The year 1929 is possibly the most infamous year in the Twentieth Century, for the United States. February brought the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That spring saw a superstorm that showered Oklahoma and Ohio with blizzard-like snows, while it littered the southeastern United States with destructive tornadoes and tempests, all within two days. One of the most notable was the Rye Cove tornado, which happened during this time.
October brought Black Tuesday, Black Thursday, and Black Monday, when the Wall Street Crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression. November saw the Grand Banks earthquake in Newfoundland, Canada.
December fared no better. For North Carolina, it brought the most heinous familicide in the state’s history. This was no ordinary killing, however. The most startling aspect to this slaughter was the mystery behind both its orchestration, as well
as its aftermath.
Charles Davis Lawson had a large family in Stokes County, North Carolina. From testimony offered by friends and relatives, they were stable, well-adjusted, and reasonably prosperous. Lawson owned his farm. He brought his family to Winston-Salem several weeks before Christmas Day. Everyone purchased a new set of clothing and were treated to any frivolities they wished. He then took them to a photographer and the family portrait was made.
Lawson was known as a friendly, respectable individual. He was as generous with his family as he could possibly be. They were not isolationists and didn’t “keep to themselves.” They were part of their Germanton community, and had large families beyond their immediate family.
Elijah Lawson, Charles’s brother, brought his sons over on Christmas Day. They were going to offer their Christmas well-wishes. They first noticed the Lawson house was quiet. For a household with three young children, it was much too quiet.
As soon as they stepped on the front porch, they found Fannie. Charles’s wife had been shot dead. Mary Lou, the couple’s four-month-old baby, had been bludgeoned. Strangely, both were laid out, as if in a coffin, with their arms crossed over their breast. Stones were beneath their heads as if they were pillows. Later on, it was said the killer placed small stones on their eyes to keep them shut.
The visitors ran into the house to see about the other children. Marie, the 17-year-old daughter was shot in the living room. The children’s new toys were still scattered over the floor, where they’d just been playing with them.
Their worst fears were confirmed when they found James, 4, and Raymond, 2. Both little boys had been beaten to death. They further investigated into the backyard and found Carrier, 12, and Maybell, 7, in the tobacco barn. Both were shot and bludgeoned, and laid out with their arms across their breast.First responders and family members were on the scene in a short time. There were two bodies missing, or gone. Both Charles and James Arthur “Buck,” the eldest son, was not at the scene. Nearly 4 hours later, a shotgun blast was heard in the distance. Bloodhounds were needed to find Charles’s body. The authorities believed he killed himself. There was a bare area near his body, and the authorities believed he wore it out pacing after his crime.
It was labeled a clear case of murder-suicide, but nothing about this case was actually clear.
Much of the Charles Lawson family history known today came from gossip and hearsay. What we do know is the Lawson family was not abnormal, in any known way. There is little to no chance of any domestic abuse in the home. Families of that era, which endured such atrocities, were usually kept isolated by the abuser, so the abuse might continue without involvement from neighbors or authorities.
Charles married Fannie Manning in 1911. He was 43 at the time of the murders. The couple had been married nearly 20 years. They had a son named William who died of pneumonia in 1920. Charles’s family worked as sharecroppers for years, however he’d saved enough by 1927 to purchase the family farm. At the time of the murders, he’d almost paid the farm off. Like many Appalachian farmers, the Wall Street crash had no real impact on their finances. The lack of refrigeration meant most local goods were grown, sold, and consumed locally, so there was always a demand for food and feed.
As far as could be ascertained, Lawson was not involved in any illegal activity and didn’t have any criminal associates. He was not a bootlegger and didn’t frequent such operations. He didn’t embrace any extremist views or perspectives.
Neighbors and locals were bewildered by the family annihilation. There was absolutely no reason for such an event. Many blamed Charles’s ill health for the horrific incident. He’d had an accident with a mattock in the spring of 1929. He accidentally hit himself in the head while working, but the wound wasn’t considered serious. He also went to see the physician over a painful growth on his chest that summer.
Arthur Lawson, eldest son, left to retrieve ammunition, but stopped to visit with another uncle while he was out. He heard about “something happening” at the farm and ran home.
The authorities stated three weapons were used during the massacre. A single-barrel shotgun, a double-barrel shotgun, and a rifle. Only two of the weapons were found at the scene. This fact actually creates more confusion, as a single culprit would’ve had to carry three large weapons. The brief investigation seemed to lead nowhere, so the authorities stated Charles killed his family due to a sudden and inexplicable, “derangement.”
Speaking of Confusion
There are more confusing elements to this case then there are clear. Most family murders in the Appalachian Mountains, such as the Buchanan County Butcher, or Bristol’s Axe Murderer, were always done at night. It is easier to eliminate targets that are asleep, or otherwise incapacitated, particularly if the victims outnumber the killer(s).
The Lawson annihilation was committed in the middle of the day. Every member of the family was awake. There was no indication that even the youngest of the children were napping. Researchers today are left to wonder how one man could carry three weapons, and slaughter seven people, in the middle of the day.
Other issues have also arisen over time. Arthur left the home to visit relatives and to get some ammunition. He and his father had gone hunting earlier that morning, but were unable to secure game. They ran out of bullets. This leaves yet another major question as to how Charles could murder his family, without ammunition.
The authorities believed Carrie and Maybell were trying to escape when the killer(s) shot them in the back. The killer used a shotgun, and only one shell. Both girls were hit, but the killer wasn’t satisfied that the shot was fatal. They also bludgeoned the girls.
Much of the modern confusion is also redundant. Wikipedia’s article on the subject suggests there was something dubious or sinister about the family’s Christmas outing to Winston-Salem. The writer noted it was strange that a “poor family” would go on such a frivolous escapade. However, in the Appalachians, most families had more money at the start of winter than any other time of the year. The monies for livestock and harvests usually cleared around December. It was common for residents to look forward to new shoes, or new clothing, around Christmas time. Charles had worked as a sharecropper previously, however by the time of the murders, was a prosperous landowner.
There were rumors stated Charles carried a mysterious scrap of paper containing the words, “blame no one, but I.” This along with letters to the grandparents. However, the Christmas letters to the grandparents provided no resolution, and were as typical as all those before. Was Charles merely on his way to post the letters, when he encountered the killers? It is puzzling that a man intent on slaughtering his family would take time to send Christmas greetings to relatives.
Period writers noted there were around 1,500 attendees at the Lawson funeral. The entire family was interred in a mass grave. Estimates have climbed through the years and today, state over 5,000 visited for the service.
The Lawson tombstone bears the words:
“Not now, but in the coming years
It will be in a better land.
We’ll read the meaning of our tears
And then, some time, we’ll understand.”
This is part of a poem authored by Maxwell N. Cornelius in 1891.
So what happened to the Lawson family? History never revealed the entire truth. Years later, rumors emerged insinuating everything from organized crime to incest. Most of them are sketchy, at best.
Did Charles impregnate his eldest daughter and, for some reason, kill his entire family over it? It’s incredibly unlikely. Many reports of this rumor stem from “anonymous sources,” which were never substantiated. This version of events was unheard-of until Silent Night, Deadly Night, published in 1990. This has a familiar echo to the same accusations against John Bell, as were published in the 1970s.
There is also the fact that a situation so scandalous would have never been discussed during this period, pregnancy or no. Many residents were still Victorian-minded, which sadly meant the victim was seen as guilty of some misdeed that brought them into the situation. Charles was not a large, aggressive man and Marie was not a small girl. She was taller than her father.
Arthur, who lived in the household, couldn’t provide authorities with any reason as to why Charles would kill his family. At the time of the investigation, neighbors and relations alike were silent on the matter. No domestic issues or conflicts were ever reported.
There is also the utter lack of witnesses. Elijah and his family were out in the area, as many others probably were. Some locals even reported hearing gunfire, but assumed their neighbors had purchased Christmas fireworks. No one heard screams or any indication a massacre was ongoing.
The most likely scenario remains a longtime rumor. Charles Lawson witnessed something he shouldn’t have. There were multiple killers, who didn’t know the eldest son was gone. The family was murdered as a message to those who might consider testifying against the culprits.
There is no logical reason why so many family members, who were capable of fleeing the scene, did not, unless there was more than one killer threatening each of them simultaneously. The time needed to aim, fire, check the deceased for signs of life, and bludgeon if necessary, left a considerable window of opportunity for the next victim to flee, if it was a single murderer.
Three guns were used, but authorities only mention finding two at the scene. There is also the fact that Arthur left to retrieve ammunition so the family could hunt. Charles could not have murdered such a large group of people without adequate ammunition. The typical story is that Fanny and Mary Lou were murdered first, then the killer went through the home picking off victims. The actual scenario could have played out in reverse, but that was never considered. Since Maybell and Carrie were near the tobacco barn, they could’ve been the first victims.
Arthur, the sole survivor, was unable to provide any answers. He had no idea what happened, any more than the neighbors. He survived the tragedy and went on to marry and have four children of his own. He was killed in a truck accident in 1945.
The Lawson family house became a morbid tourist attraction. The family grew so tired of trespassers that they began charging visitors to see the house. John Dillinger, outlaw himself, was rumored to be among the observers who came. Even the family’s cake was fodder for collectors. Visitors stole raisins from the top. The home was demolished five years later. The cake continued to be an attraction in itself for years to come, and was eventually placed under glass for tourists to see. A documentary was made on the tragedy. A Christmas Family Tragedy was released in 2006. Charles Lawson’s ghost is said to wander his land even today.
Perhaps the most startling aspect to the Lawson tragedy is that it fits a common pattern. Many such family massacres occurred in rural areas, and never with adequate or solid motive. In most instances, the patriarch of the family was blamed. Most involved financially secure households, unaffected by economic woes, where families never carried extremist or fanatical views. Such familicides seemed most frequent between 1890-1940. The authorities of the era would not have known to consider serial offenders, but today, it appears obvious.
- In Huntington, West Virginia, Herbert Pittinger was said to have killed his family in exactly the same way as Charles Lawson, in 1931.Authorities found a gun near his body, as with Lawson. The otherwise mild-mannered barber was said to have undergone a “fit of insanity,” too.
- Chamberlain H. Mantooth lived with his family in Newport, Tennessee. On October 13, 1906, authorities said he took an axe to his wife and six children, then slit his own throat. The official motive was said to be the doctor’s telling Mantooth that his wife would probably not survive childbirth, or would never have more children. Considering she was almost ready to give birth to their seventh child, it seems unlikely such a statement would cause a man to kill his family, particularly when death from childbirth was relatively common.
- Dave Hawk, resident of Newport, was said to have killed his family in April of 1928. He was a well-to-do farmer, and the crime was attributed to, “mania.” His wife and four daughters were bludgeoned, while he died of a gunshot wound.
Sadly, family murders were common in Virginia and surrounding regions, during that era.
- Mr. Bromfield and his entire family, including 5 children, were murdered in August of 1891. Their Wayne County, West Virginia, home was burned over their bodies.
- Mrs. James Klines and her three children were murdered in Fauquier County, Virginia. Their house was burned atop their bodies, in November of 1891.
- The Justus family, of Buchanan County, Virginia, were all murdered in the night, on September 21, 1909. All showed signs of violence, either by guns or by bludgeoning. Searchers found the home of the grandmother living in the house some distance from her body.
- Mrs. John Saus, and all three of her children, was murdered by robbers in September of 1910. Their bank books and money was gone.
The Murder of the Lawson Family was apparently written just after the tragedy. “The Carolina Buddies,” were the first to sing it, but the Stanley Brothers carried the song to fame in the 1950s. This is the lyrics of the original:
It was on last Christmas evening
The snow was on the ground
At his home in North Carolina
Where this murderer he 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
And the little ones did cry
“Please papa wont 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
And kept on firing fatal shots
Until he’d killed them all
And when the sad sad news was heard
It was a great surprise
He killed six children and his wife
And then he tore their eyes
And now farewell kind friends and home
I’ll see you all no more
Into my breast I’ll fire one shot
Then my troubles will be o’er
They did not carry him to jail
No lawyers did he pay
He will have his trial in another land
On the final judgment day
They all were buried in a crowded grave
While the angels watched above
Come home, come home my little ones
To the land of peace and love.