Bloody Christmas of 1929: The Lawson Family Massacre

The story of the Lawson massacre shakes me every time. I heard about this story a couple of months back and I became obsessed with it. Even though this was almost a century ago, it’s still an insane story.

It starts in 1927, When Charles Lawson, his wife, Fannie, and his seven children moved to a farm in Germanton, North Carolina, a small town north of Winston-Salem. Shortly before Christmas 1929, Charles Lawson took his wife and their seven children, Marie (age 17), Arthur (age 16), Carrie (age 12), Maybell (age 7), James (age 4), Raymond (age 2) and Mary Lou (4 months) into town to buy new clothes and have a family portrait taken.

Having a portrait taken was a rare, unusual–and slightly suspicious event–because the Lawsons worked as tenant tobacco farmers, and photos cost a lot of money back then. Since a photo would cost nearly as much as a spontaneous trip to Disney World, emptying the savings account of a middle-class farming family, many people believe Charles Lawson wanted this photo as the final legacy of his family — frozen in time, forever.

On the afternoon of December 25th, Marie, the eldest sister, was baking a cake for Christmas. Little did she know that the cake would be still untouched 5 years later.


Lawson Family Homestead (no longer standing)

The bloody Christmas massacre began as Charles Lawson first shot his young daughters Carrie and Maybell with a 12-gauge shotgun and placed their bodies in the tobacco barn. He then returned to the house and shot his wife, Fannie. When teenage Marie heard the gunshot that killed her mother, she screamed and the two youngest boys, James and Raymond ran and tried to hide from the terror that was unfolding. Charles then proceeded to kill Marie, eventually found the boys and killed them as well.

Charles then killed his 4-month old baby Mary Lou. It is said she was beaten to death. Several hours later, Charles went into the nearby woods and committed suicide.  The bodies of the family members were found with their arms crossed and rocks under their heads. Arthur, the eldest son, was the only survivor of the family, as he was sent out on an errand just before the crime was committed.

Sadly, in 1945, Arthur was killed in a car accident at the age of 32. After the murders, one of Charles’ brothers, Marion Lawson, opened the house as a tourist attraction. In the five years the house was on display, it brought thousands of people, inspiring many songs and even a movie.

Solving the Mystery: Why Did Lawson Massacre His Family?

The big question on everyone’s mind is: Why? What caused an average, everyday family man with a wife and seven children, to snap and brutally murder his entire clan? Here are a few theories and clues that may help shed light on this bloody Christmas Day massacre.

Theory #1: Charles Lawson’s Recent Head Injury

A couple of months before the event, Charles Lawson had sustained a head injury while digging a ditch on his farm. For years, family and friends of the Lawsons theorized that it had altered his mental state and was the cause of the massacre. Some say he was never the same after the injury. However, an autopsy and analysis of his brain at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland found no abnormalities.

Theory #2: Charles Impregnanted His Teenage Daughter

First chronicled in the book White Christmas, Bloody Christmas, published in 1990 by M. Bruce Jones and Trudy J. Smith, claimed an incestuous relationship between Charles and the eldest daughter Marie surfaced beginning with an anonymous source who heard the rumor during a tour of the Lawson family home after the murders.

The day before the book was to be published, the author received a phone call from Stella Lawson, daughter of Marion Lawson. Stella said that she had overheard Fannie’s sisters-in-law and aunts, including Stella’s mother Jettie Lawson, discussing how Fannie had confided in them that she had been concerned about an incestuous relationship between Charles and Marie.

Jettie died in May of 1928 meaning Fannie had been suspicious of the incestuous relationship long before the murders took place in 1929. More supporting evidence for this theory was revealed in The Meaning of our Tears, published by the same author in 2006. A friend of Marie, Ella May, revealed that a few weeks before the murders, Marie told her that she was pregnant with her father’s baby.

When they found Charles Lawson’s body, there were footprints around him, suspecting that he was pacing for a long time before he killed himself. There were also two unfinished notes in his pockets one reading “Troubles can cause” and the other read “ No one to blame but.” It’s possible that maybe Charles’s shame over his daughter being pregnant may have led to the murders.

In fact, if you look closely at Marie in the famous Lawson Family Portrait, you can see her dress looks a little tight around her midsection, which almost seems to indicate a baby bump.


Photo Courtesy of The Berkshire Evening Eagle, December 30, 1929 – Pittsfield, Massachusettes

Why Arthur Was Left Alive?

You may think that’s it’s an insane reaction, but I think that Charles’s head injury played a part in the murders. The fact that he took the time and money to have a photo taken shortly before he killed them and then arranged their bodies after the murders show that lot more was going on than just a man who killed his family out of a random violent impulse. There’s also the matter of why Arthur wasn’t killed, but I think the answer is simple. Arthur would have probably been the only family member capable of defending himself and his family. Plus, based on the family portrait, it seems at least part of Charles Lawson’s heart wanted to see his family name live on.

It certainly has lived on — a name that evokes fear and tragedy even a century later.

According to the Charlotte Observer published on December 28, 1929, more than 5,000 people attended the funeral services for the Lawson family. After the last rites had been conducted, the caskets were opened to permit friends to view the bodies. More than three hours were required for the people, forming two aisles, to pass the caskets in which the remains of the eight victims lay.

As for Marie’s Christmas cake, it spent years as the star attraction at the murder site and in carnival sideshows. It had to be protected by a glass cover because people were picking off the raisins as keepsakes. When the tours ended, one of Lawson’s relatives took the cake home and eventually buried it.

Lawson Family graves – Photo Courtesy of Findagrave.com

By Sarah B


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