Note: Are you in North Carolina? There is a program on this case Saturday, 17 Feb. 2007 at 1:00PM at the Library in High Point
So here's what it's all about...
We remember the Christmas murders.
Our celebration is tempered by a certain pathos that makes any notorious crime more tragic when it falls on or even near it. The worst crime of all, at least on this holiday meant for family and the enjoyment of children, is the murder of a family. We may always remember how Scott Peterson betrayed Laci and Connor on Christmas Eve.
The "family annihilators" -- men who cooly plan the murders of their wives and children -- sometimes choose this holiday to do it. In 1954, in Pasadena, California, Harold Oilar killed his family after their Christmas party. On Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson committed the unforgivable sin of killing his wife and six youngest children in southern Appalachia.
A Christmas Family Tragedy is the name of the new documentary just out about the Lawson family murders in 1929. Your correspondent had a chance to see it. The movie is filled with photos and interviews with local residents, historians, genealogists, Lawson experts, and descendants of the surviving family. The movie is a fascinating exploration of the many ways to ask why in the Lawson case.
Why did a 37-year-old farmer kill his family?
Why did people drive for miles to see the murder house?
Why did 5,000 people attend the funeral?
Why do we make music of such a thing?
How could it be that a recording of a hillbilly murder ballad about the Lawson Christmas tragedy actually cracked the top five in record sales in 1930?
Why is it that some locals refused to discuss the case, ever, while others take stones from atop the gravesite?
There are some elements in this case that the student of crime will recognize as inherent in the family annihilator. Like John List decades later, Charlie Lawson clearly planned for days or weeks. He took the whole clan to town ten days before Christmas to buy new clothes -- outfits that they'd be buried in -- the photo (above) that would run in newspapers across the region. After his awful deeds, Lawson, like List, collected them, posed some of them.
But the Lawson case is also unusual even within its type. Charlie Lawson was well regarded, a "good man," someone who was honest and did kind deeds for his neighbors. None of the "usual" explanations for family annihilators appear in this case. Lawson did not seem to suffer from religious delusion or any delusion at all. He in fact objected to his family attending church. There were rumors of incest, that his daughter was pregnant. But there doesn't seem to be much support for that. And if there were financial straits that drove him to do it, again there seems little proof.
One thing about Charlie Lawson is clear these many years later. He had a temper. Rages. A "strong hand." He beat a man in public once. His oldest son had begun sleeping in his clothes to protect the family from the patriarch.
In the end, the explanation for the Lawson Christmas tragedy may lie in the simple fact that murdering your family, "my family, and I can do what I want with them," may best be characterized as the ultimate act of domestic violence.
After exploring the why of it, the filmmakers remark --
The cold, hard, observable, tangible fact of the matter is that Charlie did it because he felt like he had the right to make that decision for his family by himself. He thought he had the right to make life-or-death decisions for other people without their knowledge or consent.We hope we can give the spirits of the Lawson children a proper burial by honestly acknowledging their suffering and confronting the shocking brutality of what happened to them that day without blinking.Maybe instead of forgiving and forgetting we should be acting on warning signs and preventing the next tragedy from happening in our own neighborhoods.
The filmmaker's website - featuring photos, links, a message board, and a place to order your own copy.For more Clews, see The Lawson Family Tragedy In Music - about the Hillbilly music inspired by the murders.
A new book about the case -- The Meaning of Our Tears by North Carolina author Trudy J. Smith -- this is an update of the first and only other book about the case, White Christmas, Bloody Christmas (now out of print and in high demand). Trudy Smith first published White Christmas in 1990 along with her late father, M. Bruce Jones. The Meaning of Our Tears, which was published only weeks ago, is the enlarged and revised edition of the story.
An Interview with the Filmmaker
Matt Hodges, one of the producers of A Christmas Family Tragedy, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the film that I put to him. Here's the Q&A.
What ever came of the murder house?
As mentioned almost in passing in the film, the house was torn down in 1984 and the wood was used to build a covered bridge on the property.
Who owns the property today?
The current owner of the property is a rather private individual who specifically requested that we not include any info on him or his property in the film. That's the reason why it seems I only mentioned the fate of the house in passing at the beginning of the 1985 graveyard ghost story. I wanted to keep my promise to him, especially since he's currently Very upset that the book Did include a picture of the bridge he built without securing his permission. In a small community, it's a big deal, and I've done my best to not offend Any of the principals involved so as to contribute to the future goodwill attached to the project in the community.
The reason for their reticence seems to stem from a high volume of traffic to his home from curious onlookers, who in the past at least, vandalized a lot of things surrounding this story.
Did the one surviving member of the family ever speak at length about what happened and /or about his father? Did he leave any writings, any testimony?
Arthur 'Buck' Lawson to our knowledge never wrote any account of his life. We do have footage of more stories about his later life than we included in our film, but that's due in no small part to the need to contextualize every bit of info we got in a timely fashion within the structure of the overall film.
Strangely, we received stories that he sometimes accompanied the items from the house that toured local fairs as part of an exhibit, but we were unable to get anyone on record who saw him there or had any 1st hand account of it whatsoever, so we went with what we Did have, which was an apparent Lawson family imposter recounting the tale after Arthur's death. There are numerous newspaper accounts dating all the way throughout the 77 yrs of this story's history, but none that we found that referred to Arthur, except his obituary or the usual info we included.
Was there ever an inquest?
There was no inquest due to Dr. Helsabeck convening a jury on the scene of the crime announcing that the family was dead, Charlie was the killer, case closed. Again, there's newspaper stories from the time stating that a resident at Johns Hopkins University in the area, a Dr. James Spottiswood took the brain back to JHU to examine it, but followup stories on this are slim and inconclusive at best. After repeated efforts to track it's history at JHU, I was told that all records of it would have been purged long ago.
What is the family rift about today?
There are numerous causes of conflict amongst the surviving relatives. Some believe Charlie didn't do it, while others believe he did, but for different reasons. The one thing they all seem to agree on though is their universal unwavering hatred for the authors of WCBC. The 2 chief complaints being that by only interviewing one member of the family in depth, the rest of the family's opinions and considerations, not to mention feelings weren't taken into account. Thus the 'confirmation' of molestation was bitterly attacked by many who had at least as solid a connection to this story as Stella Lawson.
Secondly, that the authors exploited the story for their own private financial gain at the expense of family or any other needy cause affected by the issues raised in this story. Toward that end, to demonstrate our commitment to preserving history while using it to serve a greater good, we're donating 10% of the profits from the film for its lifetime toward domestic violence causes, which you can learn more about at http://www.bodproductions.com/domestic.htm.
Are there any good websites or forums for people to go on the net to discuss the case?
The forum for our film also serves as the only board I know of where folks are discussing this story and the myriad issues it raises and that's at http://www.websitetoolbox.com/tool/mb/maryc.
Thanks to the filmmakers for sharing their work with Clews readers.