The Lawson Murders, Christmas Day 1929

Familial murder-suicides are tragic no matter what time of the year in which they occur, but those that take place around the winter holidays often seem all the more horrendous.

We don’t know the full motivation behind sharecropper Charlie Lawson’s actions on December 25, 1929 but by the end of that day he, his wife, and five of their six children were dead.

The swirling rumors about possible incest, head injuries and the general shock created by the crime has captivated the public for decades, inspiring books, films, and even its own murder ballad.

In 1929 Charlie, his wife Fannie, and children Marie (17), Arthur (16), Carrie (12), Maybell (7), James (4), Raymond (2), and Mary Lou (4 months) lived on a farm on Brook Cove Road in Germanton, North Carolina. By all accounts they were a hard-working family and well-respected in the community.

A week before Christmas Day the family had the following portrait taken in Winston-Salem and many have speculated that this type of extravagant expense was evidence that Charlie had murder on his mind for some time.

Lawson family

There are discrepancies about the order of events that day but after reviewing available material a basic picture of the Lawsons’ final bloody Christmas emerged.

Arthur wasn’t at home when his family was wiped out. Some say he’d been sent into town to purchase ammunition and others, such as The Landmark, claim he was visiting the nearby Ashby farm.

That particular article below also sets the scene at the modest Lawson home on the morning of December 25. Warmth from the fire filled the air and heated curlers on the hearth. Toys and a Christmas poem littered the floor. A wash basin and nearby rag showed that someone prepared to wash himself or herself. On the table, a recently baked and uncut Christmas cake. It seemed like a normal winter morning.

Either Fannie (who was shot on the porch) or Marie was the first killed. Physical evidence on Fannie’s arms suggested that she was holding Mary Lou when the attack occurred.

Fannie’s COD: “12 guage shotgun wound in chest-homicidal.”
Marie’s COD: “Shotgun wound in chest-homicide.”

Mary Lou, Raymond, and James were bludgeoned with the shotgun barrel and died from skull fractures.

Charlie placed the four oldest bodies on the front room floor and positioned their arms so that they crossed their chests. Mary Lou was found in her cradle with her hands also crossed.

Maybell and Carrie were shot near the barn from behind suggesting that they were trying to escape their father’s murderous rampage. Maybell was shot from behind through the lung. Carrie was shot with a rifle through the head. Charlie took both bodies into the barn and positioned them as he had the rest of the family.

The gunshots drew attention to the scene and when Charlie was found he was several hundred yards from the barn with a self-inflicted gunshot wound through the chest. A dog stood near his body and it appeared as though he’d paced around the tree before committing suicide.

There were bills of sale for tobacco in his pockets. On one “Blame no one but I” was scribbled but no one knows if this was supposed to be part of a suicide note or not.

All of the Lawsons were buried together in a mass grave in the Browder Family Cemetery after a service that attracted over 1,000 mourners.

As far as why Charlie killed his family, as I mentioned above there have been several ideas presented over time, none fully substantiated. The most popular one suggested that Marie was carrying her father’s baby, but there was no formal autopsy or evidence of a pregnancy beyond word-of-mouth.

Relatives claimed that Charlie sustained a head injury that left him sometimes nervous, unable to work and suffering from headaches. Examinations of his brain ultimately revealed no abnormalities that would cause his behavior.

The Landmark, 26 Dec 1929
The Landmark, 26 Dec. 1929

If you’re interested in photos of the Lawson home, barn, and funeral you can view those here.

After the tragedy relatives opened the house to the public (complete with Fannie’s original cake on display) and charged an admission fee for the morbidly curious.

Lawson fees The Landmark 3 Feb. 1929
The Landmark, 26 Dec. 1929

I’ll leave you with the haunting lyrics to a murder ballad inspired by The Lawson Murders, recorded in 1956 by The Stanley Brothers.

It was on last Christmas Evening;
A snow was on the ground.
At his home in North Carolina
The murderer was found
His name was Charlie Lawson,
And he had a loving wife.
But they never knew what caused him
To take his family’s life.

They say he killed his wife at first,
While the little ones did cry,
“Please, Papa, won’t you spare our lives?
For it is so hard to die!”

But the raging man could not be stopped;
He would not heed their call,
He kept on firing fatal shots
Until he killed them all.

They say he killed his wife at first,
While the little ones did cry,
“Please, Papa, won’t you spare our lives?
For it is so hard to die!”

They did not carry him to jail;
No lawyers would he pay.
He’ll have his trial in another land
On the final judgment day.

They were all buried in a crowded grave
While the angels watched from above.
“Come home, come home, my little ones.
To the land of peace and love.”

“And now farewell, kind friends and home;
I’II see you here no more.
But when we meet in another land
Our troubles will be o’er.”

*Originally posted in December 2015.

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