Category Archives: History

Granny was a serial killer

Nannie Doss did not match anyone’s image of a serial killer. A plain and rather scatterbrained grandmother, she might have never been caught had she not voluntarily agreed to an autopsy of her fifth husband, Samuel Doss, who died in 1954 after eating a bowl of prunes.

The prunes, it turned out, were poisoned.

Tulsa police quickly delved into Doss’ tangled life history, and found that 11 people with ties to her had died under mysterious circumstances. Doss insisted she only killed four of them — all men she had met and married through lonely hearts clubs after divorcing her first husband.

Doss said all four dead husbands had been given rat poison in their food or drink. Her third victim’s last words were said to have been, “I shouldn’t have had that last cup of coffee.”

Doss pleaded guilty to murdering Samuel Doss and died in prison. While she benefited from small life insurance policies on her dead husbands, Doss seems to have killed them mostly because they annoyed her. Samuel Doss, she complained, wouldn’t let her listen to the radio programs she wanted.


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Henry Bellmon’s one-cent’s worth

One of the most important political debates in Oklahoma history occurred in Tulsa during the 1962 gubernatorial campaign.

The Democratic nominee, W.P. Atkinson, had survived a brutal primary and runoff in which he defeated former Gov. Raymond Gary by just 900 votes. Atkinson was a real estate developer who more or less built Midwest City after Tinker Field — now Tinker Air Force Base — was located on farmland east of downtown Oklahoma City in the run-up to U.S. entry into World War II. Atkinson was the mortal enemy of powerful Daily Oklahoman publisher E.K. Gaylord.

Gaylord found an ally in Republican candidate Henry Bellmon. Bellmon, a Noble County farmer, had revitalized the Oklahoma GOP. As state chairman, he pushed the party’s boundaries beyond the country club set that had dominated it for so long. He ventured into small towns and rural counties that had not had a Republican Party organization in decades, if ever.

A key component of Atkinson’s platform was a one-cent sales tax increase. During a highly-anticipated debate in Tulsa, Atkinson was asked by newsman Phil Dessauer what he would do if the Legislature refused to give him the increase. Atkinson replied that he supposed he would just have to go after waste, corruption and abuse.

Dryly, Bellmon wondered why Atkinson would not go after waste, corruption and abuse first.

Bellmon might have won the election anyway. Tax increases are never popular, and Atkinson was being hammered daily in The Oklahoman. And, as Bellmon had discerned, the state’s political foundations were shifting. But in political lore, that brief exchange in Tulsa is remembered as the turning point in an election that brought Oklahoma its first Republican governor.

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The governor who hated horse racing

Vice laws seem to have been more ignored than enforced in early twentieth century Tulsa. Liquor, prostitution and gambling all flourished. According to one account, an early Tulsa mayor owned an interest in a brothel. A former police chief went to prison for shooting a federal prohibition officer.

Oklahoma’s second governor, Lee Cruce, was very much agin sin. When gambling was reported at a horse racing meet in Tulsa in April 1914, Cruce declared martial law and sent the National Guard under Adjutant General Frank Canton to enforce it.

The injunction that race organizers obtained against the state did not impress Canton. He was a tough character who, under his real name, Joe Horner, had killed at least one man, robbed a bank and escaped from jail. Changing his identity, he signed on with the cattle barons’ Regulators in Wyoming, then became a deputy U.S. marshal.

Acting on Cruce’s orders, Canton ordered the races cancelled. He was ignored. Ten horses were hurried to the post and the starting gun sounded. As the horses thundered down the stretch, several Guardsman assembled on the track and fired into them. The horses rushed right past them to the finish line.

But that was the end of the meet. Gen. Canton ordered his men to shoot to kill any man or animal that got near the starting line, and everyone knew he meant it.

Tulsa World Editor Eugene Lorton took to the front page of his own paper to assail Cruce.

“You are making an ass of yourself,” Lorton wrote. “You are an egotistical, law-defying, self-centered bigot. It was only through the unfortunate circumstances of having a lieutenant governor who is even less trustworthy in .. mental capacity than yourself that you escaped impeachment.”

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The story that never goes away

In late 1999, I was assigned to pick up the Tulsa World’s coverage of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. As part of that assignment, I was to begin collecting materials for our own files.

At that time, most newspapers’ primary research resources were microfilm of past copies and “clip files.” The latter were so-called because each day’s editions were cut up, or “clipped,” and the individual stories placed in envelopes filed by subject. In newspaper parlance, these stories are known as “clips.” Thus, clip files.

Our clip files on Tulsa’s May 31-June 1, 1921 clip file was sparse, to say the least. The oldest clip was from 1949, was just one paragraph long, and had the riot’s date wrong. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, by the way. Our files contained very few clips on any subject that predated World War II, and the ones we did have seemed to be completely random. Our pre-war photo collection was even scantier and more haphazard.

By the time I became involved with researching and writing about the riot, quite a lot of work had been done preserving the oral history, going back to the early 1970s. Comparatively little, on the other hand, had been toward compiling and analyzing contemporary written accounts of the riot. Because my background was in newspapers, and because part of my assignment was to compile an archive for the newspaper, that is where I began.

I knew the basic outline of the story, but really didn’t know what I would find once I started digging into the microfilm. The commonly held belief, I knew, was that the city’s two daily newspapers at the time, the morning World and afternoon Tribune, had written little or nothing about the riot, and whatever they did report was almost certainly unreliable. But our executive editor, Joe Worley, told me to find what I could and let the chips fall.

What I found was a treasure trove of information, although sometimes in form that only someone familiar with newspapers — and especially the World and the Tribune — could fully appreciate. The World, with a small staff, put out four editions the night and morning of the riot, and while the reporting was sometimes confused and contradictory it was plentiful. The riot dominated the front pages of the newspapers throughout the summer of 1921.

Over the last 14 1/2 years, I’ve read every issue of the World from June 1, 1920 through the end of 1921, and ever 1921 issue of the Tribune. Those, in turn, have led me to city and county records, state archives, countless publications and innumerable on-line archives.

This much I’ve learned: the story is both simpler and more complex than most people imagine.

My friend Michelle Place at the Tulsa Historical Society said recently that THS still gets more inquiries about the riot than any other subject. I can believe this. It is a fascinating, maddening subject I think about, research or write about almost every day.

For me, it has become a story that never goes away.

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June 4, 2014 Oklahoma’s most unlikely congressman

Americans grumble about how crazy the members of Congress sometimes act, but Oklahoma had one who was downright certifiable.

His name was Manuel Herrick, and he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1920 through an improbable fluke and Herrick’s own persistence.

Herrick’s mother believed him to be literally the second coming of Jesus Christ, and called him “Emmanuel.” Manuel, as he preferred to be called, was similarly delusional. In 1893, after he was arrested trying to rob a train, Herrick was ruled insane and institutionalized. When he got out, he tried to establish himself as a preacher but no church would have him. He ran for a number of local offices in Noble County, where the Herrick family had settled in 1892, with no success. In 1918 he received a total of 56 votes as an independent candidate for Oklahoma’s Eighth Congressional District.

In 1920, Herrick filed as a Republican. He had little chance against the Republican incumbent, Dick Morgan. Morgan, in fact, was so popular no other Republican bothered to file against him. There was just one problem: Morgan died on the last day of the filing while traveling out of state. Herrick became the GOP’s candidate, and in the Republican landslide of 1920, he won with relative ease.

In Washington, Herrick created a furor by announcing he intended to conduct a beauty contest in order to chose his wife; he wound up being sued by one of the women when no marriage proposal ensued. Herrick was defeated in 1922 and spent the next decade vainly trying to regain his place in Congress. He later moved to California, where he made one final bid for Congress.

In 1952, Manual Herrick froze to death in a blizzard.

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