A Family Christmas Like No Other: The Lawson Family Case

Every family has its own set of problems. It’s normal to fight with your little brother or yell at your parents; it’s an ordinary part of life and issues eventually blow over and equilibrium is found once again. Especially during the holidays, when everyone is home together, personalities tend to clash and bring an even higher chance of arguments.

The Lawson Family Case
Source: Pinterest

We’ve all had those moments where we just imagine squeezing our siblings’ necks, but most of us would never actually turn that into a reality. However, some people do. There are families that look picture perfect on the outside, but unbelievable things happen behind closed doors. The Lawson family is one of them.

They Seemed Like a Happy Family

The Lawson family may have seemed like an ordinary family, but that wasn’t the case. Although they lived almost a hundred years ago, their morbid tale continues to haunt people to this very day. It all started with an expensive family portrait and a father who has had enough of life.

Low angle view of St. Philips Episcopal Church at Germanton.
Source: Wikimedia.org

What Charles Lawson did to his family on Christmas Day is absolutely heartbreaking. This is a story of a loving father who one day snapped and killed his family. He left one son alive, but that wasn’t the strangest part about this case.

Here is the full story and theories about what caused Charles to go from a devoted family man to a violent monster.

Living the Farm Life

In this story, we are reminded about the cost that comes with having children — expensive diapers, the latest toys, and of course, those hefty college fees. Back in 1927, Charles and Fannie Lawson were living a simple life before they decided to expand their family with seven beautiful children.

Horses from a horse farm in the fields.
Photo by Gerhard Riebicke/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Charles grew up in a sharecropping family, so he managed to save enough money to purchase a derelict farmhouse close to his brother’s farms. Charles moved his family to the farm in Germanton, South Carolina where the Lawsons settled in to begin their new life. Sadly, it would be short-lived.

The Brady Bunch of the 1920s

Charles and Fannie didn’t hold back when it came to growing their family considering they had seven children. Their eldest was Marie (17), Arthur (16), Carrie (12), Maybell (7), James (4), Raymond (2), and the youngest was four-month-old Mary Lou.

Brady Christmas circa 1975. Actors Robert Reed and Florence Henderson exchange wrapped Christmas presents next to their acting kids during the episode 'A Very Brady Christmas'.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As you can expect, raising seven kids is no easy feat and presented the family with quite a financial challenge. Money issues can cause a strain on a lot of families. So, his decision to buy his children new clothes and get their family portrait taken right before Christmas that year was strange.

A Haunting Portrait

In the age of digital cameras and smartphones that can capture any moment, it’s hard to imagine what a family portrait event would have been like almost a century ago. But back then, having your picture taken was an expensive experience, often reserved for the wealthy.

First Kodak Camera circa 1888.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Charles and Fannie worked as tenant tobacco farmers and didn’t have much money at all. That’s why it should have been a huge red flag when Charles decided to spend so much money just before Christmas 1929. In hindsight, it was the first indicator that something sinister was about to happen.

A Legendary Photograph

The lower-class family gathered their pennies and posed in front of a box-shaped camera. Almost half a century later, this portrait would become an eerie representation of madness, turmoil, and murderous intention.

The Lawson’s vintage family portrait.
Source: Pinterest

Essentially, this portrait would become the final family legacy accompanied by a massacre. The photograph captured a moment of life that would be snatched away far too soon. It’s chilling to look at this picture, knowing that the lives of the Lawson family would tragically end just a few days later.

On Santa’s Naughty List

December 25, 1929 started off like any ordinary, predictable Christmas day. 17-year-old Marie woke up early to bake a cake and surprise her family with a holiday treat. It was a cold winter morning in North Carolina, but Marie warmed up the farmhouse with the smell of a freshly baked two-layer Christmas cake.

Inside The Lawson’s house, now turned into a museum, on top of a wooden counter there is a lamp turned on, a family framed photograph, bottles, a bible and a painting of Jesus.
Source: Instagram/@strangecarolinas

A little later on in the day, the two middle girls, Carrie and Maybell, went off on their own adventure. They went to visit their aunt and uncle, who lived close by, to spread some Christmas joy. But Charles Lawson had a very different plan in mind, and it didn’t include any holiday festivities. He headed to the tobacco barn and got his shotgun ready.

His First Two Victims

Just like the flip of a switch, Charles transformed from a loving and devoted father to a manic murderer. (I just picture Jack from The Shining). When his two girls, Carrie and Maybell, got back from visiting their aunt and uncle, they were met with a terrifying welcoming.

The Shining movie still of Jack Nicholson with a manic expression breaks through a closed door.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com / Copyright: Warner Bros.

Charles aimed the 12-gauge shotgun at both of them and fired , killing them instantly and then moving their bodies to the tobacco barn. Without a second thought or any hesitation, he went back into the farmhouse and shot and killed his wife Fannie in cold blood.

Marie was Next

So, what the heck is going on? Marie screamed in fear as soon as she heard the gunshot, making her the next victim. The two youngest boys, James and Raymond, tried to escape.

A fan on top of Marie’s bed and a wooden chair with Charles framed photograph on top.
Source: Instagram/@strangecarolinas

Although they ran and hid, nothing was going to save them from their deranged father. Charles eventually found his two sons and killed them, too, keeping his momentum going. Sadly, the worst was yet to come. No one could imagine that any father could do this. What was going on here?

A Tragic Holiday

Needless to say, this particular Christmas morning was far from jolly. The sound of children’s laughter was replaced with harsh screams, and presents were replaced with dead bodies. By this point, Charles had already killed his wife and seven of his children.

brick wall with subtle decorative elements and two family framed portraits on top of a wooden desk next to a wooden chair and fan.
Source: Instagram/@strangecarolinas

Charles moved over to his four-month-old baby, Mary Lou, and reportedly beat the infant to death. This was the final straw, and the sheer horror of what he had done came down to haunt him. After his murderous exploits were completed, Charles ran off into the woods and took his own life, leaving one of his children behind…

Finding the Bodies – Except One

So, I bet you’re wondering why he left one of his sons out of his murderous exploits. The night before the gruesome killings, Charles sent his eldest son, Arthur, to run some errands. The fully grown 16-year-old listened to his father, no questions asked.

Newspaper pages kept since the time of the murder when it came out published.
Source: Instagram/@strangecarolinas

He went into town to buy shotgun shells under false pretenses: he thought that the reason he was picking up the shells was to go rabbit hunting that Christmas afternoon. The father-son activity was a local Christmas tradition, and Arthur didn’t give the chore a second thought.

Not a Christmas Tradition

Unfortunately, it was this same rabbit-hunting Christmas tradition that made neighbors assume that the shotgun sounds were totally normal for Christmas day. However, when they found out what the sounds really were, they were all stunned.

Illustration from a family hunting with blowpipes.
Photo by De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

But when relatives came over to wish Charles and his family a Merry Christmas, they discovered the seven Lawson family members dead with their arms crossed and rocks under their heads. They also found a freshly baked Christmas cake. But the question still stands: what caused this father to commit such a gruesome act?

The Big Question: Why?

When people first discovered this horrendous murder scene, they found seven bodies laid out in a ceremonious way. However, Charles was nowhere to be found. However, one single gunshot was heard in the woods nearby, which gave a clue as to where he was. Another dead Lawson body was added to the list.

Vintage photo from an outside view of the Lawson’s house.
Source: Tumblr

Once the realization settled in, there was the big lingering question: What the heck is going on here?! How could such a family man, with no violent history, murder his own family in such a terrible way? A few theories emerged about what made Charles lose his mind.

Theory #1: Charles Lawson Had a Head Injury

As we know, the Lawson family lived in a farmhouse. Although farm life may seem more idyllic than living in a busy, chaotic city, manual labor comes with its own set of risks. Remember, this was almost a hundred years ago. They did things the old-fashioned way.

Farmhouse view from the road.
Source: Fox News

A few months before the killings, Charles had been digging a ditch when he sustained a head injury. He didn’t think much of it at first, and neither did anyone else. However, in light of the murders, people started to wonder if maybe this injury affected his brain and led to his unexplainable behavior.

Possible Brain Damage?

It was the only thing that made any sort of sense. Unless a demon took over his body, no one understood this sudden manic murder of his family. For years, those who were close to the family believed this sinister behavior was due to an alteration in his mental state.

Vintage brain illustration.
Source: YouTube

Many have stated that Charles wasn’t quite the same after the injury, and it seems to be the only logical explanation, right? Well, an autopsy and brain analysis conducted at John Hopkins hospital debunked that theory, confirming there were no abnormalities. So, what could it have been?

Theory #2: Charles Impregnated His Teenage Daughter

If it wasn’t a brain injury, then what could it have been? Well, to add a dark twist to an already-chilling tale, there were some creepy and unsettling accusations made against Charles. Reportedly, he was involved in an incestuous relationship with Marie, his eldest daughter.

A teenage girl is lying back with her hands on her head. Balthasar Klossowski painting titled
Photo by Brill/ullstein bild/Getty Images

This speculation was first brought to light in the book, White Christmas, Blood Christmas, when it was published back in 1990. An anonymous source reported the rumor after touring the Lawson family’s farmhouse after the murders. But can this disturbing revelation be the true story?

A Reliable Source

This was a huge web of “he said, she said,” but if it’s true, it could really give us a glimpse into this family. On the outside, they seemed average, but what might have happened behind closed doors is far from ordinary. The day before he published the book, the author received a call from Stella Lawson.

Trudy J. Smith, author of the book based on The Lawson family massacre.
Source: YouTube

Stella is Charle’s Lawson’s niece. She was able to confirm that she heard women gossiping about the incident. Apparently, when Fannie found out what was going on, the heartbroken mother confided in her friends.

More Evidence Piling Up

It sounds like some conspiracy theory, right? I mean, we have the word of one woman, and there doesn’t seem to be any physical evidence to support this. It’s really difficult to claim truth to such an extreme case, like incest in a family, especially when no one is around to confirm or deny these allegations.

Cover and back from the book based on the events of the Lawson family massacre by Trudy J. Smith titled ‘White Christmas Bloody Christmas’.
Source: YouTube

But in 2006, another book was published – The Meaning of our Tears – written by the same author, Judy J. Smith. This time, she had a new source to support this theory. Although this evidence is also circumstantial, it’s quite disturbing.

Marie Told a Friend

Ella May, one of 17-year-old Marie’s good friends, admitted that she found about the family secret just a few weeks prior to the murders. Marie desperately needed a friend and confided in her. What she said left Ella May stunned.

Current photo from one of the rooms from the house, with wooden floor and chairs.
Source: YouTube

Marie confessed to her friend that she was pregnant with… her father’s child. This is so horrific and unsettling on so many different levels, andthis terrifying detail gave a lot of context to how the police found Charles Lawson’s body. Was the guilt consuming him?

Charles’ Final Moments

So, the reported gunshot sound is what led to police to Charles’ body in the woods. But when they got there, they were shocked at what they found. Around his body were footprints, which indicated that he was pacing back and forth before ending his life.

Woodland area vintage photo.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The pacing was a bit strange, considering he didn’t even hesitate when it came to shooting his family point-blank. So, why was he pacing? Was he reluctant about taking his own life? Pacing back and forth is actually a common sign of agitation.

No One To Blame But…

The fact that Charles was pacing could be a symptom of anxiety and perplexity, which is also an indicator of a mood disorder. In his pocket, there were two half-written notes. One said: “Troubles can cause…” and the other said, “No one to blame but….”

vintage image from a living room crime scene after the massacre was committed.
Source: Pinterest

While these unusual letters didn’t give us insight into why Charles committed the barbaric crime, they might support the pregnancy theory. Again, this is all circumstantial, but certainly a possibility. The only confusing part is why murder the entire family? Committing suicide would make much more sense.

Arthur Still Died Young

So, whatever happened to Arthur? The only Lawson family member to live past 1927. Story has it that Charles sent Arthur to run an errand the night before that fateful Christmas. Why? Because Charles was worried his strong, muscular, 16-year-old son would try and stop him from committing the massacre.

A collage of the Lawson family portraits and photos of their names engraved on stones next to them.
Source: Tumblr

Who wouldn’t try and stop a crazy murderer from killing their family… even if it is his own father? But the fact that he spared his only son doesn’t mean the son was let free. He had to spend the rest of his life tragically, knowing that his own father killed his entire family.

The Last Lawson Kid

As fate would have it, in 1945, Arthur was killed in a car accident. The young man was just 32 years old and left behind a wife and four kids.

Police officer next to a crashed car and civilians watching the scene in the background.
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

After the family massacre, all that was left was their house. After the gruesome killings, Charles’ siblings capitalized on their tragedy and turned the house into a tourist attraction. Throughout the years, thousands of folks came to visit. The devastating event inspired a few songs, and even a movie: A Christmas Family Tragedy (2006).

The Theory of Madness

Just like all bizarre stories that we can’t make any sense of, we can never rely on a single theory as an explanation. As I said, most of the evidence is circumstantial, so it’s hard to really know what his motive was.

Nearby Lawson’s family neighbor Gerald White is giving an interview.
Source: YouTube

There are still so many people out there who believe that the reason for Charles’ evil behavior was a result of a head injury. There are some details that suggest he wasn’t in the right frame of mind… but who is when they are about to kill their entire family? His behavior was weird from the beginning…

Why Let Him Live?

For example, it kind of looked like he wanted his family legacy to live on. Not only did he invest time and money into having that family portrait taken right before viciously taking their lives, but he also took the time to arrange their bodies after they were dead.

Charles Lawson is standing wearing a hat in a drawn portrait.
Source: Pinterest

Some people think that the reason he may have sent Arthur away was so that he could finish his work with no struggle, and unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. But other folks strongly believe that he spared Arthur so that he would keep the Lawson family name alive.

A Crowd at the Funeral

What’s the biggest funeral you’ve been to? Normally, well-loved figures in society, such as celebrities, attract thousands of people who admired them to their funeral. Many individuals they haven’t even met come to pay their respects.

Vintage image of a big crowd walking down to the funeral.
Photo by De Agostini/Getty Images

The Lawson family attracted a pretty big crowd – 5,000 people. The casket was left open so that family, friends, and nosy neighbors could take a look at the bodies before they were put to rest. Throughout the three-hour ceremony, people formed aisles in order to see the Lawsons for the last time.

The Lawson Family Frenzy

There was a huge frenzy and interest surrounding these haunting deaths, and it continued long after the funeral. In addition to visiting the graves, people would go to the farmhouse to visit the eerie crime scene where the murders took place.

A visitor is taking photos at the Lawson’s farmhouse.
Source: Pinterest

The leading attraction of the home was the Christmas cake Marie baked in the early hours of that fateful day. It was preserved on the murder site. The cake isn’t there anymore now – it can’t be preserved forever, but the chilling atmosphere prevails.

A Lingering Legacy

Was it incest and a disturbing, unexpected pregnancy that broke Charles’ sanity and led him to murder his family with a shotgun? Was it a head injury that sent him over the edge? Or is there another reason/motive for Charles’s violent behavior?

The Lawson family portrait photo framed and hangeing on the wall.
Source: YouTube

Throughout the years, plenty of rumors and speculations about Charles’ predatory behavior and lust for younger girls surfaced. If the family portrait means anything, Marie’s cold stare doesn’t seem to indicate much love. It looks like there is fear in her eyes.

A Shocking Tale

The morbidity of the massacre has haunted the area for years with the story of a seemingly normal father who just snapped. It comes as no surprise that this haunting tale inspired ten songs, two books, and a film (I knew it felt like I’ve seen this horror movie before!).

Four white candles décor on, next to a miniature Santa Claus statue.
Source: YouTube

This was a very early murder-suicide case. At the time, the psyche of criminals wasn’t as understood as it is now, so such a morbid act was inexplainable. Although it’s still hard to understand, this isn’t the only murder-suicide case.

What Really Happened?

Although it’s been almost a century since the Lawsons were killed, it’s important to keep their legacy alive. There are so many weird things surrounding this story. What made Charles snap? Why did he keep his son Arthur alive?

Frozen branches from a cherry tree and a bird on a cold Christmas.
Source: YouTube

We discussed some of the main theories, and they all seem plausible, but I think there is more to the story that we will never know. What do you think? Do you have other theories of your own?