GERMANTON, NC — It was December 25, 1929, and one North Carolina family woke up on Christmas morning blissfully unaware that their father had murder on his mind.
On that fateful day, tobacco farmer Charles Davis Lawson, 43, killed his wife and six of his seven children before taking his own life. Over the years, the massacre has mystified residents of the town and experts who still wonder: What was his motive?
Lawson’s early life appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary: He was born in 1886 in the town of Lawsonville, married Fannie Manring in 1911, and had eight children — including one who died of pneumonia.
In 1927, he bought a plot of land that included a 200-year-old farmhouse. By all accounts, he seemed to have settled into a quiet life with his family — until the day of the killings.
M. Bruce Jones and Trudy J. Smith wrote in White Christmas, Bloody Christmas that they believe Lawson’s problems started with him accidentally striking himself in the forehead with his ax while doing work. After that, the authors wrote, his temper became more violent.
Another theory was that Lawson had sexually abused his 17-year-old daughter Marie. In 1990, a book was published in which Stella Lawson Boles, a cousin of Lawson’s, confessed she had overheard her mother and other women talking at the funeral about how Fannie had confided in them that she had discovered incest in her family between Charlie and Marie. It was also alleged that Marie had confided in her friend Ella May Johnson, telling her that she was pregnant with her father’s baby.
Two weeks before Christmas, Lawson bought his family expensive new clothes and had them sit for a Christmas portrait. This was considered a very unusual thing to do for a working class family, many of whom never had any photographs made of themselves at that time.
On Christmas morning, he and his eldest son Arthur, 16, went out hunting. After sending the teen out to buy more ammunition, Lawson then systematically executed his six other children — Carrie, 12; Maybell, 7; James, 4; Raymond, 2; Marie, 17; and four-month-old Mary Lou — and then fatally shot his wife, Fannie, on the front porch. As he slay each family member, he lay them out with their arms crossed, and some accounts say he put stones over their eyes.
Carrie and Maybell were the first to die, followed by Fannie. Lawson then came into the house and shot Marie. He then found her two younger brothers, James and Raymond, who had run to hide, and killed them, too. Finally, he bludgeoned baby Mary Lou, whose cause of death was a fractured skull.
After the bodies were found, and police arrived on the scene, Lawson reportedly ran into the woods and shot himself. Only Arthur survived, although he was to perish 15 years later in a freak car accident.
The entire family was buried in a single plot — but the crime scene continued to attract so many curious visitors that one of his brothers decided to charge a 25 cent admission fee.A Christmas cake that Marie was baking at the time of the murders even became a star attraction in carnival sideshows. It had to be kept under glass after souvenir-hunters swiped raisins off of it. When the tours ended, five years later, one of Lawson’s relatives took the cake home and eventually buried it.
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Main photo: A studio portrait of the Lawsons taken shortly 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) [Wikimedia Commons]