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Nannie Doss Killed Four of Her Five Husbands – and Possibly Seven Other People

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images/ Cropped and Colorized
Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images/ Cropped and Colorized

Perhaps it was the sweet nature of Nannie Doss that made it hard to believe she could be a cold-blooded killer. Or maybe it was her smiling exterior that had people fooled. The truth is that she was nothing but a calculated murderer out for her best interests. Killing four of her five husbands was truly just the beginning for the woman who became known as the “Giggling Granny.”

The early life of Nannie Doss

Nannie Doss was born in Alabama on November 4, 1905. From a young age, her father James Hazel was abusive to her and her mother Louisa. He was also extremely controlling toward the family’s five children. He prevented them from going to school so that they could work the farm and stopped them from wearing nice clothes or makeup. At the age of seven, Doss suffered a head injury on a train which caused her to suffer from migraines, depression, and blackouts.

Nannie Doss exiting the County Attorney office.
Nannie Doss leaving the county attorney’s office en route to her jail cell, 1954. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

These maladies would plague Doss for her entire life, to the point that she thought they contributed to her extensive mental troubles. Although she had a difficult upbringing, one of her favorite pastimes was reading romance magazines that she borrowed from her mother. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why, as an adult, she was so dedicated to finding herself true love.

First marriage

Instead of a fairytale romance, she ended up married at only 16 years old to a co-worker named Charley Braggs, whom she had only known for a few months at the time. Despite the fact that he was married, Braggs’ mother insisted on living with the couple so she wouldn’t be alone. This caused significant problems for Doss and was one of the main factors that led her to smoke and drink heavily. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between Braggs and Doss went downhill.

Nannie Doss laughing while she sits beside Captain Harry Stege.
(Left) Nannie Doss laughs as she is interviewed by Captain Harry Stege at the police station after allegedly confessing the poisoning of four of her five husbands, November 29, 1954. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

The pair had four daughters from their marriage, but the two middle girls died of suspected food poisoning in 1927. Following this tragedy, Doss’ husband ran away with their first child, leaving only the newborn daughter behind. Shortly after his departure, his mother, who was still living with Doss, died. Roughly a year later, Braggs returned their daughter and he and Doss divorced. According to Braggs, he left his wife because he was scared of her. It was likely the best decision he ever made.

Doss was a child killer

Only a year after their divorce, Doss married again, this time to Robert Harrelson of Jacksonville, Florida. They had met through a lonely hearts column and corresponded by mail at first. Much like her father, he was an abusive man who had problems with alcohol and had previously been charged with assault. Nonetheless, she stayed with him for 16 years after discovering his past.

Her girls grew up to have children of their own. Melvina, the oldest, gave birth to her son Robert in 1943 and a second baby in 1945. For unknown reasons, Doss killed the second child shortly after his birth by sticking a hatpin into the baby’s head. Despite Melvina and other family witnessing the killing, it was written off as a sleep-deprived delusion.

Mr. and Mrs. Boyd Kinder stand together looking at a document.
Mr. and Mrs. Boyd Kinder, who hired Nannie Doss as a housekeeper and companion for their three small children, look at an identification picture at police headquarters, November 29, 1954. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

In the years that followed, Melvina separated from her husband and started a relationship with a soldier whom Doss thoroughly disliked. Doss and Melvina had an argument about the relationship and Melvina went to stay with her father. Her son Robert, while staying with his grandmother, died of asphyxia which allowed Doss to collect the life insurance policy she had taken out on the child.

The deaths were far from over for that year, as Doss later killed her husband with rat poison in his corn whiskey after he raped her.

Future husbands

Doss didn’t give up her search for love, marrying Arlie Lanning three days after meeting him in another lonely hearts column while she was in North Carolina. Eventually, he died of heart failure, their house was burned down, and Doss collected the insurance. Lanning’s mother died in her sleep.

Without a husband and with an insurance check in the bank, Doss went to see her sister who, already severely sick, died not long after she arrived.

Nannie Doss in a collared t-shirt looking at the camera.
Nannie Doss, who confessed to poisoning four of her five husbands, 1954. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Her fourth husband was a man named Richard Morton whom she met through a dating service. While they were married, Doss’ mother needed a caretaker and moved in with the couple. She died of poisoning three months later on May 19, 1953. Doss’ sister also died suddenly around this time, and Morton was dead not long after. His death came after Doss learned that he was unfaithful.

Needing another husband, Doss married Samuel Doss of Oklahoma just a month after Morton’s death. He wasn’t abusive but didn’t approve of the romance novels she enjoyed reading. Unlike some of her other husbands, she did not waste much time killing her fifth. In September, Samuel Doss was sent to the hospital with symptoms of the flu, which was diagnosed as a digestive tract infection. He was eventually released to his wife’s care, only to die in October.

Like Doss’ other killings, she had taken out insurance policies against her husband and was in a rush to claim them. However, it was Samuel’s death that was her undoing. His doctor was concerned that he had died so shortly after receiving hospital treatment so he ordered an autopsy. The results showed that he had been poisoned by “enough arsenic to kill a horse,” pointing immediately to Doss, who was arrested.

The confession and conviction of Nannie Doss

Instead of trying to deny killing Samuel, she ended up confessing to the murders of her four husbands. She said she did it because she was “searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life.” Her expectations had been set high by her romance novels and when men didn’t meet her standards, she killed them. She wouldn’t, however, confess to the other murders despite being charged with them. She insisted until the end that she hadn’t harmed her “blood kin.”

Nannie Doss sits with Al Locke, Wayne Owens, and J. Howard Edmondson while they question her.
Nannie Doss during questioning for the poisoning of her husbands by Sheriff Al Locke, Wayne Owens of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and Tulsa County Attorney J. Howard Edmondson, n.d. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

In total, it is suspected that Nannie Doss killed around 11-12 people in addition to her husband: one of her mothers-in-law, two of her children, her sister and mother, and two grandchildren. While detailing her crimes, she appeared to be amused, which is where she got the nickname “Giggling Granny.”

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Doss pleaded guilty to her crimes on May 17, 1955 and, as she was a woman, was given life in prison rather than the death penalty. She died ten years later from leukemia.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.