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Case Blog – Nannie Doss a.k.a. “The Giggling Granny”

Nancy Hazel was born in November 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama. It’s now known as Anniston, Alabama. She was one of five children and had one brother and three sisters. She actually hated her father. I think that was a common feeling between her and her siblings and her mother. From what I read, it sounds like he was really controlling and unfortunately abusive, and he wouldn’t let her go to school because he wanted her to work on the farm. So, of course, this resulted in her not being very well educated. She eventually dropped out of school after her 6th grade year so she could focus on the farm. And I’m sure that wasn’t her choice, but her father’s. At the age of 7, she had an accident on a train where she hit her head on the metal bar on the seat in front of her when the train stopped really abruptly. The story goes that because of this head trauma that she endured, she suffered from depression, headaches and blackouts during her lifetime. And she blamed this incident in her childhood for a lot of that, as well as her actions that she went on to take later in life. Now, I know that a lot of studies and information is out now about the impact of brain injuries on you, especially as a child and even later in life, like in the case of football players and things like that. So there could be some truth to this. I couldn’t find any more details about the trauma or how severe the trauma was, so I really can’t say one way or the other if this did have anything to do what she went on to do later in life. But I do think she had a hard childhood and really dealt with some things, and that probably played into a lot of what she did later.

In her early teens, Dorothy became interested in her mother’s romance magazines. The magazines were these short love stories romanticising relationships in a way that was probably much less than healthy. The popular publications at the time were “Romance” and “Love Story.” I skimmed over a couple of the stories and honestly, they were really racist and misogynistic. Not surprising, given the time. This was the 1920s, and these were popular between 1920 and the end of 1940. So the writing isn’t really that surprising, but it’s still hard to read. These stories made her dream of her own romantic future. I’m sure a lot of that was just a form of escapism for her to get away from her day to day life. I feel like there’s a big comparison between these romance stories talking about these men sweeping these women off their feet and giving them these fairy tale lives, and the more modern day Disney movies and princess stories where these princesses find their prince and they live happily ever after and nothing bad ever happens. Studies have been done, and we now know the kind of impact that those stories and fairy tales have on young girls who look at this and see this as the way a romantic relationship is supposed to be. So they grow up with certain expectations and ideas of what a romantic love should look like, when in reality, that’s not what romantic love looks like at all. Nanny is a young girl who was not very bright or educated, and she’s dealing with emotional and physical abuse at home. She’s reading these stories, and it’s creating this sort of fantastical idea deal of what life could or should be. I think that really paved the way for a lot of what happens as she gets older and into her adulthood, unfortunately. And that’s the danger of these kind of stories, right? Because if we allow our impressionable children to read this kind of fiction without explaining to them that that’s exactly what it is, it’s fiction, I think we’re setting them up for a lot of failure and let down later in life. And I hate to be so negative about it, but I think that’s true. And we need to be realistic and set them up for real expectations of what it means to have a partner and being in a relationship with someone. But these desires for romantic partnership were obviously fueled by the abuse she dealt with at home.

Her father didn’t allow her or her sisters to wear dresses or make up, and they couldn’t attend dances or other social events. It is written that he did this out of fear of them drawing the attention of men, and he didn’t want them to be molested. To me, honestly, it sounds like he abused them. So maybe he just didn’t want to run the risk of them having another man in their lives, or he didn’t want competition with other men, or it was just a way to control them to an extreme level, unfortunately, which is really gross as a father figure. I think that was just kind of one more level of emotional and mental abuse that she dealt with as a child that really paid who she is as an adult.

She started working at the Linen Thread Company at the age of 16, where she met Charlie Braggs. It sounds like he was also young. I didn’t see what his actual age was, but he still lived at home with his single mother. Dorothy and Charlie got married in 1921 after only dating for four or five months, and she was still 16 when they got married. Her father did approve of the marriage, which is really interesting to me, considering that he was so controlling over their lives and didn’t want them to meet other men, but yet he approved of her getting married so young. It could have been financially driven – one less mouth to feed. So he was like, “Yeah, sure, get married so you can get out of my house and I don’t have to pay for you anymore.” That could be part of it. But I just thought that was interesting because he was so controlling that he was fine with her getting married so quickly at such a young age. And I’m sure that part of the reason that she decided to get married so quickly was because she wanted to get away from her father. So that probably had a lot to do with it. She did end up moving into the home with Charlie and his mother. And it’s said that his mother’s personality was pretty similar to Nanny’s father’s. So she didn’t really get away from that control or abuse. She was just getting it from someone else now. She and Charlie had a lot of kids really quickly. They had four daughters between the years of 1923 and 1927. That means she was basically pregnant nonstop from the ages of 18 to 22. And after this point, or during this time, she started drinking heavily and smoking a lot. And honestly, it’s no surprise to me that she would start drinking heavily. I’m sure she was under so much stress with having so many kids consecutively to take care of living under the roof of another controlling person. I mean, I’m sure a lot of people would turn to alcohol or other things to kind of help alleviate that pressure that you’re feeling. Charlie’s mother was super involved in their lives. She took up a lot of his attention and was very, very controlling. Nanny even said at one point that Charlie’s mother wouldn’t let her own mother come stay the night with them. All of this stress led her to start drinking and smoking pretty heavily. Both Charlie and Nanny were adulterous and having affairs pretty frequently. Charlie would leave for days at a time. My question is, when did Nanny have time to go out and have these affairs? I mean, with four kids, it’s amazing she really found time to do anything. She probably left the kids with her mother-in-law while Charlie was gone for days at a time. I couldn’t really find any detail on that part of their marriage other than it wasn’t good. And I think a lot of that has to do with how young they were, and how quickly they had all of these children. And that’s not good for anyone. At that age, you’re still discovering yourself and figuring out who you are and who you want to be as a person, and you’re already so tied down. I’m not surprised that it ended up the way that it did.

Tragedy struck when their middle children, Zelma and Gertrude, died within a month of each other in 1927 from supposed food poisoning. Selma died on August 30 and Gertrude died on September 25. We now know that it’s probably likely that Nanny killed them by poisoning their breakfast. I don’t know why she would kill her own children, other than maybe it was just lack of money and resource to take care of them and she killed them to lessen the load. That sounds so morbid, but I really could not find any information on why she might have killed her children. And given the time and how much they probably struggled, that’s really the only logical explanation – not that killing your child is ever logical. But I think that’s when her murderous streak started, in 1927 with the deaths of two of her own children. It wasn’t long after this that Charlie, her husband, actually fled with her oldest daughter Melvina, because he was anonymously warned not to eat anything she cooked. So he ran away with their oldest daughter and left Nanny alone with their newborn, Flourine. I don’t really know why he would leave a newborn baby with her if he had been warned not to eat the food she cooked. I could not find any information on that, but that’s a little questionable. A newborn is so much work. Maybe the newborn was breastfed and Charlie just didn’t know how to care for an infant and so he felt like his best option was just to take the oldest daughter and run. Because Nannie was now a single mother, she went and got a job in a cotton mill to support her and her youngest daughter. Charlie’s mother died soon after he left with her oldest daughter. Which of course my immediate thought is that Nannie killed her, and she probably did. I don’t see any proof that that was ever actually looked into or anything. Nothing was ever brought against her in the death of his mother. Charlie actually came back with Melvina in the summer of 1928 and brought a divorcee and her child with him. I guess that’s one way to get out of marriage. You show up saying, ‘Hey, this is my new woman, my new family, and I’m ready to be done with you.’ So they divorced soon after that, and Charlie left Melvina with Nannie and left to be with his new partner and her child. So knowing that Nannie was probably a threat and even claiming that he left her because he was scared of her, he left his children with her. If that’s true, and you really are concerned about your safety and you’ve seen two of your children die in the hands of this woman, wouldn’t you take your two surviving children with you? Or maybe he just didn’t want to be tied to her in any way at all and decided to leave everything behind and start over. I can’t say that I blame him for leaving, but it’s pretty gross that he wouldn’t take his children with him if he felt like he was in danger. After the divorce, Nannie and her kids moved back in with her parents and she continued to work at the cotton mill.

She met her second husband, Frank Harrelson, in the Lonely Hearts columns in the newspaper. The Lonely Hearts ads were personal ads where men or women could write in the paper asking for correspondence for people looking for a partner or marriage. It was a lot like today’s Tinder, Hinge, or Match (back in my day). One of the examples said for the women to reply with their height and weight first. Some things never change. It’s funny how the idea of finding a relationship in this manner has been around for so long and become what it is. There are also quite a few instances of fraud where women would answer men’s advertisements and then steal from them, and even cases of murder, which still happens. Funnily enough, I think that there were several articles written and published in the papers about the shadiness of these Lonely Hearts ads and the fraudulent and murderous schemes that were happening because of these ads. There was a column published in December of 1884 in the Chicago Tribune where a journalist put an ad in the paper as a farmer looking for a wife. He then critiqued 36 of the responses he received. Which is honestly super deceptive. I don’t think you could get away with something like that today. He did take out the women’s identities or anything that would show where they lived or other factors, but I’m pretty sure that you couldn’t get away with something like that today without letting the other person know that their private letters were going to be published in the paper. The journalists split up the type of women that replied to the ads into three groups. 50% are regulars who just replied to personal ads for fun with no real desire to meet or pursue anything. 25% are women who are actually looking for a partner and have probably been raised to believe that their whole purpose is to marry and have kids. These are his words. And the other 25% are quote unquote “female vultures of whom nothing need be said.” What does that mean? Are these the women who are fraudulent? Would they be considered “gold diggers” now? The funny part is that Nanny was definitely a vulture. She may say she was looking for love, but let’s be honest, she’s a vulture. It was a very telling article of the time, just sitting there critiquing all of these poor women that are just looking for companionship of some sort and their letters end up in the newspaper for all to see. Regardless, Frank and Nanny made out really well through these Lonely Heart ads and he wooed her with poetry and she replied back with saucy letters and pictures. I’m sure she got a lot of inspiration from all of those romance magazines she read. Nanny moved from Alabama to Jacksonville, Florida with her two surviving daughters to live with Frank. A few months into the marriage, she found out he had a criminal record for assault. He was also an alcoholic, violent man, which makes me wonder if she agreed to marry him before she had even met him or really gotten to know this man. And from looking at her future husbands, it seems like that’s the case. Given how independent and no nonsense she seems, I’m really surprised that she stayed in the marriage after learning this about him. They remained married for 16 years.

During her marriage to Frank, her oldest daughter Melvina had her first child, Robert Lee Haines, in 1943, and then she went on to have a daughter in 1945. But she unfortunately died soon after birth. The story goes that while Malvino was recovering from labor and groggy from being on ether, which used to be inhaled to be used as an anesthetic, she saw Nanny stick a hat pin into the baby’s head. When she asked her husband and sister for clarification about what had happened to the child, they said that Nanny told them the baby was dead and saw her holding a hat pin at the time. But doctors, of course, didn’t see anything happen and couldn’t verify the cause of death. There were old newspaper articles that I found that said that there were reports that the family saw her doing something or holding a hat pin at the hospital. But I’m curious to know if this were true, why no one told any sort of authority figure about their concerns. It sounds like someone in the family saw something, so why was a police officer or doctor not informed of this? Maybe they were, but whoever examined the child couldn’t find any proof. Even without proof, the story seems legitimate given her background, and I believe that she killed her newborn granddaughter. No one knows why. Obviously, they’re no monetary motivation or anything like that. When it comes to it, she was just crazy and not a good person. Soon after the death of her infant, Melvina went to visit her father, Charlie. For some reason, she chose to leave her two year old son, Robert, in Nanny’s care. While Melvina was gone, Robert died of asphyxia. And a few months later, Nanny collected a $500 life insurance policy that she had taken out on him. So when did she take out this life insurance policy and why didn’t Melvina have to give approval? Was this something that she did after Melvina left to go out of town? I didn’t do the research to find out what the steps were to take out a life insurance policy on someone in the ’40s, but it seems like it was much easier to do then than it is now. I don’t understand when Nanny would have taken out the policy, or how she could have taken out this policy without Melvina’s signature or approval. Obviously this was financially motivated because she did take out a policy and get money for the death of little, baby, two-year-old Robert, which is just heartbreaking.

Of course, Frank and Nanny’s marriage was on the rocks. He was an alcoholic and abusive after all. In mid-September of 1945, Frank came home drunk after partying with some friends and forced Nanny to have sex with him (he raped her, let’s just say what it is). Understandably mad about being assaulted, Nanny decided to put rat poison in his jars of corn whiskey, and he died the same day or soon after on September 16, 1945. It was assumed that he died of food poisoning or some other ailment. I think it’s really interesting that she has all of these people around her dying of food poisoning. If she was really that bad of a cook that everyone was literally dying of food poisoning, why are people still eating her food? I also found mention in a newspaper article from November of 1954 that Frank Harrelson had a two and a half year-old grandson that died two months before Frank did. But Nanny was never connected to that death. I’m going to go ahead and assume that she was involved in that death, as well.

After Frank’s death, she was up to her old antics pretty quickly and met back up with a man named Harley Lanning, who was a child childhood friend of hers from Anniston, Alabama. She was traveling through Lexington, North Carolina, at the time where he was living, and they met back up and got married three days later. She’s not wasting any time. They were married for a couple of years. Harley was also an alcoholic and a womanizer, which is something that Nanny may have figured out if she had taken the time to get to know the man before marrying him. Once again, she’s marrying these men hoping for this fantasy love, but she’s not getting to know them first or spending any time trying to understand who they really are before marrying them and then finding out after she’s bound to them that they’re alcoholics, womanizers or abusers. She would leave him for months at a time during their relationship to go have other relationships. And when she was home, she would play the role of this doting housewife. Things changed in 1950 when Harley died of what was listed as heart failure due to heavy drinking and a flu virus that was going around at the time. There was no autopsy done because of this flu virus and the fact that he was an alcoholic, so they figured it was just natural consequences of his poor health. He was buried and she was treated as this poor grieving widow. Soon after the funeral, the house that she and Harley lived in burned down and Nanny collected the insurance money on the property. The house was actually owned by his sister. How did she scheme her way into collecting money for her sister-in-law’s home? Long story short – husband dies, house burns down, she inherits money because of that, so she decided to stay in Lexington until Harley’s mother passed away in her sleep. That is what’s reported. But once again, with how many people have died around her, I wouldn’t put it past Nanny to have killed her, too. I didn’t see anything about insurance money being collected after his mother’s death, but it could just be that this woman is around, she’s a nuisance, she needs her out of the picture so she can go on and marry the next man. She poisoned her and the woman died in her sleep. Boom. Now she can move on and meet her next husband.

After Harley’s mother’s death, nanny moved in to live with her sister, Debbie, who was actually sick in bedridden at the time. And surprise, surprise, Debbie was dead within three months of Nanny moving into the house. After this, Nanny was back to the personal ads and met a man named Richard L. Morton through the Diamond Circle Club. Morton lived in Jamestown, North Carolina. These two didn’t move as quickly, but they did get married in 1952 in Emporia, Kansas. And it was around this time that Nanny’s mother, Louisa, came to live with them in 1923 after the death of Nanny’s father. Richard was taking off for days at a time to be with other women in town. And Louisa had only been living in the home for a few days when she started complaining of severe stomach pains and died soon after. Are we even surprised at this point? What number is that? I’ll count it up at the end. But surprise, surprise, when Richard became ill soon after Louise’s death in May of 1953 and died. It turns out that Nanny had spiked his coffee with arsenic because she was jealous and tired of him going out and being with other women. She wasted no time at all in boarding a bus to go meet Samuel Doss in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Doss had been a Nazarene minister in Arkansas when he tragically lost his wife and children in a tornado. Nanny and Sam got married in June 1953, which was barely a month after the death of her fourth husband, Richard. Sam wasn’t a bad guy, but he was way too straight laced for Nanny. He didn’t like her romance magazines, and he didn’t want her to watch TV because it wasn’t enlightening or educational. And you know, Nanny wasn’t going to put up with this shit, right? She’s an independent woman who isn’t going to sit around and let a man tell her what she can and can’t do. She left him for a little while and refused to come back until Sam agreed to put her name on his bank account, and take out two life insurance policies that named her as the beneficiary. Where were his red flags? I understand being lonely and wanting a relationship with someone, but did he have no second thoughts, no concern around the idea of taking out two life insurance policies that would go to her in the case of his death, just to get her to move back into the home? Doesn’t that send any weird signals at all? I don’t want to judge or sit here and say he was simple or not smart. I understand it was a different time but if someone is sitting there telling you that the only way that they are going to come back and be with you is if you give them access to all of your money and take out life insurance policies for them to get if you die, I would be running as quickly as possible in the other direction. Of course, once Nanny was back in the home with her hands on his money and insurance policies, Sam fell ill and she took him to the hospital. It took him over a month to recover from his his illness until he was well enough to return home. The same day he returned home, he died. Nanny later admitted to putting arsenic on his bowl of prunes, which is what caused him to be ill and spend all that time in the hospital. And when this didn’t work, she decided to use her tried and true method of arsenic in the coffee to kill him when he was back home. Sam died on October 6, 1954.

Unfortunately for Nanny, this determination to put Sam in an early grave to get his money ended up being her undoing. The doctor who treated Sam in the hospital for the month that he was there thought it was really suspicious that Sam had gotten so much better, was well enough to go home, and then he dies the same day he gets home. He convinced Nanny to let them perform an autopsy by telling her that determining the cause of death would help them save others because it seems like Sam had some rare sickness or something that they needed to better understand to help them with patients in the future. So I don’t know if she felt pressured to agree to it, because if she said no, maybe she felt like that would make her look guilty, or maybe it was her lack of education or understanding that impeded her ability to realize that an autopsy would reveal the truth about his cause of death. But unfortunately for Nanny, the autopsy revealed that Sam Doss had enough arsenic in his system to kill a horse! Once this was discovered, the doctor alerted police to what he found, and Nanny was arrested.

Of course, she wasn’t forthcoming at first. Detective Harry Steige, who questioned her, said that she talks a lot, but not about the case, and that she was really happy and talkative during the investigation and she smiled and laughed a lot with the investigators. And this is how she got the nickname “Giggling Granny.” She told them about her marriage history and the death of her husband. It does seem like she left out her marriage to Frank Harrelson, her second husband, initially, because there was no mention of him in the article and it actually lists Harley Lanning as her second husband instead of her third. Even though Lanning’s death was listed to be from natural causes, investigators decided to exhume his body and test it for poisoning because they just felt off about it. In another weird twist, Nanny said that she didn’t even know her fourth husband, Richard Morton. But she got caught in her lie because detectives showed her five insurance policies totaling $1,500 that named her as the beneficiary. And her response to this was, “Well, you got me trapped. I guess I did know him.” I love how matter of fact she was about it like, ‘Oops, you caught me.’ What else are you going to do? But I think it’s funny that she denied knowing him in the first place when they have her name on his insurance policies. But after a couple of days of questioning, Nanny signed a confession stating that she poisoned her fourth and fifth husbands, Morton and Doss. She then admitted to the marriage, or I guess, talked about the marriage to Frank Harrelson. She told investigators that she killed him by putting rat poison in his corn whiskey. She also admitted to using poison to kill Harley Lanning, her third husband. Along with her husbands, she also confessed to killing her mother, her 2.5 year old grandson, Robert, and her mother-in-law. This may have been true, but so many people close to her died that we know the number is higher than that. It’s safe to say that she killed four husbands, two of her children, a newborn granddaughter, her 2.5 year-old grandson, her mother-in-law, her sister, Debbie, her own mother, and potentially Frank Harrelson’s 2.5 year-old grandson. That’s 12 people total. Honestly, the number could be higher, but we just don’t know.

The state of Oklahoma based its case against Nanny Doss on the murder of Sam Doss only, because that was the only one that they could really prove. She pleaded guilty in May 1955 and was sentenced to life in prison. The death penalty was not an option for women at the time. She was never charged with any of the other deaths. She spent ten years in prison in Oklahoma until she died from leukemia in 1965. She apparently stated that she was motivated by love and not money, which could be true. I mean, all of those romance magazines as a young girl gave her this false sense of what romantic love looks like. She rushed into all of these relationships with men she didn’t know, and when she realized that it didn’t look like the story she read and that these men were not good men, she figured she would just kill them and take their money when possible and then move on to the next one. That doesn’t explain why she killed innocent children or some of her other relatives. It obviously was about money when it came to those situations where she could collect life insurance or money, like in the case of Harley’s sister’s house burning down. So where she stood to gain something in the case of their death, she was going to do it. It doesn’t explain to me why she would kill her newborn granddaughter or some of the other people she killed where there wasn’t really anything in it for her other than just the satisfaction of doing it. I also don’t really see how hitting her head as a child could explain for all of the murders that she committed. It seems like that she had a lot of trust issues because of what she dealt with as a child, and that led to her having a hard time in romantic or familiar relationships. Maybe she was just crazy, which I think is the case.

That’s the case of Nanny Doss. The level of audacity she had to kill everyone that she killed, including her close family members and grandchildren and children, it’s just insane. There were so many different times where she could have been stopped or caught. I don’t know if it was other family members being afraid if nothing came of it, she would turn around and kill them. Keep scrolling to find all of the resources for this topic!

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The Encyclopedia of Alabama: | The Tennessean Nov. 28, 1954: | The Seminole Producer Nov. 29, 1954: | This is How Newspapers Helped us Find Love – And Deception – Before Online Dating:

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