The Squonk & The Hag

Nannie Doss: The Jolly Widow

In October of 1954, headlines across the Midwest and beyond were enthralled with the story of Nannie Doss. Nannie was a 49-year-old grandmother living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She had the sweet, happy appearance one might associate with a grandmother. She was considered a wonderful housewife who made delicious cakes and stewed prunes, a popular dish at the time due to President Eisenhower. Her cheery disposition and tendency to laugh and flirt with the men around her made it hard to believe she was guilty of any crime, much less murder. How could she be a murderer? And not just a murderer, but a serial killer at that. By the time they got done investigating  Nannie Doss, up to 12 deaths would be attributed to the woman the media called The Jolly Widow, The Giggling Granny, The Lonely Hearts Killer, and Arsenic Annie. 

Early Life

Even though this case takes place in the 20th century, tracking down all the facts of Nannie’s life is daunting at best. Records weren’t always kept well, and folklore and family gossip often clouded the truth. However, after looking for the consistencies among sources and finding the most documentation I could, here is Nannie’s story: 

Nannie was born Nancy Hazle on November 4, 1905. She grew up in Blue Mountain, Alabama, where she lived on a farm owned by her parents, Jim and Louisa “Lou” Hazle. There is evidence to suggest that Jim was not Nancy’s biological father. However, she was raised alongside her younger siblings as if she were one of his. 

Nannie, as Nancy would later be called, did not have a happy childhood. Jim Hazle was an abusive man known to beat his wife and the children. He often kept the children from school to work on the farm. By the time Nannie was 5, she was already helping with hard farm chores like cutting wood, plowing, and clearing weeds and debris from the fields. 

When Nannie was 7, the family took a train to visit family in another part of the state. This was extremely exciting for Nannie, as this felt like a grand vacation and an extraordinary change from the grueling farm. During the trip, the train had to make an emergency stop. The train car lurched, and Nannie was thrown from her seat and hit her head on the metal seat frame in front of her. Nannie reported that she suffered terrible headaches for the rest of her life, and for a time when she was younger, she would go through bouts of blackouts and depression. 

In addition to rarely attending school, Jim Hazle kept his children from socializing with others, even if it was at church functions. He was especially strict on the three girls, prohibiting them from wearing makeup, form-fitting clothing, styling their hair, or otherwise acting in ways that he felt would attract the attention of boys and men. They were never allowed to attend dances. Jim was determined to have them work on the farm as long as possible, and they would marry whoever he arranged for them to marry. 

Nannie’s mother, Lou, was like many women in domestic violence situations, stuck in a terrible marriage to a man she resented but was powerless against. While she was often helpless to protect her children, she was known to be a loving mother. Lou enjoyed reading romance magazines, and Nannie would read them once her mother was done with them. Nannie was obsessed with romance. She would read her magazines and the lonely hearts columns and dream of her future husband and the great romance awaiting her. 

Around age 15, Nannie began sneaking out at night and meeting up with boys in defiance of her father’s strict rules. How well-known it was that she was doing this is unknown. Some say Lou knew what her daughter was doing but turned a blind eye. However, Nannie ended up with a reputation at this time as a pretty but wild girl that “got around.” 

First Marriage

By the time she was 16, Nannie had worked at a local linen factory where she had met her first husband, Charles Braggs. They dated for four months before Jim Hazle decided that they should go ahead and get married. Jim liked Braggs because he seemed like a nice young man who cared for his single mother. So, after just months, they married. 

Nannie wrote, “I married, as my father wished, in 1921 to a boy I only knowed about four or five months who had no family, only a mother who was unwed and who had taken over my life completely when we were married.” 

If Nannie thought she would be getting away from her father’s controlling nature, she was sadly mistaken. Braggs’ mother was just as controlling and made Nannie’s life hell. She monopolized her son’s attention and was very particular about what Nannie did. If her MIL did not want to go somewhere or do something, no one else was. 

From 1922-1927, Braggs and Nannie had four daughters. Amidst all this, Nannie began to drink heavily, and her casual smoking habit became a chronic issue. The marriage had been falling apart for years. Both Braggs and Nannie were unfaithful. Braggs would disappear for days, and Nannie would take that opportunity to spend time with other men. However, Nannie also did disappearing acts. 

After her arrest, Braggs was reported as saying, “She was quick tempered. Her whole family is like that. Sometimes she would get mad for a reason, and sometimes it seemed like not. She’d pout and then go off for days or weeks, often with other men.” 

In 1923, tragedy struck when the two of their daughters, Gertrude and Zelmer, died suddenly as infants. Reports say they were fine at breakfast but were dead by lunch. At the time, it was determined that they died of food poisoning, and it was left at that. However, Braggs was suspicious. He said that when Nannie was mad, he refused to eat or drink anything she had prepared. Not long after the deaths, Braggs left and took their daughter, Melvina, with him. Nannie was left with their other daughter, Florence “Florine,” and her elderly MIL. 

Not long after Braggs left, his mother died of natural causes. Nannie took a job at a cotton mill to support herself and Florine. It was nearly a year before Braggs returned with Melvina, but a young divorcee and her child were with him. Nannie took her two daughters with her to her mother’s house. Braggs and Nannie were divorced in 1928. Braggs would become known as the luckiest of Nannie’s husbands: he got out of the marriage alive. 

Second Marriage 

In 1929, Nannie started taking a look at lonely hearts columns and met and married Robert Franklin Harrelson through such an ad. Nannie was smitten with Harrelson. He was 23, handsome, and had wooed her with romantic letters filled with poetry. In response, Nannie sent racy photos and wrote sexually charged letters. Nannie thought she had finally found the romance she had desperately wanted. However, the honeymoon phase ended quickly when Nannie realized that her new husband was an alcoholic with a felony assault charge. This would be her longest marriage, though, lasting 16 years. 

By the early 40s, Melvina and Florine had grown and were married. In 1943, Melvina gave birth to her first child, Robert Higgins. Little Robert was followed two years later by a sister; however, his sister would not survive but an hour or so after birth. At the time, the doctors had no idea why the infant had died. However, Melvina would later report that in the haze of ether and the fog of having gone through a long and difficult delivery, she thought she saw her mother stick a hatpin into her daughter’s head. It was shortly after that the baby was declared dead. 

Melvina did not want to trust her memory as she was so exhausted and drugged and could have been dreaming, but a couple of days later, she shared her concern with her husband and sister. Her husband and Florine were stunned; they had also seen Nannie with a pin. However, if they believed Nannie murdered her infant granddaughter, they never reported anything to the authorities. 

A few months later, after a fight with her husband, Melvina went to her father’s house and left two-year-old Robert with his grandmother. On July 7, 1945, Robert died from “asphyxia from unknown causes.” Again, if anyone suspected that Nannie had killed her grandson, no one reported anything to the authorities, even after she collected a $500 life insurance policy she had taken out on little Robert.

By this time, Nannie was fed up with her violent, alcoholic husband. In September of 1945, Harrelson had been partying with his friends who had just returned from fighting in World War II. When he got home, extremely drunk, he demanded sex from Nannie, and when she refused, he threatened her, which caused her to give in to avoid being beaten. While working in her garden the next day, she found Harrelson’s hidden jar of corn whiskey. She poured out some of the liquor and replaced it with liquid arsenic. Harrelson was dead by September 15, 1945. No one suspected a thing. 

Third Marriage

The records are hazy, according to family genealogist Sherby Green, from the death of Harrelson in 1945 to Nannie’s subsequent marriage in 1947. She may have traveled a bit, making it to New York and Idaho. A man named Hendrix was also connected to her during this time, but it’s unclear if they were ever married or if he was another of her victims. 

We do know that Nannie met Arlie Lanning through, you guessed it, a lonely hearts column. She moved to Lexington, North Carolina, to marry him in 1947. Lanning turned out to be like Nannie’s other husbands, a heavy drinker with a wandering eye. He was a more mild-mannered man who did not lash out with violence. It was Nannie, however, who disappeared from this marriage. She would run off for weeks or months at a time. She would claim that she was visiting family, which was sometimes true, but there were times Lanning had no idea where she was or what she was doing. 

In 1950, Nannie did stay with her sister Dovie for a time, who was bedridden due to cancer. It was not long after Nannie arrived that Dovie died. 

When Nannie was in town, she played the doting housewife perfectly. She was a devoted member of the local Methodist congregation, which pitied her due to her husband’s reputation. She was seen as long-suffering or possibly naive, as people wondered if she knew how her husband behaved. When Lanning died suddenly in 1952, the community rallied behind the grieving widow.

The doctors said that Arlie Lanning died of heart failure on February 16, 1952, at 52. They did not complete an autopsy to find out what caused the heart failure, and the doctors chalked it up to his years of heavy drinking. 

Lanning left the house to his sister, so Nannie moved out and went to live with Lanning’s mother, who was ill. No sooner than she did, the house burned down. Nannie ended up with the insurance payout, even though the place wasn’t in her name. Soon after, her mother-in-law died suddenly in her sleep, and Nannie was on the move again. 

Fourth Marriage

For $15 a year, Nannie joined a dating service called The Diamond Circle Club. She would be sent a list of men looking for love every month, and she would reach out to any of them that caught her attention. Unfortunately, Richard L. Morton of Emporia, Kansas, was the man she settled on. 

Unlike the other men Nannie had married, Morton was a bit older at 63. He had grown children from previous marriages and seemed more settled. Most importantly, he was not a drinker. Perhaps this was finally going to be the romance that Nannie craved, so she married Morton in Kansas in 1952. 

It wasn’t long before Nannie realized that even though her new husband was sober, faithful, he was not. Nannie started to look into the lonely hearts columns in search of a new man and was plotting her husband’s death when she got word that her mother, Louisa, was coming to stay with them. Her father had died, and her mother was in poor health. Lou arrived in January 1953 and died after complaining of severe stomach pains just days later. 

Then, Nannie turned her attention back to her husband, and on May 19, 1953, Richard Morton joined the others on Nannie’s growing list of dead husbands. 

Fifth Marriage

Not long after Morton was buried, Nannie was off to her next and last romance. Leading up to Morton’s death, she had been corresponding with a man named Samuel Doss in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 57-year-old Doss was a highway inspector and minister. He had lost his wife and six children to a tornado in 1945. Since then, he had been living alone and finally decided to find someone to spend his later years with. Nannie presented herself as a good, Christian woman, and Doss promptly proposed. The couple was married in June of 1953, barely a month after Morton’s death. 

Doss did not drink or smoke, nor did he turn out to be a womanizer. But Nannie still found fault with him. He was a frugal man to the point of being miserly. He was adamant that romance magazines and novels would not be brought into his house. He also felt that television should only be watched for educational purposes and was against the soapy shows that Nannie loved. In Nannie’s mind, he was too square and boring. 

Nannie would torment Doss by smoking around him and wearing clothing he felt was too revealing. Eventually, Nannie left Doss and returned to Alabama, fed up with her husband’s rules. Doss was immediately sorry and sent letter after letter begging his wife to come home. Nannie only agreed after he allowed her equal access to his bank account, and he had taken two different insurance policies out on himself with her as beneficiary. So Nannie returned. 

In September 1954, Doss ended up in the hospital with severe stomach pain. The doctors didn’t know that Nannie had put arsenic into the prune cake she had made as a treat for her husband. Doss was diagnosed with a severe digestive tract infection and was hospitalized for nearly a month. He was released on October 5th. On October 12, Doss took a sudden and severe downturn and died. 

This time, the doctors were suspicious and felt something wasn’t right about the sudden death of Doss. In Oklahoma at the time, you could not order an autopsy without the family’s permission when no apparent crime was committed. However, when the doctor requested the autopsy, Nannie gladly agreed to say that she hoped what they found out with save other lives. 

The autopsy revealed that Doss had enough arsenic in his system to kill a horse. There was only one person who could have poisoned Doss. 

Nannie Doss was arrested for the murder of Samuel Doss on October 30, 1954. 

Confession and Conviction 

Nannie proved to be a frustrating and exhausting suspect for the Tulsa Police. They took shifts, interrogating the woman for hours. During this time, she would giggle and laugh off their questions, denying she had anything to do with the death of Doss. However, as they dug into her past, they realized that she likely killed not just her previous husbands but also many of her blood relatives. 

After hours of Nannie’s girlish flirtations with the investigators, one finally got through to her after taking the romance magazine she was reading away. After some coaxing, Nannie finally admitted to murdering four of her five husbands. 

The moniker “Giggling Granny” came from the cheerful laugh that Nannie would make when explaining her crimes. When asked why she killed Doss, she said he would not allow her to watch her favorite TV show or turn the fan on during hot summer nights. Every husband had some flaw that Nannie could not forgive and thus did away with them. Nannie said, “I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance in life.” 

Doss also blamed her childhood head injury for her actions in adulthood. She claimed that the hornrimmed glasses she wore were not due to poor eyesight but to help with the headaches she still suffered from. She also claimed the accident caused her to “think crooked.” 

When they asked about Nannie’s mother and the deaths in her family, she became upset and denied killing anyone who was a blood relative. She was agitated at the accusation of murdering her mother, saying she had no reason to kill her mother and that she’d get down on her knees and crawl anywhere for her mother. 

Authorities in multiple states did end up exhuming Nannie’s husband and some of her family members. They found arsenic in all of her husbands and her mother. The other bodies showed signs of being smothered. 

Nannie was charged with each of her husband’s murders, but the only case to be prosecuted was that of Doss in Oklahoma. By the time things began to go to pre-trial hearings, Nannie was well known in the papers under many colorful nicknames. Nannie also seemed to love the attention, giggling, and making jokes. During her first TV interview, the cameraman recommended she remove her glasses. He joked, “You might get another husband if you look nice,” to which Nannie responded, “Ain’t that the dying truth,” before laughing at her joke. The media ate up her jovial comments. 

During all this media attention, John Keel of North Carolina came forward, stating that he and Nannie had been writing letters for a while after meeting through a lonely hearts column. She had sent him a prune cake at one point and promised to come out to North Carolina as soon as she got done tending to an ailing aunt. One could imagine Keel’s surprise when the woman he had been talking to turned out to be a black widow. He swore off lonely hearts ads after that. 

Given that Nannie had confessed, her defense team requested that she be found not guilty by reason of insanity. A judge ordered that Nannie be sent for a 90-day evaluation at the state asylum in Vinita, Oklahoma. Nannie was excited to leave her jail cell for a while, saying, “Now maybe I will get some rest and won’t have to answer so many silly questions. Maybe those docs at the hospital will teach me to think straight.” 

At the hospital, Nannie was a model patient. One of the supervisors said she would often sit giggling at nothing for hours and then suddenly enter a deep depression. At the end of her 90 days, the hospital declared that she was “mentally defective with a marked impairment of judgment and willpower” and recommended she be committed. However, the prosecution did not agree with this assessment, so a sanity hearing was held. 

For three days, a jury listened to experts on both sides argue whether they thought Nannie was sane. Four doctors for the prosecution countered the assessment made by the hospital, with one declaring that Nannie was a sociopath calling her a “shrewd, calculating female who feigned insanity to escape the electric chair… the cleverest criminal I ever interviewed.” Apparently, Nannie laughed out loud at this comment. 

It took 15 minutes for the jury to deliberate, and they declared Nannie sane. A murder trial could now happen. However, before a trial could happen, Nannie pled guilty to murder on May 17, 1955, and was sentenced to life in prison. The judge opted not to sentence her to the electric chair as a woman had never been executed in Oklahoma, and he did not want to set a precedent. 

Nannie was thrilled to go to prison and even seemed to be looking forward to it. She would have access to movies and TV, allowing her to continue indulging in her beloved romances. In an interview she did not long after entering prison, she said that she was working in the laundry, which she didn’t care for, but every time she offered to help out in the kitchen, she was denied. Over time, Nannie seemed less thrilled with her circumstances and tried to insinuate that she had been tricked into signing the confession. In a later interview, she appeared much more depressed, saying that she wished North Carolina or Alabama would go ahead and convict her so that she might get the electric chair. Nannie was never visited by family while in prison. 

Nannie remained in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, until she died of leukemia on June 2, 1965. Her victims were four husbands, two children, at least one sister, her mother, two grandchildren, and one of her mothers-in-law. Some believe another sister suffered a similar fate, and others blame Nannie for the death of Arlie Lanning’s nephew, who lived with them briefly.

Many wonder why Nannie committed all these murders. Nannie had a reason for murdering each husband, but she never admitted to any of her family’s deaths. While some have pointed to insurance money as a motive, minimal policies were ever claimed. Perhaps Nannie’s childhood head injury did cause her to murder without cause. Maybe she killed for the sake of killing. Without a full confession, we will never know. 


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