Stokes County, NC lies in the heart of tobacco country. Back in the heyday of the Golden Leaf, as tobacco was once called, almost every man in Stokes county farmed tobacco or had some kind of connection to it. And the most infamous tobacco farmer of them all was a man by the name of Charlie Lawson.
It is said that Charlie Lawson’s crimes are so horrible that his soul is not even welcome in Hell. As a result, some local residents say his ghost still wanders the road in Stokes County near the place where his farm was once located. A man has to be pretty evil when even the Devil won’t take his soul.
On Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson took a shotgun and murdered his wife and six of his seven children. His children ranged in age from four months old to 17 years of age. One of his children, a boy 16 years of age, was off on an errand and as a result his life was spared. He came home later that day to find his entire family dead.
Charlie murdered his two young daughters after lying in wait for them to return from a neighbor’s house. He put their bodies in his tobacco barn and put a stone under each one’s head to act as a pillow. He then entered the house, shot his wife, older daughter, two young sons and his baby. Then he went out into the woods and shot himself.
Over the years rumors have circulated about what drove Charlie to commit the most heinous mass murder in North Carolina’s history. The most popular theory is that he was having an incestuous relationship with his 17 year old daughter, who some say was pregnant with his child at the time of her death. Others say that he was just a patsy who was framed for the murders. It all depends on who you ask.
But twenty years ago I was the stepchild in a family that claimed to share distant roots with Charlie Lawson. To prove this to me we took a family outing one Sunday afternoon to visit the gravesite of Charlie and his murdered family. The grave is in a small cemetery just outside of the tiny hamlet of Walnut Cove, NC. I was living in Kernersville at the time and had just gotten married, so you can imagine how I felt when I told my new bride that we had been invited to go on a road trip with my parents so that we could see the grave of a distant relative that, decades before, had killed his entire family on Christmas Day. I’m lucky she didn’t file for divorce the next day when the courthouse opened for business.
It was a short drive up to the intersection of NC Highway 8 and Brook Cove road. The gravesite of Charlie and his family is a mass grave that was dug as one big rectangular hole, or so we were all told by my paternal step-grandmother who had come along for the ride. She remembered all the details of the Lawson killings, and claimed that Charlie was her distant cousin. This was in the days before the Internet and I remember her talking about the raisons on the cake that Charlie’s oldest daughter was icing when he shot her, how he killed his baby and then shoved the body underneath the wood stove, and how the son that survived died years later in a truck accident. And she knew that the baby had been buried in its mother’s arms. She had heard these stories first-hand from people that had been alive at the time and had visited the murder scene on that cold, snowy Christmas Day in 1929.
But my step-grandmother had a different take on why Charlie did it. She claimed that Charlie went crazy because he worked in a slaughterhouse killing hogs all day long, and one day just lost the ability to know the difference between killing a hog and killing his kin. This runs counter to the story that Charlie was a tobacco farmer who got his daughter pregnant and felt that murdering his family and himself was the only proper way to deal with the shame.
The grave was all we could see that day. Charlie’s house has long since been torn down and nothing remains of his farm. After we finished looking at the grave we drove into Walnut Cove to visit relatives, some of which I had never met before. I sat and listened to their stories about the Lawson killings and how Charlie’s ghost was routinely spotted walking up Brook Cove road. This was from people who had lived in the area their entire lives – good, honest country folk who knew, like all Southerners do, that sometimes the souls of the dead are a little slow when it comes to moving on from the physical world.
In the end, the only person that knows why Charlie Lawson murdered his family is Charlie himself. But if you really want to know why he did it, take a drive up Brook Cove road and you just might be able to ask him for yourself.