Stokes County North Carolina: Lawson Family Christmas Day Tragedy

The Ballad of Charlie Lawson
Original Artist: The Carolina Buddies’
March 1930

It was on last Christmas evening
The snow was on the ground
At his home in North Carolina
The miner he was found

His name was Charlie Lawson
He had a loving wife
But they never knew what caused
To take his family’s life

They say he killed his wife at first
While the little ones did cry
“Please papa won’ you spare our lives
For it’s 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’d killed them all

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

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

And now farewell kind friends and home
I’ll see you here no more
But when we meet in another land
Our troubles will be o’er

 
 
Background

Charlie Lawson’s parents, Augustus and Nancy, lived in the unincorporated community known as Lawsonville, located ten miles from Danbury, the Stokes county seat. He was born there and, in 1911, married Fannie Manring. They had eight children, but the third, William, born in 1914, died of an illness in 1920. In 1918, following the move of his younger brothers, Marion and Elijah, to the Germanton area, Lawson followed suit with his family. The Lawsons worked as sharecroppers, saving enough money by 1927 to buy their own farm on Brook Cove Road.

The murders

In 1929, shortly before Christmas, Charlie Lawson took his family (37-year-old wife Fannie and their children: Marie, 17; Arthur, 16; Carrie, 12; Maybell; 7, James, 4; Raymond, 2; and Mary Lou, 4 months) into town to buy new clothes and to have a family portrait taken. Since they were far from wealthy, this seemed unusual. The new clothes ultimately became burial outfits. On that day he began the slaughter with his daughters, Carrie and Maybell, who were setting out to their uncle and aunt’s house. Lawson waited for them by the tobacco barn; when they were in range, he shot them with a shotgun, then ensured that they were dead by bludgeoning them. He then placed the bodies in the tobacco barn.

Afterwards, he returned to the house and shot Fannie, who was on the porch. As soon as the gun was fired, Marie, who was inside, screamed, while the two small boys, James and Raymond, attempted to find a hiding place. Lawson shot Marie and then found and shot the two boys. Lastly, he killed the baby, Mary Lou. After the murders, he went into the nearby woods and, a few hours later, shot himself. The only survivor was his eldest son, 16 year-old Arthur, whom he had sent on an errand just before starting his deadly work. The bodies of the family members were found with their arms crossed and pillows under their heads. The gunshot signaling Charlie Lawson’s own suicide was heard by the many people who learned of the gruesome event on the property and had already gathered there. Some rushed towards the direction of the sound and found Charlie Lawson dead, with his two dogs by their master’s side. There were footprints, indicating he had been walking in a small circle for hours.

Speculation and rumors

There were rumors as to why Charlie Lawson would take the lives of himself and his family and it was speculated that Charlie did not murder his family at all, that it was staged to look as though Charlie had committed suicide. One of these explanations was that Charlie had witnessed an organized crime incident, and had been found out, and he and his family murdered for it. Another involves a black man Charlie had started a fight with. Neither of these rumors seemed plausible, or could fit with the facts. All signs obviously pointed to a murder/suicide.

Incest theory

It was not until the book White Christmas, Bloody Christmas, was published in 1990 that a strong claim surfaced. On interviewing many people regarding the Lawson family murder, the book’s authors, M. Bruce Jones and Trudy J. Smith found that several people recounted rumors, and stories regarding Charlie, Marie, and incest. In 1989 the authors had received a call from an anonymous woman. She said she had gone on a tour of the Lawson home shortly after the murders, and the tour guide had told about the incest rumor, which he stated as fact. The day before the book was to be published the authors received a phone call from Stella Lawson, daughter of Marion Lawson, and cousin to the Lawson children. They had already interviewed her for the book. On this occasion she told them she knew the truth as to why Charlie did it. Stella said that at the funeral for the Lawsons, she had overheard Fannie’s sisters-in-law and aunts discussing this. Fannie Lawson had confided in her sisters-in-law, including Stella’s mother Jettie Lawson. Fannie had apparently been concerned about Charlie and Marie. Jettie died in early 1928, meaning Fannie had been suspicious of the incest at least that long before the murders in late 1929.

Aftermath

Shortly after the murders, Charlie’s brother, Marion Lawson, opened the home on Brook Cove Road as a tourist attraction. A cake that Marie Lawson had baked on Christmas Day was displayed on the tour. Because visitors began to pick at the raisins on the cake to take as souvenirs, it was placed in a covered glass cake dish and thus preserved for many years.

Among the many remembrances of the event is a folk song entitled, “The Murder of the Lawson Family”. This song was recorded by the Stanley Brothers in March 1956, released by Columbia Records on the CD “An evening long ago” in 2004.
See Also: The Meaning of Our Tears

 
 
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