Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Annie Ruth Dennis: Beauty, Nurse, Murderess

At 73 years of age, Hampton Smiley was a long-time Florence minister. Working with the St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Florence, Smiley and his wife Arcadia, 72, were considered pillars of both the community and the church where Arcadia (known as Ann) played the organ for many years. Then Ann Smiley suffered a stroke, and the lives of the Florence couple changed forever.


Annie Ruth Dennis grew up across the street from the Smiley home and was a graduate of Burrell High School, an all black institution once located in West Florence. Beautiful, as well as intelligent and witty, she was going to go somewhere and be someone. Initially, Annie worked as a meat cutter for Wilson Foods, but her drive and intelligence led her to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. Annie worked at Shoals Hospital and took private patients. Higher pay in the Memphis area led Annie to seek employment there, and she began to divide her time between Memphis and her Lucas Street home in Florence.

At some point, Annie married Robert O. Dennis, but the marriage proved less than what Annie had hoped for. In 1977, Robert Dennis, 40, was found shot dead in the back seat of his car, hands bound together, his wallet missing. Memphis police stated they had no leads, although the spouse is usually a strong suspect in most murder cases.

Annie continued to divide her time between Florence and Memphis which offered higher pay. Since she was still taking private patients in the Shoals and attended St. James, Annie easily secured the job of taking care of Ann Smiley after her stroke. Ann’s initial prognosis wasn’t good; Mrs. Smiley was probably not going to recover.

The Smileys’ friends at first were delighted at how Annie took over when she worked in the minister’s Beale Street home, but some later became concerned that the practical nurse was entirely too close to Hampton Smiley. They viewed it as a very unhealthy situation.

Annie told friends that Smiley planned to take her on a trip to a ministerial conference, something she greatly looked forward to; however, nothing in life is ever certain, and Ann Smiley began to recover. The minister would be taking his wife on the long anticipated trip—not Annie.

During this time period, Annie Dennis had secured a new job in Memphis. She began work at St. Jude’s and found a room nearby the children’s hospital where she lived during the week, returning on weekends to tend to her own home and the Smiley family. The Memphis woman with whom Annie lived told authorities that while she saw little of the nurse due to her schedule, she considered Annie to be family and trusted her completely.


The third Sunday of April 1984 was Easter, and the St. James congregation gave Hampton Smiley a present of $1,000.00 in cash in honor of his completing 28 years of service to the church. Late on Sunday, April 23rd, Annie Dennis checked on the Smileys before driving back to Memphis where she worked the night shift at St. Jude’s. It was the last time anyone saw the older couple alive.

Late on Monday afternoon, a family member discovered the bodies of Hampton and Ann Smiley in their bed. An autopsy later indicated both had been shot and “slashed;” heavy bruising indicated that the couple had also been hit with a blunt object. Detectives who surveyed the scene were taken aback by the amount of blood, some of it smeared randomly around the bedroom, and the community was soon rife with rumors that the couple was “butchered.” Many of the rumors went as far as saying Hampton Smiley had been sexually mutilated. Were the stories true?

The $1,000.00 gift from the Smileys’ church was nowhere to be found, and it was generally considered that the crime was the work of more than one person. After all, could a lone individual have so brutally murdered the couple?

Neighbors of the Smileys became anxious and added locks to their doors, some not venturing out at night. Florence detectives knew the crime needed to be solved quickly; some West Florence residents were already accusing the police of a lackadaisical attitude to a major crime in the black community, a crime some called the worst that Lauderdale County had ever seen. The governor’s office offered a $10,000.00 reward, while the Florence City Commission offered an additional $3,000.00. Donations from the JayCees and Bob Carl Bailey, a local radio station owner, brought the total reward to $15,000.00.

Annie Ruth Dennis’ name came up early in the investigation, and Florence detectives drove to Memphis to question the LPN. When they arrived at Dennis’ rented quarters on May 9th, the Florence woman told the detectives she had been expecting them and immediately admitted her role in the two slayings. After only 19 days, Dennis’ confession brought the hunt for a vicious Florence murderer to an end.


The reward? In 1988, a Tuscumbia woman received half of the promised $10,000.00 from the state. Investigators stated the informant had notified authorities of her sighting of Dennis’ car at the scene even before the reward was offered. 

Dennis also confessed to the murder of her husband in 1977, but Tennessee authorities allowed Florence detectives to escort the nurse back to Alabama where she was charged with two counts of Capital Murder. The arrest did much to soothe frayed nerves in West Florence, but many still believed Dennis would not have been physically able to commit the crimes as they were described. Florence police then declared the case closed.

A Lauderdale County grand jury indicted Dennis on June 5th. Dennis’ son hired Don Holt to represent the nurse, who immediately pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. By August, Holt had secured a plea deal for Dennis in which she would avoid the death penalty. Annie Ruth Dennis, then 48, was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment without any chance of parole. 

Dennis arrived at Tutwiler Prison on August 23, 1984, and has remained there for almost 32 years. Department of Corrections social workers have stated the now 80 year-old Dennis is a model prisoner who works in housekeeping.