Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Nannie Doss: Lonely Hearts Lady Loved Her Man to Death


"It must have been the coffee."
-- Arlie Lanning, 3rd husband's last words

"There is a brief period in Nannie's life that is unaccounted for," reports Sherby Green, Nannie's descendant and armchair biographer. "It is believed that she traveled around the country by rail, possibly north to New York or west to as far as Idaho. What she did on these excursions is anyone's guess. She may have even been married to a man named Hendrix certain records indicate that but the police never really followed it up. Did Mr. Hendrix fall fate to Nannie's temperament?"

Wherever Nannie roamed after Harrelson's death, she eventually wound up in the scenic little town of Lexington, North Carolina, in response to another lonely-hearts column. The year was 1947 and the husband-to-be this time was laborer Arlie Lanning, an ex-Alabaman. After meeting her for the first time, the couple married two days later. Tongue-in-cheek, writer Terry Manners asserts, "Arlie believed their marriage was set in heaven, where he was later to be dispatched."

Life with Arlie wasn't as dramatically chaotic as it had been with Harrelson, partly because for most of the time Nannie wasn't home. Whereas her former spouse had been the prodigal, Nannie now mimicked him. Whenever things got hectic, whenever Arlie drank too much and flirted too much he, too, like his predecessor, loved his alcohol and his females Nannie pulled the suitcase from her closet and went away to parts unknown, sometimes for months on end. She would leave without a word. Or maybe she would leave a message on a crumpled piece of paper under the salt shaker: "Gone." Occasionally, Arlie would receive a cablegram, "Send money" or "Be home soon". The wires came from all directions; she seemed not to remain in one place too long; she simply darted as if on an escape route from responsibility.

Out of the blue she would come home. Arlie, not brutal like Frank had been, would merely shrug a hello; that is, if he wasn't unconscious on the sofa from drink. For a while, he and Nannie would play loving couple. He knew the reason she took flight so often was because or so she claimed his drinking binges and his womanizing. So, upon her return, he always committed to the dry wagon, a promise that she, and probably he too, knew would be busted maybe days, weeks or, if luck was with them, months ahead.

When on the homefront, Nannie acted the perfect wife for the benefit of her neighbors. Her trips away would be explained as visits to friends and family; in part they were true, for Nannie would occasionally bus to Gadsden, Alabama, to tend to her sister Dovie who had contracted cancer, or visit Arlie's 84-year-old mother who lived in a nearby town and needed help housecleaning and canning.

Evidences of a domestic woman were there for all the Lexington neighbors to see: aroma of apple pie cooling on the window sill, fresh laundry lemon-scented hanging on the backyard line, a manicured garden, and lace curtains in all the front windows. At night she would read her monthly True Romance or a novel she had picked up at the community rummage sale. She wasn't literate and her vocabulary was minimal, so the books she chose to read were basic and a little tawdry; of well-built heroes and shapely dames caught in at least one love triangle that usually contained several scenes in a boudoir.

Her favorite pastime was television, that modern new wonder box that brought into America's homes live stage shows, teleplays and stand-up comedians. When a love story was to be aired, one didn't dare bother Nannie. She would pull up her most comfortable chair, a plate of leftovers, her pack of Camels, the ashtray, and lose herself in a grayscale kaleidoscope of heartthrobs and kisses. That world had yet to take seed in Nannie's world, but at least she could envision it more focally now, compliments of her RCA.

In Lexington, Nannie was an avid churchgoer and she had become intimate with the minister's family and many of the families in the Methodist congregation. Arlie Lanning, during sober periods, would accompany his wife to Sunday morning services and remain at her side afterwards for the tea socials and picnics hosted by the ladies auxiliary, to which Nannie belonged. But, there were whispers among the attendees at these functions, generated by the presence of Mr. Lanning. His reputation, to be blunt, preceded him. Before and during his marriage to Nannie he was often seen in the lower Lexington dives with one of the floozies who hung there. Arlie was a rapscallion, said the fine people of the Lexington Methodist Church, and poor Nannie...well, they didn't know if she was aware of his maneuverings, but be it far from them to break her heart. Behind closed doors in quiet conversation, Lanning was the town's villain, she its travailing martyr.

When the town turned out, then, for Arlie's funeral in February, 1950, it was out of great respect for the heartbroken widow, not the corpse. Yes, Arlie had died suddenly. Cause: heart failure. Of course, there was something that had caused the heart to fail, the doctor said, but in cases like Arlie's, where there was absolutely no reason for suspicion, it would be superfluous to conduct an autopsy. Any number of things could have caused him to lie in pain as he did for a couple of days before succumbing. Most likely, it had been the dangerous flu virus that had been sweeping the state, striking some people worse than others. He had had all the symptoms sweating, vomiting, dizziness and, after all, the doctor admitted, Arlie's body was not in the best shape, his stomach already half gone with the drink, his heart already weakened.

"He just sat down one morning to drink a cup of coffee and eat a bowl of prunes I especially prepared for him," Nannie admitted to her neighbors gathered around his coffin. "Up until then, why let me tell you, he looked in fine shape. Then ...well ...two days later ...dead. I nursed him, believe me, I nursed him, but I failed."

And for an extra touch, she dabbed her eyes with her kerchief.

"Poor, poor Arlie. You know what he said to me before he breathed his last? 'Nannie,' he said, 'Nannie, it must have been the coffee.'"

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