The first thing you notice is how small the headline is. The publication date was New Year’s Day 1930 in the primary weekly newspaper covering Stokes County in that particular time. It’s from the now former Danbury Reporter, founded by the Pepper family in Danbury. Today it’s known as the Stokes News. It’s how things were done by newspapers of that time. Big headlines, it seems, didn’t really start until World War II.
But make no mistake this event, which occurred on Christmas Day in 1929, was big news — still to this day probably the biggest single news event in the history of rural Stokes County in North Carolina. And no, the story to which I refer isn’t the one headlined, “Newsy Letter From King.”
Yes, the story of Charlie Lawson and his killing rampage became national news at a time when things that occurred in tiny communities didn’t travel very far. There was no TV, radio was just emerging. Newspapers ruled the day and even in places like Stokes County stories were produced just once a week. But media and everyone else converged upon Stokes County, in the North Carolina foothills between Winston-Salem and the Virginia line. What big city media existed then passed through. Curious visitors drove sometimes long distances to see the house where a farmer killed his wife, six children and himself in a murderous spree on Christmas Day. Many took souvenirs, including raisins from a cake the oldest Lawson daughter, Marie had made for Christmas Day. Legend has it even the notorious bank robber John Dillinger came to Stokes County so he could look at the house himself sometime several months after the slayings took place.
My own family connection to the case includes the investigating officer, Sheriff John Taylor who was my great-uncle. Another great-uncle, Dr. J. Spotswood Taylor, was visiting for Christmas and was drafted to act as coroner. He was a pathologist at Johns Hopkins at the time. And my grandfather, W.H. “Boley” Tuttle brought the slain infant out of the Lawson house. He was a World War I veteran, an Elon College graduate and owner of a hardware store in Walnut Cove, N.C. that still exists.
All of them are long passed, but the Lawson story certainly has not. A couple of books have been written about the case. Hundreds of stories speculate as to why this violent episode occurred and all the rumors around it. It has been the subject of a movie, a play and several songs, including this one recorded by North Carolina music legend Doc Watson.
And this one performed here by the Red Clay Ramblers.
And earlier this week I saw via Facebook that a true crime documentary will be presented on Jan. 26-27 at the Arts Place in Danbury. Stokes Arts, in conjunction with Wreak Havoc Productions, will show “Trouble will Cause” about the 1929 murders. According to Stokes Arts, the film “focuses on answering the mystery of why Charlie Lawson murdered his family and himself through a psychological exploration.” Wreak Havoc Productions is an independent production company based in Greensboro.
Screenings are 6 p.m. Saturday Jan. 26 and 3 p.m. Sunday Jan. 27. Cost is $5 per person. To reserve a spot call 336-593-8159 or email email@example.com
It’s interesting that this case still generates such interest after almost 90 years. I remember my father talking about it, even though it occurred almost two years before he was born. Sometime in the 1970s he drove us out there to look at the site, although there wasn’t much left to see. And I’m still interested enough to possibly try and get back to my mother’s home in Danbury on either Jan. 26 or 27 to see the film presented in Stokes County. The Arts Place is a good spot to visit, too. I wrote about it last year.
For anyone interested, I put together the Danbury Reporter front page with the Lawson story pieced together in order to read the first Stokes County report about the murder.