November 4, 1905
Blue Mountain, Alabama, United States
|Died||June 2, 1965
Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, United States
|Cause of death||Leukemia|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
|Motive||Life insurance money
Search for "the real romance of life"
Span of killings
She finally confessed to the murders in October 1954, after her fifth husband had died in a small hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In all, it was revealed that she had killed four husbands, two children, her two sisters, her mother, a grandson, and a mother-in-law.
Doss was born on November 4, 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama, now part of Anniston, as Nancy Hazel to Louisa "Lou" (née Holder) and James F. Hazel. Doss was one of five children; she had one brother and three sisters. Both Doss and her mother hated James, who was a controlling father and husband with a nasty streak. She had an unhappy childhood. She was a poor student who never learned to read well; her education was erratic because her father forced his children to work on the family farm instead of attending school. When she was around 7 years old, the family was taking a train to visit relatives in southern Alabama; when the train stopped suddenly, Doss hit her head on the metal bar on the seat in front of her. For years after, she suffered severe headaches, blackouts and depression; she blamed these and her mental instability on that accident. During childhood, her favorite hobby was reading her mother's romance magazines and dreaming of her own romantic future. Later, her favorite part was the lonely hearts column. The Hazel sisters' teenage years were restricted by their father; he forbade them to wear makeup and attractive clothing. He was trying to prevent them from being molested by men, but that happened on several occasions. He also forbade them to go to dances and other social events.
Doss was first married at age 16, to Charley Braggs. They had met at the Linen Thread factory where they both worked, and with her father's approval they married after 4 months of dating. He was the only son of a never-married mother who insisted on continuing to live with her son after he married. Doss later wrote:
I married, as my father wished, in 1921 to a boy I only knowed about four or five months who had no family, only a mother who was unwed and who had taken over my life completely when we were married. She never seen anything wrong with what he done, but she would take spells. She would not let my own mother stay all night...
Braggs' mother took up a lot of his attention and limited Doss's activities. The marriage produced four daughters from 1923 to 1927. The stressed-out young mother started drinking, and her casual smoking habit became a heavy addiction. Both unhappy partners suspected each other, correctly, of infidelity, and Braggs often disappeared for days on end. In early 1927, they lost their two middle girls to suspected food poisoning; suspecting that Doss had killed them, Braggs took firstborn daughter Melvina and fled, leaving newborn Florine behind. Soon after, Braggs' mother died and Doss took a job in a cotton mill to support Florine and herself.
Braggs brought Melvina back in the summer of 1928; with them was a divorcée with her own child. Braggs and Nannie soon divorced and Nannie took her 2 girls back to her mother's home. He always maintained he left her because he was frightened of her.
Living and working in Anniston, Doss soothed her loneliness by reading True Romance and similar material. She also resumed poring over the lonely hearts column, and wrote to men advertising there. A particular advert that interested her was that of Robert Franklin "Frank" Harrelson, a 23-year-old factory worker from Jacksonville. He sent her romantic poetry, and she sent him a cake. They met and married in 1929, when she was 24, two years after her divorce from Braggs. They lived together in Jacksonville, with Melvina and Florine Braggs. After a few months, she discovered that he was an alcoholic and had a criminal record for assault. Despite this, the marriage lasted 16 years.
Doss's eldest, Melvina, gave birth to Robert Lee Haynes in 1943. Another baby followed two years later but died soon afterward. Exhausted from labor and groggy from ether, Melvina thought she saw her visiting mother stick a hatpin into the baby's head. When she asked her husband and sister for clarification, they said Doss had told them the baby was dead—and they noticed that she was holding a pin. The doctors, however, couldn't give a positive explanation. The grieving parents drifted apart and Melvina started dating a soldier. Doss disapproved of him, and while Melvina was visiting her father after a particularly nasty fight with her mother, her son Robert died mysteriously under Granny's care on July 7, 1945. The death was diagnosed as asphyxia from unknown causes, and two months later Doss collected the $500 life insurance she had taken out on Robert.
Death of Frank
In 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied powers at the end of World War II, and Harrelson was among the most robust partiers. After an evening of particularly heavy drinking, he raped Nannie. The next day she discovered Harrelson's corn whiskey jar buried in the ground as she tended her rose garden. The rape had been the last straw for her, so she took the jar and topped it off with rat poison. Harrelson died a painful death that evening.
Doss met her third husband, Arlie Lanning, through another lonely-hearts column while travelling in Lexington, North Carolina, and married him three days later. Like his predecessor, Harrelson, Lanning was an alcoholic womanizer. However, in this marriage it was Doss who often disappeared—and for months on end. But when she was home, she played the doting housewife, and when he died of what was said to be heart failure, the whole town supported her at his funeral. Soon after, the couple's house, which had been left to Lanning's sister, burned down. The insurance money went to Widow Nannie Lanning, who quickly banked it, and after Lanning's mother died in her sleep, Nannie left North Carolina and ended up at her sister Dovie's home. Dovie was bedridden; soon after sister Nan's arrival, she died.
Looking for yet another husband, Nannie joined the Diamond Circle Club and soon met Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas. He didn't have a drinking problem, but he was a womanizer. Morton met his death in April 1953–3 months after Nannie's mother, Lou, had come to live with them and ended up poisoned to death.
Doss met and married Samuel Doss of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1953. A clean-cut, churchgoing man, he disapproved of the romance novels and stories that Doss adored. In September, Samuel was admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. The hospital diagnosed a severe digestive tract infection. He was treated and released on October 5. Doss killed him that evening in her rush to collect the two life insurance policies she had taken out on him. This sudden death alerted his doctor, who ordered an autopsy. The autopsy revealed a huge amount of arsenic in his system. Doss was promptly arrested.
Confession and conviction
Doss confessed to killing four of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her grandson Robert, and her mother-in-law Lanning. The state of Oklahoma centered its case only on Samuel Doss, a Nazarene minister who had met Nannie Doss through a lonely hearts club advertisement after having lost his wife, Winniferd, and nine children to a tornado in Madison County Arkansas. The prosecution found Nannie Doss mentally fit for trial. The Tulsa prosecuting attorney who was responsible for her conviction was J. Howard Edmondson, who would later become governor of the state of Oklahoma. At the insistence of Ramon Theodore Doss, Samuel Doss's brother, an autopsy was performed on Samuel Doss. It was discovered that there was enough arsenic in his body to kill forty horses. Nannie Doss had a fine recipe for sweet potato pie which was Samuel Doss's favorite. She laced the pie with arsenic and made it for him on three different occasions before his death. She pleaded guilty on May 17, 1955, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The state did not pursue the death penalty due to her gender. Doss was never charged with the other deaths, however many sources indicate she killed 8-11 people. She died from leukemia in the hospital ward of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1965.
- "Nannie Doss Biography". Who2 Biographies. Who2 LLP. Retrieved 26 April 2013.
- Manners, Terry, Deadlier than the Male, 1995. Page 76 ISBN 0-330-33711-4.
- Curtis, Gene (October 27, 2007). "Only in Oklahoma: Black widow enjoyed the limelight". Tulsa World. Retrieved December 6, 2015.
- Wilson, Colin. The Mammoth Book of True Crime. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-7867-0536-1