The Giggling Grandma

Nannie Doss, dubbed by the popular press of the time as “The Giggling Grandma” and “Arsenic Annie,” loved to read the pulp magazine True Romance, and she spent most of her life searching for “the real romance of life.”
 
However, when Nannie didn’t find the love affair she was seeking, she had a strange way of ending the relationship.
 
Nannie enjoyed killing, and it didn’t matter who the victim was. Born Nancy Hazle and known popularly by the moniker “Nannie,” she was linked to the murders of four husbands, her mother, two sisters, two of her children, a grandchild, and a nephew. She had a successful 30-year murder spree in several states across the south before she was finally brought to justice.
 
“Very likely there were others who also sampled Nannie’s stewed prunes,” wrote criminologist Eric W. Hickey. “Each of her victims died agonizing deaths after being fed large amounts of rat poison laced with arsenic.”
 
Nannie was first married in 1921 when she was 15 years old. It turns out that that husband, who by various accounts is named Charles Bragg, Charles Braggs, and George Frazer, was the only one of her five husbands who managed to survive marriage with Nannie. Three of their five children weren’t so lucky.
 
(Hickey uses Charles Bragg as the name of her first husband, while Colin Wilson uses Frazer. Sherby Green, a relative of Nannie, reports that her first husband was Charles Braggs.)
 
Nannie’s first marriage lasted eight years and according to Bragg(s)/Frazer was stormy from the beginning. Nannie was an insatiable lover who apparently had never heard of the word “fidelity.” She also had a vicious streak that Bragg(s)/Frazer described as “high-tempered and mean.”
 
“When she got mad I wouldn’t eat anything she fixed or drink anything around the house,” he told reporters years later.
 
It was his opinion that the only thing that kept him alive was the fact that he was uninsured. When the law finally caught up with Nannie, however, she scoffed at the idea that her motive was money. The meager insurance she did collect backs up her claim that something other than money drove Nannie to kill.
 
Before her relationship with husband number one ended, one of their children died very shortly after birth, and two others died when they were very young. Some anecdotes report that husband number one returned home one day to find the children writhing in agony on the floor of the cabin that served as a home. There is no evidence to confirm this, however.
 
“Back at the time, I didn’t know about poison,” Bragg/Frazer said. “The undertakers told me at the time that they were poisoned.”
 
Nannie and Charles Bragg/George Frazer divorced in 1929, but Nannie wasn’t ready to play the gay divorcee. Placing an advertisement in a lonely hearts magazine, she quickly hooked up with Robert F. Harrelson and the two were wed.
 
They stayed together for 16 years until Nannie decided the romance had gone out their relationship. One day, Harrelson up and died and when Nannie told the coroner that Harrelson was an “awful drunkard,” the coroner ruled the manner of death to be natural and put down “acute alcoholism” as the cause. Harrelson was buried near his two-year-old grandson.
 
It wouldn’t be for many years that Nannie would admit that she ended the marriage by putting rat poison in Harrelson’s corn whiskey. At the same time, she admitted that their two-month old grandson “just might have gotten hold of some rat poison.”
 
Harrelson knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. He did, however, see impending doom.
 
“I’ll be next,” he said at his grandson’s funeral.
 
In 1947, two years after burying Harrelson, Nannie met and married Arlie J. Lanning in North Carolina. He managed to avoid the stewed prunes for five years before Nannie dispatched him. She later said she did so because he “was running around with other women.” Just before Lanning died, a nephew living with him died “of food poisoning.”
 
In 1953, Nannie, using the tried-and-true stewed prune recipe murdered Lanning’s elderly mother with whom she was living.
 
Later that year, again through a lonely hearts magazine, Nannie met and married Richard C. Morton, Sr. That marriage lasted just four months before Morton died.
 
Again, when she was finally brought to justice, Nannie blamed Morton’s womanizing as the cause of her anger.
 
Nannie collected five life insurance policies on Morton, worth $1,400 (approximately $10,600 adjusted for inflation over 52 years).
 
In the summer of 1954, the 49-year-old Nannie married Samuel Doss, 58 after the two met through a lonely hearts magazine and began corresponding. After they were married Samuel Doss repeatedly became ill with stomach ailments and in October he ended up in the hospital with a severe stomach ache. When Sam Doss recovered and went home, Nannie fixed him a bowl of stewed prunes
 
Sam was dead the next day. He and Nannie had been married four months.(Nannie admitted feeding Doss the prunes around the time of his death, but some accounts have her confessing that the final dose of poison was administered in a cup of coffee).
 
Sam’s doctor couldn’t understand how his patient had died so quickly when he was on the mend in the hospital and suggested an autopsy be performed.
 
However, at that time most states had had a very rudimentary murder investigation process and a great deal of authority was vested in justices of the peace who also served as coroners. Most of these men were lawyers or morticians and had little training in death scene investigations.
 
“They’d walk around it and then come out in the front yard and talk about it, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah. Old Harry killed himself. It’s a suicide.’ Then the justice of the peace would sign off on it,” Ray Blakeney, a former medical examiner told the Daily Oklahoman in a retrospective on Nannie’s case.
 
In Oklahoma, authorities who wanted to perform an autopsy needed the permission of the family or a court order if there was probably cause to suspect foul play.
 
Dr. N.Z. Schwelbein didn’t know if foul play was to blame, but that problem was solved when Nannie for some reason eagerly agreed to an autopsy.
 
“Of course there should be,” she reportedly said. “It might kill someone else.”
 
Little did authorities know, but Nannie was already corresponding with a man who she desired as husband number six.
 
John H. Keel, a 60-year-old milkman from Goldsboro, North Carolina had been exchanging letters with Nannie for some time.
 
“I’m mighty proud I didn’t meet her and she didn’t come down here,” he told investigators when they contacted him. “From now on I am through with these women who make their matches by mail.”
 
When the results of Sam Doss’s autopsy came back, authorities found enough arsenic in his stomach to kill 10 people. Nanie played dumb.
 
“How could such a thing happen?” she asked. “My conscience is clear.”
 
Unsatisfied, but still unsure if Nannie was to blame, police began digging into her past. They found a string of deaths connected to Nannie Doss and confronted her.
 
She was caught in a lie when asked about Richard Morton, saying she had never heard of the man.
 
“Well, I guess I wasn’t telling the truth,” Nannie confessed with a coy giggle. “I was married to him.”
 
Over the course of the next couple of days, police were shocked by her continuous string of confessions. She was adamant, however, that she only poisoned people “who deserved it” and none of the deaths of her relatives were due to poisoning.
 
“I never did feed that stuff to my blood kin,” she claimed. The facts showed otherwise. Belated autopsies of her mother who died in in 1953 and a sister who passed on in 1950 both had massive amounts of arsenic in their systems.
 
Police were amazed at the joy Nannie took in confessing her crimes and reliving the details of her husbands’ deaths. She laughed and giggled like a schoolgirl recounting the events of a pleasant summer vacation, and often gave bizarre little asides that demonstrated her lack of compassion.
 
“He sure did love those stewed prunes,” she said about one husband.
 
On May 18, 1955, Nannie Doss pleaded guilty to Sam’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
 
“Take it easy,” she told her daughter as she was taken away to prison. “Don’t worry. I’m not.”
 
Nannie died of leukemia in 1965 at the age of 59.