The Wolf Family Murders

The Wolf Family Murders

One of the worst crimes in state history occurred April 22, 1920 on a farm just north of Turtle Lake.

It was a gray, overcast day and light rain had been falling. Local resident John Kraft noticed the neighbors, the Jacob Wolf family, had left their laundry on the clothesline overnight and their horses untended. He went to investigate and stumbled into what might be the most horrific crime scene in North Dakota history.

Jacob Wolf and two of his daughters were found murdered in a barn. In the basement of the farmhouse there were five more bodies — the rest of Jacob’s family plus a chore boy, Jacob Hofer, son of a neighbor. They were brutally murdered with shotgun blasts and a hatchet. The only surviving family member was Emma Wolf, just nine months old, who had been confined to her crib for more than a day with the rest of her family dead.

The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.
The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.

John Kraft called the authorities who soon zeroed-in on neighbor Henry Layer as chief suspect. The Minot Daily News published a story in 2008 which describes the events of the murder, during which Jacob Wolf would be killed with his own shotgun, like this:

The killings happened when Henry Layer, another neighbor, had an argument with Jacob Wolf about his dog biting one of Layer’s cows. When Layer ignored Wolf’s orders to leave his property, Wolf got his double-barreled shotgun and put two shells in the chambers. Layer grabbed for the gun, and in the ensuing struggle, the gun discharged twice with one shot killing Mrs. Wolf and the other hitting the chore boy through the back of the neck and killing him.

When Wolf fled into the yard, Layer reached into a dresser drawer for more ammunition, fired at Wolf, hit him in the back and again at close range. Maria and Edna fled screaming to the barn, where they were pursued and shot by Layer. Bertha, Lydia and Martha were screaming wildly in the house. Layer silenced two of them with the shotgun and Martha, the youngest to be killed, was hit on the frontal bone with the broad side of a hatchet.

Layer then dragged Jacob Wolf’s body to the barn and covered it and those of his daughters with hay and dirt before returning to the house and pushing the other bodies in the cellar.

Layer was arrested two weeks later, convicted, and served five years of a life sentence before he died in prison. Emma Wolf lived first with relatives, then eventually a benefactor until she was an adult.  She later married Clarence Hanson and died in 2003 at the age of 84.

If the toll of eight victims isn’t tragic enough, the alleged killer’s family was torn apart when he was sent to prison and four of his children were sent to an orphanage. One of them, Berthold Layer, was killed in a farm accident when he was run over by a beet truck, his death announced in this 1922 Fairmont Sentinel story which describes him as a six-year-old “inmate” of a ward home. It seems even Mr. Layer’s family paid for the evil deeds he allegedly committed.

There is a book on the subject of the Wolf family murders by author Vernon Keel, The Murdered Family, a work of historical fiction in which the author questions whether the police got the right man. UND’s Patrick Miller covered this story in 2011 as well.

Order the book – The Murdered Family.

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.

85 thoughts on “The Wolf Family Murders

  1. I lived for a time in Turtle Lake. The farm is gone except for the windmill (local legend is that the place was haunted), but there is a big monument to the family in the local cemetery.. I read somewhere that about 50 years later, a guy out in California made a death-bed confession about the killing, and he was in the Turtle Lake area at the time.

  2. I read the book-Keel writes a very compelling scenario for another man to have committed the murders. I highly recommend reading the book!

    1. I also highly recommend Dr Keel’s book. Terrible event in the history of ND that will always leave unanswered questions.

    2. I have read the book and how horrible to have something like this happen, But in reading always felt they put the wrong person into prison,, there was a lot of politics involved in this, and in haste, by being promised a release, this man admitted to a crime, trusting those that made promises.. to many details missing.. but a well written book.

      1. Sharon, are you related to the Renfrows of Turtle Lake : Charlie, Florence, kids Susan, Clark, Joel, and – I can’t remember the youngest’s (a girl) name. One of Charlie’s brothers was Curtis.

  3. There are some pictures of the family’s funeral at the history museum in Medora. The original caption on the plaque says that the family was wiped out by the flu, then there is a correction saying that they were actually murdered. I thought that was very curious, and I’m still wondering why the flu is mentioned. It didn’t seem like a mistake made by the museum, or they would have just replaced the plaque. Was there an attempt at a cover-up?

  4. I grew up on the family farm south of Turtle Lake, graduating from TL High School in 1967. Many of my family members and life-long friends still live there, and I visit often. My father was a boy when the murders occurred. From my time growing up, to this day, many in the area believe that the wrong man was convicted. Accounts of his arrest and sentencing raise many doubts about the veracity of the legal process as applied to him. Vernon Keel’s book, which I have, is in part fictional, but is rich in historical narrative and is well-researched. I recommend it and I also recommend that accounts of the murder go easy on the assumption that Henry Layer was the killer and refer to what we know as allegations, rather than fact.

  5. I too agree that the wrong person was arrested.
    I have also read Vernon’s book. Very, very good.
    Vern also has much documentation and photos and eyewitness accounts that aren’t just out there publicly. he often gives talks on the subject.
    In a side note… I know a man who used to go ‘steady’ w/ Emma’s daughter and he was told some pretty hair raising things by Emma herself. and my aunt on Hubby’s side is a cousin of the family.

  6. What a terrible tragedy for two families. It would be nice if someone could find out what really happened, and exonerate Mr. Layer, even though it happened so long ago. It’s never too late for the truth.

  7. I hope that the owners of this website will allow me to put in two plugs for other media
    at http://www.tj49.com/ I have published a number of articles with North Dakota and farm life as a component
    of the subject matter. — And there is a bunch more to come. I can be contacted via the contact form at the website.
    Also, a neighbor of the family farm – whose name is Florence Renfrow has self-published a couple of books of poetry about North Dakota farm life. See http://www.amazon.com/Poems-North-Dakota-Florence-Renfrow/dp/B000NK9LX4 and http://www.amazon.com/Country-poems-Florence-F-Renfrow/dp/B0006YRXZA/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1398114467&sr=1-3&keywords=Florence+Renfrow.

  8. John Kraft was my grandfather and my father was with him when the crime was discovered. My cousin’s son is still on the Kraft homestead.

    1. Ralph Kraft and he spent all his later life in Jamestown. He was only about two at the time so luckily he remembered very little of it but it was hard on my grandfather.

  9. I too, read the book, and such horrible sadness, also felt that Mr. Layer was not the right person,, so hope that some day the truth will come out, sounded like there was some politics involved, and he was pressured to admit to the crime..

  10. Visited the farm site in November 2010. There actually is part of one structure still there on the farm (which I have photos of). That remaining building is the one that the coffins were placed in front of. While there, son of Emma, Curtis Hanson was present and we had the chance to visit with him. Certainly a tradgedy.

    Again, here is the link to the book and arthor website “The Murdered Family”: http://www.themurderedfamily.com/index.html. You’ll see a few photos here too. It is a good read.

    1. Curtis taught school at Turtle Lake either starting when I was in high school or shortly after I graduated. Some of my siblings had him. Vernon Keel (author of “The Murdered Family”) is in touch with him, I believe. A lot to carry around ….

  11. My dad lives in turtle lake and I might go there ( to the farm) and see it. Because I’ve only seen the book.

    1. Make sure you visit the Turtle Lake Cemetery also to see the graves and monument. Cemetery is just west of Turtle Lake.

  12. There was a young boy, Jacob Hofer (age 14), a farm helper, that was murdered too. He was my mom’s cousin. One of my aunts is the same age as Emma and grew up with her as a good friend. Nobody will ever know exactly what happened that day. Keel’s book is very good, and gives what I believe is the best accounting possible based on the research material available.

    1. I graduated in 1967 from Turtle Lake High. I recall a number of Hofer kids. One, if memory serves me, was Bernice, who has in my grade for a while. Another was named David, and I think he was four or five years behind me. I’m sure that they were related to or descended from Jacob Hofer’s family.

      1. Did You say”Kahl Killed People”??? If so sir You are one Dence individual! Kahl shot down a trigger happy federal
        Ag Not who was ordered to serve a warrant yet when he went to set up the trap for Kahl he didn’t even bother to bring the warrant along, rather he loaded his gun and had his deputies do the same! And when Kahl and his Wife & Son came upon the trap and Kayla son was shot, Kahl instinctively fired back killing the SOB who nearly killed his son! And btw the warrant was only for skipping outta the state in which he was on Prohbaion/Parole! And in the end the Disgusting no respect for human life having FBI Killed Kahl so Grusomley I won’t go into detail here but I suggest You begin to educate yourself and do some research. Score posting asinine remarks online for the entire world to see Setting in stone the level of your Dimwittedness! Where I’m from (Western North Dakota) we would beat Your Ass for running ur mouth so disrespectfully especially when U have NO clue what your even JawJackkn about!

        1. Mitch,
          I , too, am from western North Dakota.
          No, we don’t ‘beat your ass’ for having the wrong information.
          Educate others, don’t threaten and call names.
          Also, your grammar, spelling, and loose interpretation of the facts are disturbing. Any point you tried to make was lost the moment you typed out this word salad you threw together.
          Peace be with you.

  13. My grandmas family was friends with the Wolff family. She said that before any law enforcement got to the scene, almost every person in town ran out there and there couldn’t have been many clues remaining intact as to what had really happened. There was a rumor that the Baptist preacher did it because the Wolff family had a large amount of cash in the home that he knew about. He was also supposedly the man who later confessed on his deathbed.

    1. Yes, Sandra – and perhaps you’re a descendant. Jacob has been mentioned by at least two others in this discussion, including myself. There was a Bernice Hofer in my class (I graduated Turtle Lake Class of ’67) and I also knew David Hofer.. It would be interesting to know if either Bernice, David or yourself are descendants.
      Regards
      Tim Johnson (parents Leonard/Marie, Grandparents Gustav and Josephine, all of Turtle Lake)

        1. As you write Eslinger, We too are Eszlinger’s, have relatives that write it as you do, and some write it Esslinger, wondering who your decendents would be,, as we do Eszlinger reunions, and look for others that may well be related. I am married to an Eszlinger,

          1. Many people’s name spellings got changed or were changed. As an example my family name was originally Johanson. My grandfather Gustav homesteaded south of where Turtle Lake is now in 1902. (Turtle Lake wasn’t founded ’til 1905). No one knows when he changed his surname from Johanson, but he was Johnson when he was buried.

  14. I’m surprised by the number of people who read the book and are now convinced the wrong man was sent to prison. Vernon Keel wrote a book of historical FICTION. The wrong man may have gone to prison but the book cannot be used to support that argument.

    1. Boberace makes a good point, but :

      Vernon Keel also states facts (as far as I know them and I grew up there) that argue that the Interrogation and conviction of Henry Layer stretched the boundaries of constitutional law, due process and good investigative work. That is what has bothered folks from my home town for over 90 years.

  15. My family was related . As a young girl my Grandmother would tell me that the neighbor killed them over some cows always getting out of the fence. I also heard that the Father and his sons were milking cows when the killer came over. The baby was found in the crib . Also I heard the killer came over to help out and found some shell casings in the barn under hay. It is amazing now I will have to read the books. The baby was teased growing up according to my Grandmother , the kids called her the ” Wolf”….baby…so I think she may of had a rough or puzzling upbringing …

    1. Kathy, it was common around Turtle Lake (and I’m sure elsewhere) for kids to be teased about names that they might have had in the past.

      I believe that Vernon addresses issues that Henry Layer and Jacob had over cattle going astray. Also a common problem of the era, if not these days too. 🙂 Good fences make good neighbors (R. Frost).

    2. I have been wondering how Emma survived that whole ordeal. No one has considered that fact yet, from what I’ve seen so far. Even at 8 months, the trauma of the whole thing, the screaming, the gunshots, the sudden and total silence when it was all over, the hunger and thirst over the following days before they were found, and no mother to comfort her, etc. all had to have been engraved in her psyche somewhere.

      I’m wondering how the rest of her life was.

      My 2nd great grandmother’s maiden name was Wolf, and Jacob Wolf was related to us. I haven’t look for the exact connection yet, but I’m going to take a close look at my tree the first chance I get.

  16. I have not read the book but the laws regarding interogation are much different than they were in the 1920’s. It is concievable that there was a bad conviction. At this late date no one will know for sure.

  17. I grew up in Turtle Lake, and my Mom talked about this murder-she said she went into that house after the murders and said she had never seen so much blood in her life–We were a family of twelve children living on a farm. She also thought they put the wrong person in prison–

  18. For everyone saying that Layer didn’t do it, then pray tell, who did? This wasn’t like the Villisca murders of 1912 when a drifter was taken in by a well-meaning family for the night only to slaughter them all in their sleep and get out of town on the next train. This also didn’t follow the pattern of a husband/patriarch gone suddenly insane and killing his family before committing suicide, like so many other murders, especially in rural communities. I, too, have many family members living in Turtle Lake, none of whom had ever heard of Layer, so fast had the mythology taken hold. I was always told that it was the “hired man” who did it, but when I researched the story, discovered that there was no “hired man,” but merely a boy of 12 who was killed along with the rest of the family. Keel leaves out a lot of factual information in this book. Anyone who cares to study the facts by perusing court documents and newspaper accounts will be convinced that authorities got the right guy, which is why this case is so unusual and has been talked about for almost 100 years. If there were really a homicidal maniac traversing the plains of North Dakota in the 1920s, this case would not be isolated. I too, have been to the Wolff farm, although over 40 years ago, and have only felt a sad sense of loss for so many lives cut short.

    1. Linda, I too grew up in the Turtle Lake area. My father was alive when the murders occurred.
      I still have family there and all over N.D.
      You have made opinions that I hope you will elaborate on.
      The nature of Henry Layer’s prosecution and subsequent incarceration (as has been covered in this forum) have contributed to doubts that he was the perpetrator.
      I think that all who read this would be very interested to read your research. We look forward to your further contributions. I hope that you will provide details of your research and your detailed conclusions.

      1. There had been bad blood between Layer and Wolff for some time. What made the authorities focus on him, however, was his ardent wish to be seen as a “helper” concerning the case. (Feeding the stock since their owners obviously could not, conveniently finding the shell casings in the barn, etc.) Perhaps the interrogation techniques were a bit heavy-handed, but the threat of a lynch mob for a crime such as this was a real possibility in the 1920s, and not just for black people. However, what really cements Layer’s guilt in my mind was his wife’s decision to not only divorce him while he was in prison, but to change the name of their children so they would not grow up tainted. She KNEW that he was guilty.

        1. These are very good points.

          I have considered them myself. And Vern certainly stressed much of that in his book.
          I have not been entirely convinced one way or the other, and still am not.
          Women did not have the independence in the 1920’s that they do now and marriage (or re-marriage) was often a “way out” or a matter of expediency.
          Mrs. Layer’s decision to move forward with her life does not in itself indict her husband.
          The changing of a child’s name to that of a new father was then and still is common.
          To say that “She KNEW that he was guilty” is unprovable.

          Regardless of Henry Layer’s guilt or innocence, much is tainted. Evidence, prosecutorial method and many family’s lives were tainted.

          I neither support nor do I refute Mr. Layer’s innocence. I do note that the last Lynching in North Dakota was in 1931 (I think), and that the conviction of Mr. Layer in such an expedient manner was arguably a good thing for Mr. Langer’s political ambitions.

          1. Tim, I’m not going to change your mind, and nor is that my intent. My main concern with how the Wolff family murders have been framed throughout the decades concerns the age-old issue of Outsider vs. Community. Most people on this forum as well as my long dead relatives who attended the funeral, firmly believed that this crime was committed by an outsider when no fact whatsoever supported this. How could a member of our own community have done this? people asked. And over time, Layer’s name was forgotten (at least in my family) but the horrible crime lived on, and the empty farm became a symbol of horror. What Keel fails to mention in his book is the incredible ethnic fragmentation which was the reality of the Turtle Lake community of 1921. The Wolffs were Germans from Russia, but Layer was an ethnic Slav from Russia according to historic sources, who never had the money, luck or opportunity that Wolff had. Additionally, there were a great many Norwegians and Swedes, many of whom could not speak English. My grandmother was one of those Scandinavian schoolteachers who was raised on a farm outside of Turtle Lake, and who taught many immigrant children to speak, read and write English. But the authorities in the case were not recent immigrants, spoke English fluently, and the predominant newspaper at the time was not an immigrant language newspaper, which explains why my relatives, passing the story down to me got the story garbled over the decades: It was not passed down accurately in the first place. Now, Turtle Lake is a cohesive community with people who have largely forgotten the language of their grandparents, but the reality of this terrible murder still stands the test of time. Language, customs and even religion may often be forgotten, but such a horrible crime such as the Wolff murders, where the majority of victims were little girls, stands out over time as a beacon, warning future generations against the implementation of evil.

  19. I believe that the Russian-German villages were segregated in the Old Country from the Russians and were also segregated from each other by church (Lutheran/Catholic) — and brought that separateness as animus to the New Country. I saw some of that still when I as in High School in the 60’s. And my Grandmother on my mother’s side was shunned by German descendents in the Lutheran Church in Hope ND because her maiden name was French. … And that kind of stuff still goes on … BTW: My paternal grandmother was Josephine Johnson (married to Gustav, mother of Leonard and Arvid) and she too was a schoolteacher at one time – and definitely scandinavian. 🙂 Good to talk to you.

      1. Hi Mike – My mother’s maiden names is Matthiesen. She is originally from the Hope area (in Steele County). She has no direct relatives in the Turtle Lake area. My Grandmother’s maiden name was Pederson. Her parents were Norwegian immigrants who settled in Kandiyohi county Minnesota, near Pennock and Wilmar.

    1. From reports I’ve read, it was natural causes, although i can’t remember if it was heart disease, cancer, or something else. He wasn’t murdered in prison, nor did he commit suicide.

    1. Still have all my hair. But it has relocated. I’ve heard a lot about your boy from my bro Eric. Sounds like a heck of a fine fellow. You can email me at hgyqau@johnsons-web.com. If you do, I’ll give you my real email address (hgyqau@johnsons-web.com is temporary, to blunt the spammers). Good to hear from you, my friend.

  20. My grandfather was Emil Hass a detective on the case.A kind and wonderful man.We have crime scene photos and they are gruesome.My grandmother took care of Emma for awhile and she remained a lifelong friend.John

      1. My understanding is that since there was no trial due to Layer’s confession and since Emma Wolff was still an infant with her life ahead of her, detectives in the case took great care to see that these photos would never enter the public domain.

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