Profile of Nannie Doss, 'The Jolly Black Widow'

Romance novels and poisoning kept her busy

Nannie Doss
Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor

Nannie Doss was a serial killer n the first half of the 20th century who earned the monikers "The Giggling Nanny,” "The Giggling Granny," and "The Jolly Black Widow" after a killing spree that began in the 1920s and ended in 1954. Doss' favorite pastimes included reading romance magazines and poisoning relatives.

Childhood Years

Nannie Doss was born Nancy Hazle on November 4, 1905, in Blue Mountain, Alabama, to James and Lou Hazle. Much of her childhood was spent avoiding the wrath of her father, who ruled the family with an iron fist. If his children were needed to work the farm, James Hazle didn't hesitate to pull them out of school. With education a low priority, there were no objections when Nannie decided to leave school for good after completing the sixth grade.

When Nannie was 7, the train she was on suddenly stopped, causing her to fall forward and hit her head. After the accident, she suffered for years with migraine headaches, blackouts, and depression.

Teenage Years

James Hazle refused to allow his daughters to do anything to enhance their appearance. Pretty dresses and makeup were not allowed. Neither were friendships with boys. It was not until Doss got her first job in 1921 that she had any social interaction with the opposite sex.

When other kids were attending school and worrying about prom night, Doss was working in a linen factory, spending her spare time with her head buried in her favorite pastime: reading romance magazines, especially the lonely hearts club section.

Marriage

While working at the factory, Doss met Charley Braggs, a co-worker who took care of his unmarried mother. They began dating and within five months were married. Doss moved in with Braggs and his mother.

If she had hoped by marrying to escape the oppressive environment she grew up in, she was disappointed. Her mother-in-law turned out to be extremely controlling and manipulative.

The Braggses had their first child in 1923, followed by three more over the next three years. Doss' life became a prison of raising children, taking care of her demanding mother-in-law, and putting up with Charley, an abusive, adulterous drunk. To cope, she began drinking and going to bars for her own adulterous fun. Their marriage was doomed.

First Deaths

In 1927, soon after the birth of their fourth child, the Braggses' two middle children died from what doctors labeled food poisoning. Suspecting that Doss had poisoned them, Braggs took off with the oldest child, Melvina, but left the newborn, Florine, and her mother behind.

Not long after he left, his mother died. Doss remained in the Braggses' home until a year later, when Charley returned with Melvina and his new girlfriend. The two divorced; Doss left with her two daughters and moved back to her parents' home.

Charley Braggs became the only husband that Nannie didn't poison to death.

Second Husband

Alone again, Doss returned to her childhood passions of reading romance magazines, but this time she began corresponding with some of the men who advertised in the lonely hearts column. That's where she met her second husband, Robert Harrelson. Doss, 24, and Harrelson, 23, met and married, and they lived with Melvina and Florine in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Doss learned once again that she had not married a man with the character of her romance heroes. Harrelson was a drunk and in debt. His favorite pastime was getting into bar fights. Somehow the marriage lasted until Harrelson's death 16 years later.

A Grandmother

In 1943, Doss' oldest daughter, Melvina, had her first child, a son named Robert, followed by another in 1945. The second child, a healthy girl, died soon after birth for unexplained reasons. Melvina, who was in and out of consciousness after a difficult delivery, later recalled seeing her mother stick a hatpin into the head of the infant, but no proof was ever found.

On July 7, 1945, Doss was taking care of Robert after she and her daughter had fought over Doss' disapproval of Melvina's new boyfriend. That night, while in Doss' care, Robert died of what doctors called asphyxia from unknown causes. Within a few months, Doss collected $500 on an insurance policy she had taken out on the boy.

On September 15, 1945, Harrelson became ill and died. Doss later told of him coming home drunk and raping her. The next day, she poured rat poison into his corn whiskey jar, then watched as he died a painful death.

Third Husband

Figuring it had worked once, Doss returned to the classified ads for her next husband. Within two days of meeting each other, Doss and Arlie Lanning were married. Like her late husband, Lanning was an alcoholic, but not a violent or adulterous one. This time it was Doss who would leave the house, sometimes months at a time.

In 1950, after two and a half years of marriage, Lanning became ill and died. At the time it was believed that he died of a heart attack brought on by the flu that was going around. He showed all the symptoms: fever, vomiting, stomach pains. With his history of drinking, doctors believed his body simply succumbed to it and an autopsy wasn't performed.

Lanning's house was left to his sister, but within two months it had burned down before the sister took ownership.

Doss moved in temporarily with her mother-in-law, but when she received an insurance check for the burned house, she took off. Doss wanted to be with her sister, Dovie, who was dying of cancer. Just before she was to move to her sister's home, her mother-in-law died in her sleep.

Not surprisingly, Dovie soon died, too, while in Doss' care.

Fourth Husband

This time Doss decided that instead of limiting her search for a husband to the classified ads, she would try a singles club. She joined the Diamond Circle Club, where she met her fourth husband, Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas.

They married in October 1952 and made their home in Kansas. Unlike her previous husbands, Morton wasn't an alcoholic, but he did turn out to be adulterous. When Doss learned that her new husband was seeing his old girlfriend on the side, he didn't have long to live. Besides, she already had her sights on a new man from Kansas named Samuel Doss.

But before she could take care of Morton, her father died and her mother, Louisa, came for a visit. Within days her mother was dead after complaining of severe stomach cramps. Husband Morton succumbed to the same fate three months later.

Fifth Husband

After Morton's death, Nannie moved to Oklahoma and soon became Mrs. Samuel Doss. Sam Doss was a Nazarene minister dealing with the death of his wife and nine of his children, who had been killed by a tornado that engulfed Madison County, Arkansas.

Doss was a good, decent man, unlike the other men in Nannie's life. He was not a drunk, womanizer, or wife abuser. He was a church-going man who fell head over heels for Nannie.

Unfortunately for him, Samuel Doss had two other flaws: He was painfully frugal and boring. He led a regimented life and expected the same of his new bride. No romance novels or love stories on television were permitted, and bedtime was at 9:30 every night.

He kept tight control of the money and gave very little to his wife. This didn't sit right with Nannie, so she headed for Alabama, returning only after Samuel agreed to sign her to his checking account.

With the couple reunited and Doss having access to money, she became the doting wife. She convinced Samuel to take out two life insurance policies, with her as the only beneficiary.

Almost before the ink dried, Samuel was in the hospital complaining of stomach problems. He managed to survive almost two weeks, recovering enough to return home. On his first night back, Doss served him a home-cooked meal, and hours later he was dead.

Samuel's doctors were alarmed at his sudden passing and ordered an autopsy. It turned out his organs were full of arsenic, and all fingers pointed at Nannie Doss.

Police brought Doss in for questioning, and she confessed to killing four of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her grandson Robert, and Arlie Lanning's mother.

15 Minutes of Fame

Despite being a horrific murderer, Doss seemed to enjoy the limelight of her arrest. She often joked about her dead husbands and the methods she used to kill them, such as the sweet potato pie that she laced with arsenic.

Those in the courtroom passing judgment failed to see the humor. On May 17, 1955, Doss, who was 50 years old, confessed to murdering Samuel and was given a life sentence. In 1963, after spending eight years in prison, she died of leukemia in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Prosecutors never charged Doss for additional murders, though most believed that she killed up to 11 people.