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