Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Nannie Doss - "Giggling Grandma" - The Search For Prince Charming
What does a woman look for in a man? The deciding factors in choosing a companion for life might be good looks, charisma, humor, and a certain degree of allure. However, there is a distinct and popular belief that many woman follow while dating: Accepting the shortcomings. Certainly, no man is perfect. Each man has an inevitable trait or characteristic that women have to come to live with or love in their man. Without this acknowledgment, a woman is sure to spend her life endlessly searching for a man that doesn’t exist. Every man carries a bit of disagreement, a character flaw that cannot be ignored, or some kind of personal baggage. This is not the fault of the man, for it is human nature for all people- men or women- to err in their ways.
In the case of Nannie Doss, the perfect man was illustrated in books and magazines featuring apparitions of men that fulfilled all of her desires and needs. These men had no defects, and Nannie was unwilling and unable to recognize any other man who did not measure up to her fantasies. The lengths Nannie went through to find this man were dizzyingly frantic and desperate. In her adult life, she met five men she considered to be lifelong partners, but each one proved to be a nuisance she would not tolerate. Four of these men, all in love with her unmistakable laughter and charm, found themselves victims of torturous poisonings that left them convulsing and crying out in anguish. Nannie watched all of them parish, removed each wedding ring, which she set on the bedside table until a more suitable husband asked for her murderous hand in marriage.
Loulisa Hazle gave birth to her first child, Nancy (nicknamed Nannie) in the crisp and chilly month of November 1905. Loulisa and James Hazle were poor but honest and hardworking citizens of Blue Mountain, Alabama. To follow Nannie were three sisters and one brother, all of whom were made to work on the family’s farm as soon as they could walk. Loulisa, fearful of her domineering and abusive husband, brought up her children exactly as James Hazle ordered. The five children were expected to chop wood, plough fields and complete farm chores by the age of five. Nannie sensed her mother’s apprehension towards her father at a young age and abided by the strict rules and regulations of the Hazle home. The children walked two miles to reach the local school, but were often absent due to their father’s wish that they work on the farm. Nannie’s education ended at the 6th grade, her father deciding that work was to be her main focus. This was also an early attempt to keep Nannie away from unwanted attention from boys.
As Nannie and her sisters reached adolescence, their father became increasingly stern that they stay home while their friends went to parties or get-togethers. James Hazle firmly believed that his daughters were not to engage in any sexual activity unless he had first picked their mate for marriage. Nannie, around 14 or 15, had begun reading her mother’s romance novels and magazines which became her first glimpse into her relentless hunt for the perfect man. She found the men in these books and articles not only incredibly handsome, but compelling and utterly spellbinding. The effect these books had on Nannie was boldly profound. Nannie longed for the Prince Charming she felt she richly deserved. Thus, she began sneaking out of the house to pursue the man that would take her away from the farm and her abhorrent father.
When Nannie reached 16, James Hazle had found a compatible and decent fellow for his eldest daughter. Charley Braggs, an earnest employee of the Linen Thread Company, was a handsome and pleasant man who pledged his love to Nannie and proposed after four months of courtship. At the insistence of her father, Nannie agreed to marry Charley. In 1921, they were married and settled into a home in Blue Mountain with Charley’s mother. Charley was deeply devoted to his mother and this became a problem for Nannie. Finding Charley’s mother a bossy hypochondriac with constant ailments, Nannie was made to stay at home every night and lost complete control of her social life. She realized that she was again being dominated by an adult figure, much like with her father and his many rules and punishments. Nannie decided not to be the obedient party anymore and began going out as often as she could, seeing other men and disappearing for days or weeks at a time. Between 1923 and 1927, Nannie had four daughters with Charley. About this time she took up smoking and drinking, presumably to cope with motherhood and her failing marriage. Both she and Charley were having adulterous affairs, and neither seemed to care.
In 1927, on a morning like any other, Nannie prepared breakfast for her two middle daughters, and by the time lunch was ready, both girls had died of suspected food poisoning. Though he couldn’t prove it, Charley believed something was wrong and immediately took his eldest daughter, Melvina, and fled Blue Mountain. Nannie was left alone with Florine, her infant daughter. Charley’s mother died of natural causes shortly after Charley left. One year later, Charley arrived back at the home with a new girlfriend and asked Nannie for a divorce. She granted the divorce and left the home with Melvina and Florine in 1928.
Nannie began work at a cotton mill in Anniston, just outside of Blue Mountain. She moved back in with her parents, Melvina and Florine in tow. Loulisa enjoyed this time with her grandchildren, often taking care of them while Nannie was working or out on the town. Nannie spent her free time paging through her romance novels or exploring the newspapers for a man. Upon reading the Lonely Hearts columns in the newspapers, Nannie searched for her new mate, which turned out to be Frank Harrelson, a 23-year-old factory worker. Frank sent a dazzling picture of himself and a love poem to her, while Nannie baked a cake and sent a photo of herself to him. By 1929, they were married and Nannie believed she had finally found her soulmate. The honeymoon didn’t last long, for Nannie discovered that her new husband was not only an alcoholic, but had been arrested for assault on several occasions. Nannie continued reading her dime shop romance novels, often nursing a black eye or bruised cheeks courtesy of Frank’s wild mood swings.
To remove themselves from Frank’s debts, enemies, and overall bad name, the family moved to Jacksonville, where they hoped to start a new life. Frank, however, continued drinking and brawling at local bars. Nannie brought up her daughters as best she could and stayed married to Frank for 16 years. She endured his violent temper and his vicious beatings all the while dreaming of her Prince. Nannie was a devoted believer that the infatuations she read about in tacky romance novels would become a reality for her someday. Book by book, each description of the perfect man pulled her closer to obsession. Nannie was in love with words on a page, lost deep in the daydream of a man that was never real. She still communicated with men in the singles ads in the newspapers, filtering out the ones that did not fit her ideal image of a gallant man riding on a white horse.
Melvina, now married, gave birth to her son, Robert Lee Haynes in 1943. Nannie was a doting and loving grandmother to Robert, taking care of him while Melvina was out, holding him tight in her arms and kissing his chubby baby cheeks. At 38, Nannie was enjoying her second shot at motherhood. Pictures of Nannie all depict her as a happy woman; gray hair curled just so, laugh lines around her mouth creased from years smiling. She was the perfect image of a blissful and jubilant grandmother.
In 1945, Melvina went into labor for the second time. This was a difficult pregnancy, and Melvina had complications while giving birth. Nannie was at her side the whole time, fetching water or juice, comforting her daughter with a cold cloth, and attending to her every need. When Melvina finally gave birth, it was to a baby girl. One hour later, Melvina, groggy from the ether, glanced over at her mother holding the newborn. What she saw would later be described as a nightmare or a drug induced dream, for what Melvina witnessed was her mother sticking a hatpin into her baby’s head. Melvina later was told by doctors that her baby had not survived and the cause of death was unknown.
When Melvina came home several days later, she recounted to her husband and mother-in-law the story of what she believed to be a nightmare. For a moment, silence filled the room. Then, Melvina’s husband and mother-in-law admitted that they had both seen Nannie holding a hatpin in her hand earlier on the day of the birth. She was casually twirling it with her fingers, they said. Melvina, unbelieving, dismissed the occurrence as a drug induced dream. Her own mother killing her newborn granddaughter? It just couldn’t be possible! Six months later, while Melvina was away and Nannie was babysitting, little Robert was found dead from asphyxiation. Nannie played the part of the mourning grandmother and took great care in seeming genuinely distressed. She later collected $500 from a life insurance policy she had taken out on 2 year old Robert.
After a drunken night at a local bar in late 1945, Frank returned home demanding sex from his wife who declined. Frank became violent, and Nannie finally submitted. Nannie insisted that Frank raped her that night, which was the last straw for her. The next morning, she found Frank’s corn liquor jar lying in her rose bush. Nannie was very particular about her gardening. Finding evidence of Frank’s drinking infuriated her. Emptying most of its contents, she then poured rat poison into the jar. That evening, Frank died in excruciating and unbearable pain. The symptoms of rat poisoning are extremely unpleasant and include bleeding gums, bloody diarrhea, nosebleeds, fatigue, and shortness of breath. To die in such a way is impossibly tragic. This was the fifth murder Nannie had committed, and it seemed to be getting easier each time. With soldiers coming home from the war, no one was paying any attention to the amount of people who died after coming into contact with Nannie. It suited her fine, for it gave her more time to find another Prince Charming.
The time between 1945 and 1947 is unknown, for Nannie was unaccounted for and may have been travelling or searching for a new husband. In 1947, she ended up in Lexington, North Carolina. She met Arlie Lanning after perusing the local Lonely Hearts column once again. They married within two days of meeting each other. Nannie referred back to her romance novels, and soon found that Arlie was not her perfect match. He was a philanderer of many women and drank excessively. Unsatisfied, Nannie decided not to put up with Arlie’s wickedness. She continued her search for Mr. Right.
While Arlie drank and chased after women, Nannie disappeared from their home for undisclosed periods of time, often without a word. When Nannie was at home, she played an adoring wife, taking charge of household duties, cleaning and baking pies. She also attended church, sometimes with Arlie, who was seen as the town drunk and local scoundrel. Nannie, married for the third time, realized she had picked another dud, but never understood that there is no definition of the “perfect man”. Loving someone for all their faults had never occurred to her, and she believed that there still was a man that would fulfill her wildest dreams. What Nannie did not account for was the fact that she was not perfect either. She had murdered five people already, and was an exceedingly disturbed and thoroughly flawed person herself.
In 1950, Arlie Lanning died of heart failure. The days before his death were spent in great pain. He was sweating, vomiting, and was very dizzy, all symptoms that he may have been suffering from the flu. They are also symptoms of arsenic poisoning. No autopsy was done, for doctors believed Arlie’s drinking had somehow affected his heart to fail. Before his death, Arlie remarked that his ailment was due to the coffee he drank the morning before he got sick. Nannie had prepared the coffee and a bowl of prunes for him that morning. After Arlie’s death, his house was burned to the ground while Nannie was out having her television repaired. The house was to go to Arlie’s sister stated in his will, but with the house gone, Nannie was able to collect the insurance money. Before Nannie left town she visited Arlie’s mother who turned out to be Nannie’s seventh victim. Arlie’s mother died suddenly in her sleep that night. Nannie then returned to Alabama to take care of her bedridden sister, Dovie. Not much is known about the relationship Nannie and Dovie had, but shortly after Nannie arrived, Dovie, too, passed away in her sleep.
In 1952, Nannie met Richard L. Morton through The Diamond Circle Club, another sort of dating agency. At age 47, Nannie had lost a great deal of her good looks and was now searching for older men who could be her Prince Charming. Nannie married Richard, moving into his home in Emporia, Kansas. Richard considered Nannie to be “the sweetest and most wonderful woman I have ever met." Richard appeared to have cherished Nannie after marrying her, buying her expensive gifts and charming her with his handsome and clean cut appeal. But Richard was in debt to everyone, and had other girlfriends hidden in town. Finding her new husband a cheating louse, Nannie began looking in the newspapers again for a new husband. Her plans to kill Richard were paused when her mother came to live with her in early 1953 after the death of her father. Perhaps Nannie carried a grudge against her mother for the years of strict rules and abuse her father inflicted on Nannie as a child, for there is no rhyme or reason she wanted to kill her mother. Maybe Nannie knew she couldn’t kill Richard with her mother in the house, or maybe it was just instinct to kill for Nannie at that point. Soon after Loulisa moved into the Morton household, she died after a bout of chronic stomach pains, another symptom of arsenic poisoning. Three months later, Richard died of similar causes.
Nannie’s fifth and final marriage was to Sam Doss, a state highway inspector. She had met him through the newspaper ads, and visited him in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sam proposed to Nannie in June of 1953. Sam never drank, smoked, or cursed and was an avid churchgoer and lover of nature. Nannie found Sam to be insufferably boring, though he was probably the closest Nannie would find to be her Prince Charming. Sam was never threatening or violent towards Nannie, nor did he have affairs. He did not approve of the cheap romance novels Nannie constantly read, or the television she watched. Sam was very frugal, making sure all the lights were off in an unoccupied room, and he was adamant that doilies were used for every drink or plate laid on a table. Sam also had a habit of setting a time and date for sex, which irritated Nannie. In her romance novels, sex was always spontaneous, passionate, and tender. When Nannie left the house to visit Alabama, Sam was readily sorry for his ways. He arranged all his bank accounts available for Nannie’s spending, even taking out two life insurance policies on himself and Nannie. This brought Nannie home very quickly.
Sam Doss, upon eating dinner with Nannie and having her prune cake, became immediately sick with a severe infection of the digestive tract. He was taken to the hospital for 23 days. When arriving home, Nannie gave him one day to recover before making him dinner and coffee. Sam Doss died that night, convulsing and vomiting while Nannie watched. The doctor Sam had seen in the hospital was suspicious of his death. Sam had been well enough to leave the hospital only the day before and now he was dead. Something didn’t add up. The doctor promptly ordered an autopsy which showed Sam’s stomach full of arsenic. According to the coroner’s report, he was given “enough arsenic to kill a team of horses.”
Arsenic poisoning might be regarded as one of the most agonizing ways to die. It may take hours, days or even weeks, depending on the dosages given for the victim to succumb to death. The lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver are chiefly affected by arsenic poisoning. One first feels a sudden onset of a tremendous headache, much like a migraine. This is followed rapidly by changes of color in the fingernails. In acute cases, stomach pain or cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody urine, and severe convulsions occur. To die of arsenic poisoning is fantastically horrible, but to watch and do nothing is pure evil. Nannie Doss, appearing to be completely devoid of emotions was ruthless in her killings. Instead of simply divorcing her husbands, she apparently felt that they needed to be exterminated, much like an annoying bug.
After Sam Doss’ death, Nannie was arrested and questioned by police about the arsenic found in Sam’s body. Nannie was reported to have giggling fits while being interrogated. Nannie first confessed to killing Sam because he was, by her accounts, too frugal. Nannie then confessed to killing Frank, Arlie, and Richard, claiming they were all dullards who, she said, “If their ghosts are in this room they're either drunk or sleeping." She claimed that all she had wanted was to be loved, to find true romance like in the books she pored over. It was reported that while confessing, Nannie was reading a romance magazine that had to be taken away from her to get her to pay attention to the seriousness of her crimes.
The bodies of all the victims poisoned were exhumed and all were found to have lethal doses of arsenic. The bodies of those who had not been poisoned and had died of asphyxiation were suspected to have been smothered in their sleep. The death of her children and grandchildren was never fully understood. Nannie had killed her husbands because they were boring, but what of the children? One can only speculate the motive for killing 2-year-old Robert Haynes was for the insurance money, but it does not explain the other murders. Perhaps Nannie was suffering from some kind of postpartum depression when she killed her two children in 1927. Overwhelmed with four children, living with her overbearing mother-in-law, and upholding a marriage she was clearly unhappy with could have all been factors that led to the death of her daughters. But killing her newborn granddaughter is still shrouded in mystery.
The insurance money was never what Nannie was after, she told police. Her killings were simply done as an act of ridding herself of something she no longer wanted. Sherby Green, a direct relative of Nannie stated, “And if killing people brought in a little extra income, an insurance policy here or there, well, she considered that a bonus. Payment for her cleverness, if you will.” Another motive for killing her husbands could have been Nannie’s fierce hatred for her father. The treatment her father imposed on her as a child might have had a lasting effect on Nannie’s outlook on men. The dominance he once possessed over her she would then reflect back at her husbands. She was now the dominant person and wanted to punish these men as her father had punished her. Her father used a switch as his form of poison, while Nannie used arsenic.
After hearing about the arrest of Nannie Doss, John Keel of North Carolina contacted police stating that Nannie had been corresponding with him and had sent him a cake. She had been searching for another husband while still married to Sam Doss. In her last letter to John Keel, she said was ready to visit him. Charley Braggs was sought after by reporters, for he was the one husband that got away. He had long since suspected Nannie’s poisoning as the cause of death of his two daughters. He also claimed that he was fearful of Nannie during their marriage, declining to eat the food she served whenever she was in a bad mood.
Nannie was put to trial for the death of Sam Doss in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was never tried for the ten other murders in Alabama, North Carolina, or Kansas. When questioned by psychiatrists, Nannie had an explanation for her crimes. She recalled a day when she was seven years old, riding on a train in Alabama. The emergency brakes were used, and Nannie fell forward, hitting her head on the metal bar of the seat in front of her. She suffered blackouts for months after the incident, and splitting headaches that plagued her for the duration of her life. Frontal lobe damage of the brain can indeed cause changes in personalities. Judgment, impulse, and sexual behavior might negatively affect a person after a particular accident. Many serial killers are known to have suffered early head trauma that later affected the thinking and processing of what is right or wrong.
However, psychiatrists found Nannie sane and responsible for the murder of Sam Doss. She decided to plead guilty on May 17, 1955 of her own accord. She was sentenced to life in prison by Judge Elmer Adams, her gender saving her from the death penalty. Nannie Doss served 10 years in The Oklahoma State Penitentiary before dying of leukemia in 1965. In her prison cell were hundreds of paperback romance novels.