The Wolf Family Murders
A Brutal Crime in Small Town North Dakota
One of the horrible crimes in North Dakota’s history happened on April 22, 1920, on a farm just north of Turtle Lake. It was a gray, overcast day and light rain had been falling. Resident John Kraft saw the neighbors, the Jacob Wolf family, had left their laundry on the clothesline overnight and their horses untended. He went to inspect and stumbled into what might be the most dreadful crime scene in North Dakota history.
He found the first bodies in the barn, quickly covered with dirt and hay: his neighbor Jakob Wolf and two of Wolf’s young daughters, Maria and Edna. In the basement of the home were five more bodies: Jakob’s wife Beata; the rest of their daughters, Bertha, Liddia, and Martha; along with their hired boy, Jacob Hoffer. The kids ranged in age from three to 12. The hired boy was just 13. They had been murdered with a shotgun and a hatchet.
The only survivor, the Wolfs’ eight-month-old daughter Emma, was crying and hungry in her crib. It was April 1920, in the still-young state of North Dakota. Even a century later, it ranks among the country’s most vicious crimes.
The town of Turtle Lake, North Dakota had fewer than 400 citizens at the time, but more than 2,500 people showed up for the funeral where the eight coffins—both big and small—were lined up in a row.
This German family, who had immigrated from Russia, had come to the New World to restrain a rugged land. They are buried beneath a stone reading “Die Ermordete Familie”—The Murdered Family. At the time of the funeral, the murderer was still unknown.
But at the service, one of the mourners was behaving oddly. Henry Layer, who owned a nearby farm, opened each coffin in turn and gazed down at the face inside. The layer had also increased suspicions when he was discovered roaming around the Wolf barn by the sheriff. Layer looked eager to help. He suggested they check the hay in the barn and pulled out a handful of spent shotgun shells.
The layer was apprehended. After a lengthy inquiry, he eventually admitted to the slayings and was convicted to life in prison at hard labor. He perished in jail just five years later after an operation for appendicitis. The layer was also a German who had immigrated from Russia. He had a large family, with six kids. In his confession, he said he had gone to the Wolf farm to confront his neighbor about a dog that had bitten one of Layer’s cows.
Layer said it was Wolf who produced the shotgun—a double-barrel. There was a brawl and both barrels went off. The first murders were accidental, Layer said, and after that, he was in a fog. According to Layer’s confession, Beata, 36, and the hired boy perished from the first accidental shots. Jakob, 41, then ran and Layer shot him. Daughters Maria, 9, Edna, 7, heard the shots and disappeared into the barn. Layer followed them in and shot them. He then went into the home and shot Bertha, 12, Liddia, 5, and Martha, 3. The youngest, he said, he bludgeoned with a hatchet. He said baby Emma was spared only because he didn’t discover her.
He covered the corpses in the barn with hay and pushed the bodies in the home through a trapdoor into the cellar. Then he went home to his farm.
But from jail Layer retracted his confession. He said he had been bullied into it and informed that he would be turned over to a murderous mob if he didn’t cooperate.
Vernon Keel was born 20 years after the killings. Like everyone growing up around Turtle Lake, North Dakota, he grew up neck-deep in stories about “the murdered family” and the neighbor who went to jail for the killing but insisted he was railroaded.
Keel became a journalist, writing for his hometown paper, and later a journalism professor. Keel decided to adapt the story for a work of historical fiction, which he labeled The Murdered Family. Did Layer do it or was he coerced into an admission? We will possibly never know for sure but I’d say in my belief they got the right guy.
There is one note of hope in this horrible story. Baby Emma, the sole survivor, was raised by an aunt and uncle. She lived a long life, dying in 2003 at the age of 84.