Nannie Doss, the Grandma Who Giggled All the Way to Prison

Every time Nannie Doss told the story of what she did to her husbands – she laughed. She showed absolutely no signs of regret or sorrow or grief. She became known to the public as “the jolly black widow.”

Nannie’s malicious spree began with her first husband in the 1920s and ended decades later in the 1950s. How did she manage to pull it off without getting caught?

Nannie Doss / Nannie Doss / Rat Poison / Nannie Doss
Source: Getty Images

The reason was simple – who would suspect a jolly old grandma to spike mugs of coffee with rat poison? Now, the eerie thing about Nannie’s story is that she wasn’t after her husbands’ insurance money; she was after “real romance in life” and “the perfect mate.”

Here’s her wicked story.

Longing to Meet Mr. Perfect

In 1906, a cheerful girl by the name of Nancy Hazel came into the world. With a wide grin and a spirited laugh, she grew up in the rural countryside of Blue Mountain, Alabama, with her parents, James and Louisa, and her four siblings. Their days were spent tending the family farm and working on household chores, leaving the kids little room for proper education.

A portrait of Nancy Hazel.
Source: Tumblr

Years of hard labor made Nannie resent her father, James, controlling, abusive, and hot-tempered. He robbed her of proper schooling and made her feel worthless if she wasn’t out in the field working. As the years went by, dreams of meeting the right man who would help her escape her father’s suffocating grip was all she could think about.

A Mind-Altering Blow to the Head

At the age of seven, Nannie suffered a head injury that dramatically changed her personality and thought patterns. She was on a train heading to the south of Alabama to visit some relatives when the train came to a surprising halt, causing her to fly forward, headfirst, into a metal bar attached to the seat in front of her.

A picture of a train.
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The accident sentenced her to a life of sporadic blackouts, chronic headaches, and overwhelming feelings of depression and angst. Years later, she would blame her malicious acts on the blow to her head.

Husband Number One

At the age of 16, and after years of flipping through romance magazines, Nannie finally found her man. His name was Charley Braggs. He was her co-worker at a local textile company and appeared to be hard-working and dependable. He seemed like the perfect match, except for one little thing – his mother.

A portrait of Nannie Doss.
Source: Reddit

Charley’s mother was a single mom with no one in the world but her son, whom she relied heavily on. She insisted on living with him even after he married Nannie.

“I married to a boy whose mother had taken over my life completely,” Nannie would later reveal. Her mother-in-law’s presence took such a toll on her life that one cup of wine per evening turned into four, and three cigarettes per day turned into two full packs.

Her Daughters Died Mysteriously

Despite her mother-in-law’s lingering presence, Nannie stuck to the marriage and ended up having four daughters with Charley.

“Nannie was a pretty girl and lots of fun,” her husband would later recall. “Our marriage started pretty well, but after a couple of years, she started going off.”

A picture of a black rose.
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Their unhappy marriage ended dramatically after two of their middle daughters died of “suspected food poisoning.” At the time, the unfortunate incident was brushed off as a bizarre accident. But today, law enforcement believes that the deaths were intentional, executed by the hands of their very own mother, Nannie.

Lucky, Lucky Charley

Spooked by his daughters’ sudden deaths, Charley took their firstborn, Melvina, and fled, leaving Nannie and their youngest daughter, Florence, to fend for themselves. Nannie worked at a cotton mill to make ends meet but struggled to bring food to the table nonetheless.

Nannie Doss outside the courtroom.
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The following summer, Charley returned with Florence and told Nannie that he had met someone else during his time away. “I want a divorce,” he told her. He later explained that the true reason he left her was that he was genuinely frightened of what she might do.

To his good fortune, they divorced.

On the Hunt for Husband Number Two

Charley Braggs managed to get out of the marriage alive, but Nannie’s other husbands weren’t as lucky. On the hunt for husband number two, Nannie posted an advertisement in their local magazine’s “Lonely Hearts” column. A man named Frank Harrelson reached out.

Pouring wine into a glass.
Photo by Lambert/Getty Images

Frank charmed Nannie with his kind words and dreamy poems. Shortly after tying the knot, Frank, who appeared to be a promising man, turned out to be a hideous husband. He couldn’t hold his liquor or his fists in place, and poor Nannie endured sixteen years of physical and mental abuse.

Nannie Did the Unthinkable

Nannie couldn’t take it anymore. She knew she had to escape Frank’s cruel ways, but before plotting his murder, Nannie murdered other people – her very own grandchildren.

Melvina, Nannie’s eldest, had given birth to a beautiful baby girl and had trusted her mom to rock the newborn to sleep while she slept and recovered from the difficult birth.

A picture of Nannie with one of her granddaughters.
Source: Pinterest

Nannie held her granddaughter in her arms, looked into her curious eyes, and watched as the baby’s tiny hand wrapped around her pinky finger. Within an hour, the newborn was dead. What happened?

A Wicked Woman

According to Melvina, she saw her mom stab the baby with a stickpin. But Melvina was high on painkillers and half asleep when her daughter died. Her account was hardly reliable, and Nannie got away with it as if it never happened.

A picture of Nannie, Melvina, and her grandaughters.
Source: Pinterest

Several months later, Melvina’s firstborn, a two-year-old boy named Robert, also died at the hands of Nannie. Cause of death? Asphyxiation.

Nannie was wicked. Why she killed both her grandchildren remains a mystery to this day.

The Next One on the Chopping Board…

Frank was the next one on Nannie’s killing list. Shortly after WWII ended, Nannie’s husband enjoyed a night of liquor in celebration. The scheming wife saw it as the perfect chance to finish him off. She spiked his corn liquor with rat poison and watched as his body painfully collapsed.

A picture of rat and mouse poison.
Photo by Eddy Roworth/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Nannie fled the state, leaving behind her husband, who was now nothing more than a blue, swollen corpse lying on the tiles of their kitchen floor.

You would think that Nannie’s killing spree ended there. But no, husband number three was right around the corner, and with him, another murder.

The Doctors Thought It Was Booze Related

Nannie traveled to North Carolina, where she, once again, offered a loving companionship in the “Lonely Hearts” column. This time, a man named Arlie Lanning responded to her ad. It took just two short days for the man to fall head over heels for her and ask for her hand in marriage.

A portrait of a giggling Nannie.
Source: Tumblr

The poor fellow had no idea what he was getting himself into. Like Nannie’s previous husband, Arlie was an alcoholic mess, and Nannie poisoned him like she poisoned Frank. The doctors attributed his collapse to his excessive drinking habits.

Everyone loved Nannie

All this time, Nannie was viewed by her neighbors in North Carolina as a respectable woman. A loving, caring wife who was treated poorly by her ungrateful husband. So, when Arlie died after a few days of vomiting and dizziness, the helpless widow was treated with all the love one could wish for when grieving.

Nannie Doss is leaving the County Attorney’s office.
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Her neighbors showered her with gifts and delicious meals to sweeten her soul. They hugged her and shared words of encouragement. None of them suspected her, not even one bit. Not even when she told her neighbors that Arlie was fine until she handed him some prunes and coffee for breakfast.

She Set His House on Fire

Nannie planned to inherit Arlie’s goods, but she soon discovered that he willed his house to his sister. Infuriated, she headed straight to Arlie’s mother, who lived in a neighboring town. Shortly after, she “mysteriously” passed away. And Arlie’s house? It was burned to the ground due to an “unknown cause.”

Burning paper with a match.
Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Once again, Nannie packed her belongings and left town, returning to Alabama to take care of her sister Dovie who was bedridden and ill. Soon after Nannie’s arrival, Dovie died.

It seemed like everyone around Nannie was perishing. Still, no one thought she had anything to do with it.

Nannie’s Mom Was in the Way

Despite three marital train wrecks, Nannie wasn’t willing to give up on love. She joined a dating service called the Diamond Circle Club, where she met her fourth husband, Richard Morton. Morton was a retired salesman and a handsome man who cheated on Nannie incessantly.

A picture of Nannie and Richard Morton.
Source: Tumblr

Nannie wasn’t willing to put up with her husband’s infidelity. But before spiking his drink with rat poison, she had other matters to handle. Her mom, Louise, arrived out of the blue and announced she would live with them. A few days after her arrival, Louise Hazle began suffering from intestinal pains and eventually died.

Hmmm… a tad suspicious, no?

Husband Number Four

Just like the others, Nannie’s fourth husband, Richard, met his demise while sipping on a beverage infused with rat poison. His death made room for husband number five – Samuel Doss, a man she met in Oklahoma in 1953.

A hand is holding an engagement ring.
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Doss was neither abusive nor was he a drunk. But he was possessive, nonetheless. He controlled which magazines Nannie read and which shows she watched on TV. He was a cheapskate who held on tight to his money and limited Nannie’s spending. Sick of his rigid rules, Nannie fled Oklahoma.

Sam Made the Biggest Mistake of His Life

Sam Doss could have made it out alive if only he hadn’t begged his wife to come back. He promised her he would loosen up his grip on the money and even make her his life insurance beneficiary. Unbeknownst to him, he was making a huge mistake.

A prune cake served on a plate and a tray.
Photo by Simon McGill/Getty Images

Nannie came back all right. And the first thing she did was bake him a delicious, homey prune cake. Within 24 hours, Sam was on his bed, holding on to his burning stomach in a fetus position. To Nannie’s surprise, the cake didn’t kill him. After a few weeks at the hospital, he returned home.

Nannie Was Out of Luck

To celebrate Sam’s return home, Nannie handed him a warm cup of coffee laced with – you guessed it – poison. He died a few hours later. The doctor who treated Sam in the hospital was instantly suspicious of his patient’s sudden death. He insisted on performing an autopsy.

A broken coffee mug and spilled coffee on the floor.
Photo by Adam Gault/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Nannie, she was out of luck. Her fifth’s husband’s stomach held evidence (a ridiculous amount of arsenic) that would put an end to her vicious killing spree. FINALLY, she was arrested on suspicion of murder. Incredibly, she wore a wide grin on her face when the cops put her in handcuffs.

She Flirted With the Cops

Police found Nannie’s behavior surprising. Instead of appearing fearful and troubled, Nannie seemed giggly and more alive than ever. She flirted with the policemen, flashing the same social skills that won her five husbands (four of whom had died).

Three men question Nannie Doss.
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Nannie was a sucker for romance novels and mimicked her behavior after the fictional heroines she admired. The cops were puzzled and, quite frankly, had no idea how to approach this odd murderer. It was hard to be assertive when dealing with such a giggly, courteous woman.

She Confessed Half-Heartedly

Nannie eventually confessed to killing four of her husbands. But she never admitted to poisoning her family members. Following her confession, her previous husbands were exhumed and examined. A ton of arsenic was found in their bodies as well.

Nancy sits in surrounded by officers.
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It turns out that Nannie kept a bunch of it in her cupboards. Whenever she was in the mood to kill someone, she put a few drops in whatever she cooked and watched as her victim gobbled it up without suspecting a thing.

She Blamed the Killings on Her Brain Injury

After a thorough investigation, authorities concluded that Nannie killed as many as a dozen people, most of whom were blood-related. Nannie blamed her harrowing crimes on her brain injury, saying that she would have never developed such murderous tendencies if it weren’t for having hit her head at such a tender age.

A vintage brain illustration.
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The cops nicknamed Nannie “The Giggling Granny” because of the shameless laughter that would arise every time she would tell the story of how she killed her husbands. Her bizarre behavior made her a national sensation. Everyone wanted to know what this brutal granny’s deal was.

Was She Sane Enough to Stand Trial?

It became clear to Nannie that she was facing life in prison. But even so, she never once looked disturbed or troubled by it. If anything, she seemed amused by her imminent fate. Before the trial began, she was inspected by several psychiatrists to ensure she was sane enough to stand trial.

A picture of women sitting behind prison bars.
Photo by Weegee/Arthur Fellig/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Nannie passed all the tests and pleaded guilty to murder in the courtroom. The jury sentenced her to life. But she was in jail for barely a decade before dying of leukemia in 1965. She never admitted to killing her family members.

She Longed for True Love

Nannie Doss had a surprising motive for murdering her husbands. She wasn’t a greedy gold-digger who was after their insurance money. In truth, she was after love, true love. “I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance in life,” she once told reporters.

A Captain interviews Nannie Doss at the police station.
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According to Nannie, the magazines and romance novels she read in her childhood profoundly impacted her. She longed for that dreamy, unconditional love and was disappointed when she was met with nothing but abuse and defilement.

A Drive to Kill

When one husband proved to be too much to handle, she simply killed him off and proceeded to look for the next one. Because most of her husbands suffered from alcoholism and heart conditions, no one ever suspected she was responsible for their deaths.

Nannie Doss is leaving the courtroom.
Source: Pinterest

But the concerning bit of this story has to do with her family members. Her two daughters, her grandkids, and her mother, who, for some reason or another, were poisoned as well. Nannie had a drive to kill, regardless of who the victim was.

The Nannie Doss Bill

The one good thing that came out of this infamous murder case is the Nannie Doss bill which requires that an autopsy be done in all cases of sudden, unexplained deaths. The only reason Nannie got away with the murders in the first place was that no one bothered to look into them.

People watch Nannie as she leaves the courtroom.
Photo by Johnny Walker/Tulsa World

Nannie’s innocent appearance and charitable behavior in society made her the last person on the police’s suspect list.

Thankfully, she was captured. But tragically, the police caught her way too late. Four husbands and eight other victims late.

The Texas Black Widow

There aren’t many women as eerie as Nannie Doss. But there’s one killer lady that managed to top this giggling granny’s actions. Meet Betty Lou Beets: a woman whose marriages were plagued by sexual abuse and violence. A woman who decided to take matters into her own hands.

A mugshot of Nannie Doss.
Source: Wikipedia

Tragically, she lost her mom at the age of 12 and was left with her dad, a chronic alcoholic who sexually abused her, along with other male relatives. As much as Betty wanted to die, she pushed through for the sake of her younger siblings, who needed to be taken care of.

She Found It Easy to Lure Men

As if Betty’s life wasn’t hard enough, she lost her hearing after contracting measles at five. This heavily affected her speech. But thanks to her good looks, she wasn’t ridiculed as much.

A newspaper clipping on Nannie Doss crimes.
Source: Pinterest

With blonde hair and large blue eyes, Betty never found it difficult to attract men. She found her first husband at the young age of 15: Robert Branson. They had six kids together, but their marriage was a disaster. He ended up leaving her.

She Ran Him Over With Her Car

Abandoned by her first husband, Betty ran into the arms of a new man named Billy. He was an abusive drunk whom she shot after he broke her nose and threatened to kill her. She was arrested for attempted murder but later released in claims of self-defense.

A view of a steering wheel in a car.
Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Betty’s third husband, Ronnie Threlkold, was nearly killed after she tried to run him over with her car. Both Ronnie and Billy survived Betty’s attacks and testified against her in court. Unfortunately, husband number four, Doyle Wayne Barker, wasn’t as fortunate as them.

A Body Riddled With Bullets

Betty told friends that she and Doyle got into a nasty fight and took off, leaving his truck behind. The story seemed legit enough. That is until his body was found in a shed near Betty’s house. His body was riddled with bullets.

A view of four cartridges.
Photo by Michel Delsol/Getty Images

Betty married her next husband, Jimmy Don Beets, less than a year after Doyle’s disappearance. Jimmy also disappeared from their home shortly after they tied the knot. Authorities believed he drowned in the lake nearby, as his boat was found and his life jacket and fishing license in it.

It Was Foul Play

Two years later, Robert, Betty’s son from her first marriage, confessed that his mom told him she would kill Jimmy. Branson said he arrived at their house one day to find the man dead with gunshot wounds in his abdomen.

Nannie Doss’ employers look at her picture at the police station.
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Branson helped Betty conceal the body by tossing it in a wishing well in the front yard of their residence. Ironically, it was Jimmy who built the well just days before he was murdered. Betty told him that the well would “beautify their property.”

A Black Widow or a Battered Wife?

The topic of murder is a troublesome one. While our initial reaction is usually “murder is bad,” there are cases where the line between good and bad is unclear. The majority of female murderers, or, as many like to call them, “black widows,” were sexually molested at a young age and suffer years of physical and mental abuse before they killed anyone.

A portrait of Nannie Doss.
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“I believe that to kill me is to tell every battered woman and child, every abused woman and child that there is not a chance, that there is no end but death, that we can’t fight back,” Betty Lou Beets told the public after she was sentenced to death.

Betty was executed by lethal injection on February 24, 2000.

Just to clarify, I’m not necessarily justifying Betty’s behavior. I’m simply stating that many contributing factors should be considered when looking at such a messy murder case.