Meet Nannie Doss, born Nancy Hazel in Blue Mountain, Alabama on November 4, 1905. Today, Blue Mountain is part of the town of Anniston, birthplace of famed Hollywood actor Michael Biehn. She looks sweet and innocent, doesn’t she? Like your typical all-American grandmother who might spend her evenings sat on the back porch and sipping mint juleps through a straw. You might have found her pleasant enough company as well, provided you didn’t drink your mint julep. She acquired the nickname ‘Arsenic Annie’ for a multitude of reasons involving no less than 11 deaths between the 1920’s and 1954. In total, she confessed to murdering 4 of her husbands, 2 children, both her sisters, one of her grandsons and one of her mothers-in-law.
Not quite your typical all-American grandmother now, is she?
She was one of five children and, like her mother, simply hated her father for his controlling manner and generally unpleasant personality. He ruled with an iron hand and insisted on treating the family home as his personal fiefdom. All in all, not the best choice as either a husband or father.
She married her first husband at the tender age of 16. His name was Charley Braggs and they met at a linen factory where they both worked. He was an only child of a spinster who insisted on moving in with the happy couple even after they had married. Braggs seemed to spend more time and attention on his mother than on his new bride. Between 1923 and 1927 they had four daughters. The stress of multiple motherhood soon caused her to start drinking too much and smoking heavily as well.
Neither partner seemed to respect that part of their vows relating to fidelity. Nor, it seems, did Nannie respect the laws regarding murder. In early 1927 two of their daughters died unexpectedly of suspected food poisoning, the symptoms of which happened to resemble arsenic poisoning. Braggs certainly suspected as much, taking one of their two surviving children and leaving Nannie flat. Soon after his departure, Braggs’s mother conveniently died. Needing money and stability, Nannie took a job in a cotton mill to support herself and daughter Florine. Her other surviving daughter, Melvina, was safely away from her with her former spouse. Strangely, Braggs returned Melvina to her mother’s custody even though he later claimed he had left Nannie because he was frightened of her.
One of Nannie’s hobbies was reading romantic fiction magazines and their ‘Lonely Hearts’ advertisements. An advert soon caught her eye, that of Robert Franklin Harrelson, known simply as Frank. They swapped letters, met, dated and married in 1929. It was a bad marriage right from the start. After only a few months she found him to be a serial drunkard possessing a criminal record for assault. Despite these unfortunate character flaws, their marriage lasted another 16 years.
Melvina gave Nannie her first grandchild in 1943 and a second baby followed in 1945. The second baby died unexpectedly almost immediately after being born. Suspicions were aroused when Melvina claimed to have seen Nannie stab the baby with a hatpin although she was still drowsy from ether administered during childbirth. Melvina consulted her husband and her sister, both of whom claimed that Nannie had been the one to inform them of the baby’s death. They also said that she’d done so while holding a hatpin.
The doctors were uncertain about the cause of the child’s death. The grieving parents drifted apart and finally went their separate ways and Melvina began dating a soldier. Nannie disliked this new suitor intensely. On July 7, 1945 while Melvina was visiting her father after an especially vicious fight with her mother, her first child died while left in Nannie’s care, apparently from asphyxiation by causes unknown. Nannie lost no time in collecting the $500 insurance policy she’d taken out on baby Robert.
Only weeks after Robert’s death Japan surrendered and the Second World War was finally over. Nannie’s husband was one of the more enthusiastic party-goers and, after another endless drinking bout, he raped Nannie, Nannie responded by lacing his moonshine jar with a lethal dose of rat poison and Harrelson died only hours later.
Next up was another husband from another ‘Lonely Hearts’ advertisement, Arlie Laning. She met Lanning in Lexington, North Carolina and, only 3 days later, married him. Just like Harrelson he was an alcoholic and a womanizer, though at least he wasn’t a rapist. Nannies was every bit as unfaithful to him as he was to her and, suddenly and unexpectedly like the others, died of what was officially listed as heart failure. Not long after his death their house burned to the ground in an unexplained fire and it was Nannie who collected the insurance payout as a result. Then Arlie Lanning’s mother mysteriously died in her sleep.
Nannie decided to leave North Carolina. She got in touch with her sister Dovie. Dovie was bedridden with illness and invited her sister to move and nurse her. Soon after Nannie turned up at her home, Dovie died in her sleep…
Nannie was soon prowling around hunting for another husband. She joined the ‘Diamond Circle Club’ which soon supplied her with Richard Morton from Emporia, Kansas. Nannie’s mother came to live with the happy couple, only they weren’t quite as happy as they seemed. Morton wasn’t a drunk or a rapist, but he was another philanderer. He conveniently died in April, 1953, only 3 months after Nannie’s mother had mysteriously passed away.
‘Arsenic Annie’ had been a busy lady, and she wasn’t quite finished yet. She found a decent, respectable man by the name of Samuel Doss and they married in June, 1953. He went into hospital in September with what doctors diagnosed as a severe infection of the digestive tract. Symptoms of which again just happened to resemble arsenic poisoning. He was treated, recovered, and released from the hospital on October 5, 1953. He was dead the same day.
Nannie, overly keen to collect the two large insurance policies she’d taken out on him, had slipped him an enormous dose of arsenic. His doctor, highly suspicious that he should leave hospital in perfect health and then die so quickly, ordered an autopsy. The arsenic was discovered and Nannie was soon under arrest.
Nannie initially tried to lie her way out of the situation but, once police had checked with their colleagues in several other states and discovered that people had a curious habit of dying whenever she was near them, soon broke her down. She confessed to a total of 11 murders, although she was suspected of several more. With her confession, plenty of forensic evidence and the circumstantial evidence of so many suspicious deaths involving the defendant, the State of Oklahoma tried her only for the murder of Samuel Doss. If acquitted on the Doss murder charge she was highly likely to be handed over to other states in connection with suspicious deaths and, assuming her confession didn’t seal her fate in Oklahoma, it might well have done elsewhere.
In the end, it did seal her fate, but not as much as some people might have liked. Nannie was regarded as fit to plead and thus she did. She pled guilty to murdering Samuel Doss and Oklahoma decided, with typical Southern chivalry, to temper justice with mercy and make her the first woman in Oklahoman history to sit in ‘Sizzling Sally’ as the state’s electric chair was known. Oklahoma’s aversion to electrocuting women was well known, but it seems highly lenient in the case of so dedicated a serial murderer as Nannie Doss. Instead, ‘Arsenic Annie’ was handed a life sentence. She was never tried in relation to the other 10 people that, by her own admission, she had murdered. After only a few years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester she was diagnosed with leukaemia and, in 1965, she died.
Now, go pour yourself a nice mint julep. Just hold the arsenic.