Nannie’s Apple & Prune Pie
Approx. Time: 45 minutes
Oven: 350 degree baking temp.
Oven: 350 degree baking temp.
Ingredients: 1 c. water, 1 c. flour, ½ c. butter, 3 eggs, pinch of sugar, 4 apples sliced, 1 c dried prunes, dash of granulated sugar, 5 tablespoons rat poison
- Bring to boil water, butter, sugar. At boil, stir in flour.
- Over low heat, continue to stir until able to form doughy ball. Into dough, mix egg mixture (well beaten) until ball is smooth.
- Grease 9-inch pie tin.
- Roll out pastry, lining bottom and sides of pan with pastry dough, clipping excess for pie top.
- Add apple slices and prunes in hearty layers. It is best to soak prunes overnight in rat poison; generic hardware store variety will do quite well.
- After spreading pears and prunes into shell, pour d lethal juice of marinated prunes over apple and prune contents. Juice adds extra flavor and conceals taste of rat poison. (If sting of arsenic tartness remains, add extra tbsp of sugar for good measure.)
- Cover pie with leftover dough in preheated oven for 45 minutes, checking occasionally. Top with granulated sugar while top crust is fresh from oven.
Guaranteed to be…er, a real man-pleasing treat??
The following biography of poisoner NANNIE DOSS has been compiled by information from various sources, chief among them a member of Nannie’s family, Sherby Green, who opened up her research materials to The Crime Library. Much of Nannie’s life, however, remains shrouded in mystery and in between Ms. Green’s papers and other sources there exists a few blank spots where events can be only conjectured by those who write about Nannie. In those very few instances, I created an assumption based on research available.
Most of the following story, however, is unembroidered.
Choosing to Kill
Nannie in her prime
For most of her life, Nancy Hazle later to be called Nannie — loved two things: romance magazines and prunes. An odd combination indeed, but, oh, so necessary in sustaining herself day to day; that is, to keep her fresh as a daisy despite the reality of the world’s disappointments. Romance or at least the conception of it — provided her with an escape into a reverie of delightful images of knights in shining armor carrying her off to wonderland.
Prunes, known for their medicinal power of natural elimination, helped her carry out another type of elimination: one husband after another.
When arrested, she chuckled. And she continued to chuckle through the ensuing police interrogation, even as she named the men she killed, prune-fed and unsuspecting. The press dubbed her “The Giggling Granny” and “The Jolly Widow.” Whether because of embarrassment or to cover a mean streak that burned rabid inside a side she wouldn’t allow herself to emanate for all to see she never quite showed remorse, repentance nor, for that matter, a real understanding of her crimes. She went to prison for life, giggling.
Nannie Doss got around. She was found to have killed four husbands one in Alabama, one in North Carolina, one in Kansas and one in Oklahoma the last one, Samuel Doss, for whose murder she was eventually tried and convicted. And there are other purported victims as well. Nannie is also alleged to have killed her mother, two of her four daughters, a mother-in-law and other family members, either by her favorite form of homicide, prunes salted with rat arsenic, or through one or another spontaneous means of annihilation.
The Crime Library hails its fortune to have been able to interview Sherby Green, a direct relative of Nannie whose search for her family genealogy brought her to studying Mrs. Doss over the last ten years.
“My great grandmother and Nannie’s mother were sisters. That makes me a cousin twice removed. My family doesn’t like to talk about Nannie; she’s the bloodline black sheep,” Sherby confides, “the skeleton in our closet.”
Nonetheless, Sherby has found her cousin fascinating in a macabre way: “Nannie lived, she committed atrocities. Good or bad, she’s become folkloric here,” alluding to the northeastern corner of Alabama where she and Nannie grew up. “In Blue Mountain, where Nannie was born, she’s a legend.”
Nannie, however, legend and color aside, was a killer. “She killed because she liked it,” attests The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Harold Schechter and Everitt David.
And it is a testimony to which Sherby, despite her familial ties, agrees. “Each of us determines our fate or destiny, as well as what type of life we live. No one put a gun to her head or twisted her arm to make her commit such cold, heartless crimes. They were her decision.”
Born to poor farming parents in Blue Mountain, a tiny hamlet nestled in the bottomlands of Alabama’s northeast hill country, Nancy Hazle’s life promised little glamour, meager romance. Glamour did not attract her, but of love; she would spend a lifetime pursuing it. The nearest claim to fame she had, and it was little, was that her Grandma Holder was remotely related to the Lincoln family that produced Honest Abe.
Nancy’s mother, Loulisa (Lou) was a caring creature, though deathly afraid of her husband, one hot-tempered James Hazle. “There is some evidence that Nancy was born before Lou married James,” says Sherby. “Census records right after Nancy’s birth in 1905 show Lou as living alone with a daughter. James appears to have come on the scene later. From where or exactly when he appeared is a mystery.”
Nancy’s childhood wasn’t happy. Nannie — Nancy became known by this nickname at an early age — wandered aimlessly on an erratic schedule to and from and around school; sometimes she went, other times she didn’t. So did a trio of sisters and a brother who came after her. If their father wanted the kids on the farm that morning to help with the fieldwork, the never-ending field work, the entire brood stayed home. After all, James Hazle was the boss and, if rumors are correct, he wouldn’t spare the switch — on his daughters or his wife — to get what he wanted.
“By the age of five, Nannie was made to cut wood, plough the fields and clear the land of weeds and debris,” says Terry Manners in his book on Nannie and other serial killers, Deadlier Than the Male. “Ballgames and seeing friends were forbidden.” And when Nannie was able to traipse to school, well, that was hard work too, adds Manners. “It was a two-mile walk there and…two miles back.”
Of fun, there was none. If the Hazle’s lights stayed on late into the evening it was to finish the pots and pans and the sweeping required in their little house, or to mend a shutter or clean out the dustbin. Before the crow of the cock, it was up and out of bed, Old Man Hazle grunting, Into your calicos, and hurry down to the harvest!
In an interview Nannie gave to Life magazine in her later life, she tended to blame her adult problems on a head injury she received when seven years old. She had gone with her family to visit a relative in downstate Alabama; the train ride was the thrill of her young life; she’d never been off the farm, muchtheless on a vacation, to anywhere. But, when the locomotive was forced to make an emergency stop, Nannie jolted forward to slam her head on the iron seat frame in front of her. She suffered “pains and blackouts for months, and headaches the remainder of my life,” she asserts.
While some writers with a social bent point to the train accident as the cause of her dementia-to-come, Sherby Green scoffs. Tongue in cheek, she replies, “No, Nannie just had a plain old mean streak. I am addicted to genealogy, and in studying my family I have learned that many of our members carried a fierce pride and a tough, tough, tough reputation. While they didn’t take lives, they were nonetheless hard people. I believe Nannie bore that trait, but simply took her bad humor dangerously further.”
According to author Manners, “Nannie, who had terrible mood swings, dreamed of love and of finding her own Prince Charming. Her only interest was her mother’s romantic magazines and she would sit for hours in her bedroom just looking at the loving couples staring out at her from the pages. As she grew older, her favorite bits were the ads for the lonely hearts clubs.”
The early 1900s were the age of romantic frivolity, when every female wanted to look like a Gibson Girl, cherubic and lovely at all angles. Men were the bosses in their high-starched collars and walrus mustaches, but all of society knew that it was the feminine sex who, under coy smile and blossoming fragrance, really ruled the world.
As Nannie entered dating age, she was held back from the ready boys of Calhoun County by a father who saw Nannie and her three sisters as field hands that he wasn’t too eager to give up. He forbade them from attending the church socials and the Saturday night hootenannies at Crispin’s Tavern or the community hall. Makeup was outlawed, silk stockings were considered sinful, fixed hair hell-bent and form-fitting dresses absolutely slutty. No daughter of his would tempt the male libido! When the time came, he often growled, [he] would pick the husbands for his daughters.
Weekend nights would find the sisters Hazle staring in sorrow at the flickering lights in so and so’s barn down the road where a dance was in progress; they were barred from its premises by Papa Hazle, but at least they could watch the glow of the lanterns bouncing in rhythm to the neighborhood mandolins and the stomp — only a muffle to their far-off ears — of the feet of the rest of Blue Mountain’s youths having a hell of a time.
Nannie, however, did manage to sneak away here and there and learned that if the hayloft or the corncrib was the only place to please the boys, and get a little loving herself away from James Hazle’s eyes, then where was the harm? The boys liked her; her hair was dark, her eyes were dark, and her giggle was bright. Plus, she was easy. Lou might have known of her daughter’s escapades, but kept quiet. Her reconciliation may have been that if Nannie “came with child” then at least she would be able to do something that the mama herself was unable to do: get away from the dictator.
Evidently, Squire Hazle approved of young Charley Braggs, Nannie’s attentive co-worker at Linen Thread Company where she went to work in 1921. Tall, handsome, curly-haired, he hung on 16-year-old Nannie’s shadow and doted. The elder Hazle noted that, unlike the other boys in Blue Mountain who idled their time in cafes and at parties, playing those crazy, jazzy records coming out of New York, Charley’s main preoccupation — even above Nannie — was his mother. His paycheck supported her and he treated the old lady like the Queen of Alabama. That was good, estimated James Hazle; good old-fashioned respect for his elders, something his own daughters could learn.
Braggs was “in like Flynn,” and within four months after bringing the boy home for supper one casual day, Nannie found herself walking down the aisle on her way to marital bliss. Whether she wanted it or not.
Years later, Nannie 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…”
Rephrased, Nannie hadn’t lost a demanding poppa; she gained a mother-in-law of identical cloth. If Nannie wanted to dine out and Mrs. Braggs didn’t, the latter would contract a dizzy spell or a stomach cramp until her son was forced to relent; they stayed in. If Nannie wanted to attend the picture show at the Bijou and Mrs. Braggs didn’t, the symptoms would return; and they’d spend the evening at home playing Mah-Jongg at the kitchen table.
The Braggses had four daughters within a four-year period, the first, Melvina, in 1923, and the last, Florine, in 1927. Pressures from raising babies, pleasing Mother Braggs and cooking for a ravenous husband mounted — she began to partake of the family’s liquor closet and what had been a casual smoking habit escalated to chronic. Eventually these built-up tensions exploded within her. Her only recourse was to cry onto the shoulders of strangers.
Between her pregnancies she found time to seek coventry in Blue Mountain’s assorted gin mills where drunken men pawed at her and drooled over her and made her feel that she was still attractive.
Her indiscretions were fairly easy to pull off because she chose to effect them when Braggs himself was inebriated and cozy in the arms of another woman or two on the outskirts of town. He would disappear for days, she later testified, forgetting to remind herself that she looked forward to his binges. And hers.
The marriage was down and up, mostly down, flat on its back. Having both found sexual satisfaction in others, even the marriage bed, the one factor that might have kept them together, albeit carnally, faded. Their sexual AWOLs increased and if the couple happened to be together once a week — say, at the dinner table — it was quite by accident.
Early in 1927, the Braggses lost their two middle daughters, both, says Terry Manners in Deadlier Than the Male, to “suspected food poisoning.” Each child seemed fine at breakfast, but had died by lunchtime. Although the local medics called their deaths accidental, Charley Braggs wasn’t convinced. He evidently had seen something [wrong] in Nannie’s coal eyes, up close. He soon bolted, taking his oldest daughter Melvina, his pet, with him. He left newborn Florine behind.
Of the two deceased children, although there is no proof, there is little doubt that their mother consciously slew them. Overwhelmed and unable to cope with the responsibilities of her situation, with her own reality, Nannie simply and cold-heartedly trashed those two extra mouths to feed. To her, it was a matter of deadly economics.
According to family historian Sherby Green, “Braggs has gone on record to state that he was frightened of his wife, as was his mother and the rest of his family. He never drank or ate anything that she prepared when in a foul mood. Those at the time who knew her less intimately than Charley might have laughed at his suspicions, for she always appeared domestic and happy. She ceremoniously outlined every meal, complete with coffee for Charley and milk for the kids.”
When hubby left this time with Melvina it wasn’t for his usual three or four days; this time he disappeared for months. His mother had died in the meantime, a natural death, and he remained apart from something he was afraid of. Not knowing where he had gone nor if he would ever return, Nannie was forced to take a job at the nearest cotton mill to support herself and Florine.
Charley finally reappeared in Blue Mountain in late summer 1928, a year after he had departed. He brought back with him more than himself and Melvina — he also came arm in arm with another woman, a divorcee, and her own child. Few words were spoken between the awkward adults — and Nannie took the hint. She packed her personal belongings, dressed her two daughters, and left, cursing Charley, cursing Charley’s girlfriend, cursing her own bad fortune. Cursing…cursing…cursing.
“Charley is known as ‘the husband who got away,’” Sherby reports. “Husbands number two, three, four and five wouldn’t see the handwriting on the wall that he had seen. They died horrible deaths.”
“If’n you don’t listen to me, woman, I ain’t gonna be here next week.”
– Frank Harrelson, 2nd husband’s final words
– Frank Harrelson, 2nd husband’s final words
After her break-up with Charley Braggs, Nannie found employment in a cotton mill in Anniston, just outside Blue Mountain. Hours were long and hot, but it gave her the excuse she wanted, to get out of the house and away from her nagging parents, to whose house she returned. It was an equal compromise. Mama Lou Hazle enjoyed watching over her grandkids and Nannie appreciated the interested glances she was receiving from the boys in the shop.
But, she didn’t want to make the same mistake, marrying another immature dungaree mountain boy with a mother complex nor one with his wandering ways. (Even though she had spent a good portion of her married life in other men’s beds, she acted as if she herself believed it was Charley’s womanizing that caused the divorce.)
Nannie turned wide-eyed to the lonely-hearts column in the local newspaper, writing fastidiously to a number of men whose advertisements interested her. Only one of their responses engaged her, however; that from 23-year-old factory worker Frank Harrelson who wrote pretty verse and whose black-and-white Kodak photo looked even prettier, what with dimpled cheeks like Clark Gable and wavy hair like Grant Withers. In return, she sent him a cake, a picture of herself and pert words that edged on the essence of sex. Since Harrelson lived in nearby Jacksonville, he fired up his flivver and headed straight south to Blue Mountain. On her door stoop, waiting, he found an alluring young thing, more magnetic than the photo she had sent. The picture hadn’t captured that twist of amour that sparkled so…so afire…in her black eyes.
He proposed; she accepted. “They married in 1929,” reads Terry Miller’s Deadlier Than the Male. “The rains came and went, the autumn leaves fell and they made love by crackling log fires in the winter. But all the time drink was part of Frank’s life. As the months went on the honeymoon period crumbled and Nannie realized that her tall, good-looking husband, with the square chin and rugged features, was an alcoholic.”
Not only that, but she discovered much to her chagrin that he had spent time in jail for felonious assault. Gentleman Frank was no gentleman.
When she wed this disappointment-to-be, Nannie had taken her two daughters from Grandma Hazle’s tender loving care, a place they liked being, and brought them with her to Jacksonville. There is no recorded testimony of the girls’ experience with, nor their opinion of, their stepfather, but they must have been in for a shock. Too young to have clearly recalled the shouting bouts between their natural father and mother, their earliest memories probably lay in their days and nights with Lou Hazle. Now they were old enough to understand what it all meant when the Jacksonville cops showed up at their door a couple of times every week to tell Nannie that Harrelson was in the brig again for brawling drunk in a gutter. And they saw Nannie’s dark face, and comprehended her dark moods, sometimes sinister, each time she had to fetch the wavering and slur-tongued Harrelson from the hoosegow.
Life went on. Strangely, Nannie abided for many years. Her husband’s drinking rarely let up, but she abided. He’d even smack her around in his most drunken state, but she abided. He’d yell at and threaten her growing kids for nothing, but she abided. Black and blue, forlorn and unloved, in tatters and lace, she abided. The marriage would last sixteen years.
“But, don’t get the impression Nannie was a sympathetic character,” Sherby Green reminds us of her cousin. “She simply had not yet discovered how to rid herself of a husband, that was to come.”
Nannie had learned to kill. Perhaps she was merely practicing her skills, and at the same time building her nerve, for the big day when Frank Harrelson was to go. She had already, it seemed, disposed of two infant daughters, so killing children had little effect on her. They were extra baggage.
By the early 1940s, the surviving daughters Melvina and Florine had grown and married. Melvina bore a son, Robert, in 1943, and, in February, 1945, went into labor again. This pregnancy was hard on the smallish woman; frightened and suffering wracking pains this time around, she called for her mother to be by her bedside at the local hospital. Melvina’s husband, Mosie Haynes, fetched Nannie. Like a good mother, Nannie remained on duty throughout the night, wiping her daughter’s scalding forehead and comforting her during the ordeal; she ordered Mosie to fetch continual glasses of water, wet towels, this and that, and to keep the attending nurses and interns stepping lively dusk to dawn. Mosie, of course, didn’t complain. And like a good grandmother, Nannie celebrated with her daughter and son-in-law when Melvina produced a lovely little girl.
Within the hour the child died.
Details are sketchy at best. Mosie had fallen asleep on the chair in the hospital room and Melvina, in a state of semi-consciousness from the surgical ether, lay prone in her bed. At one point, she happened to glance over at her mother and the newborn cradled in her arms. But, Melvina perceived what she was never afterwards able to determine as a truth or a nightmare: She thought she saw Nannie sticking a hatpin into the child’s tender head.
The “dream” bothered Melvina, especially since the doctors could not account for the child’s death. Back at home a few days later, Melvina told her husband and Florine about what she thought she had seen. Her confidantes startled. They had seen Grandma Nannie toying with such a pin, turning it over and over between her fingers, earlier in the evening.
Six months later, Melvina’s son Robert also passed away while in Nannie’s care. The daughter had gone to stay with her father, Charley Braggs, after a fight with Mosie, leaving Robert with Nannie. How little Robert Lee Haynes died was a mystery. Nannie seemed heartbroken she didn’t know what happened the doctors diagnosed his death as “asphyxia” from unknown causes and she played the grieving grandmother right up to the lowering of his tiny coffin graveside. She fainted, she wailed and she blew despair. Then several months later, she collected a $500 life insurance check on a policy she had taken out on the boy.
Having refined her skills, in murder and theatrics, she was now ready to take on the bigger game: Frank Harrelson. She waited for the opportunity and (perhaps to ease her conscience just a little) a provocation.
International events had thrust America into a world war; American GIs were dying by the droves in Europe and the Pacific, and the world had little time to note the deaths of an infant girl and a two-year-old boy in an out-of-the-way burgh in the foothills of northeastern Alabama. In August, 1945, the last of the enemy powers, Japan, surrendered; the nation thought of one thing: to welcome home its fathers, brothers, sons. In every state in the union, there was hailing and bunting and balloons and all-round ecstasy. Alabama was no exception. On the night of September 15, 1945, Frank Harrelson went out to the tavern to welcome home some friends from overseas. Tonight patriotism had given him an excuse to get loaded.
Arriving home, he was still in a festive mood. He wanted sex, fireworks style, and he wanted it fast. When Nannie refused, he slammed the wall with a ham-size fist and shouted, “If’n you don’t listen to me, woman, I ain’t gonna be here next week.”
She listened to him, just to avoid a broken jaw.
“As they had sex, Nannie stared at the ceiling and vowed to get even,” author Terry Manners declares. “The next day, tending the little rose garden she adored, she found her husband’s corn liquor jar hidden deep in the surrounding flower-bed. That was enough. She liked to keep her yard pretty. She took the jar to the storeroom, poured away some of the foul drink…and topped it with rat poison. (That evening) Harrelson died of excruciating pain, aged just thirty-eight. An hour later, Nannie washed out the empty-corn liquor jar.”
Sherby Green states, “Nannie later stated that she married him for love, but like all her amours — she loved the continental sound of that word — Frank Harrelson was no Sir Lancelot. Instead, he was a jailbird and a drunkard, and now he was a dead husband. Killing husbands became easier after that. Killing, in general, had become a cinch.”
“It must have been the coffee.”
– Arlie Lanning, 3rd husband’s last words
– Arlie Lanning, 3rd husband’s last words
“There is a brief period in Nannie’s life that is unaccounted for,” reports Sherby Green, Nannie’s descendant and armchair biographer. “It is believed that she traveled around the country by rail, possibly north to New York or west to as far as Idaho. What she did on these excursions is anyone’s guess. She may have even been married to a man named Hendrix — certain records indicate that — but the police never really followed it up. Did Mr. Hendrix fall fate to Nannie’s temperament?”
Wherever Nannie roamed after Harrelson’s death, she eventually wound up in the scenic little town of Lexington, North Carolina, in response to another lonely-hearts column. The year was 1947 and the husband-to-be this time was laborer Arlie Lanning, an ex-Alabaman. After meeting her for the first time, the couple married two days later. Tongue-in-cheek, writer Terry Manners asserts, “Arlie believed their marriage was set in heaven, where he was later to be dispatched.”
Life with Arlie wasn’t as dramatically chaotic as it had been with Harrelson, partly because for most of the time Nannie wasn’t home. Whereas her former spouse had been the prodigal, Nannie now mimicked him. Whenever things got hectic, whenever Arlie drank too much and flirted too much — he, too, like his predecessor, loved his alcohol and his females — Nannie pulled the suitcase from her closet and went away to parts unknown, sometimes for months on end. She would leave without a word. Or maybe she would leave a message on a crumpled piece of paper under the salt shaker: “Gone.” Occasionally, Arlie would receive a cablegram, “Send money” or “Be home soon”. The wires came from all directions; she seemed not to remain in one place too long; she simply darted as if on an escape route from responsibility.
Out of the blue she would come home. Arlie, not brutal like Frank had been, would merely shrug a hello; that is, if he wasn’t unconscious on the sofa from drink. For a while, he and Nannie would play loving couple. He knew the reason she took flight so often was because — or so she claimed — his drinking binges and his womanizing. So, upon her return, he always committed to the dry wagon, a promise that she, and probably he too, knew would be busted maybe days, weeks or, if luck was with them, months ahead.
When on the homefront, Nannie acted the perfect wife for the benefit of her neighbors. Her trips away would be explained as visits to friends and family; in part they were true, for Nannie would occasionally bus to Gadsden, Alabama, to tend to her sister Dovie who had contracted cancer, or visit Arlie’s 84-year-old mother who lived in a nearby town and needed help housecleaning and canning.
Evidences of a domestic woman were there for all the Lexington neighbors to see: aroma of apple pie cooling on the window sill, fresh laundry lemon-scented hanging on the backyard line, a manicured garden, and lace curtains in all the front windows. At night she would read her monthly True Romance or a novel she had picked up at the community rummage sale. She wasn’t literate and her vocabulary was minimal, so the books she chose to read were basic and a little tawdry; of well-built heroes and shapely dames caught in at least one love triangle that usually contained several scenes in a boudoir.
Her favorite pastime was television, that modern new wonder box that brought into America’s homes live stage shows, teleplays and stand-up comedians. When a love story was to be aired, one didn’t dare bother Nannie. She would pull up her most comfortable chair, a plate of leftovers, her pack of Camels, the ashtray, and lose herself in a grayscale kaleidoscope of heartthrobs and kisses. That world had yet to take seed in Nannie’s world, but at least she could envision it more focally now, compliments of her RCA.
In Lexington, Nannie was an avid churchgoer and she had become intimate with the minister’s family and many of the families in the Methodist congregation. Arlie Lanning, during sober periods, would accompany his wife to Sunday morning services and remain at her side afterwards for the tea socials and picnics hosted by the ladies auxiliary, to which Nannie belonged. But, there were whispers among the attendees at these functions, generated by the presence of Mr. Lanning. His reputation, to be blunt, preceded him. Before and during his marriage to Nannie he was often seen in the lower Lexington dives with one of the floozies who hung there. Arlie was a rapscallion, said the fine people of the Lexington Methodist Church, and poor Nannie…well, they didn’t know if she was aware of his maneuverings, but be it far from them to break her heart. Behind closed doors in quiet conversation, Lanning was the town’s villain, she its travailing martyr.
When the town turned out, then, for Arlie’s funeral in February, 1950, it was out of great respect for the heartbroken widow, not the corpse. Yes, Arlie had died suddenly. Cause: heart failure. Of course, there was something that had caused the heart to fail, the doctor said, but in cases like Arlie’s, where there was absolutely no reason for suspicion, it would be superfluous to conduct an autopsy. Any number of things could have caused him to lie in pain as he did for a couple of days before succumbing. Most likely, it had been the dangerous flu virus that had been sweeping the state, striking some people worse than others. He had had all the symptoms — sweating, vomiting, dizziness — and, after all, the doctor admitted, Arlie’s body was not in the best shape, his stomach already half gone with the drink, his heart already weakened.
“He just sat down one morning to drink a cup of coffee and eat a bowl of prunes I especially prepared for him,” Nannie admitted to her neighbors gathered around his coffin. “Up until then, why let me tell you, he looked in fine shape. Then …well …two days later …dead. I nursed him, believe me, I nursed him, but I failed.”
And for an extra touch, she dabbed her eyes with her kerchief.
“Poor, poor Arlie. You know what he said to me before he breathed his last? ‘Nannie,’ he said, ‘Nannie, it must have been the coffee.’”
Cashing InOn April 21, eight weeks after Arlie’s passing, the tidy frame home that he and Nannie had lived in burned to the foundation. It was a stroke of luck for the widow because had the house survived it would have, under conditions set forth in Arlie’s will, gone to his sister. (Coincidentally, Nannie was not home at the time, having just left the premises with her favorite household item, the TV set, tucked away in the back seat of her Ford. “I was on my way to have it repaired,” she explained.) As it were, the insurance company issued a check to “Arlie Lanning, deceased,” which was mailed to his widow who was lodging by then with Arlie’s mother.
The claimant expediently cashed the check and left North Carolina but only after the elder Mrs. Lanning died strangely in her sleep.
Within days, Nannie showed up at her sister Dovie’s residence in Gadsden with the TV — where she nursed the bed-ridden sibling whose condition, from that point, seemed to continue downhill. Dovie died June 30, also in her sleep.
“And, fitting with her dark side, Nannie was clever — very, very intelligent. It’s been said,” continues Sherby, “that she was able to get away with her crimes because of the backwards places she lived and the naïve times. That’s simply not true. Where and when she lived had nothing to do with it. I know the temperament of the people she familiarized; they can be quite suspicious and alert to hypocrisy. But, Nannie was an actress, she fooled so many people, laymen and professionals, during a killing spree that lasted more than twenty years.”
“He had been making me mad, shining up to other women.”
– Nannie Doss, about 4th husband Richard Morton
– Nannie Doss, about 4th husband Richard Morton
The Diamond Circle Club was a correspondence association for those looking for life partners; membership was $15 per annum. Suitors and ladies received a monthly newsletter regaling the newest members and their heart’s desires. Nannie was enthralled.
“Nannie’s despicable plans never waned,” adds case student Sherby Green. “By 1952 she was at it again.”
Nannie’s hips had fattened by now, she wore glasses and the once-pretty profile had taken on a double chin. She found that she didn’t turn heads the way she used to and decided that maybe the time had come to seek admiration in the eyes of a more mature type of male. Curly-headed boys were passe. Maybe what she had needed all along was a real man anyway, she surmised. And she thought she had found him in recently retired businessman Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas.
While her girth had widened and her temples had slightly grayed, Nannie still carried a girlish giggle, and she knew how to use it to entice. She had learned how and when to turn on the flash in her eyes and at age 47 she proved more capable than ever of shaping, at a whim, the two beams into bedposts.
Morton, a former salesman of routine coolness, bought for a change. The old boy was transfixed. She was the gal for him, and to prove it he wrote Diamond Circle, asking them to delete his and Nannie’s names from the availability list and thanking them for introducing him to “the sweetest and most wonderful woman I have ever met.” They wed in October, 1952, and she moved into his little home in Emporia.
Kansas’ eternal plains were vastly different than the mountain greenery Nannie had known her whole life. For a while the sight of surrounding horizon thrilled her; she was happy in the arms of her man under that endless sky. Half American Indian, he was tall, dark and handsome with eyes that pierced like arrows straight to her romantic daydreams. As well, he bought her things clothes, jewelry and knick-knacks –never seemingly worried about the price of adornments he thrust upon her.
Reality, however, waited ’round the next corn stalk. Within months of their marriage, Morton manifested as flat as the countryside. He was, despite his flair, broke, deep in debt to everyone. And when he did buy her a bauble on whatever credit he managed to effect through charming circumlocution, he also bought a double for another girl he had stashed away in town.
Morton’s occasional trips to the stores in his Chevy pickup truck to buy this and that for the house and farm struck Nannie as being rather lengthy for casual jaunts; they became more prolonged each time. If prodded why so long, the husband would reply with an air of apathy, “Ohhh, just dawdled, I guess.” She investigated and discovered that he was seeing someone he had known before he married and seemed to have no intention of dropping.
Nannie had made a mistake, but Morton had made a bigger one. She picked a phony, he chose a killer.
Not Mama Too?
By Christmas, two months after she tied the knot, Nannie was again answering other gentlemen’s ads from the lovelorn columns in the Kansas papers. She’d be sure to fetch the mail every day from the mailbox, then, if a letter from one of her admirers had arrived, she would sneak off with it to the bathroom. In silence, she would swoon over their remonstrations of amour. The writers, thinking she was a widow, offered to sweep her away from her troubles to promises of marital bliss.
Each sentimental “Till We At Last Meet, Nannie” or “Hoping To See You Soon, Nannie” whisked Nannie a step closer to ridding herself of the thing beyond the bathroom door who, to her, had grown ugly and repulsive.
Husband number four was destined for the ground. But, he might have been spared a couple of months when Papa James Hazle died in Blue Mountain and Mama Lou suddenly announced she was coming to board with the couple. With mama there, the daughter’s murderous designs were delayed — well, at least on Morton.
By all accounts, Nannie performed the unthinkable. She murdered her mother.
Whether Lou’s money was the object, or whether she got in the way of Nannie’s plot against Morton — perhaps mama may have gotten a glimpse of one of Nannie’s intimate letters — the motive here is unclear. Nannie would always vehemently deny poisoning Lou, but, considering the hasty manner in which all others had died after crossing Nannie’s path, as well as the preceding symptoms of death, it seems very likely that her mother did not die naturally.
Terry Manners in Deadlier Than the Male believes that it was simply Mrs. Hazle’s inopportune arrival that sealed her fate: “In January, 1953, (Lou) came to stay. She had obviously picked a bad time. After a couple of days with her daughter, she fell ill with chronic stomach pains and died.”
In retrospect, Nannie had grown totally devoid of heart. Had she one at the outset, this latest act shows a total lack of sympathy, loyalty and conscience.
“Although Nannie’s education is believed to not have reached the past sixth grade, and she doubtlessly read The Purloined Letter, she unerringly executed the bold psychology exhibited in that famous story,” Sherby Greene points out. “Three months after Louisa was buried in the earth, her latest son-in-law, Richard Morton, joined her. He died of similar symptoms.”
And still no one family, friends, neighbors, and doctors asked questions.
“Christian women don’t need a television or romance magazines to be happy!” — Samuel Doss, 5th husband; words that sealed his fate.
Sam Doss was a sturdy man, a solid man, and a God-fearing man. He didn’t chase women, never smoked, never drank, refused to play dice and lacked the effort to exhale a single cuss word. He was careful about his appearance, thrifty with his bank account, never riled, loved nature and saw the good in almost everything.
Sam Doss was unbelievably, irrevocably boring.
At least Nannie found him so.
At 59 years old, his clean living emanated across his surface; he looked younger and he looked healthy. His conservative haircut and tidy manner or dress gave him a wealthy appearance, a trusting appearance, and maybe one or both of these suggestions had drawn Nannie to his side when he proposed to her in June, 1953.
Nannie was a widow, that’s all he knew, and all he cared to know. Like his pennies, he counted his blessings, and this fine, smiling, good cook of a woman was what he had wanted in his later life. Someone who preferred home and hearth, who would stay by his side until death did them part.
He was exceedingly correct, if not foresighted, on the latter supposition.
Sam had been one of Nannie’s pen-pal paramours. After Richard Morton began pushing daisies, she grabbed the first bus out to meet Doss in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At first, he provided his bride with a refreshing detour from all her past mates; he worked a steady job (he was a state highway inspector), spoke softly and succinctly and often wore a necktie. He helped around the house, helped her cook and did not portray the “king of the house” attitude so many of the others had. Certainly he was neither threatening nor violent.
But, he was set in his ways, ways that irritated the less conservative wife. He did not believe in wasteful reading of cheap magazines or romance novels; he saw them as evil idleness. Radio and television were products meant to enrich the mind, which meant that comedies and love stories were taboo. Bedtime came promptly at 9:30 p.m., an agenda he followed like an automaton and to which he expected his wife to adhere. Sex was pre-scheduled.
Spending patterns came hardline: One never used the electric fan until temperatures exceeded the unbearable; lights room to room were frugally used turned on only when entering and turned off immediately upon leaving; when reading, only the reading lamp behind the easy chair would be illumined in an otherwise darkened chamber; furniture was costly so doilies were prevalent to preserve upholstery.
When the pinching of pennies and the die-hard living became overbearing, Nannie took a hiatus home to Alabama. Most likely, it was strategy; and if so, it worked. The moment she escaped he was hot on her trail with letters pleading forgiveness. To show his earnestness, he opened up his pocketbook to let her enjoy the life to which she was more accustomed. And when she continued to balk that he still controlled the finances, he rearranged his banking account to give her equal liberty. And he took out two life insurance policies naming her the beneficiary.
A Little Hasty
On a cool September evening, Doss sat at the dinner table sliding his cleaned-off dinner plate aside to partake of Nannie’s prune cake. That night, he began wrenching and grasping his stomach in violent pain. Spasms were ungodly. “(He) took to his bed for days, losing 16 pounds in weight,” Terry Manners’ Deadlier Than the Male tells us. “Finally, his doctor sent him to the hospital, where he stayed for twenty-three days.”
The hospital’s diagnosis had been a severe infection to the digestive tract. Upon his release October 5, Nannie, disgruntled at the time wasted, went right back to where she had left off. Right back. After allowing him one good afternoon’s rest back in his own overstuffed chair, she awoke him for the dinner she had prepared especially for his welcome home.
“This will get you back on your feet in a jiffy,” she promised, passing him a cup of coffee first. Doss sipped it first, and then as it cooled took a larger and a larger gulp each time between a mouthful of delicious pork roast. The roast was fine. The coffee was the harbinger, mixed with arsenic. Before the toll of midnight, Sam Doss was dead.
In her rush to rid herself of her latest and by far not the greatest husband, Nannie erred. Usually adroit, she had been too much in a hurry this time around. Dr. Schwelbein, the physician who had examined Doss prior to his release from the hospital only the day before, dismayed to hear that his patient was dead. This, he said, did not make sense. He ordered an autopsy.
As he had suspected, Sam Doss had not died of natural causes. In the intestines and stomach, Schwelbein found remains of a pork roast dinner and enough arsenic to kill a team of horses.
Nannie Doss, unable to explain where the arsenic came from, was promptly arrested.
Then, she giggled again, those eyes turning innocent once more, but at least she began to talk. She confessed to poisoning Doss’ coffee, but not out of maliciousness. “He wouldn’t let me watch my favorite programs on the television,” she commenced, “and he made me sleep without the fan on the hottest nights. He was a miser and…well, what’s a woman to do under those conditions?”
The detectives in the room exchanged glances, eyebrows raised. She is serious, isn’t she? their expressions asked.
“OK, there, you have it,” she laughed in the same demeanor as a child admitting she stole her sister’s hair ribbon. “Can I have my magazine back now?”
“First tell us about the other husbands,” Page returned.
Nannie thought a second. “If I do will you give me back my Romantic Hearts?”
“I promise,” answered the other.
She shrugged and smiled. “It’s a deal,” she winked.
And she told them about Richard Morton, Arlie Lanning, Frank Harrelson, too. All men whom she had at first admired, but they turned out to be duds. All she had ever wanted was romance, a man to love her, but instead she got what she described as “dullards”. Each and every one of them. “If their ghosts are in this room they’re either drunk or sleeping.”
Page, shaking his head, handed her back the magazine.
“Looking at her and talking to her, detectives just could not believe that Nannie could be a killer,” Terry Manners relates in Deadlier Than the Male. “But now the confessions just poured out. She had killed four husbands…At one stage, an officer asked: ‘Which one are you going to tell us about next, Nannie?’”
The morning after the confessions, Page and other detectives from Tulsa fanned out to Kansas, North Carolina and Alabama to take part in the exhumations of her husbands, her mother, her sister Dovie, her nephew Robert and her mother-in-law, Arlie Lanning’s mother. Arsenic traces were heavy in every one of the deceased spouses and in her mother. Bodies of the other family members, while not indicating toxic substance, all appeared to have perished by asphyxia. Strong suspicion animated that they were probably smothered in their sleep.
“The Giggling Granny” outside court with daughter Florine and grandkids
Several days after Nannie’s arrest, a man by the name of John Keel stepped forth from North Carolina, looking very relieved. He was a dairy farmer who had been corresponding with Nannie after finding her ad in a lonely heart’s column. She had told him she was a widow and yearning for a good man with whom to settle; she sent him a homemade cake. And that was why Keel was relieved it hadn’t been his favorite, apple and prune. Or else, he might have…er, keeled over, too.
First husband Charley Braggs, the “husband who got away,” as Nannie’s family historian Sherby Green calls him, was prime reporter material. As the laboratory findings from Nannie’s corpses came in, newspapermen swarmed upon Braggs for his take on the case. His opinions and recollections of his ex-wife provided excellent, sometimes even witty, material for column upon column.
“She was always running off with one man or another, never home, and was about town more than me!” he exclaimed when one reporter asked him if it was true that their marriage had been adulterous. “And anyway, to tell you the truth, I was glad when she was off. It got to a point I was afraid to eat anything she cooked…I smelled a rat!”
He had asked that the bodies of his two daughters be disinterred along with the others that the papers had listed as being suspect. But, the government had obviously figured that they had enough on Mrs. Doss to send her away for a long, long time.
The state of Oklahoma, deciding the case, centered its allegations on the death of Doss only, who died in Tulsa. The states where the litter of victims were uncovered still wanted her for the respective deaths within their jurisdiction. She was never tried outside Oklahoma, however.
When newshounds finally caught up with Nannie after her indictment, they asked her what she thought should be done with her for poisoning Doss. Her answer came in the form of her familiar jocularity. Grinning into their flashbulbs, she replied, “Why, anything. Anything they care to do is all right by me.”
After a quartet of psychiatrists diagnosed her mentally sane, her trial date was set for June 2, 1955, in the Criminal Court of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But, on May 17, she decided to forget the rigmarole and, simply because her lawyers did not know how else to advise, she pleaded guilty.
After a brief hearing, Judge Elmer Adams sentenced her to life imprisonment, barring the electric chair because of her sex. According to Sherby Williams, Nannie spent the rest of her days “in the Oklahoma State penitentiary, still dreaming of eternal love”.
Nannie Doss died of leukemia in the prison’s hospital ward in 1965. Her hopes by that time were as rusty as the armor of the knights she had known.