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'Criminal' Investigates A Lingering Family Murder Mystery

In 1929, one of the worst murders in Stokes County occurred when a tobacco farmer killed six of his seven children and himself.  Since then, the Lawson family murders have gained widespread attention with continuing questions about why Charlie Lawson committed the crime.  The event is the subject of the latest episode of the Durham-based podcast Criminal, hosted by Phoebe Judge.

Judge recalled the story of Charlie Lawson, saying he went down to the local town center in Stokes County with all his family, bought brand new clothes and had their photograph taken. Then two weeks later on Christmas Day, he shot six of his children, his wife and himself.

"It's about as gruesome a thing as one can imagine," Judge said. "He carried each of his children and lined them up next to each other as you might see at a funeral. He put stones over their eyes and then went into the woods and shot himself."

The tragic story of Charlie Lawson gained national attention after the murder. Judge said throughout the early 20th century, gruesome murders like the one committed by Charlie Lawson became songs called "murder ballads." Parents used the stories like this as cautionary tales to warn their children saying, "This could happen to you."

"It was like Law & Order: SVU with a fiddle," Judge said.

Bands have molded the murder of Charlie Lawson's family  into different ballads over the years, from the Carolina Buddies to the modern-day band Elephant Micah. But the murder still remains a mystery to the Stokes County community. Hear the episode about Charlie Lawson of Criminal at

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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