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.

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