In the second in our series, Keren takes us on a journey delving into Female Serial Killers throughout history. This week she looks at Nannie Doss, a woman known for being a bit of a black widow.
TW – Rape, abuse
In the Beginning
Nannie Doss (Nancy Hazel) was born on November 4th 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama. When she was 7, Nannie hit her head on a metal bar on the seat in front of her while travelling to see family on a train. This head trauma caused Nannie to suffer from severe headaches, blackouts and depression for many years.
During her childhood, Nannie would read her mother’s romance magazines (especially the ‘lonely hearts’ column) and became obsessed with the idea of finding the perfect husband and having a storybook romance. Unfortunately, due to her father’s controlling nature, Nannie and her sisters were unable to wear makeup, attractive clothing or go to social events.
Let the Killing Commence
Nannie met her first husband, Charley Braggs, at work when she was 16 years old and they were married within four months. Charley was an only child and his mother insisted on living with them. Unfortunately, his mother took up a lot of his time and attention, and she also limited Nannie’s every day activities. Nannie took an instant disliking to her mother-in-law as she reminded Nannie of her father, and resented her for many reasons, including not allowing Nannie’s mother stay with them.
Nannie and Charley had four daughters from 1923 to 1927, the marriage deteriorated over the years. Both partners became unhappy, with Nannie becoming a heavy drinker, and both of them correctly suspecting each other of infidelity, especially as Charley would disappear for days on end.
In 1927, the couple lost their two middle daughters to suspected food poisoning after eating breakfast one morning. After their deaths, Charley took their oldest daughter Melvina and fled the family home, leaving Nannie to look after their newborn daughter Florine, and his mother. Charley’s mother died not long after this, and he returned home in 1928 with Melvina and a new woman with her own child. The couple soon divorced and Nannie left for her mother’s home with both of her daughters. Charley maintains that he left her because Nannie frightened him.
Lonely Hearts Club
Whilst living at home, Nannie rekindled her passion for romance magazines and began responding to men who advertised in the ‘lonely hearts’ column. In 1929, Nannie met and married a man called Robert Franklin Harrelson. They lived in Jacksonville, Florida, with her two daughters. Robert was a vile man who would get abusive after he had a few too many drinks or start bar fights. Despite being married for 16 years, Nannie had had enough. Robert had been out at a local party celebrating the end of World War II, he came home incredibly drunk and raped Nannie. She found his corn whiskey jar buried in the garden and topped it off with rat poison. A week later, Robert was dead.
It is reported that Nannie killed her granddaughter a few days after her birth, but there is no proof. A few months after the granddaughter’s death, Nannie’s two-year-old grandson, Robert, dies of asphyxiation while in her care. After his death, she collected a $500 insurance cheque.
Burn it Down
On her own yet again, Nannie returned to her much-loved ‘classified ads’ to look for a new husband, and in 1947, she met Arlie Lanning and married two days later. Much like her late husband Robert, Arlie was a drinker. Thankfully he was not a violent or adulterous one. This however, did not stop Nannie from disappearing, sometimes months at a time. In 1950, after two and half years of marriage, Arlie became ill and died. They originally thought he died of a heart attack brought on by the flu as he showed all the standard symptoms: fever, vomiting; stomach pains.
The family home was left to Nannie’s sister-in-law, but it miraculously burned down and Nannie went to live with her mother-in-law. She quickly moved out after collecting the insurance cheque and her mother-in-law died in her sleep.
With her husband dead and her family home burned to a crisp, Nannie moved in with her terminally ill sister Dovie, who had been diagnosed with cancer and bedridden. Not long after Nannie’s arrival, her sister died.
It had become quite clear to Nannie that the ‘classified ads’ were not working for her, so she tried the singles club. She joined the Diamond Circle Club, where she met husband number four, Richard L. Morton from Emporia, Kansas. They married in October 1952 and settled down in Kansas. One good thing about Richard was that he didn’t drink. The downside was that he WAS adulterous. Nannie discovered that her new husband was still seeing his old girlfriend on the side and well… He didn’t have long to live. Nannie had already written the marriage off as she already had her sights set on a new man living in Kansas, Samuel Doss.
Nannie’s family threw a spanner in the works, with her father dying and her mother coming to visit. But within three days, her mother died after complaining about severe stomach cramps. Richard suffered a similar fate three months later.
Last but not Least
It wasn’t long until Nannie bagged herself husband number five! Nannie moved to Oklahoma and soon became Mrs Samuel Doss. Sam Doss was a Nazarene minister who had lost his wife and nine of their children in a devastating tornado that had swept through Madison County, Arkansas.
He was a good, decent man and the polar opposite to Nannie’s previous husbands. He was not a drunk, womanizer, or a wife abuser. Sam did however, have a couple of flaws: He was horrendously boring and frugal. He was used to living a very regimented life and expected Nannie to do the same.
All of her fantasies of the perfect fairy tale romance were out the window. Samuel did not allow any romance novels in the house, nor did he allow love stories on the TV. They even went to bed at 9:30pm. Every. Single. Night! Sam also kept very tight control over the money and gave very little for Nannie to spend on herself. Well this didn’t sit very well with Nannie and she left for Alabama, refusing to return until Sam signed her to his checking account.
Now that she had access to his money, Nannie became the perfect wife. She later convinced Sam to take out two life insurance policies, with her being the only beneficiary. Not long after signing on the dotted line, Sam was in hospital complaining of stomach problems and was admitted to hospital. Miraculously, he managed to survive almost two weeks and recovered enough to go home. Being the doting housewife, Nannie served her husband a home-cooked meal. He was dead within hours.
The doctors were alarmed at Sam’s sudden passing and ordered an autopsy. They then discovered that his organs were full of arsenic and everyone suspected Nannie. The police took her in for questioning and she confessed to killing: four of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her grandson Robert and Arlie’s mother.
Put on a Show
Despite getting caught, Nannie seemed to revel in the spotlight following her arrest. She was seen joking about her dead husbands whilst in court. Laughing about the methods she used to kill them, including the sweet potato pie laced with arsenic. Surprisingly, the jury failed to see the funny side and on May 17th 1955, Nannie confessed to killing Samuel Doss and was sentenced to life imprisonment. If Nannie had been a man, she would have been given the death penalty. Nannie later died of leukaemia, after only eight years in prison.
The prosecutors never did charge Nannie for the additional murders, though most believe she killed up to 11 people.
Personally I can understand why Nannie killed most of her husbands. Nobody deserves to be beaten or raped. However lines were definitely crossed when she murdered her other family members… But who doesn’t love a show where you end up despising the protagonist and cannot wait to see if they get their comeuppance? There are certainly ways to modernise Nannie’s story if needed, as well as delving deeper into the backstory of her childhood and each of her marriages. What do you think? Could you see Nannie’s story become a major crime thriller for ITV or BBC?
You can read about the lack of female representation in the serial killer genre of TV & Film here
Want to know about more Female Serial Killers throught History?
Check out Keren’s article on Juana Barraza here.