Wolf family murder

This picture was made at the funeral for the seven members of the Jacob Wolf family and their 13-year-old chore boy, Jake Hofer, near Turtle Lake in 1920. The sole surviving member of the family, an eight-month-old daughter, is held by a neighbor lady. Emanuel Hofer, who helped law officers solve the crime, stands in the center of the picture with his hands clasped in front of him. The murderer, Henry Layer, is among the mourners at extreme left. 

This story was originally published in The Bismarck Tribune on November 16, 1949.

When a family's washing is left flapping in April's windy, soggy weather through one day and night into another day neighbors are bound to take notice.

John Kraft did one April morning in 1920 as he drove on his way to Turtle Lake past the farmstead of the Jacob Wolf family.

There on the clothes lines he saw the same white and colored garments whipping in the brisk wind that he had seen on the lines the day before. Odd, he thought. And he decided to investigate.

Entering the farm yard, he started towards the house when his attention was attracted by an odd sound of rooting pigs in a nearby barn. The hanging barn door banged gently as Kraft stepped into a lean-to section.

A horrified gasp escaped his lips as he halted frozen by what he saw there. Half covered by dirt and hay were the bodies of his neighbor, Jacob Wolf, and two of Wolf's young daughters, Maria and Edna.

Seconds later he gazed horror-stricken through a trapdoor leading into the basement  of the house, down on five more mangled, mutilated bodies.

And in a cradle in a small bedroom he found a lightly-clad, eight-month-old baby, weak from hunger and cold. She was the only survivor of the Wolf family.

Thus was started a manhunt that is without parallel in North Dakota criminal annals and ranks as one of the most sensational in the country's history.

Frank Sturken covered the gruesome case for The Tribune.

Jacob Wolf was one of the most prosperous and popular farmers in the Turtle Lake community. His farmstead was neat and well cared for. He was up-to-date in his farming methods, frugal, hard-working. He had a fine family of a wife and six daughters, ranging in age from 13 years down to eight months.

So far as anyone knew, he had few or no enemies. True, there had been friction between him and one of his neighbors. But it was nothing of a sort to breed a real enmity, those who knew both men thought.

Still, men today recall that Wolf himself once had been fearful that his life was in danger. It is remembered that he stopped a friend on the street in Turtle Lake, and told him that a vengeful neighbor might do him harm.

The man to whom he said this passed it off as meaning nothing. When the remark was recalled later, to Sheriff Ole Stefferud of McLean County, it was too late. Wolf was already dead; and no one had listened to his fears long enough to find out who it was that had menaced him.

Sheriff Stefferud was en route to Bismarck with the McLean County states attorney, John E. Williams, when the crime was discovered and reported. Kraft had hurried from the farm to Turtle Lake, put in a long distance phone to the sheriff's office at Washburn. It finally reached Stefferud and Williams almost as they walked into the lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel. The McLean County officials immediately hurried to Turtle Lake.

That night Stefferud spent in the Wolf farmhouse, with three neighbors of the Wolf family. The eight bodies were still there. They weren't to be removed until the investigation had been completed.

For long hours Stefferud sat in the darkened house. With him, he recalls today, were Emanuel Hofer and two young men whose last name was Bossert. Toward dawn, Hofer decided to drive to his own farm and get some breakfast. The Bosserts went with him.

"Bring back some coffee and breakfast for me," called Stefferud, as the trio drove off in Hofer's Overland touring car. Hofer waved acknowledgement and the automobile chugged away in the thinning darkness.

A few minutes later Stefferud stepped outside the house.

At perhaps 5:30 a.m. the waiting sheriff heard another car chugging across the prairie through the pre-dawn half-light. It pulled up on the far side of the house and stopped. A man walked around the corner of the house into Stefferud's field of vision.

The stranger walked swiftly, hardly glancing about himself. Obviously he thought he was alone and unobserved. He walked up to the farm home, glanced through the window into the living room. Then he started walking toward the barn.

"Hello, there!" Stefferud called to him. The man stopped cold.

The sheriff walked up to him.

"I'm the sheriff," Stefferud said. "My name's Stefferud. Who are you?"

"Layer," replied the stranger. "Henry Layer, I live not far from here. My, isn't this a terrible thing!"

The sheriff talked with Layer quite a while, waiting for Hofer and the others to return. Already a suspicion was forming in his mind. And all the while Layer kept his right hand in the pocket of his suitcoat.

Stefferud, though, was not much of a man to confide in anybody. To himself he noted that Layer undoubtedly had known that Hofer and the Bosserts were at the Wolf farm, had heard them go by in their car and, not knowing that Stefferud was there, had decided the place was deserted. Then he had driven over in his own automobile. Why? Stefferud thought of the old saying: A murderer always returns to the scene of his crime.

Layer appeared anxious that morning to assist in catching the murderer. He puttered around with the investigators pointing at obvious things, suggesting sometimes ridiculous procedures. All the while he never took his right hand out of his pocket.

The sun was just up when Layer made an odd suggestion.

"Perhaps we should go hunt for eggs in the barn," he said.

The others thought this an odd triviality at a time like this, but skeptically agreed. One of the Bosserts were with Layer on the egg-hunting expedition.

In the barn, Layer pointed at a clutch of eggs in the haymow. "There are some!" he exclaimed. Bossert stooped to pick them up, and almost as he did so, Layer shouted:

"Ho! See what I've found here, under the hay! Shotgun shells!" He rustled in the hay and came up with a handful of empty cases.

Stefferud noted that when Layer came back to the house with the discharged shotgun shells he no longer held his hand in his pocket. He remembered, too, that others had previously turned the hay where Layer claimed to have spied the shells, without finding them.

Later in the morning a crowd began to gather. By noon Sunday there were literally hundreds of persons there. Among them were investigators, some of the best in the state. One of them was the chief of police from Bismarck, big Chris Martineson. The officers of the law put their heads together. They had a lot of work to do, and there was woefully little to start with.

Meanwhile, Sturken had helped give The Tribune a "scoop" on the ghastly discovery. The bodies were found Saturday morning, and that afternoon it was the main headline in The Tribune.

During the days that followed, clue after clue was run down unsuccessfully. First stories seemed to indicate that there had been more than one killer. Two $1,000 rewards were posted. Investigators were everywhere, questioning people, hunting for someone with a motive, checking alibis.

The entire countryside was on edge. The killer is a maniac, people whispered, and he's still at large. Farmers sat up through the nights with shotguns, ready to defend their homes if the madman should attempt to strike again.

At least two men were arrested, and released. One youth found wandering along a lake shore was seized by members of a posse and bound hand and foot until Sheriff Stefferud questioned him and set him free.

The only real clue was the murder weapon, found in a slough near the Wolf farm with an inch or so of its stock protruding from the water. Its ownership was in doubt, and efforts to trace it were unsuccessful. Not even the manufacturer had a record of it.

Always in the mind of the investigators, though, was the shadowy memory of Henry Layer returning in the pre-dawn mist to peer into the windows of the death house. The story that there had been ill-feelings between him and Wolf was confirmed. There was something about trouble over livestock owned by Layer, which had trespassed on Wolf's land, and a cow owned by Layer bitten by Wolf's dog. There was the fact that Layer had "gossiped" with other neighbors about Wolf's private life. The finger pointed more and more at Layer.

And on Wednesday funeral services were held for the eight people: Jacob Wolf and his wife, their daughters, Bertha, Edna, Mary, Lydia and Martha; and their youthful hired man, Jacob Hofer, 13.

Eight coffins were lined up in a row on the Wolf farm - two large coffins for the father and mother at one end, then five smaller ones for their five daughters, and a larger one again for the boy killed with them.

One of the biggest crowds ever to attend a funeral in the state heard the last rites intoned. Among them were detectives, big Chris Martineson from Bismarck, and Sheriff Stefferud from Washburn. They had their eyes open for unusual actions.

Also in the crowd was Henry Layer, protesting grief at what had been done, but impassively insisting also that the lid on each coffin might be raised so that he could look again upon the faces of his late neighbors.

While Layer was doing this, other investigators were at his farm. There they questioned one of his daughters, who revealed that her father had been absent much of one morning the preceding week. She couldn't remember exactly which morning, but the net was beginning to close.

One week passed, and most of another. Still no arrests, no apparent progress. People were getting restless. the pressure was on "the law" to seize somebody. The first near panic was over, but the killer was still at large; and if he was a maniac, he might indeed strike again. Citizens started raising another $10,000 reward.

McLean County States Attorney Williams wanted the earliest possible solution, but he didn't want any hasty, ill-advised arrests. There had been enough embarrassment when a special investigator sent to McLean County by the governor, Lynn J. Frazier, had seized a palpably innocent boy and put him in jail, there to be forgotten for three days. Hence Williams insisted that no arrest be made until the suspect was surrounded by a mass of convincing evidence.

Bismarck's Chief Martineson wasn't there by accident. He had come up at the request of Stefferud and Williams.

Also assisting were other law officers, and some special investigators. Among the latter was George McDowell, a special agent for the Northern Pacific Railway, and Eugene Franklin Hezner, private operative for the Field Detective Agency of St. Paul who represented  Attorney General William Langer. A man named John P. Hoy was Frazier's sleuth, but accounts of the day indicate that there was bad blood between Frazier and the others at the time, and so his man didn't get in on the real detecting.

Then, on Tuesday, May 13, according to Tribune files for that year, there was at least an arrest. Unbeknownst to Layer's neighbors, officers slipped up to his farm and told him to come with them. They felt they had enough circumstantial evidence to convict him.

Layer was stoical about it. His wife, he said, would be afraid to stay at their farm alone. He asked permission to hitch a team of horses to a wagon for her, so she might take the family to a neighbor's.

As he left, Layer kissed his wife and each of his children. He looked long at them, and said "goodbye" in such a way as to indicate he knew he might not soon return.

En route to Washburn, a ruse had been staged that might have been lifted from detective fiction. One of the several private investigators had been stationed beside the road. As the automobile carrying Layer and his captors approached, the detective jumped up and ran furtively across the road. Shouting, the officers jumped out and grabbed him.

At the jail, Layer and the fake fugitive were placed in close proximity. It was hoped that Layer might say something to his fellow "prisoner" that would be incriminating for him. Recording apparatus had been rigged to take down whatever he might say. Layer was in no mood to be talkative, however, so the ruse led to nothing.

Doggedly Layer maintained his innocence. That first night behind bars for him, there wasn't much questioning. But the next day it began in earnest.

Big Chris Martineson launched a relentless examination. "Where were you on Thursday, April 22?" he asked. "Why did you kill the Wolfs? Why did you kill them? Why? Why? Why?"

"Confess, Henry," urged Stefferud. "Confess now, because we all know you're the killer. Why did you do it, Henry? Why? Why? Why?"

For hours this went on, but Layer stonily refused to crack. Over and over again he repeated that he was innocent. Over and over again the questioners hammered home the same questions, the same accusation: "You killed them, Henry! Confess it! Confess! Why? Why?"

Tribune reporter Sturken sat through the night in the county jail at Washburn, waiting for the word that Layer had confessed, ready to rush it to The Tribune the moment it was done.

In a little room at the head of the jailhouse stairs Sheriff Stefferud had provided him with a typewriter and paper. While the questioning went on in a jail cell, Sturken hammered out a part of his story.

Occasionally he visited with the inquisitors, and finally made a suggestion that undoubtedly helped lead to Layer's breakdown and confession.

Photographs had been made by a Bismarck photographer the day the crime was discovered, gruesome pictures showing mangled remains of the dead, and one showing the surviving infant in her cradle.

When these were thrust before his eyes repeatedly as the questioning and accusing continued, Layer broke down and confessed.

Yes, there had been trouble between him and Wolf, he admitted. It had been brewing for a long time, and came to a head over injuries he said Wolf's dog had done to one of his cows.

"I walked to the Wolf farm," he said, "and walked into the Wolf house, demanding damages for the injury done to my cow by the Wolf's dog."

An argument ensued, and Wolf ordered Layer to leave. When he did not Layer said Wolf got his own double-barreled shotgun, putting two shells into the chambers.

Layer grappled for the gun and in the struggle that followed, it was accidentally discharged twice. One of the shots killed Mrs. Wolf, the other the chore boy, Jake Hofer.

Wolf fled into the farmyard as Layer reached into a dresser drawer for more ammunition. He fired at Wolf and hit him in the back. Then he ran up and shot at Wolf again at close range.

Two of the little girls fled screaming to the barn. Layer pursued them there and killed them both.

Three other little girls were in the house, screaming wildly. Layer returned and killed two of them with the shotgun, the third with a hatchet.

Then he dragged Wolf's body to the barn, placed it beside those of his two daughters, and covered the three with hay and dirt. He returned to the house and pushed the bodies of the remaining five into the cellar.

"The reason I did not kill the baby was, I believe, because I did not go into the room in which the baby lay," he said.

Why did Layer do it? Some of the authorities who worked on the case and are still here are sure in their minds that Layer had not intended to commit murder when he went to the Wolf farm.

He insisted that the double-barreled shotgun was first discharged by accident, and that the first two shots killed two of his victims. After that, Layer insisted he didn't know what he was doing. His memory of the affair was hazy even a few days after it occurred.

The confession came at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, just after midnight. The following noon Layer was arraigned in justice court before Washburn Justice L. R. Burgum.

Immediately afterward he was brought before District Judge W.L. Nuessle where he pleaded guilty.

The judge was scrupulous in pointing out Layer's right to legal counsel, and even to change his plea from "guilty" to "not guilty" if he so wished.

Layer, however, wanted no further defense now that he had confessed. To all of Judge Nuessle's  queries, he insisted that whatever was the quickest way to the penitentiary was the one he wanted to follow.

The sentence was to life imprisonment at hard labor, and exactly 48 hours after his arrest he entered the state prison as prisoner 3283.

As on his arrest, Layer's first thought after confessing was of his family. And his only request was one authorities thought it better not to grant. He asked to be taken to Turtle Lake to see his family before being taken to the penitentiary. But feeling was running so high in that community that officers agreed it would be a risk to take him back there.

Less than five years later, Layer died following an operation for appendicitis. 

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