A Spooky True Crime Story: The Lawson Family of Stokes County, NC

This week, in honor of the holiday, we are presenting a creepy true crime story, a Carolina-based tale filled with murder and intrigue. We hope you enjoy, and have a spooooooky Halloween!

The Cake

Marie Lawson rose early on Christmas morning. It was her task to bake a special cake for the family’s Christmas dinner. At 17, she was the oldest daughter of Charlie and Fannie Lawson, and had six brothers and sisters. The next oldest Lawson child, her 16-year-old brother Arthur, had been sent into town on an errand the day before, but he would be home in time for Christmas dinner. The cake would be the centerpiece of the family’s meal.

She tied an apron around her waist and began mixing the ingredients. Flour, butter, milk, raisins. She put the cake pans in the oven just as the rest of her younger siblings came tumbling down the stairs. Carrie and Maybell were planning to go down the road to visit their aunt and uncle and wish them a merry Christmas. While Marie’s mother tended to the baby, four-month-old Mary Lou, Marie tended to the rest of her siblings, making sure everyone had a good breakfast.

What happened next would become the stuff of folk song and local legend.

The Lawson Family

Charlie Lawson and his family lived in Stokes County, North Carolina, during the 1920s. Charlie was a tobacco farmer and a sharecropper who moved his family to Germanton, North Carolina (about thirteen miles from downtown Winston-Salem) in 1918. The Lawsons weren’t fabulously wealthy, but they managed to save up enough money to buy their own home by 1927. By 1929, Charlie and his wife Fannie had seven children ranging in age from 17 years to four months.

The Photo

In 1929, a few weeks before Christmas, Charlie loaded up Fannie and his family and took them all into town. The Lawsons all got brand new clothes, and they also sat for a big family photo in a portrait studio.

image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Back Row (L-R): Arthur (16), Marie (17), Charlie, Fannie and Mary Lou
Front Row (L-R): James(4), Maybell (7), Raymond (2), and Carrie (12)

If you look at the photo, there is something incredibly uncomfortable everyone’s posture–except for Charlie.  It could be that they are all wearing brand new clothes, and they feel itchy or there are pins poking them in uncomfortable spots.  Or could it be something else?

Some say that the photo was something unusual and out of character for the family.  As a farming family, they may not have had a whole lot of disposable income for the great extravagance of new clothes for everyone and a studio portrait.  Others claim that since the family had managed to save enough to purchase their own home just two years before, they were pretty stable financially.  But the most intriguing part of the photograph, perhaps, is the timing.  Taken just a few weeks before Christmas, just before Marie Lawson got up early to bake that cake.  Before everything went wrong.

Christmas Day, 1929

Twelve-year-old Carrie and seven-year-old Maybell had started off the road to visit their aunt and uncle.  They wouldn’t be back for a while, since there was sure to be Christmas festivities with the relatives.  Fannie was on the front porch, watching the girls until they disappeared behind the barn.  Marie was in the kitchen, perhaps frosting the cake that she had taken from the oven a little while before.  It was when the two girls disappeared from view when things began to go sour.

Their father, Charlie, was waiting for the girls with his shotgun as they passed by the barn.  They never made it to wish their aunt and uncle merry Christmas.  Charlie Lawson shot and bludgeoned his two daughters to death before placing them inside the barn.  He then proceeded to the house, where his unsuspecting wife Fannie and the remaining children waited.

Charlie then shot his wife, sons James and Raymond, and Marie. Mary Lou, at four months old, was bludgeoned to death while the other members of her family were shot. She was also the last to die. 

Charlie then carefully positioned the bodies of his family, putting rocks under their heads and crossing their arms, before retreating to the woods that surrounded the home. When 16-year-old Arthur returned home from his father’s errand, he found a horrific scene.

Arthur apparently sounded the alarm, and Charlie paced around a tree in the nearby woods while neighbors and police gathered at the house. The growing crowd then heard a distant gunshot–Charlie Lawson ended the story by taking his own life.  Authorities found him at the base of the tree where he had paced back and forth in his last moments.

The Aftermath

The story of the Lawson Family Murders gained traction, first in Stokes County and then beyond. The family funeral attracted crowds of curious neighbors, and the house where the Lawson family lived and died soon attracted hundreds of tourists.  The Christmas cake that Marie had baked the morning that she died became a source of fascination–tourists would pick raisins from the cake to keep as souvenirs until it was placed under a glass dome.

The Theories And The Legend

So why did Charlie Lawson murder his family on Christmas Day?  We don’t really know–letters that he left behind don’t really offer any clues as to his motive.  There is, however, plenty of speculation.  (And we love wild speculation, don’t we?)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Lawson Family not only died together, they are also buried together.

One theory is that Charlie Lawson, who had suffered a head injury earlier that year, killed his family after his injuries had addled his brain.

Another is that he didn’t actually kill his family–that Charlie had been an inadvertent witness and that members of an organized crime syndicate took the opportunity to silence the whole family.

And a third theory, the one that many folks seem to find deliciously salacious, is that the relationship that Charlie had with his oldest child, Marie, was less than honest.  There are stories that have circulated regarding Marie admitting to a friend that she was pregnant with her father’s baby.  That Charlie had made her promise not to tell anyone, otherwise “there would be some killing done.”

Of course, none of these theories have been confirmed, and now there’s no really good way to find out what was going through Charlie Lawson’s mind as he murdered his wife and six of his children.  But the story lives on.  The story of the Lawson Family Murders has spawned two books, numerous folk songs (you can listen to one here), and a number of articles (even some from across the world) that try to parse out the senseless violence.  The Lawsons are also featured in the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources webpage, as a notable part of North Carolina history.

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