The Lawson Family Murders

               In 1911, Charles Lawson married his wife, Fannie, and the two had eight children together. Their third child, William, died in 1920 at six from illness (Blanco). Six of their seven remaining children died in the horrific murders that became a spectacle in 1929. In later 1929, at Christmas time, Charles Lawson, 43, took his family for a studio photo, an unusual thing for people of their standing to do. Taking a family studio photo was akin to taking a sudden trip to someplace like Disney in modern times – it was expensive, and generally not done by people in the working class. He bought his family new clothes specifically for the occasion (Sutton). At the time, it was unknown as to why he was getting something so expensive done.

               The morning of December 25, 1929, Marie Lawson, 17, woke up early to make her family a Christmas cake. The cake would never be eaten and for years after that Christmas morning, it would be on display and protected under a glass cover after tourists stole raisins from the top of the cake (Sutton). The oldest son, Arthur, 16, was not home, as he had been allowed by Charles to walk to Walnut Cove with a friend to buy ammunition for a rabbit hunt, a popular past time (Spear).  While Arthur was away and Marie was making the infamous cake, the middle daughters, Carrie, 12, and Maybell, 7,  headed out to the home of their Aunt and Uncle, but the two would never arrive (Sutton).

               Charles Lawson was waiting outside by the tobacco barn, a 12-gauge shotgun in hand, and as his daughters passed by he shot them both. To ensure the two were dead, he bludgeoned them before hiding their remains in the barn. From there, he headed to the porch where his wife, Fannie, 37, was sitting. He shot her as well before heading inside where Marie had screamed and his two youngest sons, Raymond, 2, and James, 4, tried to hide. He shot Marie just as he shot his wife and other two daughters before hunting down his sons, bludgeoning them to death as well as their infant daughter, Mary Lou, who was only four months old. An autopsy would later reveal that Mary Lou’s cause of death a skull fracture. Charles maneuvered the bodies, laying them with rocks under their heads and arms across their chests (Sutton).

Following the murders, Charles took the family dogs, Sam and Queen, and retreated into the woods nearby the farm, where he reportedly washed the blood from his hands in a stream (Spear). While people had discovered the murders and were flocking to the scene, Charles was in the wood, pacing around a tree for what could have been hours. A gunshot was heard from the forest by those at the home, and soon after Charles body was found by the tree he had been pacing around (Sutton). In his pocket they found two letters, one saying, “Trouble can cause…” and the other, “Nobody to blame,” written on receipts from a tobacco auction. These letters gave no answers as to why Charles would massacre his family the way he did, leaving 16-year old Arthur alone. Some believe Charles allowed Arthur to leave because Arthur was likely the only one who could have stopped the massacre from continuing (Spear).

At the time, rabbit hunting was a popular past time, which would explain why the sound of gunshot wouldn’t necessarily be alarming in the area. The weather conditions were bitterly cold, the ground covered with deep snow (Spear). Winter is generally harder for people, especially when it is a particularly cold winter. Could the level of cold and snow around at the time have contributed to the actions Charles Lawson took those days? Nearly 100 years later, we likely will never truly know, but speculations abound. In the months leading up to the massacre, Charles was reportedly exhibiting erratic behavior. He had been to his doctor, Dr. C.J Helsabeck, for insomnia as well as severe headaches. Dr. Helsabeck would be in charge of the death inquiries, along with the brother to Sheriff John Taylor, Dr. Spottswood Taylor, who was home for the season from his internship at John Hopkins in Baltimore. The two removed Charles’ brain, which was noted as being smaller and having an underdeveloped central region. Dr. Taylor took the brain, which was preserved in formaldehyde, back to Baltimore for further examination. The current location of the brain, if it is still around somewhere, is unknown (Spear). Charles had also sustained a head injury while digging a ditch several months before he killed his family, which some claim changed him. Despite this, the examinations done on his brain showed no abnormalities (History).

Another speculation, though uncorroborated, is that Charles was a witness to something major. Organized crime has been suggested (Blanco), and it is known that at least one well known member of an organization visited the home after the murders occurred (Spear). This theory claims that Charles didn’t commit the murders or die by suicide. Instead, Charles was framed for the murders and set up after he was killed as well (Blanco).

In the 1990s, decades after Arthur Lawson unfortunately died in a car accident in 1945, the possible motivation behind the murders was finally revealed. Stella Lawson Boles, cousin of the Lawson children, published a book about the murders. She claimed that her mother and other Lawson women had been heard at the funeral discussing something that Fannie had come to them with concerns of before that Christmas – she was concerned that Charles and Marie may have been engaging in an incestuous relationship (Sutton). Not only had there been discussions among the Lawson women at the time, but Jettie Lawson, who died in 1928, had spoken about the possibility before her death. This points to the possibility that Fannie suspected an incestuous relationship long before the massacre (Blanco).  Furthermore, Marie’s friend, Ella May Johnson, came forward with a claim that Marie was pregnant at the time. She claimed that Marie confided in her that she was pregnant with her father’s child (Sutton). According to Ella May, Charles and Fannie knew that Marie was pregnant with Charles’ child at the time (Blanco). A neighbor, Sam Hill, also came forward with supposed knowledge of incest, though he claimed that Charles had forced himself upon his daughter, and threatened Marie, after she became pregnant, that “there would be some killing done” should anyone find out (Sutton). Despite these claims, however, there are no records showing a pregnancy in her autopsy (Spear).

Charles brother, Marion Lawson, opened the house as a tourist attraction shortly after the murders, claiming the money was going to Arthur to pay the mortgage on the farm. The cake Marie made that Christmas was put on display, a macabre reminder of what should have been a normal Christmas morning. After the raisin decorations on the cake began to be taken by tourists, the cake was protected with a glass cover (Blanco). The rooms were left as they were when the murders occurred – bloody and dirty – for the authenticity (Spear).

The family was buried in a mass grave, dug by family and friends, in seven caskets, despite there being eight victims. The youngest victim, four-month old Mary Lou, was buried in her mother’s casket, wrapped up in her mother’s arms (Spear).  

History, Unmasked. “Bloody Christmas Of 1929: The Lawson Family Massacre”. Unmasked History Magazine, 2019, https://unmaskedhistory.com/2019/12/22/bloody-christmas-of-1929-the-lawson-family-massacre/.

Sutton, Candace. “Lawson Family Christmas Day Massacre Photo Tells Secret Behind Slaughter”. Newscomau, 2016, https://www.news.com.au/news/secret-behind-photo-in-lawson-family-christmas-day-massacre-when-seven-people-died/news-story/080cd6dcee54a210d70098ca45dc3851.

Blanco, Juan. “Charles Davis Lawson | Murderpedia, The Encyclopedia Of Murderers”. Murderpedia.Org, https://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/lawson-charles-davis.htm.

Spear, Susie. “Lawson Family Murders: A Look Back After 90 Years”. Greensboro, 2019, https://greensboro.com/rockingham_now/lawson-family-murders-a-look-back-after-90-years/article_16aeaae1-5ded-57e8-bde0-35e0d3e69466.html. Accessed 22 Feb 2021.

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