A Black Widow is a woman who kills her husband in cold blood.  It’s something we have seen in various ways in movies and books.  What about a woman who also kills her children and grandchildren?  What would she be? Nannie Doss had several names given to her, but no one could really encompass the type of serial killer that she was. She was a woman who saw people as an inconvenience who needed to be erased.  Nannie claims this was due to a head injury she had a child, but could that really have rewired her brain to be the poisoner with no sense of guilt?      

Nannie Doss Childhood 

Nannie Doss was born on November 4, 1905 in Blue Mountain, Alabama to teenage mother Lou who had been kicked out of her house by her father when they found out she was pregnant. A week after being born, Lou married local farmer James Hazle.  Her stepfather was not a nice man.  He started physically and emotionally abusing Lou from the start of the marriage. I’m not sure why he decided to marry Lou knowing she was pregnant with someone else. Was it cause he knew she would be desperate enough to stay and suffer through his abuses because she was a single mother with no support? No one knows the answer to that. Nannie’s mother and stepfather would have a son and three daughters after Nannie. James put them all to work when they were able to, and this caused Nannie to hate him. When Nannie was seven, her family and her took a train to visit some relatives.  The train abruptly stopped.  This caused Nannie to lunge forward and severely hit her head on a metal bar that was in front.  She didn’t wake up until she was at her uncle’s house. The head trauma is one of the theories why Nannie became a serial killer. 

Nannie Doss as a Teenager  

After the head injury, Nannie Doss’ behavior started to change.  She wasn’t a bubbly, happy girl.  In her place, a brooding, depressed one arose.  She also suffered debilitating headaches.  Even though she only had a sixth-grade education, Nannie Doss loved to read and it’s one of the only things that made her happy.  She especially loved reading romance magazines.  It made her escape from the realities of her life.  When she became a teenager, her sisters and her were not allowed to date and her stepfather was very strict.  This caused even more anger in Nannie because she dreamed of meeting her soulmate like she was reading in the magazines. However, her stepfather wouldn’t let them out of his sight, and her mother didn’t want her daughters to suffer the way she had when she was pregnant with Nannie so she didn’t say a word. At the age of 16, Nannie convinced James to let her work outside of the farm.  He allowed it, and she went to work at Linen Thread Company.  It is here that she met her first husband, 17-year old Charles Braggs who went by “Charley.”  Four months later, he asked James for her hand in marriage, and he miraculously agreed.  The two were quickly married. They went to live with Charley’s mother who was a female version of James Hazle, and this was something that Nannie was not too pleased with.

Nannie Doss as a Wife 

Charley’s mother would constantly criticize Nannie.  She would even destroy her romance magazines that Nannie was obsessed with. Charley had no idea of the tension between the two women.  Nannie and Charley would eventually have four daughters. During this time, Nannie would have extramarital affairs just like Charley. Their marriage was crumbling and a lot had to do with the mother-in-law. This caused more and more resentment for Nannie for her husband, mother-in-law, and her three younger daughters. 

First Murders

Nannie’s two middle daughters got sick after eating porridge and died.  The oldest had eaten toast while the youngest was still breastfeeding. The doctor said it had been acute food poisoning. After their funerals, Charley suspected that his wife had actually murdered their daughters.  There are some accounts that he was warned to be careful of what he ate, and others say that it’s that he saw in his wife’s eyes something that caused him to realize this. Other way, Charley packed his bags and took their oldest daughter Melvina with him leaving the baby and his mother with Nannie. The two got divorced and Charley was the only husband to leave the marriage with his life. 

He would return a year later with a new girlfriend when he learned of his mother’s death.  There are speculations that Nannie had something to do with the older woman passing away, but that was after she was found out to be a serial killer. Nannie would take her oldest daughter and younger daughter and return back to her parents’ farm. 

Second Marriage

Nannie’s second marriage to be to a Florida man called Frank Harrelson who she met off the personal ads in a newspaper. During those times, the Lonely Hearts ads were popular  They were the Tinder and Match of the time.  After two months of correspondence, the two got married, and she moved to Jacksonville, FL with Frank. This is when she realized that Frank wasn’t the sweet man like the characters in her romance stories.  Nannie had to constantly bail him out of jail, and realized Frank had a violent streak.  Even so, Nannie remained married to Frank for over 16 years.  

During this time, her oldest daughter Melvina got married.  Nannie’s first grandson was two when Melvina got pregnant with her second child. When the baby was born, the little girl died and the doctors couldn’t figure out what happened.  Melvina was on drugs due to complications but had a nightmare that her mom had stuck a long hat pin in the baby girl’s soft spot. Even with the fear that her mom killed her baby, Melvina still left her two-year old son with Nannie.  When she came back a few days later, the little boy was dead and the cause was due to asphyxiation, which is a way of saying he died of natural causes.  No one knew that Nannie had taken out a $500 life insurance policy on the boy.  

By the end of World War II, Frank was also dead and the cause was said to have been due to food poisoning, but in reality, Nannie has spiked his moonshine with arsenic after he had raped her one night.  This was the last abuse she would tolerate from Frank.  She collected life insurance money from his death and bought herself a house.

Nannie’s Third Husband

Nannie Doss turned to the Lonely Hearts ads once again to find love.  This time she met Arlie Lanning. After three days, the two got married. Nannie moved to North Carolina to be with him.  Arlie was also an alcoholic, but he wasn’t abusive like her second husband. He also cheated on her multiple times. However, Nannie didn’t remain in place like she did with Frank. She would leave town without letting Arlie know. First, it was a week.  It then kept getting longer and longer until it became months.  This is how the marriage was for five years until Nannie had enough.  Arlie was found dead and the doctor said it was due to heart failure.  Nannie collected the life insurance and was about to sell the house when she found out her third husband had left it to his sister.  Nannie burned the house down and moved in with her mother-in-law.  After a few months, her mother-in-law was also dead.

Nannie headed to Alabama and was told that her sister Dovie was sick and needed someone to take care of her. A week after Nannie arrived, Dovie had passed away.  Her stepfather had died during this time so Nannie’s mother Lou came to live with her.  Her mother died while living with her so there is suspicion that she was also responsible for her death.

Nannie’s Fourth Husband

This time Nannie turned to a new service called the Diamond Circle Club. She met her fourth husband Richard Morton.  He wasn’t alcoholic like her last two husbands, but he was a womanizer like them. Richard was also getting in severe debt.  The marriage lasted three months before Richard was dead.  He was in his sixties so no one thought twice.

Nannie’s Fifth and Final Husband

Nannie Doss didn’t turn to the personals to meet her fifth and final husband Samuel Doss. She met and married him in no time. Samuel was not an alcoholic or womanizer.  He was tight with money and didn’t not approve of her romance stories.  Nannie felt like he was like her stepfather who she hated.  After three months, she poisoned him, and he landed in the hospital.  When he got well enough to come home, she poisoned him with enough arsenic that she couldn’t hide that she had murdered him like all the people in the past. 


After the autopsy, Nannie was questioned by the police. Nannie would eventually confess to killing her four husbands, her mother, sister, and grandson.  When she talked about murder, she would giggle and carry on like it was just her having a good time. 

On May 17, 1955, Nannie Doss pled guilty of murdering her fifth husband Samuel Doss.  She was sentenced to life in prison and escaped the electric chair because she was a woman.  Miraculously, she was never charged for the other murders. Nannie would say that she thinks the head trauma she suffered when she was seven was what led her to murder.  However, no one will ever know.  She remained in prison for ten years before dying of leukemia on June 2, 1965.  

Closing Remarks

Nannie Doss was the perfect black widow.  She murdered all her husbands but one without anyone suspecting anything until she got careless.  It seems that whenever she felt that someone was ruining her peaceful moments, Nannie would end up murdering them.  There were some accounts that her daughters stopped talking to her after the death of Melvina’s son Robert.  However, there is a picture of Nannie with two granddaughters and Melvina looking very worried that makes me think they were still in communication. I don’t think she would have gotten away with so many murders in these times when it’s almost impossible to murder someone.  Back then, it was too easy especially for women who people would never suspect of being a serial killer. It’s why I always say that someone who is too nice is someone to watch out for.

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