Article Category: Funereal Friday

The Lawson Family Tragedy

Posted Friday, Dec 11

Written by Alice Adams

Southern Calls Vol. 18, December 2017

It was cold that Christmas day in 1929 in Germanton, North Carolina, a farming community near Danbury. But our story begins weeks earlier, when Charlie Lawson, 43, loaded his wife, Fannie, 37, and their seven children into his truck for a drive to Winston-Salem, about 13 miles away. He bought them all new clothes, a spending spree that was unusual for the Lawson family.

Charlie instructed his family to remain in their new clothing for a trip to a local photography studio, where he had them sit for a family portrait. It was, he said, part of a “Christmas surprise.”

Charlie and Fannie Lawson, married in 1911, had eight children, though one died of pneumonia at the age of 6. Charlie moved his family to the Germantown area in 1918 and began sharecropping tobacco. By 1927, the Lawsons had saved enough money to buy a farm on Brook Cove Road.

A studio portrait of the Lawsons taken days before Charlie Lawson murdered all but one of his family members.
Clockwise from top left, Arthur (16), Marie (17), Charles (43), Fannie (37) holding baby Mary Lou, Carrie (12), Raymond (2), Maybell (7), James (4).

In the evenings, Charlie, Fannie, Arthur, 16, and Marie, 17, would work together renovating the farmhouse. While removing rotten timbers, Charlie accidentally hit himself in the forehead with an axe. After the accident, neighbors and family members noticed a change in his personality.

As Christmas Day dawned in 1929, Marie awoke early to blend butter, sugar and egg whites, roll a cup of raisins in flour and pour the mixture into two circular pans. Her signature dessert soon would be iced, decorated and ready for the holiday feast.

While the cake was cooling, Charlie, Arthur and Charlie’s two beagles set out on a hunting expedition. They ran out of ammunition, so Charlie sent his son to Germanton to buy more.

Back at the Lawson farm, Marie was finishing up in the kitchen. Her two younger sisters – Carrie, 12, and Maybell, 6 – decided to visit an aunt and uncle nearby. What neither Marie nor her mother could know was that Charlie was waiting by the barn. He shot his daughters, and, to make sure they were dead, bludgeoned them with a hoe handle.

Charlie returned to the house and shot his wife, who was peeling potatoes on the porch. Shoving more shells into his shotgun, he swung open the front door and pulled the trigger, striking Marie, who slumped to the floor in front of the fireplace. Reloading, he shot James, 2, and Raymond 4, then, without the slightest hesitation, bludgeoned 4-month-old Mary Lou to death.

Charlie escaped into the nearby woods, and, just before sunset, a shot rang out, signaling his suicide. The echoes of the gunfire had barely faded before the mournful howls of Lawson’s two beagles led searchers to his body. Police found letters to his parents and, on a crumpled scrap of paper: “Blame nobody but I.”

This is where the Lawson family lived and the location where Marie, James, Raymond and Mary Lou were murdered.

The entire family was buried in a single plot. The killing attracted so much attention that an estimated 1,500 curiosity-seekers attended the funeral.

The reason for this horrific massacre is a subject of debate even today. The mention of “a Christmas surprise” led some to believe Charlie’s act was premeditated. Others blamed Charlie’s head injury. However, an autopsy and analysis of his brain at Johns Hopkins Hospital found no abnormalities.

Many other rumors circulated around the question of why Charlie would kill his family, including speculation that the sharecropper had witnessed an organized crime incident and that he and his family were murdered to silence them.

It was not until 1990 – when the book “White Christmas, Bloody Christmas” was published – that a claim of an incestuous relationship between Charlie and Marie surfaced. According to the story, Stella Lawson, a relative who had been interviewed for the book, called the author and said she had overheard Fannie’s sisters-in-law and aunts, including Stella’s mother, Jettie Lawson, discussing how Fannie had confided in them that she was concerned about an incestuous relationship between Charlie and Marie. 

Jettie Lawson had passed away in early 1928, meaning Fannie had been suspicious of the incest at least a year before the murders took place.

A crowd gathered at the funeral of the slain Lawson family in Germanton, North Carolina, in 1929.

More support for this theory was revealed in “The Meaning of our Tears,” published by the same author in 2006. A close friend of Marie Lawson’s, Ella May, disclosed that a few weeks before Christmas, Marie told her she was pregnant with her father’s baby and that Charlie and Fannie knew about it.

Strange stories of premonitions, curses and ghosts were rampant in the Germanton area, especially after Arthur died in his early 30s in a freak truck accident. In time, the Lawson cabin was demolished, and interest in the tragedy waned.

Charlie Lawson was buried in the same plot (above) as the family he massacred on December 25, 1929

Subscribe today, or order any of our highly collectible issues online in our Shop

***

Check back every Friday for another nugget of funereal miscellany!

Other Recent Articles

Issue 32 Available Now

Issue 32 Available Now

Our June issue is out now! Read about Louisiana lady, Anna Wilbert Breaux, a 5th generation funeral director with a passion for saltwater fishing that provides leadership for a historic business with a service mark that dates back to 1850. Up next, Hart's Mortuary...

read more
Author-Undertaker | Todd Harra

Author-Undertaker | Todd Harra

“It’s such an honor to be able to walk with people during their time of need,” said Todd Harra, vice president of McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes and Crematory in Wilmington, Delaware. “But I never pictured myself doing this.” Harra has deep roots in the profession,...

read more
Funetorium | All Things Funereal

Funetorium | All Things Funereal

Attila Bethlenfalvy stands out in a crowd of funeral directors. With his gauged ears, shaven head and bushy, peppered beard, Bethlenfalvy doesn’t look the part, and he’s not a funeral director, though he arguably knows more about funerary antiques and ephemera than...

read more
The Charleston Nine

The Charleston Nine

Southern Mourning | from Southern Calls Issue 16, September 2017 (Opening Image: June 22, 2007 – Charleston 9 Firefighters ServicePresident, Mike McDaniel,1999-00 (head), President Thomas E. Baker II, 2007-08 (foot) Photographer – We are very appreciative to SCFDA...

read more
Man O’ War’s Funeral

Man O’ War’s Funeral

Southern Mourning | from Southern Calls Issue 9, September 2015 (Opening Image: As visitors look on, legendary thoroughbred Man O’ War lies in state in a casket lined with his racing colors at owner Samuel Riddle’s Faraway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 3, 1947....

read more

Join Our Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter to periodically receive article updates, industry news, and details about new issues before they are released.

The Magazine