Nannie acted the perfect wife for the benefit of her neighbors. Her trips away would be explained as visits to friends and family; in part they were true, for Nannie would occasionally bus to Gadsden, Alabama, to tend to her sister Dovie who had contracted cancer, or visit Arlie's 84-year-old mother who lived in a nearby town and needed help housecleaning and canning.
Evidences of a domestic woman were there for all the Lexington neighbors to see: aroma of apple pie cooling on the window sill, fresh laundry lemon-scented hanging on the backyard line, a manicured garden, and lace curtains in all the front windows. At night she would read her monthly True Romance or a novel she had picked up at the community rummage sale. She wasn't literate and her vocabulary was minimal, so the books she chose to read were basic and a little tawdry; of well-built heroes and shapely dames caught in at least one love triangle that usually contained several scenes in a boudoir.
Her favorite pastime was television, that modern new wonder box that brought into America's homes live stage shows, teleplays and stand-up comedians. When a love story was to be aired, one didn't dare bother Nannie. She would pull up her most comfortable chair, a plate of leftovers, her pack of Camels, the ashtray, and lose herself in a grayscale kaleidoscope of heartthrobs and kisses. That world had yet to take seed in Nannie's world, but at least she could envision it more focally now, compliments of her RCA.
In Lexington, Nannie was an avid churchgoer and she had become intimate with the minister's family and many of the families in the Methodist congregation. Arlie Lanning, during sober periods, would accompany his wife to Sunday morning services and remain at her side afterwards for the tea socials and picnics hosted by the ladies auxiliary, to which Nannie belonged. But, there were whispers among the attendees at these functions, generated by the presence of Mr. Lanning. His reputation, to be blunt, preceded him. Before and during his marriage to Nannie he was often seen in the lower Lexington dives with one of the floozies who hung there. Arlie was a rapscallion, said the fine people of the Lexington Methodist Church, and poor Nannie...well, they didn't know if she was aware of his maneuverings, but be it far from them to break her heart. Behind closed doors in quiet conversation, Lanning was the town's villain, she its travailing martyr.
When the town turned out, then, for Arlie's funeral in February, 1950, it was out of great respect for the heartbroken widow, not the corpse. Yes, Arlie had died suddenly. Cause: heart failure. Of course, there was something that had caused the heart to fail, the doctor said, but in cases like Arlie's, where there was absolutely no reason for suspicion, it would be superfluous to conduct an autopsy. Any number of things could have caused him to lie in pain as he did for a couple of days before succumbing. Most likely, it had been the dangerous flu virus that had been sweeping the state, striking some people worse than others. He had had all the symptoms - sweating, vomiting, dizziness - and, after all, the doctor admitted, Arlie's body was not in the best shape, his stomach already half gone with the drink, his heart already weakened.
"He just sat down one morning to drink a cup of coffee and eat a bowl of prunes I especially prepared for him," Nannie admitted to her neighbors gathered around his coffin. "Up until then, why let me tell you, he looked in fine shape. Then...well...two days later...dead. I nursed him, believe me, I nursed him, but I failed."
And for an extra touch, she dabbed her eyes with her kerchief.
"Poor, poor Arlie. You know what he said to me before he breathed his last? 'Nannie,' he said, 'Nannie, it must have been the coffee.'"
On April 21, eight weeks after Arlie's passing, the tidy frame home that he and Nannie had lived in burned to the foundation. It was a stroke of luck for the widow because had the house survived it would have, under conditions set forth in Arlie's will, gone to his sister. (Coincidentally, Nannie was not home at the time, having just left the premises with her favorite household item, the TV set, tucked away in the back seat of her Ford. "I was on my way to have it repaired," she explained.) As it were, the insurance company issued a check to "Arlie Lanning, deceased," which was mailed to his widow who was lodging by then with Arlie's mother.
The claimant expediently cashed the check and left North Carolina - but only after the elder Mrs. Lanning died strangely in her sleep.
Within days, Nannie showed up at her sister Dovie's residence in Gadsden - with the TV -- where she nursed the bed-ridden sibling whose condition, from that point, seemed to continue downhill. Dovie died June 30, also in her sleep.
"Apparently," says Sherby Green, "anything that annoyed 'Arsenic Annie,' another name given to Nannie during her eventual trial, met with elimination. And if killing people brought in a little extra income, an insurance policy here or there, well, she considered that a bonus. Payment for her cleverness, if you will.
"And, fitting with her dark side, Nannie was clever -- very, very intelligent. It's been said," continues Sherby, "that she was able to get away with her crimes because of the backwards places she lived and the naïve times. That's simply not true. Where and when she lived had nothing to do with it. I know the temperament of the people she familiarized; they can be quite suspicious and alert to hypocrisy. But, Nannie was an actress, she fooled so many people, laymen and professionals, during a killing spree that lasted more than twenty years."
"He had been making me mad, shining up to other women." -- Nannie Doss, about 4th husband Richard Morton
The Diamond Circle Club was a correspondence association for those looking for life partners; membership was $15 per annum. Suitors and ladies received a monthly newsletter regaling the newest members and their heart's desires. Nannie was enthralled.
"Nannie's despicable plans never waned," adds case student Sherby Green. "By 1952 she was at it again."
Nannie's hips had fattened by now, she wore glasses and the once-pretty profile had taken on a double chin. She found that she didn't turn heads the way she used to and decided that maybe the time had come to seek admiration in the eyes of a more mature type of male. Curly-headed boys were passe. Maybe what she had needed all along was a real man anyway, she surmised. And she thought she had found him in recently retired businessman Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas.
While her girth had widened and her temples had slightly grayed, Nannie still carried a girlish giggle, and she knew how to use it to entice. She had learned how and when to turn on the flash in her eyes and at age 47 she proved more capable than ever of shaping, at a whim, the two beams into bedposts.
Morton, a former salesman of routine coolness, bought for a change. The old boy was transfixed. She was the gal for him, and to prove it he wrote Diamond Circle, asking them to delete his and Nannie's names from the availability list and thanking them for introducing him to "the sweetest and most wonderful woman I have ever met." They wed in October, 1952, and she moved into his little home in Emporia.
Kansas' eternal plains were vastly different than the mountain greenery Nannie had known her whole life. For a while the sight of surrounding horizon thrilled her; she was happy in the arms of her man under that endless sky. Half American Indian, he was tall, dark and handsome with eyes that pierced like arrows straight to her romantic daydreams. As well, he bought her things - clothes, jewelry and knick-knacks --never seemingly worried about the price of adornments he thrust upon her.
Reality, however, waited 'round the next corn stalk. Within months of their marriage, Morton manifested as flat as the countryside. He was, despite his flair, broke, deep in debt to everyone. And when he did buy her a bauble on whatever credit he managed to effect through charming circumlocution, he also bought a double for another girl he had stashed away in town.
Morton's occasional trips to the stores in his Chevy pickup truck to buy this and that for the house and farm struck Nannie as being rather lengthy for casual jaunts; they became more prolonged each time. If prodded why so long, the husband would reply with an air of apathy, "Ohhh, just dawdled, I guess." She investigated and discovered that he was seeing someone he had known before he married and seemed to have no intention of dropping.
Nannie had made a mistake, but Morton had made a bigger one. She picked a phony, he chose a killer.
By Christmas, two months after she tied the knot, Nannie was again answering other gentlemen's ads from the lovelorn columns in the Kansas papers. She'd be sure to fetch the mail every day from the mailbox, then, if a letter from one of her admirers had arrived, she would sneak off with it to the bathroom. In silence, she would swoon over their remonstrations of amour. The writers, thinking she was a widow, offered to sweep her away from her troubles to promises of marital bliss.
Each sentimental "Till We At Last Meet, Nannie" or "Hoping To See You Soon, Nannie" whisked Nannie a step closer to ridding herself of the thing beyond the bathroom door who, to her, had grown ugly and repulsive.
Husband number four was destined for the ground. But, he might have been spared a couple of months when Papa James Hazle died in Blue Mountain and Mama Lou suddenly announced she was coming to board with the couple. With mama there, the daughter's murderous designs were delayed -- well, at least on Morton.
By all accounts, Nannie performed the unthinkable. She murdered her mother.
Whether Lou's money was the object, or whether she got in the way of Nannie's plot against Morton -- perhaps mama may have gotten a glimpse of one of Nannie's intimate letters -- the motive here is unclear. Nannie would always vehemently deny poisoning Lou, but, considering the hasty manner in which all others had died after crossing Nannie's path, as well as the preceding symptoms of death, it seems very likely that her mother did not die naturally.
Terry Manners in Deadlier Than the Male believes that it was simply Mrs. Hazle's inopportune arrival that sealed her fate: "In January, 1953, (Lou) came to stay. She had obviously picked a bad time. After a couple of days with her daughter, she fell ill with chronic stomach pains and died."
In retrospect, Nannie had grown totally devoid of heart. Had she one at the outset, this latest act shows a total lack of sympathy, loyalty and conscience.
"Although Nannie's education is believed to not have reached the past sixth grade, and she doubtlessly read The Purloined Letter, she unerringly executed the bold psychology exhibited in that famous story," Sherby Greene points out. "Three months after Louisa was buried in the earth, her latest son-in-law, Richard Morton, joined her. He died of similar symptoms."
And still no one - family, friends, neighbors, and doctors - asked questions.
"Christian women don't need a television or romance magazines to be happy!" -- Samuel Doss, 5th husband; words that sealed his fate.
Sam Doss was a sturdy man, a solid man, and a God-fearing man. He didn't chase women, never smoked, never drank, refused to play dice and lacked the effort to exhale a single cuss word. He was careful about his appearance, thrifty with his bank account, never riled, loved nature and saw the good in almost everything.
Sam Doss was unbelievably, irrevocably boring.
At least Nannie found him so.
At 59 years old, his clean living emanated across his surface; he looked younger and he looked healthy. His conservative haircut and tidy manner or dress gave him a wealthy appearance, a trusting appearance, and maybe one or both of these suggestions had drawn Nannie to his side when he proposed to her in June, 1953.
Nannie was a widow, that's all he knew, and all he cared to know. Like his pennies, he counted his blessings, and this fine, smiling, good cook of a woman was what he had wanted in his later life. Someone who preferred home and hearth, who would stay by his side until death did them part.
He was exceedingly correct, if not foresighted, on the latter supposition.
Sam had been one of Nannie's pen-pal paramours. After Richard Morton began pushing daisies, she grabbed the first bus out to meet Doss in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At first, he provided his bride with a refreshing detour from all her past mates; he worked a steady job (he was a state highway inspector), spoke softly and succinctly and often wore a necktie. He helped around the house, helped her cook and did not portray the "king of the house" attitude so many of the others had. Certainly he was neither threatening nor violent.
But, he was set in his ways, ways that irritated the less conservative wife. He did not believe in wasteful reading of cheap magazines or romance novels; he saw them as evil idleness. Radio and television were products meant to enrich the mind, which meant that comedies and love stories were taboo. Bedtime came promptly at 9:30 p.m., an agenda he followed like an automaton and to which he expected his wife to adhere. Sex was pre-scheduled.
Spending patterns came hardline: One never used the electric fan until temperatures exceeded the unbearable; lights room to room were frugally used - turned on only when entering and turned off immediately upon leaving; when reading, only the reading lamp behind the easy chair would be illumined in an otherwise darkened chamber; furniture was costly so doilies were prevalent to preserve upholstery.
When the pinching of pennies and the die-hard living became overbearing, Nannie took a hiatus home to Alabama. Most likely, it was strategy; and if so, it worked. The moment she escaped he was hot on her trail with letters pleading forgiveness. To show his earnestness, he opened up his pocketbook to let her enjoy the life to which she was more accustomed. And when she continued to balk that he still controlled the finances, he rearranged his banking account to give her equal liberty. And he took out two life insurance policies naming her the beneficiary.
On a cool September evening, Doss sat at the dinner table sliding his cleaned-off dinner plate aside to partake of Nannie's prune cake. That night, he began wrenching and grasping his stomach in violent pain. Spasms were ungodly. "(He) took to his bed for days, losing 16 pounds in weight," Terry Manners' Deadlier Than the Male tells us. "Finally, his doctor sent him to the hospital, where he stayed for twenty-three days."
The hospital's diagnosis had been a severe infection to the digestive tract. Upon his release October 5, Nannie, disgruntled at the time wasted, went right back to where she had left off. Right back. After allowing him one good afternoon's rest back in his own overstuffed chair, she awoke him for the dinner she had prepared especially for his welcome home.
"This will get you back on your feet in a jiffy," she promised, passing him a cup of coffee first. Doss sipped it first, and then as it cooled took a larger and a larger gulp each time between a mouthful of delicious pork roast. The roast was fine. The coffee was the harbinger, mixed with arsenic. Before the toll of midnight, Sam Doss was dead.
In her rush to rid herself of her latest and by far not the greatest husband, Nannie erred. Usually adroit, she had been too much in a hurry this time around. Dr. Schwelbein, the physician who had examined Doss prior to his release from the hospital only the day before, dismayed to hear that his patient was dead. This, he said, did not make sense. He ordered an autopsy.
As he had suspected, Sam Doss had not died of natural causes. In the intestines and stomach, Schwelbein found remains of a pork roast dinner and enough arsenic to kill a team of horses.
Nannie Doss, unable to explain where the arsenic came from, was promptly arrested.
"I'm sure I'll find my perfect mate yet..."
-- Nannie Doss
At first, Nannie refused to acknowledge her role in Sam Doss' poisoning. He was her husband, she said, and wouldn't have harmed him. But, the police wouldn't let up. Arsenic, they reminded her, does not come naturally with pork meat or coffee beans. In fact, when Sam was admitted into the hospital a month earlier, he had just devoured a plateful of her prunes. "Were they poisoned, too, Nannie?" they asked.
I don't know what you're talking about," she giggled at the ridiculousness of their line of questioning. "Me? Poison?"
Hour after hour, they drilled her, trying to get her to pay attention to them and nevermind the copy of the romance magazine she kept thumbing through.
"Put the magazine down, Nannie, and listen to us. Nannie...Nannie? Look at us, why did you kill Doss?"
Ordinarily, any one of the investigators wouldn't have put up with this crap. They would have ripped the magazine from the suspect's hands and flung it in the trash can. And, if the suspect didn't open up, they might damn well follow the magazine to the same spot. But, it was difficult to get rough with this...sweet...grandmotherly type.
That giggle. That harmless, innocent giggle.
"Nannie, we've been here for hours now, aren't you getting tired? You killed him, we know you killed him, you know you killed him."
"Oh, boys, come on now, I killed nobody. I don't know why you think I did," she fluttered.
Special Agent Ray Page, heading the investigation, signaled his own men aside and stepped forward. He lit a cigarette and sat beside her at the long table in the dim, tunnel-like Interrogation Room and rubbed a pair of tired eyes. He noted with surprise that, unlike himself and his squad, she had not wilted at all. "We've made phone calls, Nannie, and we've learned that Mr. Doss was your fourth husband to die of the same symptoms. We're putting two and two together, Nannie, and it looks like we just might come up with...well, four. Arsenic, Nannie, we believe that they all died of arsenic. It will be easier if you admit what you've done, ahead of time I mean, before we have to find out for ourselves."
"Are you saying, young man, that I killed all my husbands?" and she giggled again. "You're a nice-looking young man, but so foolish." And she flipped over a page of the Romantic Hearts publication before her.
Page didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Was she insane? Or was she the greatest actress who ever lived? Move over, Bette Davis, he thought. He'd seen some cool cucumbers in his days, but this woman had them all beat. It was time to get serious with Old Mother Arsenic. He reached over and drew the magazine from her hands. "No more reading, Nannie. This isn't the Christian Science reading room. You're gonna answer us."
She looked at him, not giggling.
"Nannie," he went on, "there are others, too, aren't there? A lot of people around you dropped dead over the last couple decades and their ghosts are coming back to haunt you. They're here, Nannie, in this room. Put'em to rest, Nannie, put them to rest."
For a moment their eyes met. Page detected, in a breath, those twinkling granny eyes solidify into something nasty. A devil lurked just within and he was going to yank it out. And she knew it. She sighed, heaved and nodded. "All right, all right..."
Then, she giggled again, those eyes turning innocent once more, but at least she began to talk. She confessed to poisoning Doss' coffee, but not out of maliciousness. "He wouldn't let me watch my favorite programs on the television," she commenced, "and he made me sleep without the fan on the hottest nights. He was a miser and...well, what's a woman to do under those conditions?"
The detectives in the room exchanged glances, eyebrows raised. She is serious, isn't she? their expressions asked.
"OK, there, you have it," she laughed in the same demeanor as a child admitting she stole her sister's hair ribbon. "Can I have my magazine back now?"
"First tell us about the other husbands," Page returned.
Nannie thought a second. "If I do will you give me back my Romantic Hearts?"
"I promise," answered the other.
She shrugged and smiled. "It's a deal," she winked.
And she told them about Richard Morton, Arlie Lanning, Frank Harrelson, too. All men whom she had at first admired, but they turned out to be duds. All she had ever wanted was romance, a man to love her, but instead she got what she described as "dullards". Each and every one of them. "If their ghosts are in this room they're either drunk or sleeping."
Page, shaking his head, handed her back the magazine.
"Looking at her and talking to her, detectives just could not believe that Nannie could be a killer," Terry Manners relates in Deadlier Than the Male. "But now the confessions just poured out. She had killed four husbands...At one stage, an officer asked: 'Which one are you going to tell us about next, Nannie?'"
The morning after the confessions, Page and other detectives from Tulsa fanned out to Kansas, North Carolina and Alabama to take part in the exhumations of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her nephew Robert and her mother-in-law, Arlie Lanning's mother. Arsenic traces were heavy in every one of the deceased spouses and in her mother. Bodies of the other family members, while not indicating toxic substance, all appeared to have perished by asphyxia. Strong suspicion animated that they were probably smothered in their sleep.
Several days after Nannie's arrest, a man by the name of John Keel stepped forth from North Carolina, looking very relieved. He was a dairy farmer who had been corresponding with Nannie after finding her ad in a lonely heart's column. She had told him she was a widow and yearning for a good man with whom to settle; she sent him a homemade cake. And that was why Keel was relieved - it hadn't been his favorite, apple and prune. Or else, he might have...er, keeled over, too.
First husband Charley Braggs, the "husband who got away," as Nannie's family historian Sherby Green calls him, was prime reporter material. As the laboratory findings from Nannie's corpses came in, newspapermen swarmed upon Braggs for his take on the case. His opinions and recollections of his ex-wife provided excellent, sometimes even witty, material for column upon column.
"She was always running off with one man or another, never home, and was about town more than me!" he exclaimed when one reporter asked him if it was true that their marriage had been adulterous. "And anyway, to tell you the truth, I was glad when she was off. It got to a point I was afraid to eat anything she cooked...I smelled a rat!"
He had asked that the bodies of his two daughters be disinterred along with the others that the papers had listed as being suspect. But, the government had obviously figured that they had enough on Mrs. Doss to send her away for a long, long time.
The state of Oklahoma, deciding the case, centered its allegations on the death of Doss only, who died in Tulsa. The states where the litter of victims were uncovered still wanted her for the respective deaths within their jurisdiction. She was never tried outside Oklahoma, however.
When newshounds finally caught up with Nannie after her indictment, they asked her what she thought should be done with her for poisoning Doss. Her answer came in the form of her familiar jocularity. Grinning into their flashbulbs, she replied, "Why, anything. Anything they care to do is all right by me."
After a quartet of psychiatrists diagnosed her mentally sane, her trial date was set for June 2, 1955, in the Criminal Court of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But, on May 17, she decided to forget the rigmarole and, simply because her lawyers did not know how else to advise, she pleaded guilty.
After a brief hearing, Judge Elmer Adams sentenced her to life imprisonment, barring the electric chair because of her sex. According to Sherby Williams, Nannie spent the rest of her days "in the Oklahoma State penitentiary, still dreaming of eternal love".
Nannie Doss died of leukemia in the prison's hospital ward in 1965. Her hopes by that time were as rusty as the armor of the knights she had known.
Kelleher, Michael D. & C. L. - Murder Most Rare - The Female Serial Killer - Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1998
Manners, Terry - Deadlier Than the Male - London: Pan Books, 1995.
Nash, Jay Robert - Bloodletters and Badmen - NY: M. Evans & Company, 1995.
Schechter, Harold & Everitt, David - The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers - NY:Pocket Books, 1996.