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.
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.”
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.
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.
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