Lonely Hearts Lady Loved Her Men to Death
& Prune Pie
degree baking temp.
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.
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
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
be...er, a real man-pleasing treat??
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..."
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.
for their medicinal power of natural elimination, helped her carry out
another type of elimination: one husband after another.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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!
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
don't listen to me, woman, I ain't gonna be here next week."
Harrelson, 2nd husband's final words
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.
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.)
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
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.
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."
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
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.
hour the child died.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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?"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
expediently cashed the check and left North Carolina - but only after
the elder Mrs. Lanning died strangely in her sleep.
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
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.
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
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.
despicable plans never waned," adds case student Sherby Green. "By
1952 she was at it again."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
made a mistake, but Morton had made a bigger one. She picked a phony,
he chose a killer.
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
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.
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.
accounts, Nannie performed the unthinkable. She murdered her mother.
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.
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
Nannie had grown totally devoid of heart. Had she one at the outset,
this latest act shows a total lack of sympathy, loyalty and
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
And still no
one - family, friends, neighbors, and doctors - asked questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
unable to explain where the arsenic came from, was promptly arrested.
"I'm sure I'll
find my perfect mate yet..."
-- Nannie Doss
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, they drilled her, trying to get her to pay attention to them and
nevermind the copy of the romance magazine she kept thumbing through.
magazine down, Nannie, and listen to us. Nannie...Nannie? Look at us,
why did you kill Doss?"
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 harmless, innocent giggle.
been here for hours now, aren't you getting tired? You killed him, we
know you killed him, you know you killed him."
come on now, I killed nobody. I don't know why you think I did," she
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
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.
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.
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..."
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?"
in the room exchanged glances, eyebrows raised. She is serious, isn't
she? their expressions asked.
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.
a second. "If I do will you give me back my Romantic Hearts?"
answered the other.
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."
his head, handed her back the magazine.
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?'"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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".
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.
Michael D. & C. L. - Murder Most Rare - The Female Serial Killer -
Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1998
Terry - Deadlier Than the Male - London: Pan Books, 1995.
Robert - Bloodletters and Badmen - NY: M. Evans & Company, 1995.
Harold & Everitt, David - The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers -
NY:Pocket Books, 1996.