Some reporters dubbed her “The Giggling Granny.” Others in the media gave her the nickname “The Jolly Widow.” Her given name was Nancy Hazle, and she was probably Alabama's most prolific female serial killer. History knows her as Nannie Doss.
When a ship filled with several hundred German immigrants landed in colonial Mobile in 1721, the port was little more than a backwater military garrison. The first and former capital of French Louisiana now served primarily as a portal to the colony's interior. Starvation, disease, natural disasters, and the threat of attack by local tribes made daily life for the five hundred or so civilians who resided in the insect-and snake-infested swampland an uphill struggle. The village was hardly the locale to attract a member of European royalty. But among those German immigrants was a young woman claiming to be Princess Charlotte Christina Sophia of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, daughter of a duke, sister-in-law to the Holy Roman Emperor, and wife of Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich, the son of Russia's emperor Peter I.
Striding confidently down Main Street of Roanoke, Alabama, in the early 1920s, a cape flowing loosely around her, a hymn-singing parrot perched on her shoulder, Ella Gautt Smith must have cut quite an imposing figure. Most states denied patents to women until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, yet Ella Smith accumulated eleven of them before her death in 1932. Though most of her patents were issued for innovative doll designs, a few of them described unrelated inventions whose exact uses remain a mystery, such as a washable beach shoe, a "baby navel band," and a "support for the obese."
For 125 years she lay, inconspicuous, her final resting place marked with only the simplest of stones: a sandstone rock with no name, no dates, no epitaph—no inscription at all.
A person encountering Ida Mathis in Birmingham in the early 1900s would not have guessed that she would soon be labeled the savior of the Alabama economy. A matronly figure with a kind face, she did not resemble the “economic Moses of the South” or “Joan of Arc of agriculture,” though contemporary periodicals called her both. Today, her alliance with bankers and businessmen appears to have little in common with the usual approach of Progressive Era women, who drew upon their author ity as mothers when pressing for social reforms. In both cases observers would be fooled. Although Mathis took an unusual approach in presenting herself as a practical farmer and businesswoman, she adopted a distinctly feminine strategy in striving for a sense of family among all community members. When the cotton market’s collapse threw the state into economic depression in 1914, she worked to convince businessmen, farmers, and urban consumers that they had a direct stake in one another’s success. Her sincerity, speaking skills, and sound financial advice drew national attention and laid the groundwork for the state’s increased food production during World War I.
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Read complete classic articles and departments featured in Alabama Heritage magazine in the past 30 years of publishing. You'll find in-depth features along with quirky and fun departments that cover the people, places, and events that make our state great!