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Nannie Doss, What Have You Done?!

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Nannie Doss, What Have You Done?!

Amanda Herman


A confident southern woman can radiate. She can glow. She can fill a room with her smile. When a southern woman is feeling tops, it’s as if she has a secret that keeps her from having a care in the world. In this rare case of the Giggling Granny, this impression was given, but it was oh so terribly mistaken for the truth. You see, sometimes the confident southern woman isn't so, by any means. Sometimes she is just a psychotic, cake-tainting, coffee-lacing, smiling-all-the-way-to-a-life-sentence, mass-murderous old loon.


Nannie Doss was Born in Blue Mountain, Alabama in 1905. As far as we know, no one close to her was poisoned that year. She had three sisters and one brother. Her mother was routinely beaten and the girls were molested from a young age. The children had to work on their father’s farm instead of attend school, so Nannie was never taught to read well, yet educated herself in life lessons by submerging her imagination in romance novels and magazines. With her being undereducated from a young age, no one really noticed her brain damage from slamming her skull into a metal bar on a train car when it stopped ever suddenly. The girl was seven years old. After the accident, she suffered severe blackouts and headaches, even reported signs of deep depression to friends and family. 

Nannie’s first marriage began when she was sixteen. The man was Charley. Nannie birthed four girls from Charley. After the youngest was born, the two middle girls passed away at the same time from food poisoning. Charley knew it was Nanny, and took the oldest girl, Melvina, and fled. The youngest, Florine, was left with his mother, but he soon returned because his mother mysteriously died. He divorced Nannie, and left the girls in her custody even though he was admittedly afraid of the woman, afraid but alive. He’s the only husband that would be this lucky.

Her second marriage was with a man she met through a column in one of her romance mags, two years after Charley left her. She was married to this man, Robert, for sixteen years. In this time, Melvina bore two children, but the youngest died soon after birth.  Melvina was on meds from labor, but could swear she watched her mother stick a hatpin straight through her newborn daughter’s head. This death was obviously hard on the parents. They grew apart and Melvina started seeing another man. Nannie didn't approve of her infidelity. One night Nannie babysitting Robert, Melvina’s remaining child, and he died in her care from asphyxia. The same exact year, Nannie’s husband drank corn whiskey with a large amount of rat poison in it, and died.

Nannie’s third husband’s name was Arlie. She married him three days after they met. They also met through the same column in the same romance magazine. The name of the column was Lonely Hearts. His death was deemed heart failure. He had left the deed of his house to his sister, but days after his death when Nannie was aware of this inheritance, the house just burned to the ground. Days after that, Arlie’s mother died in her sleep. Nannie took the insurance money from the house the day after her passing and left to stay with her sister in North Carolina. And days after Nannie showed up, her sister died, too.

Nannie’s fourth husband was Richard in Kansas. Nannie’s mother came to stay with Richard and her for a while. She died in their care. Three months later, Richard died too. 

Nannie’s fifth marriage took her to Oklahoma with Samuel, who disapproved of her infatuation with the trashy romance books. He accepted a beautiful cake baked for him by his wife, and rushed himself to the hospital due to serious digestive issues. The night he was released from the hospital, she gave him a cup of arsenic laced coffee, a method she later admits using before because it worked like a charm. He died, but his doctor knew that this was no mistake. He convinced Nannie to let him perform at autopsy, and found a bellyful of poison. 

Nannie was finally arrested. In exchange for letting her keep her romance magazines, she confessed to the murder. Other bodies were exhumed and the truth was out. This crazy old serial killer confessed to many other murders while serving her life sentence, since she was only tried for the death of Samuel. These  confessions included her husbands, her mother, a mother-in-law, two of her sisters, two of her daughters, two grandchildren, and a nephew. All the while, that eerie grin of madness was plastered across her face.

Nannie was interviewed, being asked why, why did she do it? She had taken out life insurances, home insurances, any money she could squeeze out of a tragedy from losses so grand, but she said money was not the incentive by any means. She told press she did it for love. She was brought up reading all of these stories about true love, the grandeur of attraction, the attributes of the perfect man. The people in her life did not meet these high expectations of satisfaction, so she killed and moved on to the next. 

That’s the funny thing about expectations, though. Who is setting them? Are we aware that our wants are internalized from the pages of fiction, from the imaginations of strangers? If there is a lesson to be learned from the Lonely Hearts Killer, it could be that love is a rare gift that cannot be learned, nor does it fit into a checklist from Cosmo. Or it could be just like the old saying, every family has that one crazy person, but at least it’s not this broad.