April 07-- Apr. 7--HIGH POINT -- You've probably heard stories about "the one that got away."
Sometimes it's a tale about a big ol' bass that a fisherman claims he had on his line, but the lunker somehow managed to escape. Other times it's a lovelorn guy or gal lamenting the loss of "Mr. Right" or "Miss Perfect" in a romantic relationship gone awry.
In this case, though, "the one that got away" takes on a whole new meaning -- it refers to a High Point man who, more than 60 years ago, very nearly found himself on the victim list of a black-widow serial killer.
The year was 1954, and in late November, a most unusual story made national headlines when a 49-year-old grandmother named Nannie Doss confessed -- actually, she "cheerfully confessed," according to newspaper accounts -- to murdering four of her five husbands by giving them rat poison.
Newspaper photographs showed the harmless-looking woman actually smiling and sometimes laughing -- even as she was being interrogated or taken into custody -- which led to the press nicknaming her "The Giggling Granny" and "The Jolly Black Widow." Don't let her sweet, grandmotherly countenance fool you, though -- in reality, Nannie was a cold-blooded murderess who, in addition to the four husbands she admittedly bumped off, was also accused of killing seven more people, including two of her own children, her two sisters, her mother, a grandson and a mother-in-law.
According to newspaper accounts, only the first of her five husbands, an Alabama man named Charles Braggs, had managed to free himself from the notorious black widow's wicked web. He divorced Nannie, claiming he didn't trust her and that the food she cooked for him "didn't taste right." In fact, two of their four daughters had died very young of suspected food poisoning -- and it was later suspected that Nannie was the one who'd done the poisoning.
The four husbands Nannie poisoned died in 1945, 1952, 1953 and 1954, and in each case the grieving widow collected insurance money. And had she not finally been caught in 1954, she apparently had plans to strike again. Even as the last of her husbands lay on his deathbed -- the victim of a dish of arsenic-laced stewed prunes -- Nannie was already corresponding with a new potential husband she'd met through a lonely-hearts club.
As you can imagine, news of this cold-hearted granny sent shock waves throughout the country, but her trail of dead husbands was of particular interest here in North Carolina.
For one thing, Nannie's third husband was Lexington's own Arlie Lanning. As with some of her other men, she'd met Lanning through a lonely-hearts club, married him only days after meeting him, and lived with him in Davidson County -- right up until the day she sprinkled arsenic on his food and killed him. Nannie was also accused of killing Lanning's mother, Sarah Lanning, and her own mother, Lou E. Hazel, both of whom are buried in Davidson County.
Also, Nannie's next potential husband -- the one she'd been corresponding with when she was arrested -- lived in Goldsboro.
And here in High Point, there was yet another twist to the strange tale -- a local man who had dated Nannie, but managed not to eat any of her rat-poisoned delicacies.
On Nov. 29, 1954 -- as newspapers across the country reported the news of Nannie's arrest -- The High Point Enterprise published a scoop no other newspaper had: The previous year, Nannie had dated a High Point man, and she apparently had tried to marry him. The news of her arrest must've sent cold shivers down his spine.
"I'm the luckiest man in the world," 50-year-old Coy Foust told The Enterprise, looking at a couple of snapshots of Nannie he still carried in his billfold.
According to Foust, he met Nannie in 1953 while he was working in Lexington, and they dated off and on for about six months. During that time, Nannie asked Foust to marry her on numerous occasions, he said, but he always turned her down.
"I had $2,500 worth of life insurance," Foust told The Enterprise, "and it looks like now they might have had to pay off on it if I had married her."
At the time, though, Foust never suspected he was dating a serial killer.
"I never thought anything bad about her," he said. "She was nice to me."
Of course, she was probably nice to the other men, too ... until after they had tied the knot.
Nannie eventually pleaded guilty to killing the last of her husbands and received a life sentence, which she served at the state penitentiary in Oklahoma, where the crime occurred. She would live out the rest of her days there, dying of leukemia in 1965, at the age of 60. She apparently had been a model prisoner, spending her time attending church services and working in the prison laundry -- the only place she was permitted to work.
"When they get short in the kitchen, I always offer to help out," she told a newspaper reporter in 1957, "but they have never let me work there."
With that, "The Jolly Black Widow" couldn't help but grin.
That was so like Nannie. Right up until the end, she always had a killer sense of humor.
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