I first heard this song on the Stanley Brothers album An Evening Long Ago: Live 1956. The song introduction said it is true story from Western North Carolina. Due to the gruesome subject matter, and the fact that the events happened on Christmas Day,1929, the song fits into the "Plumb Pitiful" category, in the sense used by the late Ray Davis (see the About Page). This song tells the story of what, in recent times, criminologists have started to call a family annihilation.
It was a bitter, snowy Christmas Day in 1929. That afternoon, Charlie Lawson, a respected rural tobacco farmer from near Germantown in Stokes County North Carolina, committed one of the most brutal crimes of mass murder ever recorded in U.S. history.
Charlie was born in1886, and married Fannie Manring in 1911. The couple had eight children, but the third, William, born in 1914 died of an illness in 1920. In 1929, several weeks before Christmas, Charlie Lawson took his family, his wife Fannie and their children: Marie (age 17), Arthur (age 16), Carrie (age 12), Maybell (age 7), James (age 4), Raymond (age 2), and the infant Mary Lou (age 4 months) into town to buy new clothes and to have a family portrait made (see photo above).. Since they were not very wealthy, this seemed somewhat unusual; some later saw this as a sign of premeditation. These new clothes ultimately became their burial outfits.
On that horrible afternoon, he began the slaughter with his daughters, Carrie and Maybell, who were walking over to their uncle and aunt's nearby house. Lawson waited for them by the tobacco barn; when they were in range, he shot one with a rifle and the other with a shotgun, then to ensure that they were dead, he bludgeoned them with a rifle stock. He then placed the bodies in the tobacco barn.
He next went back to the house and shot his wife Fanny, who was on the porch. He then entered the house, where the two small boys were attempting to find a hiding place. Charlie shot Marie and then found the two boys, who were bludgeoned to death. He then shot the baby in its crib. After the murders, Charlie went into some nearby woods, where he shot and killed himself a few hours later. The only survivor of this ghastly deed was his eldest son, 16 year-old Arthur, who had been sent into town to buy more shotgun shells, because he thought he, his cousin, and his father were going to go rabbit hunting that afternoon.
Arthur and his cousin discovered the bodies upon their return from town and called the authorities. The bodies of the two sisters were discovered in the barn, with their their arms crossed, with rocks under their heads for pillows. The remaining family members ere found dead inside the home, with bed pillows under their heads,
A gunshot, signaling Charlie's suicide was heard some time later by a police officer and curious neighbors who, having heard of the gruesome evens at the farm, had gathered there. The police officer ran down to where the shot was heard to find Charlie dead. Charlie's footprints had encircled a tree several times; it was concluded that Charlie had been pacing around the tree before taking his life. Charlie had on his person two incomplete suicide notes, one of which read "Nobody to blame but ...." the second read "Trouble will cause ...."
Graveside services were held for Charlie Lawson and and his family in a donated plot in the nearby Browder Family Cemetery in the afternoon of December 27th 1929. The killings attracted so much attention that an estimated crowd of 5000 attended the funeral; most of these were undoubtedly curiosity-seekers. Because the funeral home was not prepared for such a large number of victims, Charlie was buried in a grey coffin, the other family members were buried in white coffins. The body of four-month old Mary Lou was buried in her mother's coffin.
If you have read this far, you may have several WHY questions.
The first WHY probably has to do with MOTIVE. Several theories has been put forward in attempts to explain why Charlie may have killed his family. One is that the Stock Market had recently crashed, and he was afraid he would lose his tobacco farm and his family would be thrown into destitute times. Frankly, there is little support for this theory. Another theory was that he had suffered a severe head injury when a pick-ax he was using hit a fence and it flew back and hit him in the head. Some family and friends thought that this had altered his mental state and was related to the massacre. However, an autopsy and analysis of his brain at Johns Hopkins Hospital found no abnormalities.
A more likely cause for the murders was revealed when the book White Christmas, Bloody Christmas was published in1990 with a claim of an incestoua relationship between Charlie and his eldest daughter Marie. An anonymous source told of a rumor heard during a tour of the house shortly after the murders. The day before the book was published, the authors received a phone call from Stella Lawson, a daughter of Charlie's brother and a cousin to the Lawson children, who had already been interviewed for the book. Stella said that at the funeral for the Lawsons she had overheard Fannie's sisters-in-law and aunt, including Stella's mother Jettie Lawson, discussing how Fannie Lawson had confided to them that she had been concerned about an incestuous relationship between Charlie and Marie. Jetti Lawson died early in 1928, meaning that Fannie had been suspicious of the incest for at least that long before the murders in late 1929.
More support for this incest theory was revealed in the 2006 book The Meaning of Our Tears: the True Story of the Lawson Family Murders, Christmas Day 1929. In this book, Ella May, a close friend of Marie Lawson discloses that just weeks before Christmas, Marie told her that she was pregnant with her father's baby. Ella May also said that Charlie and Fannie knew about this. Another close friend and neighbor to the Lawson family, stated that he knew of serious problems going on within the family, but declined to elaborate.
As might be expected, there still are those who question the true cause of these events. Even years afterwards, Charlie Lawson was still remembered in the community as a kind, honest, and friendly man.
THE SECOND WHY QUESTION
The second WHY question has to do with why anyone would compose and record a song about such a murderous tragedy? I guess I will simply say that many attempts have been made to explain the murder ballad question. I'll leave this question to the musicologists and folklorists. Murder ballads have long been a staple of folk music, going clear back to the broadsides of England. This persisted to the music of the Appalachians and the rural South. Bluegrass music has been a fertile field for songs about death, murder, tragedy, fires, mine accidents, lost love, lost dogs,and even more.
Shortly after the murders, the home where the murders took place was opened by Charlie's brother, Marion Lawson, as a tourist attraction. He charged 25 cents a head a head, and neighbors told of some days when there would be a hundred cars in the yard, It even had on display a cake that Marie had baked on that Christmas afternoon. People bagan the pick the cake to take home some of the raisons; it was put under glass, where it remained for a number of years.
The only survivor of the tragedy, the oldest son Arthur grew up living at his uncles Marion's house. He met an untimely death in 1945, killed instantly in an automobile accident. He left a wife and five children.
The first appearance of the ballad was the 1930 recording of The Murder of the Lawson Family by the Carolina Buddies. Most of the subsequent recordings follow the words of this song very closely. They all have the requisite verse about a final judgement day. A YouTube search will bring up several additional versions of the song. The Carolina Buddies recording was followed closely (perhaps the same year) by the Red Fox Chasers with Murder of the Lawson Family. The first version of the ballas I recall was that sung by the Stanley Brothers, The Story of the Lawson Family, recorded live in 1956, with a spoke introduction of the history of the song. Finally, there is the 2013 video of Robbie Fulks singing a cover of the Doc Watson version of the Lawson Family Murder, recorded at the Hideout in Chicago. The introductions has a bit to say about the murder ballad genre in Bluegrass Music.
A number of sources have been consulted on the internet for background on this story.