Americas,  United States

Christmas massacre in North Carolina

It was Christmas Day, 1929 in Germanton, Stokes County, North Carolina and a father of seven was out with his eldest son, shooting rabbits near their home just outside of town in Walnut Cove. At some point during the hunt, Arthur Lawson, then aged sixteen ran out of ammunition for his rifle. He asked his father if he could spare some, but Charles replied that he too was getting low, and gave his son some money, asking that he go into town and buy more for further shooting planned for that afternoon.

Arthur set off for the walk into town from near their home at 2890 Brook Cove Road. There was about six to eight inches of fresh snow on the ground and the journey on foot was approximately three to four miles and would take him a couple of hours to return.

After his son left, Charles Lawson, a forty-three-year-old tobacco farmer, made his way back to the family home, a rudimentary cabin on a small plot of land that they had purchased two years beforehand after moving from a tenant farm a couple of miles away owned by William Browder, seemingly to prepare for the holiday celebrations that day.

Both he and his wife, 37-year-old Fannie (nee Manring) came from large families well established in the area, and plans had been made to get together with some of them for the day. Charles’ father William “Gus” Lawson had passed away some years since, but several of his siblings including brothers Marion and George, and their families, and his mother Nancy still lived nearby. Fannie’s family were also from Stokes County and lived in nearby Lawsonville.

But this is where the story takes an unexpected and sinister turn. As Charles was outside behind the tobacco barn, his daughters Carrie aged twelve- and seven-year-old Maybell set out to their uncle’s house Charles aimed his rifle and shot Carrie, then took aim at Maybell however his gun jammed so he switched to his 12-bore shotgun and shot her with that. Neither girl died immediately so he bludgeoned them to death with a piece of timber laying nearby, then dragged their bodies into the barn, where he carefully crossed their arms over their chests and laid their heads on rocks fashioned for pillows.

Charles then calmly walked up towards the house where his wife sat on the porch. He shot her and began to drag her body towards the door, where seventeen-year-old Marie appeared after hearing the gunshot. She saw her father with her mother’s lifeless body, screamed and ran back into the house where legend has it, she had been preparing a Christmas raisin cake for the family. (Some later family accounts claim Fannie had actually baked the cake the day before.)

Marie attempted to reach the fireplace, theories suggest she was trying to reach for the poker to defend herself, when her father shot her in the back with the shotgun. The blast was strong enough to lift her from her feet, throwing her into the mantel, knocking out several teeth, breaking her wrist, and snapping her neck, leaving her dead. Witnesses later stated the wound in her back from the blast was so large, one could see right through her. It appeared that when turning away, Charles had actually slipped and fallen in her blood.

Charles’ two youngest sons, four-year-old James and two-year-old Raymond had tried desperately to hide after hearing the screams and shots. James under the bed, form where he was quickly found and dragged out, before being shot or beaten to death (reports vary) and Raymond from behind the boiler, where a struggle to extract him took place before he met the same fate as his brother. Statements say they too were shot, but rudimentary autopsy reports suggest Charles beat them around the head with the butt of his shotgun.

Finally, Charles reached into the crib where his four-month-old daughter Mary Lou lay, and smashed in her skull with the shotgun. Following the gruesome spree, Charles calmly gathered the bloody bodies of his family together and laid each one out with their arms crossed and pillows under their heads as he had done for the daughters in the barn. He then took his gun and his dog out to the woods where he paced around a tree for several hours.

In the meantime, Charles’ brother and nephew, Claude were concerned that the family had not yet arrived for the planned get together so headed out to the house to see if they were still coming. They quickly stumbled on the horrific scene, with Claude soon finding his cousin’s bodies in the barn as his father went into the house. As they searched for missing Charles, a gunshot was heard from the woods, where it was now getting dark. They raced in the direction of the noise and found Charles’ body, laying where he had fallen after using a pronged stick to press the trigger on his weapon, taking his own life. A note in his pocket read simply “Blame no-one but I”

Many years later, it would transpire that a local boy had been at the house at the time of the murders, for reasons unknown, and when the shots started ringing out, was seen at the door by Charles who gave him a look as if to say “run, now!” before returning to his killing spree. The boy did not need telling twice and raced home where he told his family what was happening. By the time they arrived it was all over.

In the days that followed, as the news broke across the area, many people familiar with the family were completely shocked. What had driven mild mannered Charles to suddenly snap and annihilate his entire family, saving just the one son. And why had he done that? Theories quickly rose that he had deliberately sent Arthur to town, to get him out of the way, being as the boy was bigger and stronger than his father and was potentially the one person who would fight back and prevent Charles committing the murders. On this basis it was determined that this was a pre-meditated act.

In the days prior to the killings, Charles, completely out of character for a struggling tobacco farmer had taken his family into Winston-Salem and encouraged them all to choose a new outfit, before taking them for a family portrait photograph. This was an expensive business in 1929 so seemed very odd in hindsight. This is the only surviving photograph of the family. Charles then withdrew his entire savings from the bank, around $60. He still had the majority of this money in his pocket when his body was found. The money was used towards funeral costs and the family buried in the new outfits they had chosen days before.

As to the motivation behind his killing spree, initial rumours suggested that Charles was in severe financial difficulty and had panicked and decided to take his life, and not wanting to leave his family destitute and homeless, chose to take them along for the ride. The Wall Street crash and Great Depression were just kicking in and this could have had a worrisome effect on Charles’ state of mind in what was not a very profitable business. It has been stated that Charles had suffered an injury to his brain during an accident involving a rebounding pickaxe some months earlier which may have led to intense headaches and mental illness, as well as a change in his character, so following his death his brain was removed and examined where it was stated to be under-developed in a key area. Following further examination by Johns Hopkins, this claim was apparently rejected. His brain was never returned and is rumoured to still be floating around in some pickle jar at an unspecified laboratory.

Many years later a strong belief within the family held since the period immediately prior to the murders claimed Charles had been having an incestuous relationship, with his eldest daughter Marie, which had left her pregnant. Family members state that Fannie had confided in them as to this problem, and independently, Marie had allegedly told one of her close friends the same story. Whether this relationship was consensual is a matter of speculation, although hardly likely, particularly as Marie was dating a young man, Charlie Wade, from the Church they attended. (Oh, and he was her FATHER! Eugh!) Gossip laid possibilities that this young man was the father of her child, but this was strongly denied by his family. It was claimed that her autopsy showed she was not pregnant, however autopsies in the 1920s were pretty basic, and it was later stated that Marie did not have any inspection carried out on her body other than to ascertain her injuries which were fairly obvious.

As the family planned the funerals of the Lawsons, it became obvious that the usual venues for processes such as viewing, and embalming were inadequate either due to lack of space or facilities to perform so many at one time. Eventually the bodies were taken to a funeral home, now the upstairs of a family-owned grocery store, before being taken for burial in several hearses, at a plot in the private Browder family cemetery, near their farm, where a few members of the family were already interred. The bodies were laid in seven caskets, with baby Mary Lou resting in her mother’s arms, and the caskets being opened for viewing before being laid to rest together in a large seventeen by eight plot donated by their former landlord William Browder.

This is despite the Lawsons having their own family cemetery not too far away. A large memorial was later erected listing all the family, including William, another child who had passed away in 1920 aged 6, from pneumonia. The inscription on the memorial reads “Not now, but in the coming years, it may be in the better land, We’ll read the meaning of our tears, And there, some time, we’ll understand.” From the Hymn of the same name.

In the weeks and months that followed thousands of curious members of the public travelled to the house to view the scene. To try and prevent the loss of the family farm, as Arthur stood to inherit it, and this was his only means of supporting himself, Charles’ brother Marion left the gory remains of the massacre in place, including the blood, pillows and even the cake and charged an entrance fee of twenty-five cents per person. This money was to support Arthur in the coming years. The cake was allegedly eventually covered by a glass case after visitors kept stealing the raisins as keepsakes. This is disputed by family members.

Arthur continued to live in the property for a further five years before it was sold. He later married and had four children, but his traumatic past led him to alcoholism before his own life ended tragically in a road traffic accident at the age of 33. He is buried in a single grave immediately behind his parents and siblings. The farmhouse, built by the family in 1927 when they moved to the site, was eventually torn down in 1985, and although the foundation stones remain, the site has been returned to farmland. The wooden beams from inside however were reused in building a covered timber bridge over a creek not far away from the house. The graves remain in the private cemetery of the Browder family, burials are now restricted to direct family only due to lack of space. Viewing is restricted to family members only unless specifically invited.