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The Lawson family massacre on Christmas Day, 1929 was news coast to coast when it took place, but the only ones who might know the case today are fans of hillbilly music.
Charlie Lawson was a "family annihilator" who killed his wife, six of his children, and then himself. The case has baffled and divided the folk of Stokes County, North Carolina for generations, and they've often expressed their feelings about the tragedy in music with ballads like "The Story of the Lawson Family," "Ballad of the Lawsons," "Murder of the Lawson Family," "The Murder of Charlie Lawson," "Charlie Lawson's Still," and many others. Poignant murder stories being a favorite subject of much mountain music, at least a dozen artists have recorded versions over the years on albums with titles like Ballads and Songs of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The most famous version of the song was by the Stanley Brothers. They grew up in the area where the family murder took place. Your correspondent is tempted to share some of the words, but lyrics are meant to be heard.
There's one book in print about the Lawson case, White Christmas-Bloody Christmas: Finally the True Story of the Lawson Family Murders of Christmas Day which cost as much as $100 for awhile but has been reissued due to new interest in the case.
For those interested in the true story behind the music, a new documentary is coming out this month. Having just had my socks knocked off by the Villisca film (see this post), I'm intrigued by news of the movie 'A Christmas Family Tragedy', which explores the facts and legends surrounding the Lawson murders and what they mean today for the descendants and the community. Santa might bring me a copy, and I'll provide you with some particulars.
Meanwhile, for more --
The film's official website with photos and trailer
Clip: "Documentary explores notorious Stokes killing" by Mark Burger
Hear the Stanley Brothers play "The Story of the Lawson Family" on itunes
Clip: "Grisly Tale for Yuletime" by Jim Wicker: "The name “Charlie Lawson” is probably unfamiliar to most people today. But there was a time when it was on nearly every Tar Heel lip. By now, only a few spry old-timers in their late 70s, early 80s or older remain to remember the crimes that made Lawson’s name familiar in every North Carolina home for many years, along with those of John Dillinger and Al Capone..."
Clip: Hillbilly Ghost Hunters on the Lawson Family Murders by Betty Sue Haynes
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying on Folk Music
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P.S. The ballads based on the Lawson case are so powerful that they inspire people to shoot each other -- to ask to be shot. No kidding. From the Charleston Gazette, January 1939: