Lawson Murder, The (Charlie Lawson) [Laws F35]
DESCRIPTION: Charlie Lawson goes mad on a Christmas evening and shoots first his wife and then, despite their pleas, his six children. He prepares them for burial, bids goodbye, and kills himself also. The family is buried in a common grave
AUTHOR: Wiley Morris? Walter "Kid" Smith?
EARLIEST DATE: 1930 (recording, The Carolina Buddies)
KEYWORDS: homicide family burial suicide madness children
Dec 25, 1929 - 43-year-old Charles D. Lawson shoots his family and himself
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Laws F35, "The Lawson Murder (Charlie Lawson)"
Warner 114, "The Lawson Family Murder" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownII 298, "The Lawson Murder" (1 text plus mention of 2 more)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 240-241, "The Lawson Family Murder (1 text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 206-207, "The Lawson Murder" (1 text)
DT 729, LAWSNMRD
[Walter "Kid" Smith and the] Carolina Buddies, "Murder of the Lawson Family" (Columbia 15537-D, 1930)
Spencer Moore with Everett Blevins, "The Lawson Murder" (on LomaxCD1705)
The Morris Brothers, "The Story of Charlie Lawson" (Bluebird B-7903, c. 1938)
E. R. Nance Singers, "The Lawson Murder" (Brunswick 542, 1931)
Glen Neaves, "The Death of the Lawson Family" (on Persis1)
cf. "The Dark Knight" (plot)
cf. "William Beadle" (plot)
NOTES: As is typical of songs from the early era of recorded music, the authorship of this is uncertain. D. K. Wilgus credits this to Wiley Morris of the Morris Brothers. But Richard Dress informs me that Walter "Kid" Smith of the Carolina Buddies also claimed to have written it -- and, of course, his recording came first; the Morris recording actually postdates the first field collection (Brown).
Whoever wrote it sure came out with it fast, since the song was first recorded three months after the murder, on March 25, 1930 (Thanks to Paul Stamler for the date).
Frances H. Casstevens, Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: Tales of Murder, Suicide, and Causes Unknown, History Press, 2006, devotes half a dozen pages to the murders. It appears there was little evidence in advance that trouble was coming. Charlie Lawson was an independent farmer who was buying his 128 acre tobacco farm on a mortgage and was regarded as honest and as a good provider. He had future plans to improve his property (Casstevens, pp. 79-80).
It is noteworthy that Lawson had suffered a traumatic brain injury not too long before the murder. His mattock had hit something, rebounded, and hit him in the head, requiring the attention of a doctor (Casstevens, p. 80). Although the doctor pronounced the injury not severe, his personality is said to have changed as a result. This is not, in the light of modern knowledge, a surprise; such a blow, if it damages certain parts of the brain, can severely affect the ability to regulate emotions.
Sadly, the effect of the injury was to make the formerly-patient Lawson a very combative man, quarreling with his family and, in 1928, getting into a fight with another man which put Lawson in the hospital for two weeks with knife wounds. He seems also to have been more impulsive about purchases. An autopsy after his death did not reveal obvious brain damage (Casstevens, p. 82), but what are the odds that some backwoods North Carolina doctor or coroner would know anything about brain pathology? If it happened today, we would probably find damage of a diagnosable kind.
What exactly happened on that day cannot be known. Elijah Lawson, Charles's brother, and Elijah's teenage son Claude chanced to visit the Lawson home, to find a grisly sight indeed. Mrs. Fanny Lawson and her infant girl Mary Lou, seven-year-old James, five-year-old Raymond, and sixteen-year-old Marie were killed in the house , and the oldest girl, were killed in the house. Thirteen-year-old Carrie and ten-year-old Maybelle were found in a barn with their hands crossed; it is hypothesized that they ran away and were shot, and their father brought them back and posed their bodies. Lawson also posed the five-month-old baby in her crib. The oldest son, Arthur, was away at the time of the shootings and survived (Casstevens, p. 81).
Lawson seems to have hidden, and waited until the police arrived, before shooting himself.
Five thousand people are said to have attended the burial (Casstevens, p. 82).
There is a full-length (although non-scholarly) book on the topic, White Christmas, Bloody Christmas, but M. Bruce Jones and Trudy J. Smith. I have not seen it; it is out of print, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. Apparently it offers the hypothesis that Lawson had gotten his daughter pregnant and committed the murder to cover it up (Casstevens, pp. 84-85). This doesn't explain why he killed the whole family, though. And why didn't the coroner figure it out?
For that matter, if Lawson's traumatic brain injury had influenced his ability to control his rage, it could also have inhibited his ability to control incestuous urges. So while the pregnancy hypothesis may be true, it doesn't preclude the TBI hypothesis being true as well.
This song has become quite popular with bluegrass performers in recent years, starting with the Stanley Brothers.
Casstevens, pp. 115-116, has another Lawson Family poem, "The Lawson Family in Rhyme," by Edith Willard. It does not seem to have become traditional. - RBW
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