Abnormal Pop Culture & Mental Health Psychology

The Abnormal Psychology of Nannie Doss

“Moments before she appeared on TV to be interviewed, the cameraman suggested Nannie remove her glasses and smile for the camera, quipping, ‘You might get another husband if you look nice.’ She replied, ‘Ain’t that the dying truth,’ and then cracked up at her own pun. She was Oklahoma’s biggest news story of 1954 and she knew it.” – Tori Telfer, Lady Killers.

By all means, she was a parody of the 1950s housewife, seemingly obsessed with marriage and cooking, relying on both the sexiest and ageist assumptions of how danger should look. Adorned in her pearls, with hair curled, she overpowered the news by flirting on camera, cracking morbid jokes and framing her crimes as nothing more than a fluke on the path of finding Mr. Right. She was giddy to speak about the murders of her disappointing husbands, framing it as if she was entitled to take their lives.

Lonely Hearts Club Member Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

While Nannie was shining in the spotlight, bodies were being dug up all over the country. Arsenic was found in every one of Nannie’s dead husbands, which wasn’t a surprise since she already admitted to those particular murders; but the police thought there were too many other mysterious deaths around her (like the deaths of her mother, sister, two of her children and two of her grandchildren). When they tried to get her to admit to any of the deaths of her family members, her attitude abruptly changed, as she constructed a narrative of only killing those deserving of death, not innocent family members. She was deeply offended by the insinuations and even insisted that she’d “get down on [her] knees and crawl anywhere” for her mother. Yet, an autopsy of her mother’s body showed that it was also loaded with arsenic.

Many sources vehemently denied the allegations of infidelity from her third and fourth husbands. Sam Doss’ brother disagreed with the population’s perception of Nannie as “simple, candid, open, cheerful”. Instead, he said that the Nannie he knew was “a smart one. She was shrewd, very shrewd. And I seem to remember that she sometimes would tell you one thing and the next time just the opposite.” He watched as Nannie tortured the conservative Sam Doss by smoking openly and wearing scandalous outfits. He also noted his suspicion from the start by stating: “No woman is going to travel a thousand miles or so to marry some plain working man just because she wants him.”

This is what makes Nannie Doss such an interesting subject. She illustrated her murders in such a way, as to appear as a black widow who unwittingly married the wrong men and took their lives and their money in order to better her situation. When in reality, she used her femininity to trap and kill men that had similar traits to the ones who hurt her in the past. Yet, to the American public, Nannie was a cute, plump grandmother who giggled and poisoned prunes.

Many serial killers, such as Bundy, make waves for not just their crimes but for their ability to pass as normal, nonviolent and even charming. To illustrate this with Nannie Doss, this analysis will be different than the other abnormal pieces as we will look at the dueling opinions of the psychiatrists that evaluated Nannie to determine if she was insane or not.

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“The Cleverest Criminal I Ever Interviewed”

On December 15, three weeks after Nannie was arrested, the judge at her preliminary hearing decided to turn her over to the state asylum for a ninety-day stay. “Arsenic Nannie” was excited about this decision: “Now maybe I will get some rest and won’t have to answer so many silly questions,” she said. “Maybe those docs at the hospital will teach me to think straight.”

As expected, Nannie thoroughly enjoyed herself at the asylum, as she was getting plenty of attention due to her celebrity status. She would primp every time the psychiatrists would come around to examine her. She even celebrated her fiftieth birthday in the asylum. One of the doctors raved about her behavior to the press, noting that she still suffered from headaches, from a childhood accident (in which she hit her head), but other than that, her health was perfect. In fact, she was nearly perfect. “If you had small children,” he said, “you’d be delighted to have her as a babysitter.”

His supervisors disagreed. On March 14, a group of medical examiners declared Nannie “mentally defective with a marked impairment of judgment and will power” and recommended she be recommitted to the asylum. But prosecution pressed on, demanding that she at least be tried for murder, so Nannie was sent back to jail while her team put in a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity”. Her sanity hearing was scheduled for April. However, the hearing quickly became a heated debate of differing analyses from prosecution and defense experts.

“Mrs. Doss is mentally defective and is now insane in the legal sense. She also has been crazy for a long time,” thundered a doctor for the defense. The prosecutor replied, stating that he had five psychiatrists on hand who were all ready and willing to declare Nannie as sane. He then quoted one of their reports: “She is a shrewd, clever, sharp, calculating, selfish, self-aggrandizing female whose aggressive behavior under frustration releases her hostility toward men, particularly her husbands.” A superintendent from the state asylum noted that Nannie would giggle “extensively at nothing” for ages and then fall into long, dark depressions. ‘If that’s not insanity, what was?’  Prosecution’s experts scoffed at this. One of them replied, stating that Nannie was a sociopath, a “shrewd, calculating female who feigned insanity to escape the electric chair… the cleverest criminal I ever interviewed.” At that final statement, Nannie laughed out loud.

After three days of this, it took the jury a mere fifteen minutes to decide that Nannie was indeed, sane. She chuckled, “I’m as sane as anybody. I guess I ought to know better than anybody if I’m crazy. I’ve never felt more sane in my whole life.” She chewed gum while the verdict was declared and grinned at the photographer as he took her portrait. Her trial was set for June, when she suddenly plead guilty on May 17 – perhaps as an attempt to be sent back to the asylum. But with her official declaration of sanity and her guilty plea, she was labeled a murderer and sentenced to life in prison.

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Although we have the doctors’ opinions on Nannie’s psychology, it’s hard to determine an exact diagnosis for her. It’s unlikely that she had antisocial personality disorder (in the way the DSM describes, as there’s no evidence of her displaying antisocial tendencies at a young age) but she does appear to be a sociopath, with her issues most likely originated from or exacerbated by her early childhood head injury. Numerous studies in recent decades have linked frontal lobe injuries to increased incidents of violent and uncontrollable social behavior (see Analysis on Bathory).

Her father may have been the trigger for the onset of her abnormal psychology. As he stifled her girlish longings for romance, practically arranged her first marriage and put the final nail in the coffin that held her ideals on love when he abandoned her mother. She resented him for breaking up their nuclear family, but she went on to destroy five separate instances of marriage for herself. (Remember from prosecution: her “aggressive behavior under frustration releases her hostility toward men.”) It appeared as if Nannie had very specific ideas about the roles husbands and family should play and would react furiously when people disappointed her by not fulfilling those roles.

However, what combats that is that she chose these men. These weren’t instances of history repeating itself, but instead, a pattern. A ‘self-fulfilling’ one, as a matter of fact, since most can agree that it may not be surprising for someone who possessed the traits that she said these husbands had, to be ‘bad’ husbands in a traditional marriage. She made it appear as if she felt so constricted by the men in her life, from her controlling father to the puritanical Sam Doss that she took back her control by taking their lives. When in fact, she purposefully chose men with traits similar to her father – maybe as a way of fulfilling a fantasy (of killing the one person she wasn’t able to, her father) or maybe as a way to justify her killing.

 

Source:

  • Telfer, Tori. Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History. 2017.

Since completing my undergraduate studies, I've dedicated my time to supporting and empowering individuals with behavioral health issues. This blog is to be a platform for the behavioral health community; examining the history of behavioral health and the progressions made within the field while providing information and resources to those who need it.

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