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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.