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Only in Oklahoma: Black widow enjoyed the limelight

Only in Oklahoma: Black widow enjoyed the limelight

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Nannie Doss, a friendly, grandmotherly-type woman, said her husband, Samuel, "got on my nerves." So she dispatched him the same way she had three previous husbands -- with a dose of rat poison.

Nannie Doss, who appeared to enjoy being in the limelight during the investigation of her husband's death and her court appearances, pleaded guilty to a murder charge and was sentenced to life in prison. The guilty plea came as a surprise as her trial was about to begin on May 17, 1955. "You understand that all that is left is for the court to decide between a life or death sentence?" Judge Elmer Adams asked the 49-year-old woman. "Yes, sir," she replied. "You want to plead guilty?" the judge continued. "I do," she replied. Doss had been arrested several months earlier after Dr. W.D. Hidy at Hillcrest Medical Center became puzzled about the cause of Sam Doss' death in October 1954. He asked for permission to perform an autopsy on the body of the Oklahoma Highway Department worker and Nannie Doss agreed readily. The doctor had explained that an autopsy's findings might save someone else's life. The autopsy made the cause of death clear -- arsenic. Hidy turned his findings over to police and Nannie Doss confessed that she had added small doses of rat poison to her husband's coffee earlier but because she had miscalculated, it only made him sick and he consulted Hidy. She finally added a large dose to a bowl of prunes that she served to the man she met through a lonely hearts club. Nannie Doss claimed that he got on her nerves and wouldn't let her have a radio or TV or read true confession magazines. Investigators discovered that when Sam Doss died, she was corresponding with another man she had contacted through a personal ad in a magazine. She had baked and sent him a cake, but without arsenic. Arsenic was the same method she had used to kill three previous husbands in North Carolina, Alabama and Kansas, all of whom had died mysteriously but whose bodies had been buried without autopsies. No charges were filed against her for the North Carolina and Alabama deaths, but a murder charge was filed in Emporia, Kan. She also was suspected of having poisoned her mother, Louise Hazle, in Alabama and others, including some of her children. Born near Anniston, Ala., Nannie Doss told investigators that she poisoned her second husband, Frank Harrelson, in 1945 because he got drunk and tried to make her go to bed with him. She found his whiskey buried in her garden and spiked it with rat poison. "So I put rat poison in his rotgut whiskey," she said. Harrelson became ill and died that night in Lexington, N.C. His last words were "it must have been the coffee." Her first husband, Charlie Braggs, escaped because someone cautioned him about eating her food. He tiptoed out one day in 1928 and got a divorce. Braggs was located in Alabama after Nannie Doss was arrested and told a Tulsa World reporter that one of their five children died soon after birth. Two more died when they were young. While good-natured, Nannie Doss was described as a mental defective by attorneys, newspaper reporters and at least three psychiatrists. Her childlike good humor and calmness made her quotable to the end. When families of Harley Lanning, her third husband, and Richard L. Morton, her fourth husband, heard about Doss they asked for an investigation of their relatives' deaths. Morton, a native of Okmulgee, died in Emporia, Kan. When his body was exhumed, the examining physician said he had enough arsenic in him to kill a horse. Nannie Doss clearly enjoyed the attention she received, which included Life magazine buying her life story. When Adams sentenced her to life in prison, he commented that it would "be poor precedent" to make her the first woman sentenced to death in Oklahoma. Her case sparked a drive that resulted in the Legislature passing a law requiring an examination by a medical examiner of all individuals who die without being attended by a physician. After pleading guilty to the Tulsa murder, a smiling Nan nie Doss visited with a daughter, Melvina Hedrick of Lexington, N.C. As the two parted at the jail elevator in the courthouse, Doss told her daughter: "Take it easy. And don't worry. I'm not." When she left the courtroom, she told photographers who asked her for one more smile: "Sure, I don't feel bad at all about going to McAlester." She was a model prisoner and forever a jokester with a smile. Nannie Doss died of leukemia on June 2, 1965, exactly 10 years after she entered prison. One of her last jests was when she was the second-oldest person in the prison. "When they get shorthanded in the kitchen here, I always offer to help out," she told a visiting World reporter, "but they never do let me."

Gene Curtis 581-8304

Gene Curtis is a former managing editor of the Tulsa World.


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