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Nannie Doss the giggling granny – jolly black widow

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When you hear the word granny, it tends to conjure images of rotund old women who spoil their grandchildren with candy, and shower them with hugs and kisses. It most certainly does not make you think of murder, rat poison and a black widow mentality. Thankfully, our happy thoughts of granny are the norm, but in one case, behind the happy exterior lay a black hearted soul.

Nannie Doss (Nancy Hazle) was born in Blue Mountain, Alabama, and spent much of her childhood under the thumb of her strict, domineering father, James. She was forced to spend much of her early years laboring on the family farm, meaning that school often took a back seat, leaving her largely uneducated, with reading being a particular issue. Things took a real turn for the worse when, at age 7, Nannie suffered a severe head injury, sustained during a train ride with the family. That injury led to severe headaches, blackouts and depression, and was the event that she claimed was the cause of her mental instability.

James Hazle had, up to this point, done everything to keep his daughter from having any sort of contact with men, so it was odd when he gave his marriage blessing to Charlie Braggs, a co-worker of Nannie’s, after only 4 months of dating. The couple had 4 children between 1923 and 1927, but any sort of marital bliss they may have hoped to achieve was stymied by Braggs’ interfering mother.  Doss buckled under the pressure put on to her by the mother, and turned to drinking, heavy smoking and infidelity. In 1927, two of the children passed away from suspected food poisoning, but Braggs’ believed Nannie had murdered them and he fled with the remaining children. By the time he returned, the marriage was over and his mother was dead.

In her younger years, Nannie was obsessed with romance novels and the lonely hearts column of the newspaper, and she returned to both after her first marriage ended. It was in one of those columns that she met her second husband Robert (Frank) Harrelson, and despite the fact that he was an alcoholic with a criminal record for violence, the marriage lasted 16 years. During this time, Doss’s daughter Melvina had a baby boy named Robert, followed two years later by a daughter. Nannie had gone to help her daughter during the birth of the baby girl, and although the little one arrived healthy, she died shortly after birth in mysterious circumstances Melvina claimed to have seen Nannie stick a hatpin in the baby’s head, but no proof was ever found. Her other child Robert, died a few years later whilst under the supervision of Doss; the cause this time was asphyxia from unknown causes. The bodies were starting to pile up around Nannie, all in rather strange circumstances, and her second husband was the next to go. Frank had become a chronic alcoholic and would abuse and rape Nannie whilst under the influence; when finally she could take no more, she spiked his booze with rat poison, bringing his life, and their marriage, to a painful end.

Nannie’s next husband, Artie Lanning, proved to be another heavy drinker and womanizer, but Doss doted on him when she was around. During this marriage, she would disappear for months on end, before returning home to her dutiful wife role. In the end, Artie died in his sleep of an apparent heart failure, and the family home, left to Lanning’s sister, burned to the ground with Doss collecting the insurance money. She then left to look after her sick sister, Dovie, but not before her mother-in-law also passed in her sleep. It came as no surprise that Dovie passed away after a very short time under her sister’s care.

It could be said that Doss, enamored with all those romance novels, was addicted to love, and she quickly moved on to husband number 4, Richard Morton, another serial womanizer. Before she could finish him off, Nannie poisoned his mother who had come to live with them, and then Morton met his demise a few months later. Shortly after that Doss met and married a clean cut, churchgoing man named Samuel Doss. He despised Nannie’s romance novels, and only a few short months after being wed, Samuel was rushed to hospital with what was believed to a digestive tract issue. His sudden death prompted doctors to order an autopsy, where it was discovered that his body contained lethal levels of arsenic. Before she could claim the two life insurance policies that Samuel owned, Nannie was arrested and charged with murder.

Despite confessing to a total of 8 murders, the woman who became known as “The Giggling Granny”, and “The Jolly Black Widow”, was only charged with the murder of Samuel. She was pronounced mentally fit for trial, and after pleading guilty, was sentenced to life imprisonment in May of 1965. She remained in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for 10 years before passing away from leukemia in the prison hospital. No-one can know for sure if that childhood injury played a part in her mental issues, but we can be sure that Nannie Doss was one evil lady.

Written by John Watson

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