The motive for one of the saddest and bloodiest crime in the region’s history remains a mystery as the 90th anniversary of the Lawson Family Murders approaches.
Germanton tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson, 43, on the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1929, shot and bludgeoned six of his seven children and his wife before turning his gun on himself in the snowy woods of his Stokes County farm.
Known to have behaved erratically in the months leading up to the slayings, Lawson had also complained to his Danbury doctor C. J. Helsabeck about severe headaches and insomnia, according to numerous historical accounts of the crime and testimonials in the book, “The Meaning of Our Tears,’’ by author and crime historian Trudy J. Smith.
A few folks of advanced age in Stokes and Rockingham counties still remember when the murders were a fresh topic of regional and national gossip, but those directly connected to the murder have died.
The notorious crime drew thousands of nuisance visitors to the home place off Brook Cove Road in Germanton. Party lines were hot with the news and the first spectators showed up by foot and by car shortly after the slayings. Two days later thousands of curious interlopers, including press, swarmed the graveside funeral at Browder Cemetery, according to newspaper accounts and Smith’s 2006 book.
They had all come to see the row of caskets be lowered into a mass grave, dug by family and friends.
Soon after the funerals, a brother of Charlie Lawson opened the crime scene for macabre tours. The cabin was left disheveled and bloodstained for authenticity. The gory exhibit even featured the
Christmas cake daughter Marie, 17, had baked, but never served her family.
Marion Lawson defended his decision to offer tours of his brother’s home, claiming he needed to raise money for Lawson’s orphaned son Arthur to use in settling the farm’s mortgage.
Among the thousands of visitors to the house from across the nation was infamous mobster John Dillinger, freshly escaped from prison. He reportedly made a side trip to Germanton with his girlfriend and a criminal associate while en route to Florida. Dillinger is said to have left a note on the door of an area lawman, mocking him for missing America’s Most Wanted of the era, according to accounts in Smith’s chronicle.
Details of the case, taken from news archives of the Winston-Salem Journal and the Greensboro Daily Record and Smith’s book, still preoccupy crime buffs and locals:
- The winter of 1929 was tough in Rockingham and Stokes counties with a deep snowfall that made conditions even more bitter that Christmas.
- After shooting two of his daughters, Carrie Lee, 12, and Maybell, 7, near the barn, Lawson made his way to the porch of the family’s cabin and shot his wife, Fannie. Inside, he gunned down daughter Marie, 17, then bludgeoned his tiny sons, James, 4, and Raymond, 2, before doing the same to Mary Lou, 3 months.
- With the family’s two dogs, Sam and Queen, Lawson retreated to the woods with two shotguns, stopping to wash his bloody hands in a creek. Footprints showed that he paced in a circle around a tree, perhaps for hours, before shooting himself.
- Authorities found two notes in Lawson’s pockets, scrawled on tobacco auction receipts. One read “Trouble can cause…” and the other, simply, “Nobody to blame.’’
- In rural North Carolina during the 1920s, rabbit hunting was quite a popular sport on Christmas Day. So gunshots, like the ones that rang out as Lawson killed his family could have been taken for granted as such sounds were pretty commonplace out in the country.
- Relatives discovered the bodies late in the afternoon when they visited to wish the family a merry Christmas.
- The cabin’s rooms were blood soaked and furnishings were in disarray.
- Lawson placed all of his victims’ heads on pillows and folded their hands across their chests. He used two stones from his tobacco barn as head rests for two daughters he shot and bludgeoned outdoors.
- Snow made the steep hill leading to the Lawson cabin difficult to mount, so family members, friends and deputies transported bodies wrapped in borrowed bed sheets by a make-shift sled to hearses parked at the main road.
- Hearses first delivered the bodies to a funeral home in Walnut Cove, but the establishment was too small to handle the task of embalming and autopsying eight bodies. So corpses were reloaded and motored through snow to Madison’s Yelton Funeral Parlor, located above Penn Hardware Co. at 104 W. Murphy Street.
- Madison Dry Goods now operates in the building in historic downtown Madison, and the owners feature an upstairs museum that includes the rooms and memorabilia from the mortuary service. The elevator used to transport the Lawson bodies to the second story is still working in the 1908 brick building.
- Dr. C. J. Helsabeck of Danbury was the Stokes County Coroner who presided over the autopsies on the night of Dec. 25, 1929. Dr. Spottswood Taylor, brother of Stokes County Sheriff John Taylor, happened to be home for Christmas from Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, where he was serving as an intern. He helped with the inquests, working into the wee hours with Helsabeck in Madison.
- Taylor assisted Helsabeck in removing the brain of Charlie Lawson for examination that night, and saw to a more in-depth analysis back in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. Taylor returned to Maryland with Lawson’s brain, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. The brain’s location isn’t known.
- Initial autopsy reports noted that Lawson’s brain was relatively small and that a portion of the center of the brain seemed underdeveloped.
- On December 27, 1929, five hearses lined Murphy Street where huge crowds gathered to see the seven Lawson caskets loaded for transport to the funeral at a mass grave at Browder Cemetery near Germanton.
- Lawson killed all but one of his children, Arthur, 16. With his father’s permission, the teenager had walked with a friend to Walnut Cove to buy ammunition for rabbit hunting. Lawson murdered the family while his son was gone. Some speculate Lawson feared Arthur would intervene and interrupt the slaying spree.
- Some witnesses and family members reported Lawson murdered his family because he felt ashamed for impregnating his oldest daughter Marie, 17. Such theories are put forth in detail in Smith’s book.
- No autopsy report ever detailed Marie Lawson as being pregnant.
- While eight bodies were embalmed, only seven caskets were buried. Infant Mary Lou was laid to rest, nestled in the arms of her mother, Fannie, 37.
- Lawson shot and bludgeoned his first four victims, but only bludgeoned his two youngest sons and infant daughter.
For more information on the crime:
“The Meaning of Our Tears,” by Trudy J. Smith, 2006 and “White Christmas, Bloody Christmas,’’ by Bruce Jones and Trudy J. Smith. The books are available to check out or purchase at the Madison Public Library.
“Trouble Will Cause,’’ a documentary by Dan Sellers is available at Madison Dry Goods, Co.
Susie C. Spear is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. She can be reached at 743-333-4101 and on Twitter @SusieSpear_RCN.