Nannie Doss, the “giggling grandma” For three decades, the cheerful, giggling Nannie Doss (born Nancy Hazel) traveled the country poisoning at least eleven of her family members, including four husbands, […]

October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

Nannie Doss, the “giggling grandma”

For three decades, the cheerful, giggling Nannie Doss (born Nancy Hazel) traveled the country poisoning at least eleven of her family members, including four husbands, her mother, and her grandson.

She was born in Alabama and was eventually imprisoned in Oklahoma, but her third husband, Arlie Lanning, died of a supposed heart attack in Lexington, North Carolina. The house where they lived was bequeathed to Arlie’s sister, but when it burned down, the insurance proceeds went to Nannie.

Rat poison was apparently her poison of choice, and, while some of the murders helped her escape bad or abusive relationships, she typically received only modest insurance payouts following the deaths. She found some of her husbands in lonely-hearts column, the precursor of online dating.

She was sentenced to life in prison in 1955, but died in 1965 of leukemia. She loved cooking and unsuccessfully requested to work in the prison kitchen.

Kelleher, Michael & C.L., Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer (Praeger: 1998).

Manners, Terry, Deadlier than the Male (Pan Books: 1995).

Velma Barfield

As with the other Southern serial poisoners mentioned here, Velma Barfield grew up poor and lived hard and developed a penchant for arsenic. She admitted killing four people, including her mother. The motive was usually modest insurance proceeds or to cover up her forgeries and thefts, all to support her prescription drug habit.

As with Nannie Doss, she was a grandmother—but she was seen as cold and unsympathetic, not reveling in her notoriety as Nannie did.

In 1984, Velma became the first female executed in the U.S. in eight years. The focus of much of her story has been her prison conversion and her decision not to fight her death penalty sentence.

Jerry Bledsoe’s Death Sentence is a detailed look at Velma, the death-penalty process, and questions of punishment and justice, leaving us with visions of both the cold-bloodedness of arsenic poisoning and of Velma in her pink pajamas going to her execution.

Blanche Taylor Moore

In 2015, Blanche Taylor Moore marked the 25th year after her conviction for poisoning her boyfriend, Raymond Reid. She is also a grandmother, a preacher’s daughter, accused of at least four deaths, and, at age 82, the oldest death-row inmate in North Carolina.

Her husband, the Rev. Dwight Moore, survived a poisoning attempt five days after their wedding. He marks the events with continued pain and neuropathy from an arsenic level higher than any his doctors had ever seen: at least 100 times the normal amount.

It was his survival and his mention that Blanche’s boyfriend had died of Guillain-Barre syndrome (the neuropathy it causes can look like arsenic poisoning) that prompted the investigation and arrest.

Blanche became famous as the gentle caregiver who spooned arsenic-laced banana pudding into her victim as he lay in intensive care. Books were written and Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched TV-show fame starred in a TV-movie (Black Widow Murders), bringing even more notoriety to the case.

She was sentenced in 1990. Less than three weeks later, her husband filed for divorce.

Moffett, Margaret, “Blanche Taylor Moore remains on death row after 25 years” (December 20, 2015)

Schutze, Jim, Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore (1993).

Wireback, Taft and Justin Catanoso, “Blanche Taylor Moore timeline” Raleigh News & Record (December 13, 2015).

Ann Miller

On December 2, 2000, Dr. Eric Miller, a 30-year-old pediatric AIDS researcher at UNC Hospitals, died at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Two weeks earlier, in mid-November, Miller’s wife Ann had taken him to the hospital. He’d been complaining of severe gastric pains after spending the evening at a bowling alley with some of Ann’s co-workers. He was admitted to intensive care early the next morning.

Three days later, unable to find an explanation for his intense symptoms, a doctor ordered a heavy metals test. The results of that test didn’t come back from the lab until his second hospitalization on December 1. Between his two hospitalizations, though, his health had been improving. The night of November 30, his parents had taken the night off from staying with him to go out to dinner, and he felt well enough to eat some chicken and rice his wife heated up for him.

He was hospitalized the next day. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead. He left behind his wife Ann and a young daughter.

The heavy metals test ordered during his November hospital stay revealed massive amounts of arsenic in his system. In the investigation, detectives also discovered that Ann Miller had been having an affair with Derril Willard, her co-worker at GlaxoSmithKline drug company and one of the members of the bowling party the night of Eric Miller’s first hospitalization.

Six days after Dr. Miller’s death, Derril Willard consulted attorney Rick Gammon, a well-known Durham defense attorney, former police officer, and long-time friend of the lead homicide investigator, Chris Morgan.

Learning of the affair, Morgan got a warrant and officers searched Willard’s home. Three days later, Willard hanged himself in his garage, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. In his suicide note, he said, “I have taken no one else’s life but my own.”

From early in the investigation, Detective Morgan suspected Ann Miller in her husband’s death but could not satisfy the district attorney that they had enough evidence to convince a jury of her guilt.

Finally, in February 2002, the prosecutor petitioned a judge for a hearing to compel attorney Rick Gammon to reveal what Derril Willard had told him about anyone who had harmed Eric Miller or intended to harm him. Police had asked Gammon to tell them voluntarily, but Gammon refused to breach his client’s confidentiality without a court order.

The district attorney’s petition asking the court to force Gammon to reveal what Willard told him in their attorney/client meeting bounced back and forth in the courts. In a landmark opinion on attorney/client privilege, the appellate court held that Gammon must provide the county prosecutor a very limited statement of what his client revealed. Gammon hand-delivered a paragraph to the court in a sealed envelope.

Willard had said Ann confessed to him that she’d injected a poisonous “substance” into Eric’s IV while he lay in the hospital, but Willard maintained his innocence in the death.

Ann pled guilty to murder and conspiracy and was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison. Derril Willard’s widow said, “She’s admitting responsibility for what she did to Eric, but she’s not admitting what she did to Derril. That really makes me angry and sad …” [Lamb 2005].

Lamb, Amanda (2008). Deadly Dose. New York: Berkley.

Lamb, Amanda, “Kontz avoids life sentence with plea deal in husband’s death [Eric Miller case,” posted November 8, 2005, updated July 24, 2007 []

McKissock, Timothy M. 1996, July/August. “Where Ethical Rules and Morality
Conflict,” South Carolina Lawyer, pp. 15 – 17.

North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct:

Weigl, Andrea (2004, June 13). “Secrets may not ever go to jury,” The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Retrieved from:

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