'The Murdered Family' tells story of rural North Dakota crimes 90 years ago
By Paulette Tobin
Park Rapids Enterprise
Probably everyone who grew up at Turtle Lake, N.D., has heard the story of the murdered family, an immigrant Germans-from-Russia farmer and his wife who were brutally slain on their homestead along with five of their daughters and their hired boy.
Author and former UND professor Vernon Keel certainly did. He grew up in Turtle Lake, driving tractor and doing farm work for his half-brothers before leaving in 1958 to join the Navy. He knew the place three miles north of Turtle Lake, where Jakob and Beata Wolf and their family had lived and died.
"You grew up being very much aware of this tragic story," Keel said in an interview from his home in Denver. "You would find yourself at the cemetery from time to time where they were buried. When I was growing up, it was overgrown with lilacs."
There, eight small markers and a large monument mark the Wolfs' resting place. Part of the inscription on the big stone says: "Die Ermordete Familie" -- "The Murdered Family."
"The Murdered Family" is the title Keel chose for his book, now in bookstores, written as historical fiction about those sorrowful, terrifying events. The book's release closely coincides with the 90th anniversary of the murders April 22.
The crime was discovered by friends of the family who went to check on them after Jakob Wolf failed to pick up a piece of farm equipment he had intended to borrow. What they found at the Wolf farm was straight out of a horror movie. Jakob and Beata; their daughters, Bertha, 12; Maria, 9; Edna, 7; Liddia, 5; and Martha, 3; and their 13-year-old hired boy, Jacob Hofer, a relative by marriage, had all been shot to death. The only survivor was the Wolf's 8-month old daughter, Emma, found crying and hungry in her crib.
Just three weeks later, eager investigators had gotten a signed confession from Henry Layer, a neighbor farmer who had a quarrel with Jakob Wolf. At the time, The New York Times called it "the most rapid administration of justice in the country." Layer was immediately sentenced to the North Dakota Penitentiary, where he died in 1925.
Keel's father, who was 55 years old when Vernon was born, had known the Wolfs and Henry Layer. He had visited Layer in prison. When Keel asked, he father would tell him what his knew about the crimes.
Years passed, and Keel, with a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, taught media law and headed journalism and communication schools at South Dakota State University, UND and Wichita State University. Whenever Keel thought of stories he'd like to research and write, the murdered family from his own hometown came to mind.
When he actually began investigating, the story turned out to have some surprises.
In 2008, doing research at the UND library, Keel found a copy of the Bismarck Tribune from 1920 that had a story about the murders that included a copy of Henry Layer's confession.
Later, Keel learned from longtime attorney Jack McDonald in Bismarck that Layer had spent the rest of his life in prison trying to appeal that confession to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Layer denied his guilt and said he had confessed under duress, intimidation and fear. He'd been beaten by officers, forced to stare at pictures of the victims and told an angry mob was waiting outside the jail to lynch him if he was released. Layer said authorities told him the penitentiary was the safest place for him to wait for things to die down. Then, he was told, he could file a change of plea and receive a jury trial, Keel said.
There was no physical evidence to connect Layer to the murders. But people were scared and investigators and others wanted the case resolved quickly.
"The cast of characters was one of the things I found really fascinating," Keel said. "This murder and this investigation were tied up in the nature of the political struggles that were going on at the time."
In 1915. the Non-partisan League had been formed in North Dakota and its candidate, Lynn Frazier, became governor. William Langer, later governor and senator, was attorney general at the time of the murders and was about to try to oust Frazier. After Langer, William Lemke, later a congressman, was attorney general over the case.
"These were pretty high-powered politicians who had ambitions to go on in government and, in fact, did," Keel said.
In his research, Keel read newspaper accounts as well as court records and sworn statements from neighbors. He wrote the book as historical fiction so he could tell a more complete story and bring the people in it "back to life."
"The Murdered Family," by Vernon Keel, published by Wanamaker Press, is 350 pages. A Web site, www.themurderedfamily.com/, contains information about the book and the author, plus photos of the family, their homestead and of the crowd that gathered at their farm on the day of the funeral. The photos, unfortunately, are not in the book.