“I was searching for the perfect mate… the real romance in life”
Nannie Doss was born to a family of farmers in 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama. When she was seven years old, she hit her head on a metal bar on the seat in front of her while on a train with her family to visit relatives. Since this incident, she suffered from severe headaches, blackouts, and depression. Research shows that sustaining damage to the frontal lobe can severely affect personality. While it wouldn’t have turned her into a cold-blooded killer overnight, this trauma mixed with years of abuse could’ve had a disastrous impact on her psychological health later in life.
Both Nannie and her mother hated James, who was a controlling father and husband. James would often force his children to work on the family farm instead of going to school. He forbade her and her sisters from wearing makeup and attractive clothing in an attempt to prevent them from being molested by men. Yet, Nannie still fell victim to unsavory characters having been raped by several local men. When she disclosed this event to her father, he refused to believe her. It’s suggested that this is when Nannie began to dream of finding a prince charming who would take her away from her abusers and treat her with love and respect.
Her hobby of reading her mother’s romance magazines and dreaming of her own romantic encounters quickly became her favorite pastime. It’s believed that these series of events led her to both desire attention from and deeply distrust men. At the age of sixteen, her father pressured her into marrying Charley Braggs, a man she had only known for four months. Nannie may have believed that the marriage would be her ticket to freedom, but her mother-in-law (who the couple lived with) proved to be just as overbearing and controlling as her father. This may have been the event that triggered her murder spree.
Charley Braggs and Nannie had four children together from 1921 to 1927. Braggs was routinely unfaithful, which caused Nannie to be unfaithful in return, as a form of retaliation. Their marriage was on the brink of falling apart when two of their children died under mysterious circumstances in 1927. It’s been suggested that Nannie murdered her two children with poison, but spun the story so that it appeared that they died from food poisoning. It’s uncertain what her motives were for killing her two daughters, but the possibilities include that it was an act of revenge against Braggs for his infidelities or it was a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy gone exceptionally wrong. Whichever the cause, the couple divorced in 1928 with Braggs taking his oldest daughter, Melvina, with him and leaving his newborn with Nannie and his mother.
After the divorce, Nannie turned to lonely hearts columns and began writing to the bachelors advertised there. Frank Harrelson outshone the others. He would write Nannie romantic letters, and she would respond with racy replies and photos. She was quick to marry him, believing that she found her Prince Charming for real this time. Unfortunately, Harrelson’s behavior changed once they were married, and he showed his true colors as a cheat and an abusive alcoholic. Unable to support herself and her remaining daughters financially, Nannie stayed married to Harrelson for sixteen years.
In 1945, on the verge of poverty, Nannie took out a life insurance policy on her grandson. It’s believed (but not definitely known) that she likely killed her newborn granddaughter a few days after the birth by using a hairpin to stab her in the brain. A few months after the granddaughter’s death, Nannie’s two-year-old grandson died of asphyxiation while in her care. Both of these two children belonged to Melvina, Nannie’s oldest child with Braggs.
Harrelson was next on her list. Following a night of drunken revelry at the end of World War II, where it’s believed that Harrelson raped Nannie in a drunken stupor, Nannie mixed a secret ingredient into his hidden jar of moonshine. He was dead two weeks later on Sept. 16, 1945.
Everyone assumed he died of food poisoning. While Nannie collected enough life insurance money from Harrelson’s death to buy a plot of land and a house near Jacksonville, N.C. Her next two husbands shared similar traits to the first two – they were both abusers, alcoholics, and womanizers.
Nannie met Arlie Lanning [husband #3] of Lexington, N.C. through an advertisement in the local lonely hearts column and married him three days later. Lanning died in 1950 from what was thought to be heart failure, which doctors attributed to his chronic drinking (and not to his wife having put poison in one of his meals). After the funeral, the house they lived in, which was inherited by Lanning’s sister, burned down and Nannie got the insurance money. She then lived with her mother-in-law until, she, too, died suddenly.
After Lanning, Nannie found Richard L. Morton [husband #4] of Jamestown, N.C. in a dating service called The Diamond Circle Club. They were married in Emporia, Kansas in 1952. In January of 1953, Nannie’s mother moved in with Nannie and her new husband, needing assistance (since she was now single and alone since Nannie’s father left her shortly before) after falling and breaking her hip. A few days later, Nannie’s mother started to have severe stomach pains and died suddenly. Three days after, Morton died after drinking from a thermos full of coffee that had been spiked by Doss with arsenic.
Shortly after their deaths (or possibly after her mother’s but before Morton’s) one of Nannie’s sisters died suddenly after having contact with her. Though it’s not confirmed, it’s believed that Nannie learned of her sister’s cancer and poisoned her for the insurance money.
Nannie Doss’ final victim was Samuel Doss [husband #5]. The pair met while on a bus going to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Samuel Doss was neither a drunk or abusive, and instead was a Nazarene minister who had lost his family in a tornado in Arkansas. However, he did make a fatal mistake – telling his wife that she could only read magazines or watch television shows that were for educational purposes. Nannie convinced him to give her access to his bank account and took out two life insurance policies on him with her as the sole beneficiary. She laced a prune cake with poison, causing Samuel Doss to spend a month recovering in the hospital for flu-like symptoms and a severe digestive tract infection. A few days after he was discharged, poison-laced coffee finished him off. This is where Nannie Doss made a mistake.
The doctor who treated Samuel Doss had already suspected foul play during his month-long hospitalization, but he had no proof to validate his suspicion. After Samuel Doss’ death, he convinced Nannie to allow him to perform an autopsy, stating that it would help save lives. The doctor found huge amounts of arsenic in Samuel Doss’ body and alerted the police. Meanwhile, Nannie was closing in on a possible sixth victim, North Carolina based farmer John H. Keel, having sent him a cake before the authorities caught up to her.
In 1954, Nannie was arrested and charged for the death of Samuel Doss. She quickly confessed to killing four of her five ex-husbands, but never admitted to killing any of her family members. At her trial, she maintained a disturbing cheerful and good-natured demeanor, laughing and joking while recalling the deaths of her victims. The judge presiding over her case severely doubted her sanity and gave her a life sentence instead of the death penalty (because of her gender). Nannie spent ten years in jail before dying of leukemia, possibly caused by her high exposure to arsenic over the years.
Doss chose poison because it was a quieter, less messy way to kill and her victims’ deaths could be passed off as natural causes. It allowed her to perpetuate the narrative that she was a caring mother, grandmother, housewife and caretaker who did everything she could to help her family members before they died. Her ability to keep up this pattern of killing was enabled by the belief that someone in these roles would never harm those under their care.
- Cutler, Max and Cutler, Ron. “The Giggling Granny” Killer Profile. Parcast.2017
- DeLong, William. Nannie Doss Spent Decades Murdering Relatives and Husbands. All that’s interesting (ati). 2018.
- 25 Interesting and Bizarre Facts About Nannie Doss. Tonsoffacts.com. 2018.
- Nannie Doss Biography. Thefamouspeople.com