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Saturday, September 17, 2011


Every once in a great while, quite by accident usually, Karen or I will stumble across a documentary about a murder case with which we are completely unfamiliar. Such is the case with “A Christmas Family Tragedy: Legends of the 1929 Lawson Family Murders”. Karen found this DVD at one of the St. Louis County Library branches and immediately grabbed it. In turn, it “grabbed” us as well as we sat down to watch it.

It tells the story of Germanton, North Carolina, tobacco farmer Charles (Charlie) Lawson and how, one cold and snowy Christmas morning, he blitzkrieged his family and, climactically, turned the shotgun on himself. He also used the firearm as a bludgeon during the attacks.

The victims were Charlie’s wife, Fannie, and six of their seven children: Maybell (7), Mary Lou (4 months), Marie (17), James William (4), Raymond (2) and Carrie (12).

The oldest male child at 16, James Arthur Lawson (yes, there were two boys in the Lawson house named James), aka “Buck”, had been sent into town just minutes earlier to purchase more shotgun shells, not knowing that his father would pretty much use up the shells he’d had on hand then and there to commit the murders.

Had Buck returned to the farm just a bit sooner, he, too, would have been a victim. As it turned out, Buck, in the years that followed, had a hard time living with what happened and it drove him to drink. He was killed at the age of 32 in 1945 in a truck accident.

Ironically, the name Buck Lawson would be used as the “hero” for Billy Curtis’s character (a coinkydink, I’m sure) in the all-midget Western, “The Terror of Tiny Town” in 1938, some 9 years after the Lawson tragedy.

A ballad was written about the Lawson murders the year after the murders. It was recorded a number of times and in the end credits of the film, you hear a woman singing it acapella.

“A Christmas Family Tragedy” is a fascinating work overall. It has its flaws, though, one of them being poor sound quality in spots. Another thing that I thought was pointless was apparently cutting the movie’s running time down and switching some of the removed footage over to a “bonus features” setting. I’d rather not have bonus features on a disc if you have to sacrifice the ebb and flow of your movie just to pander to the demand for extra stuff.

There is a lot of on-camera speculation as to Charlie’s motive in exterminating his family. There were no tangible clues left behind as to what might have caused it. I think that sometimes we look for deeper meanings to some things that do not appear kosher on the surface. Sometimes, though, it’s just better – maybe more difficult – to accept the fact that something this cruel is little more than just plain meanness and leave it at that. God knows that the human race has excelled in treating each other terribly.

I also found it a bit odd to hear bluegrassed-up versions of Christmas hymns being placed over recreated scenes/photos of the murders. Seemed a bit over the top to me.

Then are location shots of the Lawson family burial site at Browder Cemetery in Germanton. They were interred next to each other, decked out in the finest clothes they ever had. The clothes were new; they were killed while wearing them.

A weird, probably manufactured, twist to the story of their gravesite is told at the end of the film.

A man who is interviewed and otherwise provides commentary in the documentary, mentions that he once shuffled some leaves over to cover Charlie’s resting spot as well after having allegedly discovered that leaves were everywhere but there. He put a stick on top of the grave to keep the leaves intact. According to this gentleman, as he walked away and then looked back some 20 seconds later, the leaves were all gone, the stick had been moved and there was nothing but bare grass once again over Charlie. Good story. If it’s true.

The DVD was released by “Facets Video” of Chicago. I don’t know if this movie is still available or how you may wind getting your hands on one. The back of the box shows a phone number of 1-800-331-6197. There is a website listed, too: If you order it, tell ‘em Mike at the Detective Magazine Heaven site sent ya!

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