100 years later: Doubt still remains

100 years later

      Doubt still remains

      about who killed

      the Wolf family


By Vernon Keel

Author, The Murdered Family

Late in the morning of Thursday, April 22, 1920, someone came onto the Jacob Wolf farm three miles north of Turtle Lake in central North Dakota and killed Wolf, his wife, five of their six daughters and the hired boy. The only survivor was the eight-month-old baby girl. Her name was Emma, and she spent her entire life in that area where she married and raised a family

Three weeks to the day after the murders, a neighbor farmer, Henry Layer, signed a confession to all eight murders and was sentenced to life in the state penitentiary where he died five years later. His confession came in the early morning hours of the same day that William Langer, the attorney general and chief law enforcement officer for the state, received the Republican nomination for governor.

Despite the signed confession, the conviction and two failed appeals, including the final one to the North Dakota Supreme Court, questions still remain a hundred years later about who really committed this horrific crime, one of the bloodiest in the state’s history.

Was he innocent?

From the beginning, Layer denied his guilt and proclaimed his innocence with an old German Russian expression: “My eyes have seen but my hands are clean” (“Die Auge’ hen g’sehe, aber die Haende sind saube”).

He claimed that during the more than five hours of interrogation he was beaten, struck, cursed at and threatened. He said his chair was taken from him and he was required to stand for long periods of time and look at photographs of the murder victims until he became dizzy and faint. And he said he was told that an angry lynch mob was outside waiting to hang him to a telephone pole if he was released. He explained that he signed the confession because he was told that would be the safest thing for him to do. That way he would be sent to the state penitentiary where he would be safe and could file for a change of plea to not guilty.

While that’s what he did, his appeal later that year was denied by the district court judge who had sentenced him to life in prison. In October of the next year, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and denied Layer’s appeal for a change of plea and a jury trial. He died in the penitentiary infirmary four years later from complications following an appendectomy at a local hospital.

In both appeals, his lawyers provided substantial legal arguments to support their request to reverse the conviction and allow a change of plea. In the end and in both appeals, however, it came down to the question of who to believe: a desperate, confessed killer sentenced to life in prison for the crime or several upstanding and respected law enforcement officials who had nothing to gain by lying.

The investigators vigorously denied Layer’s claim that he had been beaten and subjected to other cruelties in order to force him to sign the confession. They said he was repeatedly trapped in telling conflicting stories and signed the confession when the burden of hiding the truth became too much for him to bear. And they agreed that while someone else had written the confession (not uncommon when taking affidavits), it was based on Layer’s recounting of the murders, and he agreed to sign it without duress. Whether Layer’s claims were true or not, there were some important parts of  the confession that seemed questionable or did not hold up to further scrutiny.

Was he beaten?

The McLean County sheriff and the police chief from Bismarck led the murder investigation. In addition, Attorney General Langer, who had asked the Bismarck mayor for his police chief’s help, also hired two outside investigators. One was a private investigator from Saint Paul and the other was a railroad detective. Layer said he did not know the man who beat him, so he must have been referring to one of the outsiders. All of the men present at the interrogation formally disputed Layer’s claims and accusations.

However, the following Sunday, three days after Layer was sent to prison, his wife and two of her brothers drove to Bismarck to visit him in the state penitentiary. When they arrived, their request to see him was denied. According to one of the brothers, an attendant told them that Henry Layer “was not in a condition to be seen.”

Later that year when Layer’s lawyers were preparing their appeal to the sentencing judge, they obtained affidavits from the doctor and barber who were on duty at the penitentiary when Layer was admitted.

The doctor’s statement was brief, saying that, while Layer appeared healthy, there were “two areas of echymosis [sic] on his face, one over each cheek bone about the size of a silver dollar.” In layman’s terms, this could be considered to be a description of two black eyes.

The prison barber’s statement was more revealing. He said that when he shaved Layer and cut his hair, standard procedure for new prisoners, he noticed welts and bruises on his head. He went on to explain that “Henry Layer was badly beat up and that both sides of his face and the top of his head were swollen, and it looked as if someone had beat him.” When he asked what happened to him, Layer said that he had been beat over the head by the man who had charge of him. The barber added that Layer then broke down, saying he was innocent and crying: “Oh, my children, my children.”

Was there a lynch mob?

Layer claimed that one of the reasons given to encourage him to sign the confession was that there was an angry lynch mob waiting outside ready to hang him to a telephone pole if he was released. He even described how, at one point when he was being escorted from the jail to the courthouse, he was told to run because there was a mob in town that would get him if they could.

However, the clerk of court for the county attorney described a conversation he had overheard at a barbershop in Washburn shortly after Layer was on his way to the penitentiary. He said that he was downtown waiting for a haircut when he heard some men in the room talking about the murders. He remembered how they expressed doubt that anyone would ever be arrested for the crime. They were obviously not aware that Henry Layer or anyone else, for that matter, had been in jail there for two days and was now on his way to the state penitentiary. Only he, the county attorney and the investigators knew anything about Layer being there until several hours after he had been taken away.

Time of the murders

In the confession, Layer said he left his home around eleven o’clock and arrived at the Wolf farm about a half hour later. However, a woman in town reported that she was on the phone with Mrs. Wolf around ten o’clock discussing some church business when the line went dead. (The neighbor who found the bodies said that the line was dead when they tried to phone the Wolf farm on Saturday morning). That was about the same time a neighbor girl on a farm not far south and west of the Wolf farm heard gun shots coming from the vicinity of the Wolf farm. She didn’t think anything of it until later because it was not uncommon for farmers to use their guns during the day to kill varmints or slaughter farm animals.

The confession says that all five of the victims were in the kitchen when Layer arrived. However, the neighbor plowing across the road from Wolf’s land said Wolf and his hired boy were there all morning and that the oldest girl came around ten o’clock and was there about a half hour or so. The investigators believed that the family was about to begin their noon meal at that time. However, a German newspaper reported that the hired boy and the oldest girl still had their field gloves on when they died, suggesting that they must have just come in from the field. And they would not eat with their gloves on.

Dispute over injured cow

Layer explained in the confession that he walked over to the Wolf farm that day to demand damages for one of Wolf’s dogs attacking one of his cows, and that he wanted him to come over to his place to see the injuries to his cow.

These two men hadn’t gotten along for years and were not on speaking terms, which raises the question of why Layer would think that this neighbor would care about his cow or be willing to take time to go to look at it. They were in the middle of the busy spring planting season and Wolf was eager to begin seeding that afternoon. Another question is why Layer would come over there on foot and not drive the two miles between their farms.

That was late April. When Layer’s wife had a farm auction after her husband was sent to prison, a neighbor told investigators that the cow in question sold for a good price. He also explained that the dispute over the cow took place in October, six months before the murders.

The first shots

According to the confession, the two men were arguing in the storm shed next to the kitchen when Wolf got mad and told Layer to leave.  When he didn’t go, Wolf went through the kitchen into his front room and returned with a shotgun. While they were fighting over the gun, two shots went off in quick succession and one killed Mrs. Wolf. Then Layer got the gun and went into the front room where he got more shells out of the bureau drawer. He returned, reloaded the gun and started shooting, killing Wolf in the yard as he was running from the house to the barn.

It was possible that Mrs. Layer could have been killed in the kitchen and her body thrown into the cellar below, except that her body was found behind the straight ladder to the cellar.

Questions remain about how Layer would have known where Wolf kept his gun shells and how he could have reloaded the weapon without being overtaken or someone escaping into the yard. Neighbors also doubted that Wolf would run out of the house leaving his children alone with an armed madman who had just killed his wife.

The investigators were able to determine that eight shots had been fired. Wolf was shot once at long range with a second shot close up to his chest. The others had been killed with single shots from a shotgun, except for the three-year-old who was killed with a blow from the broad side of a small axe. That would mean that Layer would have had to stop three times to remove the used shells and reload the gun while his next victims stood watching close by.

Who owned the shotgun?

The confession suggested that the shotgun used in the murders belonged to Jacob Wolf. (“I then told him not to get mad and he (Wolf) got the gun, a double-barreled shotgun, out of his front room”).

The day after the bodies were discovered, a double-barreled shotgun was found in the slough south of the Wolf farm by one of the neighbors who came to the farm that Sunday. The investigators concluded that it was the murder weapon and that it belonged to Jacob Wolf. However, no one was able to identify it, and relatives and neighbors said it did not belong to Wolf.

According to an unofficial report, one local resident said that he had earlier made some minor repairs to that particular gun for another neighbor who later moved out of the area.

Bodies in the barn

Through most of this, the two older girls, ages seven and nine, were in the bedroom next to the kitchen where they had been folding clothes when the commotion started. At some point, they escaped through the bedroom window and ran across the yard to the barn. The investigators found footprint evidence in the grass below the window.

According to the confession story, Layer must have seen them running and followed them into the barn. It states that he “shot them where they stood in the northwest corner of the shed.” He covered their bodies with hay and then dragged Wolf’s body into the barn where he piled it on top of the girls and covered them with hay. Streaks of blood in the middle of the yard running to the barn confirmed this part of the confession But it doesn’t explain how the hired boy, the oldest daughter and the two little girls just waited inside the house with the body of their dead mother.

Bodies in the cellar

The sequence of events in the confession suggests that after Layer shot and killed Wolf and the two girls in the barn, he returned to the house and killed the hired boy and the other three girls before returning to the barn to cover the three bodies there with hay.

When that was done, he went back to the house where he “threw the bodies of the dead laying about the kitchen one after another, into the basement, then put down the trap door.”

It was true that the bodies of Mrs. Wolf, the oldest daughter, the hired boy and the two younger girls, ages five and three, were found in the cellar under the kitchen. However, there was only one pool of blood near the opening to the trap door, and the hired boy’s body was the only one found on the floor in front of the straight ladder to the cellar. The other four bodies were on the floor behind the ladder, meaning that they were killed in the cellar and not in the kitchen.

Sparing the baby

The confession offers little explanation for why Layer did not kill the eight-month-old baby girl who was in the crib in her parent’s room where the girls had been folding clothes, except to say: “The reason I did not kill the baby was, I believe, because I did not go into the room in which the baby lay.”

Layer would have known that the Wolfs had a baby, who would have been crying during all the commotion and gunshots in the house and yard. And he would have known that she would be left there all alone in a cold house until the bodies were found, which turned out to be Saturday noon, two full days and nights later.

Gun shells in chicken nest

The confession ended with a description of what Layer did after he left the barn on his way back to the house: “I will also add that after I finished shooting in the cowshed I threw about three or four empty shells from the cowshed into the hayloft through an open door.”

This could have been an afterthought coming at the end of the confession or, at best, a feeble attempt to explain how the shotgun shells ended up in the chicken’s nest in the hayloft in the barn. It also suggests that the other victims were still alive in the kitchen when he took time to toss the four shells up into the hayloft where they landed neatly in a nest up there.

A “New Theory”

Later in the year when Layer’s lawyers were preparing their petition for an appeal, they offered what they called a “new theory” for how the Wolf family murders could have been committed.

This is how one of the lawyers described the theory to a reporter covering the story: “the fiendish murderer killed five people—Mrs. Wolf and four of her daughters—and then waited for Wolf, his oldest daughter and the hired boy to come in from the fields when he killed them all except the baby.”

The theory began with the question about how only one person could commit the murders when the investigators had insisted from the beginning that two people had to be involved. It was also based on statements from nearby neighbors suggesting that the murders were committed mid-morning and not at noontime as described in the confession.

It explained that the murderers came to the Wolf farm around ten o’clock when they cut the phone line and entered the house. There, Mrs. Wolf and two of her daughters were killed behind the ladder in the cellar while the two next older girls were killed in the barn. The oldest girl was killed in the cellar, also behind the ladder, when she returned from the field. When Wolf and the hired boy returned around 11:30, Wolf was shot in the yard while the hired boy was shot in the kitchen and his body dropped into the cellar below.

This theory was consistent with facts that had been published in a German newspaper in early May before Layer was arrested and while the investigation was still underway. It would likely have been based on interviews with people in the area, most of whom were German Russian, as were the Wolf and Layer families.

Here is a link to excerpts from the German-language newspaper story:



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