MADISON — The casket price list catches his eye, and Buster Williams gives it a quick sweep with a gizmo he uses to measure electromagnetic waves.
Yellowed and pocked by silverfish, the roster itemizes boxes for eternal rest with euphemistic names you’d expect from the mortuary industry —“Eureka,’’ “Sleepking,” “Victory,” “Morerest,” and “Dixie Special.’’
Such were the coffin choices on the night of Christmas 1929, when a string of hearses from Stokes County motored over snowy roads to deliver the bodies of the slain Lawson family to Yelton Funeral Parlor here on the second story of the old Penn Hardware Co. building.
While the dead numbered eight, undertakers would need only seven caskets. Baby Mary Lou, three months, would be cradled in the arms of her 37-year-old mother, Fannie.
On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, Williams, who calls himself an investigator of “entities,” made his way down to Madison from Glade Hill, Virginia, with a GMC Suburban-full of elaborate equipment he uses to monitor and measure energy at sites where folks report or suspect supernatural activity.
Magnetic signs on his truck doors read: “Franklin County VA Paranormal’’ in chartreuse font on black. Williams’ ball cap repeats the logo. He’s all business.
It’s a sleepy afternoon with ballgames droning on the radio and cold rain hanging from a chalky Piedmont sky.
Buster’s already tired, and his wife Janet looks completely spent and a little bewildered. They’ve lost a night of sleep, monitoring for unique activity until dawn at an antiquated hospital.
But the Williams’ have an appointment with Richard and Kathy Miller, proprietors of Madison Dry Goods and are eager to see the second-floor museum in the historic brick building on W. Murphy St. that once housed the funeral parlor and the Sterling Hotel.
“We were up all night at the old Thomasville Hospital,’’ Buster explains, introducing his petite wife as a shy “empath” who has been able to see the dead all of her life.
“In the last two days she saw a dark figure appear at the end of our bed, and it came right up to her and she stared at it,’’ Buster said. “We have another entity we brought home … a small boy,’’ Buster says of a spirit that attached to them during an investigation. “He looks like my grandson, but he has 50s kind of day wear, and my grandson sees him, too.’’
Long fascinated by the mystery of why Germanton tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson, 43, shot and bludgeoned his wife and six of his seven children on the afternoon of Christmas Day 1929, the Williams couple ducks into the store with a reverential posture you might use in church.
Buster scans the high ceilings and vast rooms of the 1908 building with a squint.
The congenial Millers, who for 24 years have operated the quaint store with casual outdoor clothing, fleecy moccasins and country store treats, are proud stewards of the 200-year-old berg’s history.
They also take a special interest in the town’s connection to the gruesome mass murder that made national headlines nearly a century ago and unsettles folks in the region to this day.
While last year marked Madison’s Bicentennial, this year has the dark distinction of being the 90th anniversary of the Lawson family slayings and a funeral that drew several thousand spectators to nearby Stokes County to see the family laid to rest in a mass grave at Browder Cemetery near Germanton.
The Millers have collected mementos, photographs and news clippings to display and they’ve preserved the working elevator and funeral parlor rooms where Yelton staff and coroners worked into the wee hours on Dec. 26, 1929 to complete autopsies and embalm all eight souls.
The now-bare embalming room is indeed where Stokes County coroner Dr. C. J. Helsabeck of Walnut Cove, with the help of Dr. Spotswood Taylor, popped open Charlie Lawson’s skull and removed his brain for analysis, historic accounts and newspaper articles attest.
Dr. Taylor, brother of Stokes County Sheriff John Taylor, happened to be home from his internship at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore for Christmas in Danbury. He eagerly helped with the post-mortems, historians note of the well-trained physician.
The doctors sought to find an organic explanation for the Lawson patriarch’s homicidal spree, and after examining his gray matter, concluded: “there is an unusual spot in the center of the brain which is not filled out in proportion to the rest,’’ according to a report Helsabeck gave the Greensboro Daily Record on Dec. 26, 1929.
Sealed in a jar of formaldehyde, Lawson’s brain would travel with Taylor back to Johns Hopkins for further study.
Several reports say Helsabeck knew Lawson to have suffered severe headaches and an accidental self-inflicted head injury from a mattock prior to the murders. But Johns Hopkins researchers ultimately concluded the brain showed only moderate deterioration.
Several sources have come forth over the decades, though, including one of Charlie Lawson’s nieces, with the uncomfortable theory that Lawson killed his family because he was ashamed he had impregnated his eldest daughter, Marie.
Author Trudy J. Smith, in her 2006 book, “The Meaning of Their Tears,’’ chronicles the crime and includes testimony from the niece and other sources close to the Lawson family who believed Lawson violated his daughter.
No autopsy report, however, recorded Marie as being pregnant at the time of her death.
Back in the funeral parlor, Williams points to the red pulsing light on his electromagnetic field detector, or EMF, and says, “I’ve got something here. Holding the EMF against the funeral chapel’s door frame, he says, “This is what we call a stamp,’’ explaining terminology for a small area of high activity.
“The embalming room is at the top of the stairs,’’ Miller says, ushering Williams and this reporter ahead.
Williams steps lightly, scanning the walls with the EMF device from top to bottom. It’s difficult to imagine how mortuary staff managed eight bodies in the modest room of about 170-square-feet and without plumbing. “I get little bleeps in there,’’ Williams says of his detector. “They probably used buckets,’’ Miller said.
In the nearby chapel room, tread worn floor boards have a cast as shadowy as an apparition.
Pointing to the dusky lines, Miller says, “This is where people would line up to shake hands with the family members, chat and pay their respects.’’ The worn area turns at a right angle to a shorter stretch of scarred hardwood. “This is where they would’ve stopped to view the casket.’’
Mortuary staff would have outfitted the Lawson children — Mary Lou, 3 months, Raymond 2, James, 4, Maybell, 7, Carrie Lee, 12, and Marie, 17 — and parents in their finest new clothes, bought by Charlie Lawson just two weeks before the murders during a special family trip to Winston-Salem.
For the outing, he treated the clan to expensive new outfits and had them wear the fresh togs out of the store for a formal portrait at a photography studio, according to news accounts and interviews included in Smith’s book.
Accounts of the funeral and eyewitness descriptions included in Smith’s account, note the corpses appeared serene, and that while Lawson shot and bludgeoned his victims, he seemed to take care not to mar their faces.
He spared his eldest son, Arthur, 16, who had traveled on foot with a friend to a Walnut Cove hardware store to buy ammunition for holiday rabbit hunting.
Having made a solo trip through the upstairs mortuary rooms, Janet Williams comes back downstairs to report to Buster that she hasn’t detected much spiritual activity in the quarters, just a few drips from rain pelting the floor through a small roof leak.
The wide plank floors and staircase of this 111-year-old building have plenty to say, though. And they pop and creak out a comforting, if sometimes eery rhythm and echo as the haint hunters tread about.
Their mission as paranormal investigators is not to remove or agitate spirits, Buster says. “We don’t clear places (of spirits) or burn sage to get rid of spirits. We go in most places and if we make contact with them, we interact with them.’’ He says some showy “ghostbuster’’ types agitate spirits in an effort to remove them.
While Janet reports she can actually see what she believes are spirits, “I’ve been around entities enough now to know when one’s near,’’ Buster says. “It’s something your body becomes sensitive to.’’
A research buff, Williams says he found out about the Madison connection to the murders through online reading and by watching documentaries about the killings. “And it led me here.’’
About five other paranormal investigators have visited over the years, as well as two female FBI criminal profilers, who dropped by out of curiosity a few years back, Miller says.
Packing up as the rain hastens, Williams shows Miller some larger equipment he plans to bring on a return trip in a few weeks. He hopes to monitor rooms in the funeral parlor for several hours into the night with specialized video and audio equipment when there’s no sound interference from rain.
A practical man in his 70s, Miller has a healthy measure of skepticism about ghosts, but he has a few experiences, including one near the funeral parlor rooms, he can’t explain.
The Sterling Hotel operated out of some of the upstairs rooms in the early part of the 20th century, too, and the Millers have staged those suites with linens and furnishings typical of the time as part of their museum.
“There’s a room we have decorated like a primitive kitchen upstairs, and a Hoosier cabinet in there was turned over and laying in the wrong direction. We couldn’t figure that out. It was really strange,”Miller says, explaining the building had been locked and he detected no interference by wildlife like squirrels.
“I used to get creeped out,’’ Miller says of visiting the upstairs alone. “But not anymore.’’
Showing a shoulder-mount video rig he will bring to Madison on his return mission, Williams wraps up.
“We’ll be back soon and see what we can find.’’
For more information on the Lawson Family Murders, read “The Meaning of Our Tears,’’ by Trudy J. Smith, available at Madison Public Library for sale or check out.
Visit Franklin County VA Paranormal on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/FranklinCountyVAParanormal
Visit Madison Dry Goods, Inc. at 104 W. Murphy Street in historic downtown Madison. Shop and tour the former Yelton Funeral Parlor with the Millers. The store carries DVDs of the Dan Sellers documentary about the crimes, “Trouble Will Cause.’’
Find their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/Madison-Dry-Goods-and-Dry-Goods-Country-Store-147110902024852/
Store hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. — 6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. Phone: (336) 427-7099.