Two weeks before Christmas of 1929, Charlie Lawson took his family into town, bought everyone new outfits, and had a family portrait taken at a photography studio. This was uncommon behavior for any tobacco farmer from Stokes County at that time, but even more so for Lawson. Shockingly on Christmas Day, Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. They were buried in the new outfits they’d worn for the photograph.
Arthur Lawson, 16, had gone into town to buy shotgun shells as he thought that he and his dad were going rabbit hunting Christmas afternoon, a local tradition. While Arthur was away, Charlie Lawson went to the tobacco barn where he shot and bludgeoned his two middle daughters, Carrie and Maybell. He then went to the house and killed his wife Fannie, who was sitting on the porch. Four-month-old Mary Lou was crying, so he went to her next. He proceeded to the kitchen where he shot his 17-year-old daughter Marie, who had just baked a Christmas cake. Lawson then sought out the two younger sons, James and Raymond, who had attempted to hide from him. He positioned the all of the bodies by putting pillows under their heads, rocks for the two girls who were left in the barn, and crossing their arms in a funereal pose.
Initially neighbors were not alarmed by all of the gunshots, which they believed to be the traditional rabbit hunting. But when relatives arrived to wish the Lawsons a Merry Christmas they found the bodies and a freshly baked cake. Some say that Charlie may have believed that Arthur would have tried to stop him from his grisly deed and that is why the youth was sent to the store. (Arthur, as seen in the portrait, was bigger than his father.)
After the murders, Charlie hid out in the woods, pacing around a tree while neighbors and police gathered at the house. Everyone heard the gunshot when Charlie took his own life and they knew what that shot portended.
Charlie Lawson was found with two incomplete notes in his pockets. One said “Nobody to blame but” and the other said “Troubles can cause.” People are left to try to guess Lawson’s motive for the mass murder-suicide. He had sustained a terrible head injury a few months prior, but his brain was actually studied afterward at Johns Hopkins and no physical cause was found. A few family members and friends came forward later stating that Lawson had been carrying on an incestuous affair with his daughter Marie and that she was pregnant. We can only speculate.
The deceased, including Charlie, were buried together in a Stokes County cemetery. There are some who say that when the leaves fall, they fall on all the graves except Charlie’s.
The murders inspired a ballad, which is a separate blog post.
— by Ansley Herring Wegner