She shot her man

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On February 23, 1883, May Woodman was packing a Bulldog .38 nickel-plated revolver as she approached her lover, Billy Kinsman, in front of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. At first, the two talked, argued maybe. After a few minutes, she raised her gun, leveled it on him and pulled the trigger without a blink of her grey eyes.

The slug entered the left side of his body below the rib cage and passed straight through. He clutched at his wound as if to staunch the blood and staggered backward. A witness seized her arm just as she pulled the trigger again, causing the second bullet to drill into the wooden boards of the sidewalk. No matter. The first bullet had done its job. Billy would be dead within four hours.

May and Billy had been living together, but it was a tumultuous affair. Twenty-seven-year-old May was estranged from her husband and well-known to the other men of Tombstone. Billy, 25, was a miner-turned-gambler—or as they called it at the time, a sporting man—who frequented the Oriental Saloon on the corner of Allen Street and Fifth. His other haunts probably included the famed Bird Cage and Crystal Palace.

History cites two possibilities for May’s action. The most popular story has it that one of Billy’s friends pulled a prank by putting a notice in the Tombstone Epitaph that “William Kinsman was betrothed to May Woodman.” Billy did not think it was funny, so he put a notice in the next edition of the paper that he had no intention of marrying May. She was humiliated.

A lesser repeated story was that May was pregnant, but she had intimate knowledge about Billy, which caused her to doubt his ability to father a child. To make sure, they consulted a doctor, who after an examination assured the pair that Billy could indeed sire a child. The doctor claimed the two asked him for a potion that would end the pregnancy, but he declined. May’s version differed. She claimed Billy wanted her to have the abortion and it was she who refused.

Billy must have wondered who else May had been overly familiar with. Perhaps Billy’s friend who ran the ad in the paper knew of May’s condition and that is why he pulled the prank. If that was the case, Billy’s public rebuke must have been more than May could take.

May showed no remorse for killing Billy and was tried for murder a month later. On the witness stand, she claimed self-defense. It took the jury a mere thirty minutes to decide that she was guilty of manslaughter instead of murder. After striking down a motion for a new trial, Daniel H. Pinney, Associate Justice on the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court, sentenced her to five years in the Yuma Territorial Prison. “May God curse you forever,” she spat at him.

After that May attempted suicide in her Tombstone jail cell by taking an overdose of chloride hydrate and morphine. She had been prescribed the medicine to help her sleep. Dr. George E. Goodfellow saved her life. He also attended to her when she miscarried in her fifth month. At that time, he noted she had several bruises on her body. Her condition led him to believe Billy had beaten her. He also said her mental condition was quite fragile.

After May got to Yuma, she settled in to be a model prisoner. But she could not remain free from drama for long. Whispers that she was pregnant again spread into full-fledged rumors, but no evidence surfaced to substantiate the gossip. Prison authorities moved quickly to squelch the talk, insisting male guards could not gain access to either of the two female prisoners’ cells.

May’s mother, Ellen McIntyre, started a petition to have her daughter pardoned. At least two-hundred Tombstone citizens, including some of the jurors from her trial signed the petition. Secretary of Arizona Territory Hiram M. Van Arman, acting as governor at the time, pardoned her—provided she leave the territory and not return.

May Woodman walked out of the Yuma Prison gates in 1884 after serving less than a year for Billy’s killing. As far as anyone knows, she never set foot in the Arizona Territory again.

Mary Harbored Contagious Bacteria

Fourteen-year-old Mary Mallon came to the United States from Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland, one of the poorest areas of the green island. At first, like so many single female immigrants, she found work in New York City as a household servant, but it didn’t take long before her employers found that she was proficient in the kitchen, so by the early 1900s, she was cooking for some of the City’s wealthiest families.

One of Mary’s most popular desserts was ice cream with fresh cut-up peaches frozen in it. Although delicious, it would prove to be the cause of three deaths and more than fifty cases of typhoid fever. It took a sanitary engineer to ferret out where the infection started.

In the summer of 1906, Mary was cooking for a rich banker, Charles Warren, and his family while they vacationed on posh Long Island’s Oyster Bay. While there, six members of the Warren household came down with typhoid fever. Long viewed as a disease among slums where sanitation was absent, it was a mystery as to how it came to the playground of New York’s wealthiest citizens. After all, the neighborhood was also home to President Teddy Roosevelt’s summer White House.

Freelance sanitary engineer Dr. George Soper was hired to find the cause of the sickness at the Warren house. He was especially interested in this case, because he had investigated other cases in the City. He went over the Warren house with a fine tooth comb, checking the plumbing and even going so far as to check the seafood supplier.

Finally, Soper turned his eye toward their Irish cook, Mary Mallon. He looked into her employment history back as far as 1900. He found twenty-two cases of typhoid fever—one resulting in death—in seven households where she had cooked.

What he discovered was that although Mary, herself, was as healthy as a horse—had never had a symptom—she was a carrier of the bacteria. She passed the bacteria on to the people she cooked for by not washing her hands before fixing meals. He knew that cooking would kill the bacteria, so the frozen peach dessert was most likely the cause.

Sober went to visit Mary at her new place of employment and asked for a blood sample. In a fit of temper, she chased him from the house with a fork. The second time he went to her home, she slammed the door in his face.

Calling her “a menace to the community,” Soper asked for and got help from the New York City Health Department. When City Health Inspector Dr. Josephine Baker, four police officers, and two interns knocked on her door, Mary fled through a back window, leaving footprints in the snow that led them on a three-hour chase to an outhouse. A small piece of gingham sticking out of the door gave away her hiding place.

Police pulled the cursing, fighting Mary out of the outhouse, and Dr. Baker ordered her into an ambulance. Lab tests taken later revealed that she was carrying a dangerously high level of typhoid bacteria.

Mary was sent to North Brother Island in the East River and forced to live in a small house for the next three years with only a fox terrier as company. During that period, she was under treatment and was made to submit 163 samples. Most of them came back negative, but authorities still refused to let her go.

“I never had typhoid in my life and have always been healthy,” she said. “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary?”

Mary decided to sue. Rumor had it that William Randolph Hearst paid her legal fees, so he could have first crack at the story for his newspaper. She lost the case and remained in solitary for another year.

In 1910, she was released under the condition that she would never work as a cook again. Although she gave her word, she changed her name several times and went back to work. Five years later, typhoid broke out in a maternity hospital. Upon investigation, authorities found that there was a woman cooking in the hospital that looked suspiciously like Mary.

The Health Department rounded her up again and sent her back to North Brother Island. She stayed there until her death from pneumonia in 1938. An autopsy revealed live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder.

The official count attributed to Mary Mallon was fifty-one cases with three dead. This most notorious carrier of disease went down in history as Typhoid Mary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Dago Rose”

“Dago Rose” was one of the most notorious madams of the 1930s and 40s. She plied her trade in and around Port Clinton, Ohio, not far from Camp Perry. Her familiarity with the men on the Ohio National Guard base is probably why her name and reputation is blazed in infamy. As the service men who trained at Camp Perry moved on to fight in foreign lands, they shared fond memories of Rose and her girls.

While the lonely soldiers at Camp Perry and the citizens of Port Clinton held a soft spot in their hearts for the short Italian woman, Ottawa County authorities and the Ohio National Guard did their best to put her out of business.

Rose went by several last names: Rose Sherry, aka Rose Shallo, aka Rose Phipps, aka Rose Silverwood. Born February 18, 1900, in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Michael and Maria Sciallo, she married James Pasco and had three children.

Her troubles with the law began on a Saturday night in the summer of 1930 when she threw a raucous party at her Ascher Beach cottage. Ottawa County Deputy Dewey Cullenen, who later became sheriff, led a raid on the wild gathering. He told the Ottawa County News that when he and his raiding party got to the house, they found the door had been bolted, leading him to believe the inhabitants had been tipped off. He banged on the door, but the only answer he got from inside was the sound of another bolt sliding across the door. The screen door was latched, so he ripped it from its hinges, then he and other deputies broke down the heavy hardwood door.

As the deputies burst into the living room of the cottage, at least twenty-five Port Clinton men scrambled to escape the house or otherwise hide themselves from police. The ones who were rounded up were questioned and gave varying stories for their presence. Some of them claimed to be repairmen there to fix the plumbing, electrical, phone, etc. A couple of men said they were passing by the cottage. Thinking there was a fire, they claimed to have stopped to help out. One fellow told Cullenen, he stopped to pick up his coat and hat, which he’d left there a few days before.

It was Prohibition, and authorities were probably looking for liquor. None was found, but the smell of alcohol permeated the air. Cullenen figured a bottle of liquor had been broken into a pail just as he and his raiding party burst through the door.

The men were free and clear to go, but Rose and Helen Ryan of Toledo were taken into custody. They were held in jail until Monday morning when the justice of the peace sentenced both women to ninety days in jail but suspended their sentences. Rose was fined $300. The women each had to pay court costs of $8.66. Rose was given ten days to clear out of Ottawa County, but Helen was given only 48 hours. They both promised to stay out of the county under threat of having to serve their jail sentences if they came back. Rose broke her promise and reopened with no police interference.

“DagoRose’s” establishment became so popular with the men on the army base that at one point guards were placed at the roadside entrance to the house in an effort to stop soldiers from entering. When that failed, Camp Perry officials asked the Ottawa County sheriff for his assistance in closing the cat house down.

Deeming the house a public nuisance, authorities ordered Rose Pasco to close her house of ill repute. She ignored the order and kept operating. On Friday night, July 27, 1934, Sheriff D. L. Cullenen and National Guard officials decided they were going to “swoop down and clean her out.” During the raid, authorities arrested three “working” girls and found Rose hiding in the bushes a distance away from the house.

“Dago Rose” and the girls were told to leave the house and not return. The men in the establishment were booted out and the sheriff then locked the doors. No arrests were made in that incident, and Rose opened her doors a few weeks later.

In 1942, Rose’s house of prostitution was raided again, this time by Sheriff Ralph H. Riedmaier and Deputy Harry Swartzlander. That strike netted six arrests: Rose, Faye Clarke, Anne Brown, Raye Rogers, Francis Rogers and Georgia Brown. Rose and Faye were given ninety-day suspended sentences—if they would quit the business—and fined $100 each. The other four women each served ten days of ninety-day sentences and were let go after passing health examinations.

Authorities were not having a lot of luck in closing down “Dago Rose” and her house of ill repute, so in 1946, they decided to take a different tact. They got the federal authorities involved after a sailor from Great Lakes, Illinois, contracted a communicable disease. The county health commissioner, Dr. George A. Poe, paired up with Walter A. Hixenbaugh of the Federal Security Agency, who was on loan to the Ohio Department of Health. They planned to arrest Rose’s girls and hold them in jail for a ten-day period until they passed health tests. The women were told if they went back to the house, they would be arrested again and quarantined until they passed another medical exam. Authorities said they would continue to do this until the women left the county. It didn’t do much good.

Rose stayed out of the papers until 1970 when her ex-daughter-in-law, Lillian “Ginger” Pasco Tailford Belt, who ran her own whorehouse called the Round the Clock Grille, was arrested on federal charges during a bribery case that involved sitting Ottawa County Sheriff James Ellenberger, former County Sheriff Myron Hetrick, and a pinball machine operator. It seems as though the three gentlemen were taking bribes to keep the cat house doors open.

The case also alleged that Rose had bribed Sheriff Riedmaier by giving him a refrigerator and television set. In addition, she was accused of perjury in claiming the Port Clinton police chief had not told her to close down her house of prostitution. Both counts against her were eventually dropped as no one would testify against her.

Rose Pasco died in 1979 after a lengthy illness. Curiously enough, her funeral mass was held in a church named the Immaculate Conception. She was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Port Clinton.

The Bandit Queen

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I’m always asked how I got interested in writing about crime. My stock answer is that I come by it “honestly”— I have a degree in criminal justice and I was a police reporter. But when I dig a little deeper into my criminal curiosity, I remember as a little kid seeing an old movie about Belle Starr with Randolph Scott as Sam Starr and Gene Tierney in the title role. I’ve always loved stories of bandits and gunslingers that galloped across the mountains and red dust of the Old West, gambling and drinking in saloons and shooting up Deadwood and Tombstone. I was fascinated with stories of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid. So when I saw the story about the “Bandit Queen,” I was hooked on women criminals.

Dime novels and exaggerated newspaper accounts of the time romanticized Myra Maybelle Shirley’s violent life, so it’s not easy to discern fact from fiction 135 years later. Belle, as she liked to be called, played into the stories by wearing a long velvet riding habit in her favored black, topped off by one of the new Stetson hats, festooned with an ostrich plume. With a pair of six-shooters strapped to her waist, she rode side-saddle on her favorite mare, Venus.

Belle was born in Missouri, near on Carthage February 5, 1848. Her parents, John and Eliza, tried to raise her to be a lady, but it didn’t work out that way. Although educated at Carthage Female Academy and Craven, another private school, where she learned the piano and other cultured studies, she got into fights with girls and boys alike. She was an intelligent girl but she had a temper that could go unchecked and a mouth that would turn a mule skinner’s face scarlet.

The Shirleys were originally from Virginia. After they married, they moved to Missouri where John bred horses and became well-known for his fine stock. He also owned a tavern, and he and his wife, both Confederate sympathizers, often entertained the notorious Rebel guerilla, William Clarke Quantrill whose gang included such bandits as the James boys and the Younger brothers.

During one of Quantrill’s Raiders’ visits, a 15-year-old Belle met and fell in love with Cole Younger. There is a story that Belle and Younger married in a mock horseback ceremony with his gang as witnesses. Whether this was true or not, for certain Younger left Belle and rode off with his comrades to rob trains and banks and shoot up pioneer towns.

Legend has it that Belle was heartbroken at Younger’s departure, but the die was cast. She began a pattern of consorting with bad actors. After Younger, she moved on to a man named Jim Reed, another one of Quantrill’s band, and an outlaw in his own right. She married him, probably to get out from under her parents’ rule. The two settled near Dallas, Texas. At the age of twenty, she gave birth to a daughter and named her Rose Lee but called her Pearl. It was always speculated, but never confirmed, that Cole Younger was Pearl’s father. Although he was a frequent visitor to the Reed household, Younger denied paternity, and Belle never confirmed or denied the question. Three years later, a son, James Edwin, was born to Belle and Jim Reed.

Even though Belle had two children, she played poker and hired out as a singer and piano player in Dallas dance halls, and she learned to outdrink any cowboy. She was known to be an excellent horsewoman and ran a stable where she dealt in horses stolen by her husband.

Stories differ on exactly what happened to Jim Reed, but he and Belle robbed a man named Grayson of $30,000. Reed was recognized and was forced to flee. In another story he killed two men and made a run for it to California. Belle and the children followed.

The pair traipsed back and forth between California and Texas until Reed was shot down August 6, 1874, by either one of his own men or a deputy in Paris, Texas.

Belle’s next wedding ceremony to Bruce Younger, Cole’s cousin, was performed under the threat of her expert markmanship. Whether Belle was in love with Bruce or still pining for Cole, is anyone’s guess. The union lasted mere hours because Bruce took off and was never heard from again.

Not one to mourn for too long, Belle fell for a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr, an infamous killer and horse thief. Some say he strung his victims’ dried earlobes on a cord to wear around his neck.

Belle and her new husband settled on a piece of land in Oklahoma Indian Territory on the Canadian River. She called their homestead Younger’s Bend. Her three-room cabin may have held a piano and walls covered with books, but it became a haven for horse thieves, robbers and killers, most of whom had ridden with Belle at one time.

There are no records to show that Belle was ever involved with any murders. Her main income came from stealing and selling horses. In 1882, she and Sam were arrested for horse theft and taken before the famous Hanging Judge Isaac Park. They got off light with a year each in a Detroit prison.

Belle was a model prisoner and taught music (believable) and French (if this can be believed) to the warden’s children. She supposedly wrote a book while behind bars, but if she did, it never saw the light of day. After six months, she was set free.

Her stint behind bars did little to change her attitude. “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw,” she told the Dallas News upon her return home.

As soon as Sam got out of prison, the two returned to Younger’s Bend and their criminal ways. Unfortunately for Sam, his banditry came to an end in 1886 during a shoot out with his lawman cousin Frank West. Both men fell dead.

Belle’s name was romantically connected to other outlaws, including Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard and Jim French, but a man named Jim July became her fourth and final husband. She married him because he was a Creek Indian and the marriage allowed her to keep her home on Indian land. Because she had become well-known under the name Starr, she forced the much younger July to change his last name to Starr. Belle treated him terribly.

On February 3, 1889, just two days shy of her forty-fifth birthday, an unknown person shot her in the back as she rode along a muddy road on her way home. The shotgun blast knocked her from her horse. The assailant then stood over her and fired another round of buckshot into her face and shoulder. Since Belle had many enemies, several names were bandied about as her possible killer. No one was ever arrested.

Pearl reached her moments before she died. Belle whispered something to her daughter, but the younger woman never repeated it.

The “Bandit Queen” was buried in her front yard in her favorite black velvet riding habit and jewelry. Fittingly, she was clasping a pearl-handled six-gun, a gift from Cole Younger. A star and a likeness of her horse, Venus was chiseled into her tombstone. A poem written by Pearl served as her epitaph:

Shed not for the bitter tear,

nor give the heart to vain regret,

Tis but a casket that lies here,

the gem that fills it sparkles yet.

 

 

Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress – guest blog by Richard O Jones

While participating in Books by the Banks, the Cincinnati Book Festival, in October, I had the pleasure of signing next to fellow true crime writer, Richard O Jones. I was fascinated by his book, Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal. It is meticulously researched, well written and an engrossing read. He and I became friends, and he graciously consented to guest blog about his book. Here he shares some information that has not published.

 

When a trio of young duck hunters stumbled upon the charred body of Cincinnati woman Louise Bergen one drizzly fall morning in 1958, suspicion quickly fell upon her estranged husband’s live-in girlfriend, the 40-year-old divorcee Edythe Klumpp. In Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal (The History Press), True Crime Historian Richard O Jones details the elaborate lies that Edythe told in her embroidered confessions and tells how her attorney and the governor of Ohio attempted to get to the truth and find justice for Edythe in spite of herself. The author deleted the following scene of the demise of Edythe’s first marriage from the original manuscript to meet the publisher’s word count, but shares it here in this Dark Hearted Woman exclusive to provide further insight into the defendant’s pattern of behavior. — Richard O Jones

Edythe Klumpp

Edythe’s First Divorce

The divorce proceedings between Robert and Edythe Klumpp included four or five appearances before a criminal judge when Edythe brought assault and battery charges against her husband. A report by a parole officer after the first arrest in November 1956 showed that the Klumpp marriage was rocky from start to finish and beyond.

“The man appears to be very nervous and is really upset about the divorce being filed,” it read. “He said he didn’t even know she had filed for divorce, as they were living together, and when he came home one night his clothing was in his stepson’s car” in the rain.

Not only that, but there was an order from him to stay away from the home.

It was all a shock to him, because if anyone should be suing for divorce it should have been him, he said. She would run around after work until 5 in the morning sometimes. He followed her on many occasions and had caught her in lies about where she had been. He admitted that he pushed her around numerous times, but she struck him just as frequently. He said then that he had done everything possible to hold their marriage together, but they had been separated many times, even before moving to Mt. Washington.

“He stated his wife has always had jobs as baby sitter in the home and he assisted by taking the children to their homes over the weekends and washing dishes at night because his wife held another job also. He knows his wife worked very hard and tried to get along, but she didn’t seem to be happy.”

Edythe told the police in 1956 that she felt her husband was “so nervous he is mentally ill.”

She admitted to staying out after work with some girlfriend, but due to his fussing she was afraid to go home because the questioning would lead to arguing and then to a fist fight. Each time they separated, he would promise to do better, then it was the same thing all over again. They belonged to the Norwood Lutheran Church, where she had been active since the children were small. She had never mentioned their marital difficulties to anyone there, but Bob Klumpp at one point contacted the pastor, told him that Edythe was a very immoral woman and that he was at his wit’s end. She was so embarrassed when word of their conversation got around the church that she decided to finally divorce Bob.

Edythe told the parole officer that Bob was insanely jealous, would accuse her of improper associations with every man she spoke to at work, and would come into her workplace and insult her in front of the customers and call her vile names. He had caused her to lose jobs, she said. She couldn’t bring any friends to the home as the minute she introduced them, Bob asked them where Edythe was on a certain date, maybe two months prior. Naturally the person didn’t know and became embarrassed.

This pattern of behavior had been going on for 10 years, Edythe said. She wanted to keep the home together, but just could not take it any longer. The children were suffering from the fighting and arguing. Her oldest daughter would not speak to her father or go out with him. She urged the children to be kind to him, but they feared him. The nine-year-old daughter was extremely nervous; the doctors attributed this to the conditions at home, so Edythe felt it was best to separate.

The writer of the report, identified only as Miss Maucher, said that during the 90 minute joint interview, Bob Klumpp was so nervous that “he was never quiet. He wanted her to account for every time she was late from 1952 to 1954.”

Miss Maucher told him that they could hash it out in Domestic Relations Court if they wanted to, but this office didn’t handle divorce work. What it does handle, she said, is assault and battery and if he ever struck her again, the judge could take care of it.

“What should I do if she strikes me?” he said.

“If you stay away from her as you are supposed to do,” she scolded, “there will be no occasion for her to strike you. But if she comes to you and strikes you, you have the privilege of having her arrested.”

He was ordered to pick up the children for a weekly visit at Edythe’s mother’s house. Bob felt like he ought to be able to pick his own kids up at his own house, but Edythe would not hear of it, knowing that he would start some kind of argument.

The judge did not issue a fine or any punishment for that altercation, but Bob Klumpp did have to pay the court costs. When he was brought before another judge, however, in July, 1957, for abuse of family charges, he received six months’ probation.

Parole Officer Maucher reported that when they came into the office there was constant bickering and arguing. Edythe didn’t agree with the charges because he had not abused the family. She did claim that he broke into the home and stole $20 out of a drawer where she’d hidden $100 (besides this $20) to pay her taxes. A burglar would have taken the whole wad, she charged.

“Mr. Klumpp never ceases talking,” the report said, and he “rants and raves from one subject to another.

“He is extremely nervous and lives entirely in the past. He keeps recalling ‘all her misconduct with other men for the past three years.’”

Maucher felt it was fruitless to speak to them together, but that “in all probability,” Edythe had given him cause to be jealous and suspicious, indicating that she had other sources who spoke of her extramarital activities.

“Klumpp appears to be a mentally disturbed person and has pushed his wife around on numerous occasions,” the report concluded, recommending that Klumpp be allowed to see his children, but pick them up in a neutral location rather than go to the home. “The husband appears to be a very domineering person and apparently is the aggressor in their difficulties.”

The divorce became final in August 1957, and in March 1958 there were two more court appearances noted in his file. On March 25, charges of “abuse of family” were dismissed, and on March 29, he was fined $11 and costs for assault and battery, presumably brought on by Edythe, but the file lacks any details of that appearance.

 

Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Shocking Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal is available online or at your favorite bookstore.

Read more about Richard O Jones at http://www.truecrimehistorian.com.

 

 

 

Nannie Doss, Giggling Granny

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted. The time has been spent productively, though, by writing two more books–Murder & Mayhem on Ohio’s Rails (yep, train robberies) and Ohio Train Disasters due out mid-November.

Now that those books are finished, I promise to post more regularly. Below is the story of killer Nannie Doss. I hope you enjoy it.

Nannie Doss looked like anybody’s grandmother—all sugar cookies and fresh lemonade. She had a round, soft body and big breasts. Her hair was a jumble of dark curls that framed her face, and she wore glasses that set on top of her pink cheeks. Because she was always smiling, she was known as the Giggling Granny or Giggling Nannie.

But behind those smiles, underneath that warm exterior lurked the dark heart of a vicious killer responsible for at least 11 deaths. Between 1920 and 1954, she murdered four husbands, her mother, one of her sisters, one of her mothers-in-law, two of her own children and two grandchildren.

Born Nancy Hazel on November 4, 1905, in Blue Mountain, Alabama, to Lou and Jim Hazel, she had one brother and three sisters. Her father was overly strict and didn’t believe in education. Instead he forced his children to work the farm. When Nannie did attend school, she did poorly and never did learn to read well.

When she was seven, she and her family went on a train trip to visit relatives. During the trip, the train made a sudden stop. Nannie flew forward and hit her head on the metal bar on the seat in front of her. From then on, she complained of headaches and blackouts. Later on, she blamed the accident for her depression and mental instability.

As a teen, she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup or dress in fashionable clothing, nor was she allowed a social life. To while away her free time, she read romance magazines, her favorite part being the lonely hearts column.

Nannie’s first known victims were her own children. She had married Charley Braggs when she was just sixteen. “She was a pretty girl,” he said. “Good build and lots of fun.” Four baby girls were born in quick succession after their marriage. She complained that her mother-in-law took over her life. Unhappy and stressed, she turned to drink and began to smoke. Both she and her husband turned their amorous attentions to others.

Bragg claimed Nannie would take off and he would have to hunt her down and bring her home. Nannie countered that it was he who would be gone for days, leaving her with her demanding mother-in-law and four little children. During one of his absences in 1927, two of the children died of so-called “food poisoning.” A neighbor was suspicious because the children’s bodies turned black right away. Bragg rightly suspected Nannie had done away with them, so he took the oldest daughter, Melvina, and left. He called his father-in-law to come and get the baby, Florena. It wasn’t too much later that Bragg’s mother died under suspicious circumstances.

A year later Bragg returned to divorce Nannie, claiming he had always been afraid of her. Still he left his daughters with her.

Nannie moved on to 23-year-old Frank Harrelson, whom she met through a lonely hearts column. Their romance started off when he sent her poetry. She, in turn, sent him a cake. Unbeknownst to her, Harrelson was a drunk and had a criminal record for assault. In spite of his short comings, they were together for 16 years, though a marriage license was never found.

During this time, Nannie’s daughter, Melvina, had two children. The second baby died immediately after birth. Melvina, still groggy and exhausted after the baby was born, thought she saw her mother stick a hatpin into the newborn’s head. Melvina quizzed her husband and her sister about what she had seen. Was it accurate? Had they seen the same thing? They told her that Nannie said the baby was dead, but they did notice that she had a hatpin in her hand.

A few years later, Melvina and her husband parted company. She began dating a soldier. Nannie didn’t like him one bit. After a particularly ugly argument with her mother over the soldier, Melvina left her son in Nannie’s care while she went off to visit her father, Braggs. Melvina returned home to find her son had died of asphyxia from an unknown cause. Conveniently, Nannie had taken out a $500 insurance policy on the boy’s life.

By 1945, Harrelson’s drinking had escalated. He became particularly inebriated one evening and raped Nannie. The next day she added rat poison to his corn whisky stash. It made his death the next day most painful.

Nannie met husband number three, Arlie Lanning, through a lonely hearts column. Only three days later—and with great hope—she married him. But she had chosen poorly again. Arlie was both a drunk and a womanizer.

To get away from a miserable marriage, Nannie disappeared for months at a time. Oddly, when she was home, she acted like the perfect wife, so when Lanning died of a supposed heart attack, her neighbors gathered around her at his funeral.

The house where the pair lived was willed to Lanning’s sister. It soon burned down. The insurance money went to Nannie, who quickly banked it. Not too long after that, Frank Harrelson’s 83-year-old mother “died in her sleep.” Nannie quickly fled the state and ended up living with her sister, Dovie. Dovie was quite ill and bedridden. A short time after Nannie’s arrival, Dovie died.

Nannie’s fourth marriage was to a man named Richard L. Morton, who hailed from Emporia, Kansas. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he was a philanderer. Nannie’s mother, Lou, came to live with them during this time. She went the way of other’s in Nannie life—with poison. Three months later, Richard died under suspicious circumstances.

Husband number five’s nature was a departure from the others. His name was Samuel Doss and he was from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Doss was a church-going man, who had a good job. He disapproved of the romance novels and true confessions magazines Nannie so loved. The two had married in June 1953 and by September he was taken to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with and treated for a severe intestinal infection. After 25 days, the hospital finally released him on October 5.

Nannie brought him home and that evening promptly murdered him. She apparently was in a hurry to collect on the two insurance policies she had taken out on him. His doctor was suspicious and ordered an autopsy. A huge amount of arsenic was found in his system.

Nannie was finally arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The 49-year-old grandmother admitted to feeding rat poison to four of her husbands, because of little things that annoyed her. She denied wrong doing in any of the other deaths in her family. Reports said she giggled when she told police, “You can dig up all the other graves in the world, but you won’t find anything else on me.”

She admitted to putting poison in Harrelson’s booze because, “He tried to force me to go to bed with him. I decided to teach him a lesson.” Harrelson “ran around” and was going to leave her, she said. Jealousy led her to killing at least two of her husbands. Both Lanning and Morton were “popular with the women” according to Nannie, so she poisoned them.

Doss was “mean,” she said. He wouldn’t let her have a radio or television. He was fond of prunes, so she dumped rat poison on a dish he ate the night before being rushed to the hospital. Much to her dismay, he survived. When she got him home she gave him another dose of poison in a cup of coffee. That did the trick. “He sure did like prunes,” she said.

Nannie had already picked out James H. Keel as husband number six before number five was even dead. Just like some of the others, he was corresponding with her through a lonely hearts club. When he heard about her true nature, he counted himself lucky. “I’m sure mighty proud that she didn’t come to my part of the country,” he said.

She pleaded guilty to Doss’ murder but was never charged for the others. She remained adamant that she had never killed any of her “blood kin” even though poison showed up during an autopsy performed on Louis Hazel, Nannie’s mother.

Her first husband, told authorities that he always thought the food she served him didn’t taste right.

Nannie was found guilty of murder, but escaped getting the chair. Tulsa Judge Elmer Adams thought it would be poor precedent to execute a woman in Oklahoma. Instead, she was sentenced to life in the state pen McAlester. She died ten years later to the day. She was 60 years old.

Vance Avenue Alma

Alma Theede had too many husbands, so she killed three of them. She served a time out behind bars for two of those killings, but the third was ruled justifiable.

Alma came to my attention through a couple of friends who were visiting the historical sites of Memphis. Besides Graceland and Beal Street, they took a tour of Elmwood Cemetery. There, they heard the story of Alma, who from 1919 to 1960 was married seven times to six different men.

Originally from Mississippi, Alma Herring came to Memphis with her mother, Nettie. A sister and a brother may have also been in the picture. By age 16, she was supporting herself and her mother as a streetwalker on Vance Avenue in an area known for red lights, booze and craps games. At the time street walkers made $1 a trick or $2 if they were lucky. In no time, the teenage Alma earned the nickname “Vance Avenue Alma.”

When she was just 17, she married Halprin Cox. He ran a dice table in one of the gambling dens. Love didn’t conquer all, though. The union between the hooker and the gambler ended in divorce after a short time.

Next, she and railroad worker Roy Calvert ran off and got hitched in Little Rock, Arkansas. The marriage was rocky to say the least and proved to be a death sentence for Calvert. “Roy drank,” Alma said. “My, that marriage was a wild one.” She was charged with his murder after shooting him in 1919. The jury took pity on the 20-year-old widow and found it to be a justifiable homicide. Alma went back to Memphis and remarried Cox, who was later killed in an auto accident. At some point–though it’s not clear when–Alma was allowed to adopt Cox’s two children.

If Alma was in mourning, it didn’t show. Thanks to her most recent husband, she had been bitten by the gambling bug. That and her mother’s needs were draining her coffers, so she went back to Vance Avenue. This time she traded the streets for more profitable work in a cathouse.

By the time she met Michael McClavery, her looks were gone and she was pretty well used up. In fact, the madam had kicked her out of the house, so she bundled up her black lace nighties and moved to a second, seedier establishment. McClavery was a prosperous businessman and a good deal older than Alma. What he saw in her is anybody’s guess, except history has it that he was somewhat hard of hearing; his eyesight was fading; and he wasn’t much to look at either.

McClavery was a kind soul. He even allowed Alma’s mother to come live with them, and he gave his bride money to gamble, which after awhile got to be problem financially. So Alma considered going back to the streets to help pay for her addiction. But she decided against that in favor of taking in a boarder. His name was Charles Miller, a good looking ex-jockey who was closer to Alma’s age. And the inevitable happened.

McClavery died with a bullet wound to the heart. Police were suspicious of Alma and Miller right away. Alma tearfully told the cops that Miller had vanished. Witnesses had overheard the illusive boarder threaten to kill McClavery if he tried to break up the duo. It was also reported that Alma bought a gun for Miller. Police began to gather evidence, taking into consideration that she had shot a previous husband in Little Rock. By keeping tabs on Alma, police soon collared Miller, then arrested the ex-streetwalker and charged her as an accessory.

The 1928 trial was colorful. Alma was passionate in her pleas of innocence before the jury, claiming she worshipped her husband. After all, he had taken her out of a “den of iniquity” she cried, and “made a lady” of her. It was true, she told the court, that he did drink, but he was a good man and husband. At one point she was so loud with her entreaties that the courtroom doors had to be closed.

In his final argument the prosecutor claimed that she had repaid her husband’s kindness and love by planning his murder and supplying the weapon. The jury agreed. Both Alma and Miller were sentenced to 15 years.

Alma could find love anywhere, and jail was no exception. In the course of her prison job, she met and fell head over heels with Bill Theede. Theede was doing 21 years for gunning down a 15-year-old kid during a grocery store robbery.

Lucky for them, they were paroled around the same time, and they tied the knot in 1933.

Alma’s mother had saved up some cash, so she gave it to her daughter to buy a run down, derelict shack at the edge of town. The property had some acreage, so Alma, her mother and Theede raised chickens and pigs.

All was well for a couple of years until love grew cold, and Theede wanted out. Alma had lost all her looks by this time, and Theede said the house was literally a pigsty, and besides that he was afraid of her.

Just as Theede was about to get his divorce, the newspapers ran pictures of him and Alma. As bad luck would have it, a woman took a look at their pictures and fingered them as a pair who had stolen her silver. Both Alma and her husband were convicted of the theft and served short sentences at the Shelby County penal farm.

After this stint behind bars, Alma went back to the pitiful cottage, her needy mother and the pigs and chickens.

The next time she ran afoul of the law was for stealing a cow. She told authorities that she needed milk for the children. By now she had adopted another child, an illegitimate baby from an Arkansas women, so she had three children in tow. The cow cost her 90 days in the workhouse. Her mother tried to care for the orphans while Alma was in jail, but do-gooders took the children away.

A sixty-two-year-old mill worker named Ed Gill accompanied Alma on her sixth trip down the aisle. Three years later, poor Ed’s body was found lying in the street with a bullet hole in his head shot from a .38 caliber gun. The sheriff’s men knew where to find the shooter.

Alma denied having anything to do with the slaying, even though she owned a .38 caliber pistol. When the ballistics matched up, she changed her tune. In the new story, she claimed they were driving home from a friend’s house. Ed had been drinking heavily for about a week, and they were arguing because he had made up his mind to leave her. The exchange got so heated that he stopped the truck and grabbed a gun from the glove compartment and loaded it. They got out of the truck and started to scuffle. The gun went off, she claimed, and Ed slumped the ground.

The evidence didn’t match up with her story. For one thing, Ed’s friends and co-workers told police they had never known Ed to drink. For another, the passenger door on the truck didn’t open. And the altercation between Alma and Ed was not believable. He was a foot taller than she was and had at least a hundred pounds on her.

Alma knew her record wasn’t good. Afraid to go to trial, she took a plea bargain for second-degree murder. She was sentenced to ten years. She was paroled in 1955.

Not much is written about Alma’s seventh husband, William Massey. All that’s known is she met and married him shortly after she was released from jail. That marriage didn’t last long, and the couple was divorced.

In her last years, she ran a boarding house in Memphis. She died in 1970 at the age of 75. It’s probably a blessing that she died before she had the chance to marry again.