The Wolf Family Murders: North Dakota’s Most Brutal Crime
In April 1920, the worst mass murder in North Dakota history took place.By Jessica Ferri
In April 1920, the seven slaughtered members of the Wolf family, as well as their stable boy, were laid to rest in Turtle Lake, North Dakota. At the time of the funeral, the identity of their killer remained a mystery. The only survivor of the gruesome attack was the youngest member of the Wolf family, eight-month-old Emma.
Then, just three weeks later, a neighbor named Henry Layer confessed to the brutal crime.
Layer’s confession was as bizarre as it was ghastly. He claimed he had gone to the Wolf family farm to complain about Wolf’s dog attacking one of his cows. Patriarch Jacob Wolf, 41, told Layer to get off his property and proceeded to load his shotgun. There was a scuffle, and the shotgun discharged, shooting and killing both Mrs. Beata Wolf, 36, and the family’s stable boy, Jacob Hofer, 13, who was standing nearby. Jacob Wolf fled on foot; Layer shot and killed him.
Upon hearing gunfire, daughters Maria, 9, and Edna, 7, ran into the barn, where Layer killed them. Then Layer went into the house where he found the remaining Wolf children, Bertha, 12, Liddia, 5, and three-year-old Martha. He shot and killed both Bertha and Liddia, and bludgeoned to death young Martha with a hatchet. Layer sloppily covered the bodies in the barn with dirt and hay, pushed the bodies in the house into the cellar, then returned to work at his farm.
Two days later, a neighbor noticed that the Wolfs’ laundry was still hanging to dry, and went over to investigate. He discovered the horrid scene, as well as poor baby Emma, still alive but weak from cold and hunger, in her crib.
The crime would go down as North Dakota’s most brutal mass murder. Over 2,500 people attended the Wolf family’s funeral in little Turtle Lake, despite the population at the time only being 395. Layer raised suspicions with his odd behavior at the service, opening all eight caskets and “gazing on their faces.”
He was arrested on May 11, and soon signed a confession to the eight murders. Layer claimed the only reason he didn’t kill baby Emma was because he didn’t know she was there. He was sentenced to life in prison, and died in custody in 1925.
As the state’s most notorious crime, historians have oft revisited the Wolf Family murders, raising questions as to whether Layer’s confession was coerced. Indeed, Layer maintained his innocence while behind bars, claiming authorities strong-armed him during their interrogation. When asked by the prison barber, Layer said the police had beaten the confession out of him. He then broke down crying, proclaiming his innocence, and weeping, “Oh, my children. My children.”
The fate of Layer’s children—he had five with his second wife plus one from her previous marriage—is not entirely clear. Some reports have all but one being sent to live with relatives after their mother remarried. Other reports listed them as wards of the state. The eldest, Blanche, eventually married, and died in Seattle in 1981.
Little orphaned Emma Wolf was raised by her aunt and uncle, and went on to live a long life, dying in 2003 at the age of 84.
Though we may never know with any certainty whether or not Layer committed the Wolf family murderers, the photograph of those caskets, two large and six small, is a haunting image indeed. Locals still ruminate over the story of the Wolf family, whose tombstone reads in German “Die ermordete Famielie,” or “The Murdered Family,” and who now lay side by side in the Turtle Lake Cemetery.
Special thanks to author Vernon Keel, who graciously supplied photos for this article. For more information about the Wolf Family Murders, check out Vernon’s website, The Murdered Family, as well as his book, The Murdered Family, on Amazon.
All photos courtesy of Vernon Keel/ The Murdered Family