This is the last living photo taken of the Lawson family.
On Christmas Day, 1929, shots rang out across the countryside near Germanton, North Carolina as Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and six of his children, before taking his own life hours later. To this day, no one knows why he committed these terrible acts.
Charlie Lawson had been married to Fannie Manring for 18 years, during which time they had eight children, four sons and four daughters. Their third child, William, died in 1920, but the other seven children were still alive on the morning of December 25, 1929. By the evening, only sixteen-year-old Arthur would survive.
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The Lawson family worked as sharecroppers, and had finally saved enough to buy their own farm just two years before the tragedy. Not long before that fateful Christmas morning, the whole family went into town to buy new clothes for a family portrait, which would prove to be the last photo of them taken alive. Since new clothes and portraits were unusual luxuries for working class families of the era, many have since seen this as proof of premeditation on Charlie Lawson’s part, perhaps immortalizing his loved ones before he would destroy them.
The bloody crime began on Christmas afternoon, as Lawson’s daughters Carrie and Maybell (ages twelve and seven, respectively) were leaving to visit their aunt and uncle. Charlie Lawson lay in wait for them near the barn, and when they drew close enough he shot them both with a shotgun. He then bludgeoned their bodies, presumably to ensure that they were dead. Afterward, Lawson hid the evidence of his crimes in the tobacco barn.
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From there, he walked back to the house and shot his wife, who was on the porch, before tracking down his other four children and killing them one-by-one. He shot his seventeen-year-old daughter Marie first, then his two young sons James (age four) and Raymond (age two), before beating to death the four-month-old baby Mary Lou.
Prior to going on his bloody spree, Charlie Lawson had sent his oldest son Arthur into town on an errand, though his motives for sparing the one child remain as mysterious as his motives for murdering the others.
When his family was dead, Charlie Lawson carefully positioned their bodies, arms crossed, with rocks under their heads like pillows. After that, he disappeared into the nearby woods, where he stayed for several hours before shooting himself in the head. By the time Charlie Lawson committed suicide, the bodies of his family had already been found, and several neighbors who had gathered on his property heard the gunshot that ended his life.
When they found Charlie Lawson’s body, he was carrying letters to his parents, and nearby was a tree with footprints going around and around the trunk. Perhaps Charlie Lawson had been pacing around it in circles before he finally decided to end his life.
At the time, no one seemed to know why Charlie Lawson would suddenly kill his entire family and then himself. Some people believed that a head injury he had sustained months before had been the cause, though an autopsy showed no evidence of brain damage. Other rumors claimed that Lawson hadn’t actually committed the murders at all. Instead he was an unfortunate witness to some sort of organized crime. He and his family were murdered by gangsters to keep them quiet.
In later years, with the 1990 publication of the book White Christmas, Bloody Christmas by Trudy J. Smith, a new theory as to the reason behind Charlie Lawson’s killing spree came to the surface. According to anonymous sources, as well as relatives and friends of the family, Charlie Lawson was suspected of having an incestuous relationship with his oldest daughter Marie, who may have been pregnant with his child. In the 2006 book The Meaning of Our Tears, the author provided more support for this theory.
The eight Lawsons who perished that day—including Charlie—are interred together with baby William beneath a single headstone, which bears the melancholy inscription: “Not now, but in the coming years / It will be in a better land / We’ll read the meaning of our tears / And then sometime we’ll understand.”
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons