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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

The True Story that Inspired Ashwood’s Girls

If you’ve recently read Ashwood’s Girls, you might be wondering which true crime inspired the novel. That crime is below. It’s interesting writing fiction because often the seed of inspiration morphs into something unrecognizable by the end of the novel, thus was the reality in Ashwood’s Girls.

Quick note: If you haven’t read the book, and you hate spoilers, you might want to skip the story. Not that it gives much away. As I said this story looks little like the final book, but if you prefer everything to be a surprise, I’d go read Ashwood’s Girls first.

The True Crime Story that Inspired Ashwood’s Girls

Nancy Hazle was born in 1905 in Blue Mountain Alabama to parents Jim Hazle (though it’s not entirely clear if this was her biosocial father) and Louisa Holder. She was one of five children in her often poverty-stricken family who made a living farming. By the age of five, Nancy became known as Nannie.

Nannie’s early life was not easy. Jim was abusive to his wife and children, though it appears her mother was kind and loving. The Hazle children were rarely permitted to attend school as they were needed to work the family farm and help with chores around the house.

At seven-years-old, Nannie was injured. She was riding in a train when it stopped suddenly and she was thrown head-first into the seat in front of her. Apparently, this caused a head injury, which she later claim led to her future deviant behavior.

Nannie escaped her difficult life by reading romance novels and lonely hearts newspaper columns; however, her father forbade her from reading such things. In fact, he didn’t allow his daughters to wear makeup of dress clothes. He clearly ruled the household with an iron fist.

Nannie, at sixteen-years-old, managed to escape her family home in 1921 when she met Charles Braggs while working at the Linen Thread Company in Anniston, Alabama. She married him within months and moved in with Charles and his mother. This might have seemed like an escape from a tyrannical home, but Charles’s mother turned out to be as stern as her father had been.

Still Nannie and Charles persisted. Nannie gave birth to four children, but by 1927 her marriage to Charles had begun to break-down. It is during this time that investigators believe Nannie began to simplify her life with murder. Two of her children died mysteriously in 1927 shortly after eating breakfast.

Charles, who would be the only of Nannie’s husbands to survive, grew suspicious of his wife (possibly tipped off by someone who told him not to eat any food she prepared). He abruptly moved out of the home taking his and Nannie’s oldest daughter Melvina with him. He would leave their infant daughter Florine with Nannie. In 1928 Nannie and Charles were divorced.

When Charles found a new girlfriend, Nannie left the home she’d shared with Charles and his mother. She took both her daughters back to her own family home. Nannie was not single for long. Through a lonely hearts column, she found Frank Harrelson. Nannie wrote him love letters and he wrote her poetry. In 1929, the two were married, but the romance was short-lived. Harrelson was an alcoholic with a short fuse and though Nannie and Frank would remain married for 16 years, it was not a happy home.

Perhaps Nannie turned to murder to vent her frustration at her own unhappiness, perhaps she was a psychopath. In any case, during this time it is believed that Nannie Doss killed her infant granddaughter with a hairpin to her brain. During this time, it’s also suspected that she murdered her two-year-old grandson who died of asphyxia while in her care. Nannie would collect a five-hundred-dollar life insurance policy after the death of her grandson.

Though Nannie stayed married to Frank until 1945, Frank’s life ended bitterly on September 15th, 1945. One night, shortly before his death, he’d been out drinking heavily with friends. When he returned home to Nannie, he forced her to have sex with him. The following morning, a furious Nannie poured rat poison into one of Frank’s jars of moonshine.

Nannie was again single and on the prowl. Like Frank, she met Arlie Lanning through a lonely hearts column. Lanning, who was from Lexington, North Carolina, became Nannie’s next husband and her next murder victim. He died in 1950 after ingesting rat poison, but because he was a heavy drinker and there’d been a flu circulating at the time, his death was not considered suspicious.

After Arlie’s death, Nannie moved in with her sister Dovie. Dovie would die shortly after Nannie arrived.

Again, Nannie did not stay single for long. She met Richard Morton through the lonely hearts column and they got married. During their marriage, Richard started having affairs with other women. During this time, Nannie’s mother moved in with the couple. Her mother, Louisa, began experiencing stomach pains within days of her arrival. She died shortly thereafter. Nannie’s husband Richard Morton would follow three months later after Nannie poured arsenic into his thermos of coffee.

Nannie wasted no time in meeting her next husband-again through a lonely hearts column. Samuel Doss lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma and that’s where Nannie relocated. Unlike her previous husbands, Samuel was not an alcoholic; however, he didn’t approve of her romance books and magazines. Thus, after he added her to two life insurance polices, she killed him by pouring arsenic into his coffee.

Nannie had gotten away with murder for years, but the physician who treated Samuel Doss for stomach pains before his death was suspicious. He insisted to Nannie that he perform an autopsy. During the autopsy, the doctor found enough arsenic in Samuel Doss’s body to have killed a horse.

This autopsy would signal the end of Nannie’s killing spree. She was arrested and ultimately confessed to killing all of her husbands except the first. Several of these husbands’ bodies were exhumed and large amounts of rat poison and arsenic were found in their autopsies.

At forty-eight-years-old, Nannie Doss was found guilty of murder by the State of Oklahoma and sentenced to the electric chair. However, a judge later declared her insane, which vacated her execution in 1955. She was instead sentenced to life in prison, which apparently, she was gleeful about. So gleeful in fact that the press dubbed her the ‘giggling granny’  and the ‘jolly widow’ due to her tendency to smile and laugh when discussing the murders she’d committed.

Nannie Doss died from leukemia in prison on June 2nd, 1965.

Nannie Doss Photo credit: Alabama Heritage


Sources

Alabama Heritage: The Giggling Granny

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