Born in 1906, she was going by "Nannie" by the time she was five, according to her CourtTV Crime Library profile. She and her younger siblings received only sporadic schooling, as James frequently used them to work the fields. At seven, Nannie suffered a head injury that plagued her for life and, she said, eventually contributed to her murderous impulses.
As she entered her teens, Nannie's contact with other youth was circumscribed by James, who forbade her from attending any social functions, even church-based activities. That did not, according to family stories, keep her from slipping out at night to meet young men.
While working at a local textile company, the sixteen-year-old began dating coworker Charles Braggs. Charles was dependable, hardworking, and sober. He married Nannie a few months after they met, and they had four daughters by 1927. "Nannie was a pretty girl and lots of fun," Charles would later recall. "Our marriage started off pretty well, but after a couple of years she started going off." At some point in the early years of the marriage, both parties began to escape their demons through drinking binges and extramarital affairs. The year their youngest, Florence or "Florine," was born, the couple's two middle daughters unexpectedly died of "suspected food poisoning," according to Terry Manners's book on female murders, Deadlier than the Male. Although both deaths were ruled accidental at the time, family members and law enforcement officials now believe these killings were the beginning of Nannie's decades-long killing spree. The dirt on his daughters' graves had not yet hardened when Charles packed up his older daughter, Melvina, and left. Florine was left with her mother. Nannie's first marriage, therefore, ended in divorce. Lucky Charles.
Her next four marriages would end with death by unnatural causes.
Melvina, Nannie's oldest surviving daughter, had married and borne a boy, Robert, in the early 1940s. Two years later, a healthy daughter arrived after a long and difficult birth. While Melvina and her husband slept in the hospital room, Nannie rocked her first granddaughter. Within an hour, the newborn was dead. In the drug-induced haze of post-partum recovery, Melvina thought she saw her mother stab the baby with a stickpin. She told family members, but no one confronted Nannie. Some six months later, Melvina left her toddler, Robert, in her mother's care. The boy mysteriously died from asphyxia, and his grandmother collected five hundred dollars from a life insurance policy she had taken out in his name. This would not be the last time Nannie cashed in on murder.
Her husband Frank was next. After he celebrated the end of World War II with a drunken bender, Nannie dispensed with her spouse of sixteen years by replacing his corn liquor with rat poison. Then she fled the state.
She next appeared in North Carolina where she was once again offering companionship and love in a lonely hearts' advertisement. Arlie Lanning, a laborer who had once lived in Alabama, married the now matronly Nannie after knowing her for two days—a decision that would soon send him, too, to the bottle.
While in North Carolina, Nannie led the public life of a respectable married woman and became an active member of the local Methodist church. She also garnered a great deal of sympathy from neighbors as her husband's predilection for frequenting town prostitutes was common knowledge. So when Arlie died after several days of vomiting, dizziness, and other symptoms, his grieving widow was treated with kid gloves, not suspicion, even after she told friends and neighbors that her husband was fine until she fed him a breakfast of prunes and coffee.
When Nannie learned that her late husband had willed their house to his sister, the widow packed up her television and drove out of town. Within hours the house was nothing but ash and cinders. Nannie went to stay with Arlie's mother in a neighboring town. A few weeks later, the insurance check for the fire arrived, made out to Arlie-and, by will, the property of his sister. But before the sister got her check, Arlie's mother suddenly passed away; Nannie cashed the check illegally, once again packed up her television, and left town. She returned to Alabama to nurse her sister, Davie, who suddenly and mysteriously died soon after.
Despite three disastrous attempts at matrimony, Nannie was apparently still a romantic at heart. In the early 1950s she paid a fifteen-dollar fee to join the Diamond Circle Club, a correspondence dating service. She found husband number four, Richard Morton, through the service. The retired Kansas salesman was a marked departure from his predecessors. He was well-to-do, handsome, and treated his bride well. But, within two months of saying her vows, Nannie was already trolling for her next husband in the town newspaper's personal advertisements. About the time the disgruntled newlywed began the search for husband number five, a kink was thrown into her plan: her mother announced she was coming from Alabama to live with the newlyweds. Within only a few days of her arrival, Lou Hazle began to experience excruciating intestinal pains and died.
Richard met his demise through drinking coffee laced with rat poison, leaving room for his unfortunate successor: Samuel Doss of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was Sam's suspicious death that finally rang the death knell for Nannie's family disposal plan.
Doss was an upright, extremely conservative man who did not hold with wasting time or money. His constrictions chafed at his new wife, and she left him and Oklahoma for Alabama. In what would become one of the biggest mistakes of his life, Sam begged his estranged wife to return to him. He even vowed to loosen his hold on his money and took out two life insurance policies on himself with his wife as beneficiary. His demise came after enjoying some of his wife's homemade prune cake. Within twenty-four hours he began to experience a burning stomach pain. He was hospitalized for several weeks and then recovered enough to return home to his attentive wife. To celebrate his homecoming, Nannie prepared him a special meal with arsenic-laced coffee as an appetizer. Sam died a few hours later. The physician who had treated Sam in the hospital was immediately suspicious of the death and performed an autopsy. Nannie's fifth and last husband's stomach held the evidence that would seal her fate. Oklahoma authorities arrested her on suspicion of murder.
Officers found Doss's demeanor surprising; rather than act with the harsh stoicism of a murderer, she flirted and giggled with the policemen, possibly demonstrating some of the skills that won her five husbands, four of whom she killed. Doss was an avid reader of romance stories, and she may have patterned her behavior after the heroines she loved reading about.
After her confessions, Nannie became a national sensation. Reporters clamored for a quip from the older woman who seemed to always be laughing or giggling, even when facing a life sentence.
While Nannie spent her time in jail awaiting trial and granting interviews, the bodies of eight of her victims were exhumed. Autopsies revealed arsenic in the remains of her other three deceased husbands and her mother. The rest showed signs of being smothered.
After being declared sane by four psychiatrists, Nannie pleaded guilty to murder. She was sentenced to life and died of leukemia in prison in 1965. She never admitted to killing any of her biological family members.
This feature was previously published in Issue 83, Winter 2007.
About the Author
Pam Jones is a freelance writer in Birmingham with a particular interest in criminal cases from Alabama’s past.