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True crime. Casually done.

Nannie Doss: The Giggling Granny

Written by Matt Granda

Romance is something all of us hope for. But, when one becomes obsessed with romance, whether it be in real life or through outlets like television and movies, or, in this instance, sappy romance novels, it can lead to expectations so high they become impossible to reach. Add in a greedy streak as well as potential brain damage, and you get a lethal combination that isn’t fun for anyone.

Enter Nannie Doss, a woman who you might easily mistake as someone your grandmother might have over for tea and cookies on a warm afternoon after church. With a round face and lovely smile, you’d think she wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone another person. Looks can be deceiving though, for if you knew anything that went on inside her head, you’d run for the nearest police station.

Known as The Giggling Granny, The Lonely Hearts Killer, The Jolly Black Widow, and Lady Bluebeard, good old Nannie left behind a trail of bodies that she was meant to love and look after. In this post we jump into a case where the signs were all there and they were all ignored for almost 30 years. We’ll dive deep into the darkness and come face to face with a monster wearing the face and the giggle of an innocent old lady when she is clearly anything but.

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A Youth Longing For Romance

Born Nancy Hazel on November 4th, 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama, Nannie was one of five children including three sisters and a brother born to Louisa “Lou” and James F. Hazel. Lou was very loving to her children, while James was extremely abusive and controlling, hated by both Nannie and her mother. Instead of sending his children to school, he forced them to work on their family farm which led to stunted academic development for all his children.

When Nannie was 7 years old, her family were on their way to visit relatives in southern Alabama. It’s here that we run into another common trend with serial killers, good old fashioned childhood head trauma. While aboard the train, the locomotive made a sudden sharp stop. Young Nannie was thrown forward and slammed her head into a metal bar on the seat in front of her. This affected her for years afterwards as she suffered from severe headaches, blackouts and depression.

With her life being so rigorously controlled by her overbearing father, Nannie found an escape in her mother’s romance magazines. It was here that her obsession with romance began, dreams of a perfect life with the man of her dreams dancing in her head. Her father however had other plans, doing everything within his power to stop Nannie from interacting with men. For years James forbade Nannie and her sister from wearing any make-up or attractive clothing, and stopped them from going to dances and social gatherings for fear that they might be molested by men. That wouldn’t last forever though as by the age of 16, Nannie had managed to find a man.

Mother Says No Love Allowed

Nannie was working at the Linen Thread Company in nearby Anniston, Alabama when she met fellow employee Charley Braggs. After only four months of knowing him, and with her father’s shocking encouragement, they got married. Finally Nannie had begun that fairy tale romance she always dreamed of… or so she thought. Charley it turns out was the only son of his unwed mother who insisted on staying with him even after the marriage.

Nannie said of this: “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 she done, but she would take spells. She would not let my own mother stay all night…”

With her mother-in-law taking up all of her husband’s attention, Nannie began feeling more and more deprived and started drinking heavily, her casual smoking habit also becoming a full blown addiction. It is also suspected that both had other partners. They did manage to conceive four daughters however: Melvina, Zelmer, Gertrude, and Florine.

In 1927 tragedy struck the family as between August 30th and September 25th, both middle children Zelmer and Gertrude passed away suddenly from suspected food poisoning. Her husband had suspicions that his wife had poisoned their girls and refused to eat or drink anything she served him while she was in a foul mood. It got to the point where he fled, taking the eldest Melvina with him, but leaving the youngest Florine in Nannie’s care. Charley has the lucky distinction of being the only husband that Nannie didn’t get the chance to murder, and in 1928 Charley found a new love interest, divorcing Nannie that same year. After that, Nannie gained custody of both Melvina and Florine and moved in with her mother.

16 Years of Death

It was a year later, in 1929 Nannie met Jacksonville resident Robert Franklin Harrelson through the lonely hearts column. Exchanging gifts and romantic poetry back and forth, the two were married within the year. Moving down to Jacksonville to be with her new man, Nannie’s hopes and dreams of a fresh start and the perfect romance were again dashed only months after arrival. Robert was a violent alcoholic with a temper that had landed him several assault charges in the past.

Despite the disappointment, they were able to make the marriage last for 16 years. In that time, Melvina had grown up, married a man by the name of Mosie Haynes, and gave birth to her son Robert Lee Haynes in 1943. Fast forward two years and Melvina is expecting again, giving birth to her second child, a daughter. Sadly, the child wouldn’t live long enough to be properly named. Melvina couldn’t be sure if it was from the painkillers she had been pumped full of or simply from the exhaustion of labor, but she found it odd that through the haze she could have sworn she witnessed her loving mother driving a hairpin directly through the top of her newborn’s skull.

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Speaking with her husband and Florine about it afterwards, it is said that they noticed Nannie carrying a hairpin in her hand, though somehow the doctors were unable to determine the cause of death. Grief-stricken, Melvina and her husband began drifting apart until they separated completely. Eventually she struck up another relationship, this time with a sailor that her mother didn’t approve of. During a particularly heated argument with her mother, Melvina stormed out to stay with her father, leaving young Robert in his grandmother’s care.

During the time that Melvina had started dating this new sailor fellow, Nannie had taken out a life insurance policy on little Robert worth about $500 (about $8,030.81 in today’s money). On July 7, 1945, Robert Lee Haynes died mysteriously while staying at his grandmother’s house. The cause of death was listed as asphyxia, though the means was unknown. Only two months later, Nannie cashed in the $500 life insurance policy on her grandson.

In 1945, World War II had come to its end and the whole country was erupting with celebration. Being a raging alcoholic, Nannie’s husband Harrelson was no different, taking every opportunity he could to get smashed out of his gourd. After one particularly hard night of boozing it up, Harrelson came home and demanded sex from Nannie. When she refused, Harrelson simply decided to take what he wanted, raping his wife of 16 years while she kicked and screamed.

The next day Nannie was tending to her rose garden, trying to recover from the whole ordeal when she discovered Harrelson’s corn whisky jar buried in her flowerbed. The depraved act of the night before had been the final straw for Nannie. Vengeance in her heart, she topped off the jar with a heaping helping of rat poison. By evening’s end, Harrelson met death, twisting and crying, his body wracked with agony. His death was attributed to his longtime alcoholism and put down as natural.

3, 4, Bluebeard at the Door

Most of us at this point would expect someone to have called the police. Not only had this woman’s husband died rather painfully, but now we have up to 4 children who have passed away while in her care under rather suspicious circumstances. That’s what most people would do, but you would be giving these people way too much credit. The doctors didn’t call the police, her daughters didn’t call the police, her first husband upon seeing his daughters dead on the kitchen floor did not call the police. Stupidity and negligence aren’t strong enough words, and this woman was simply allowed to go about her life, now searching for a new husband to fulfill her unrealistic fantasy.

Soon after the death of Harrelson, Nannie was traveling through Lexington, North Carolina when she met her third husband, Arlie Lanning, through another lonely hearts column. They were married after only 3 days and he was, you guessed it, another womanizing alcoholic. Nannie has a type, it seems. However it would be she who would vanish for months on end, only to play the doting housewife upon her return. When Arlie passed away from supposed heart failure in 1950, the whole town threw their support behind the grieving widow.

His last words were reportedly: “It must have been the coffee.”

Not long after Arlie’s death, the house Nannie and he had been living in burnt to the ground and Nannie collected on the insurance money. Shortly afterwards Arlie’s mother, who Nannie had been nursing due to a broken hip, died suddenly in her sleep and Nannie moved in with her bedriden sister Dovie, who also died shortly after Nannie arrived.

Nannie was once more on the hunt for a husband. Joining the Diamond Circle Club, a dating service for older folks in Jamestown, North Carolina, she soon met Richard L. Horton, and they were married in Emporia, Kansas in 1952. While not an alcoholic, Horton was yet another womanizer, and it was not long after their marriage that he had begun spending his nights with other women about town. Before she could do as she wished with him, her mother Louisa came to live with them. But not letting anything get in her way, Nannie poisoned her own mother in January 1953. Horton died only 3 days later after drinking from a coffee laced with arsenic that Nannie had prepared for him.

Final Husband, Finally Captured

Within months of Horton’s death, Nannie already had her sights set on husband number 5. Samuel Doss was a Nazarene minister who had lost his previous family in Carroll County, Arkansa to a tornado. The two of them met and were soon married in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June 1953. Now Doss was not a womanizer, an alcoholic, or an abuser of any sort. It seemed that finally Nannie had found a man worthy of her long dreamed fantasies…and yet she still found faults in him. He detested the romance novels and magazines she adored so much and forbade them in their home, and that it seemed was enough to warrant her undeserved wrath.

In September of 1953, Nannie served Samuel a prune cake that she’d made herself. That same day he was rushed to the hospital upon experiencing flu-like symptoms and was diagnosed with a severe digestive tract infection. How they were unable to detect the large quantity of arsenic in his system is anyone’s guess. After a successful treatment Samuel was able to return home on October 5th, 1954 with his smiling wife by his side…where he would die later on October 12th thanks to an arsenic filled coffee, much like her other husbands.

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This was Nannie’s biggest mistake, however. She had taken out two separate life insurance policies on Samuel and she let her greed get the best of her. In killing Samuel only a week after he’d returned from the hospital, it finally aroused suspicion. The doctor who treated Samuel during his stay raised the alarm almost as soon as he’d heard the news. Ordering an autopsy, he found an enormous amount of arsenic in his system and he alerted the police. Nannie Doss was finally arrested for the murder of Samuel Doss that same day.

Under interrogation, it was only upon the promise of being able to keep one of her romance magazines that Nannie Doss finally confessed to killing four of her five husbands, her mother, her sister, her mother-in-law, and her grandson. She did not confess to the deaths of her daughters or granddaughter, however. During her confessions, particularly when concerning the deaths of her husbands, Nannie simply smiled and giggled the whole time while recounting the horrid events, disturbing the investigators and earning her most famous nickname, “The Giggling Granny.”

Upon further investigation and questioning, it was revealed that Nannie had already lined up a potential husband number 6. It was found that she had been exchanging romantic letters with a dairy farmer out of North Carolina by the name of John H. Keel. She’d even sent him a cake.

“I’m mighty proud I didn’t meet her and she didn’t come down here,” John told investigators when they contacted him. “From now on I am through with these women who make their matches by mail.”

When asked about her motive, Nannie simply giggled and denied it ever being about money, even if the insurance money collections said otherwise. In her words, it was always about love, and that her romance magazines and novels had a profound effect on her psyche and how she viewed the world.

“I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance in life.”

When asked how her conscience was after each killing and now that she’d been caught, she simply replied: “Clear.”

The End of Romance

Despite her full confession, Nannie was charged with the murder of Samuel. The death penalty was not on the cards for this one, much to Simon’s chagrin I’m sure, as her gender disqalified her from being given such back in the day. Instead upon pleading guilty on May 17th, 1955, Nannie Doss was sentenced to life in prison and was remanded to Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

As she was taken from the courtroom, Nannie looked at her daughters with a smile and a giggle. “Take it easy. Don’t worry. I’m not.”

After two years inprisonment, Nannie admited that she would have preferred the death penalty. Regardless, she kept up her cheerful attitude and eerie giggle the whole time while behind bars. When interviewed by a reporter, she admitted the only job she was allowed to do was laundry, and when she asked if she would be allowed to work in the kitchen to cook for her fellow inmates, she was simply told no.

Nannie Doss died of leukemia, aged 59, within the hospital ward of the prison on June 2nd, 1965, only 10 years into her life sentence. She was laid to rest in Oak Hill Memorial Park in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Wrap-Up

And that brings our tale to an end, a tale of romance, heartbreak, greed, and murder. As we step out of the darkness, I don’t want to leave you all with the sense that trying to find true love is a bad thing. Quite the contrary, love is something we all deserve, romance is an important part of life. But just don’t become so obsessed with it that you end up killing all your lovers if they don’t live up to your standards.

Nannie Doss was a deeply disturbed woman with a deeply warped view of how life works. She believed that she was destined for the perfect fantasy with the love of her life, and when she didn’t get that, she killed without a second thought and felt justified when doing it. She could have divorced her husbands, she could have simply left, and in the case of Harrelson she could have called the police, but she didn’t, she resorted to murder instead. Anyone who got in her way, she killed them too, and some she simply killed because they would be more beneficial to her dead then alive. Anything that would benefit her and give her the means to survive long enough to potentially find Mr. Right, she would not hesitate, and in the end all she was destined for was a prison cell.

So dear viewers, whether you’re out there looking for love or you’ve already found it with a loving partner, hold on to it, treasure it, and take the bad with the good. Everyone has their faults and more often than not, despite what Nannie believed, they damn sure aren’t worth killing over.

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