Listen to Episode #1 of the Turtle Lake murder podcast:
TURTLE LAKE, N.D. — One newspaper in 1920 called the murders the “most revolting and mysterious that have ever been perpetrated in the northwest.”
The killing of seven out of eight members of the Jacob and Beata Wolf family, along with their young farmhand, on April 22, 1920, is the worst mass murder in North Dakota history.
In 2020, as the small Turtle Lake, North Dakota community marked the 100th anniversary of the slayings, we learned that what we thought we knew about the crime — what we took for granted — might not be what happened at all.
Over the last month, Forum Communications Reporter Tracy Briggs has been digging into the Wolf family murders, talking to the people still around who are closest to it.
Vernon Keel grew up in Turtle Lake and knew about the Wolf family from childhood. He grew up to become a journalism professor, writing a novel about the murders in 2010 called “The Murdered Family.” His website proved to be an extensive resource for diving deep.
In addition to Keel’s research, Briggs visited with a McLean County Sheriff’s deputy and self-proclaimed “history geek” who gives insight into how officers there dealt with the horrific crime scene.
Briggs also talked to the only son of the only Wolf family member to survive the massacre. Curt Hanson’s mother, Emma Wolf Hanson, was just eight months old when she lost her entire family in a matter of minutes.
For the next four days, Forum Communications will go back in time to learn what happened that dark day in April.
Why were the Wolfs killed? Who did it and why?
Was the right man sent to prison, since we can now see the serious inconsistencies with his confession and evidence that he had been coerced into confessing?
Was North Dakota’s most controversial and fiery politician, “Wild Bill Langer”, responsible for rushing to judgment for his own political gain?
Was the Wolf family, who were Germans from Russia, killed because of anti-German hatred following World War I?
And finally, whatever happened to Baby Emma and the other forgotten victims of the Wolf family murders, and what kind of mark did it leave on the entire community?
Here is a brief summary of what is explored in the first episode of the podcast:
On April 22, 1920, America was five months dry, with the start of prohibition in January making production or consumption of alcohol illegal. World War I had been over for more than a year, and health officials declared earlier that month that the Spanish Flu pandemic was basically done.
And about two-and-a-half miles north of Turtle Lake, North Dakota German-Russian immigrants Jacob and Beata Wolf and five of their six daughters were living their last day.
Just before noon that day, someone — or some people — came to the Wolf home and shot Jacob, Beata, four of their daughters and a 13-year-old hired farm hand. The Wolf’s 3-year-old daughter Martha was killed by the blunt end of a hatchet.
However, the youngest daughter, eight-month-old Emma, had been found alive — two days after the murders.
Neighbors John and Jessie Kraft found Emma screaming, soaked and soiled in her crib on Saturday, April 24. The coroner later assessed the murders had happened about 48 hours earlier, so Emma had reportedly been alone for two days.
The Krafts also found a kitchen in disarray, blood on the floor and on the cellar door.
They found five bodies dead in the cellar and three more in the barn outside. What had happened? The community was in shock as they gathered at the farm the day the bodies were discovered and later at the funeral where an estimated 2,500 people showed up from miles away.
The eight coffins were all lined up in a row. The two dark colored ones for the two males, patriarch Jacob Wolf and farmhand Jacob Hofer, who was also related to Wolfs by marriage. The rest of the coffins were white for matriarch Beata Wolf and her daughters: 12-year-old Bertha, 9-year-old Maria, 7-year-old Edna, 5-year-old Liddia, and 3-year-old Martha. Also in white that day, baby Emma Wolf behind the line of coffins being held by her mother’s sister, Christina Hofer, who would later adopt her. When the coffins were eventually buried, they placed a large tombstone with a cross in the center. It read: "Die Ermordete Familie," German for "The Murdered Family."
Immediately, an investigative team showed up and began to focus on one man — neighbor Henry Layer, who was known to have a long-running feud with Jacob Wolf, reportedly over Wolf's dogs injuring Layer's cows.
Over the course of a few days, Layer confessed to killing all eight people. He did not have a trial. Within two days of his arrest, he had confessed, received a life sentence and was sent to prison. It was all settled less than one month after the murders.
The Bismarck Tribune said, “This is believed to be the fastest administration of justice on record in any state.”
And the rest of the world took notice with worldwide news coverage.
Tomorrow on The Turtle Lake Murders, Briggs will look at whether this expedited justice was justice at all. Was Layer’s confession coerced? Was he covering up for someone else? Was Henry Layer guilty? The words he uttered on his death bed suggest otherwise.
Other stories by Tracy Briggs:
The entire Turtle Lake Murders Podcast: