Profile of 'The Jolly Black Widow' Nannie Doss

Nannie Doss
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Nannie Doss was a serial killer who earned the monikers "The Giggling Nanny,” "The Giggling Granny," and "The Jolly Black Widow" after going on a killing spree that began in the 1920s and ended in 1954. Doss was easy to entertain. Her favorite pastimes included reading romance novels and poisoning members of her family to death.

Childhood Years

Nannie Doss was born Nancy Hazle on Nov. 4, 1905, in Blue Mountain, Alabama, to James and Lou Hazle. Much of Doss' childhood was spent avoiding the wrath of her father who ruled the family with an abusive iron fist. If they were needed to work on the farm, James Hazle gave little thought to pulling the children out of school. With education being a low priority in the Hazle family, there were no objections when Nannie decided to leave school for good after completing the sixth grade.

Head Injury

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

Teenage Years

From early on James Hazle refused to allow his daughters to do anything to enhance their appearance. Pretty dresses and makeup were not allowed nor were friendships with boys. It was not until Doss got her first job in 1921 that she had any real social interaction with the opposite sex.

At the age of 16, instead of attending school and worrying about prom night, Doss was working in a linen factory and spending her spare time with her head buried in her favorite pastime, reading romance magazines, especially the lonely hearts club section.

The One Who Got Away: Charley Braggs

While working at the factory Doss met Charley Braggs who worked at the same factory and took care of his unmarried mother. The two began dating and within five months they were married and Doss moved in with Braggs and his mother.

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


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

The Death of Two Children and a Mother-In-Law

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

Not long after he left his mother died. Doss remained in the Bragg home until a year later when her husband returned with Melvina and his new girlfriend. The two divorced and Doss left with her two daughters and moved back to her parent's home.

Charley Braggs ended up being the only husband that Nannie did not poison to death.

Husband #2 - Frank Harrelson

Alone again, Doss returned to her childhood passions of reading romance magazines and the lonely heart's column, only this time she began corresponding with some of the men who advertised there. It was through the classified column that she met her second husband, Robert Harrelson. Doss, 24, and Harrelson, 23, met and married and the couple, along with Melvina and Florine, lived together in Jacksonville.

Once again Doss would find out that she had not married a man with the character of her romance novel men. Quite the opposite. Harrelson turned out to be a drunk and in debt. His favorite pastime was to get into bar fights. But somehow the marriage lasted until Harrelson's death, 16 years later.

Doss Becomes a Grandmother, But Not for Long

In 1943, Doss' oldest daughter, Melvina, had her first child, a son named Robert and then another in 1945. But the second child, a healthy girl, died soon after being born for unexplained reasons. Later Melvina recalled, while she was in and out of consciousness after her difficult delivery, seeing her mother stick a hatpin into the head of the infant, but no proof of the incident was ever found.

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

Frank Harrelson Dies

On September 15, 1945, Frank Harrelson became ill and died. Doss would later tell the story of Frank coming home drunk and raping her. The next day, acting on revenge, she poured rat poison into his corn whiskey jar, then watched as Harrelson died a painful and miserable death.

Husband #3 - Arlie Lanning

Figuring it had worked once to snag a husband, Doss returned to the classified ads to find her next true love. It worked and within two days of meeting each other, Doss and Arlie Lanning were married. Just like her late husband, Lanning was an alcoholic, but not a violent one. This time it was Doss who would take off for weeks and 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 was not performed.

Lanning's house was left to his sister and within two months the house burned down before the sister had taken ownership.

Doss moved in temporarily with her mother-in-law, but when she received an insurance check to cover the damages of the burned house, she took off. Doss wanted to be with her sister, Dovie, who was dying of cancer. Just before she was set 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.

Husband #4 - Richard L. Morton

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

The two married in October 1952 and made their home in Kansas. Unlike her previous husbands, Morton was not 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 Richard, 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.

Husband #5 - Samuel Doss

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

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

Unfortunately Samuel Doss had one major flaw that would be his demise. 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 p.m. every night.

He also kept tight control over the money and gave very little to his new wife. This did not sit right with Nannie, so she returned to Alabama, but soon came back after Samuel agreed to sign her to his checking account.

With the couple reunited and Doss having access to the money, she acted the role of the caring doting wife. She convinced Samuel to take out two life insurance policies, leaving her as the only benefactor.

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

Samuel Doss' doctors were alarmed at his sudden passing and ordered an autopsy. It turned out his organs were full of arsenic and all fingers were pointing at Nannie Doss as the culprit.

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 and often joked about her dead husbands and the method she used to kill them, such as the sweet potato pie that she laced with arsenic.

Those in the courtroom passing judgment on her failed to see the humor. On May 17, 1955, Doss, who was 50 years old, confessed to murdering Samuel and in return, she was given a life sentence.

In 1963, after spending eight years in prison, she died of leukemia in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Prosecutors never pursued charging Doss for any additional murders. Most believe, however, that Nannie Doss might have killed up to 11 people.