Nannie Doss was given many names, including “Giggling Granny,” “The Lonely Hearts Killer,” and the “Black Widow,” but looking at her face, no one would have pegged her for the killing kind. Plump, bespectacled, gregarious and friendly, Doss looked more like somebody’s sweet southern grandmother than a serial killer. But murder she did. Primarily motivated by greed, Doss took the lives of eleven people between the years 1927 and 1954. Many of her victims were family members with insurance policies she could cash in on, and she frequently crossed state lines after each kill to elude police attention.
For years, Doss played the part of a happy homemaker and used her sense of domesticity to mask her underlying insecurities and cruel tendencies from both her neighbors and herself. .
Born: November 4, 1905, Blue Mountain, AL
Died: June 2, 1965, Oklahoma State Penitentiary
M.O.: Fed her victims food or drink laced with arsenic; used lonely hearts columns in local newspapers and romance magazines to find her future spouses
Motive: Financial gain
Victim Count: 11
Best known for: Murdering four husbands and at least four other family members; taking advantage of her image as a caregiver; her obsession with lonely hearts columns, romance novels and notions of romance; and cashing in on her victim’s insurance policies; baking poisoned pies
“Time passes slowly here at the prison. Behind my smile is a heavy heart. I have always made people think I was happy, even though I wasn’t. My daughter is ill in North Carolina and that worries me. I should be at her side nursing her back to health. I have just lost my desire to live.”
“I attend church here in the prison every Sunday. My last husband was a minister, you know. And I work in the prison laundry. It’s the only place they’ll have me. When they get short in the kitchen, I always offer to help out, but they have never let me work there.”
As a child, Nannie loved to laugh and had an exceptionally sweet disposition, but her father was psychologically abusive. He dictated what his wife and daughters both did and wore, often forbidding them from attending social events. Despite this preoccupation, Doss’s father did not protect her from unsavory men. In her youth, Doss was raped by several local men, and when she told her father, he did not believe her. Doss dreamed of finding a prince charming who would take her far away from her abusers and treat her with love and respect. She spent hours with her mother’s romance magazines, feeding her desire for romance and enjoying the temporary escape from her life. Doss’s childhood lead her to both desire attention from and deeply distrust men. At the age of 7, Doss received a head injury that may have further contributed to her psychological damage. After hitting her head on a metal pole when the train she rode suddenly stopped, it’s likely she sustained damage to her frontal lobe, which research shows can severely affect personality. While it wouldn’t have turned her into a cold-blooded killer overnight, this trauma mixed with years of abuse would have a disastrous impact on her psychological health later in life.
In 1921, Doss’s father pressured her into marrying Charley Braggs; she hoped he would be her ticket to freedom, but her mother-in-law proved to be just as overbearing and controlling as her father. She had four daughters with Charley Braggs, but he was routinely unfaithful to her. Prince charming illusion shattered, Doss began building up walls to guard her emotions and retaliated with infidelities of her own. In 1927, Doss murdered two of their children with poison, but she spun the story that they died of food poisoning. It’s uncertain what her motives were in killing her two daughters, especially since she had little to gain financially from their deaths. It’s possible these early killings were a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy gone exceptionally wrong. It’s also possible that she murdered them in an act of revenge against Braggs for his infidelities.
After the divorce, Doss turned to lonely hearts columns and began writing to the bachelors advertised there. Frank Harrelson outshone the others with his beautiful, poetic letters, so Doss was quick to marry him, thinking she found her true prince charming. Unfortunately, his kindly behavior disappeared once they married and he showed his true colors as a cheating and abusive alcoholic. Unable to support herself and her remaining daughters financially, Doss stayed married to Harrelson for sixteen years. In 1945, on the verge of poverty, Doss took out a life insurance policy on her grandson and then killed him. She may have murdered her second grandchild, too, shortly after birth, but it’s not definitively known. Months later, Doss laced Harrelson’s jug of whiskey with arsenic after he raped her in a drunken stupor.
Her next two husbands shared similar traits to the first two; they were abusers, alcoholics and womanizers and she found them through lonely hearts columns. But unlike Harrelson, she disposed of them much more quickly, taking every cent they had. She burnt her third husband’s house down to collect the insurance money, and stayed with her latest mother-in-law until she, too, died suddenly. Soon after, Doss learned that her sister had cancer and poisoned her for her insurance money. The next to go: Doss’s own mother and her last two husbands. While her last husband was not an alcoholic, womanizer or abuser, he held a tight reign on his money. Before poisoning him, Doss convinced him to give her access to his bank account and took out two life insurance policies on him with her as the sole beneficiary. It took Doss two tries to kill her last husband, but that’s what rose the suspicions that ultimately led to her arrest.
Doss chose poison because it was a quieter, less messy way to kill and her victims’ deaths could be passed off as natural causes. It allowed her to spin the narrative that she was a caring mother, grandmother, housewife and caretaker who did everything she could to help her family members before they died. Doss’s deception relied on belief that someone in these roles would never harm those under her care.
At her trial, Doss maintained a disturbingly cheerful and good-natured demeanour while she laughed, joked and recounted the deaths of her victims. Her glibness, lack of remorse and empathy are all red flags for psychopathic personality disorder. The judge presiding over her case severely doubted her sanity and gave her a life sentence rather than the death penalty. In later interviews, Doss confessed that her cheerfulness was an outward show. Tired of living, she hoped the judge would give her the death penalty. Doss would spend ten years in jail before dying of leukemia, possibly caused by her high exposure to arsenic over the years.