It was the family’s abandoned laundry, left flapping on the clothesline, that raised the alarm. A neighbor who came to investigate found no one around—odd for a busy farm.
He discovered the first bodies in the barn, hastily covered with dirt and hay: his neighbor Jakob Wolf and two of Wolf’s young daughters, Maria and Edna. In the basement of the house 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 children ranged in age from three to 12. The hired boy was only 13. They had been killed 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 brutal crimes.
The town of Turtle Lake, North Dakota had fewer than 400 inhabitants 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 tame a rugged land. They are buried beneath a stone reading “Die Ermordete Familie”—The Murdered Family. At the time of the burial, the killer was still unknown.
But at the service, one of the mourners was behaving oddly. Henry Layer, who owned a nearby farm, opened each casket in turn and gazed down at the face inside. Layer had also raised suspicions when he was discovered prowling around the Wolf barn by the sheriff. Layer seemed eager to help. He suggested they check the hay in the barn and pulled out a handful of spent shotgun shells.
Layer was arrested. After a lengthy interrogation, he finally confessed to the slayings and was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. He died in prison just five years later after an operation for appendicitis. Layer was also a German who had immigrated from Russia. He had a large family, with six children. 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.
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Layer said it was Wolf who produced the shotgun—a double-barrel. There was a scuffle and both barrels went off. The first killings were accidental, Layer said, and after that he was in a fog. According to Layer’s confession, Beata, 36, and the hired boy died from the first accidental shots. Jakob, 41, then ran and Layer shot him. Daughters Maria, 9, Edna, 7, heard the shots and fled into the barn. Layer followed them in and shot them. He then went into the house 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 find her.
He covered the bodies in the barn with hay and pushed the bodies in the house through a trapdoor into the cellar. Then he went home to his own farm.
But from prison Layer retracted his confession. He said he had been bullied into it and warned that he would be turned over to a murderous mob if he didn’t cooperate.
Vernon Keel was born 20 years after the murders. 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 prison for the murder but insisted he was railroaded.
Keel became a journalist, writing for his hometown paper, and later a journalism professor. Keel decided to adopt the story for a work of historical fiction, which he titled The Murdered Family.
There is one note of hope from this grisly 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.
The Murdered Family is available on Amazon. Special thanks to its author, who supplied the photos for this article.
All photos courtesy of Vernon Keel / The Murdered Family