MCLEAN COUNTY — Vernon Keel didn’t have to look further than his old hometown for inspiration for his first novel.
Anyone who grows up in Turtle Lake, like he did, knows that beneath a distinctive headstone and eight grave markers in the town cemetery repose the remains of a murdered immigrant family. The mother, father, four daughters and a hired boy were shot at close range in the back, the head or the neck with a double-barreled shotgun. A fifth daughter, the littlest victim, 3-year-old Martha, was bludgeoned to death with an ax.
The father and two daughters were found under hay in the barn, their corpses mutilated by pigs. The mother, three daughters and the hired boy had been thrown into the house cellar through the trapdoor, found in a heap in the chilly subterranean darkness.
Thursday marked an anniversary of the murders, coincidentally the same day of the week the Jacob Wolf family was killed after eating a lunch in the farmhouse kitchen 90 years ago.
Keel, a retired journalism professor, including 13 years on the University of North Dakota School of Journalism faculty, and now living in Denver, returned to North Dakota this week to promote the book.
He said he set a personal deadline to finish The “Murdered Family” in time for the 90th anniversary. He planned to spend the anniversary in Turtle Lake in the company of Curt Hanson, the son of Emma Wolf Hanson. The only survivor, she was left in her crib while her entire family was murdered; why, no one knows, unless the same killer who could slam an ax into the head of her toddler sister simply could not take the life of a baby.
Why Emma, who lived in Turtle Lake all her life until her death in 2003, was not killed that day is only one of several mysteries that surround a story that still intrigues people who live in the Turtle Lake area.
About 20 people attended a book signing Wednesday at Washburn. Many were older folks, who grew up with the Wolf story and knew Emma all her life.
Marlene Wardner, of Mercer, said she and Emma worked together for years at the Turtle Lake Hospital.
“She was a very nice, caring lady,” Wardner said. Wardner said she has been trying to buy the book in Turtle Lake since its release two months ago and could never get a copy. She purchased one signed by Keel.
Joan Weber, of Mandan, said she was a neighbor and friend of Keel's growing up and she came to the book signing to see him — bringing a school annual with an embarrassing photo of his youthful self signed “Peanuts” — and because she, too, grew up with the story.
“Our parents talked about it and us kids would go to the grave. When we were in high school, we were initiated and had to go out to the farmhouse and walk to town. Oh, God, it was creepy,” Weber said.
Keel said the book topic always came up on short lists of things he’d like to write about some day, but it wasn’t until he complained to a friend about a tedious manual he was writing and she said, “Dump it,” that he got his start.
A surprising amount of information still exists, including affidavits and statements, the confessed murderer’s court appeal documents, and stories from the Bismarck Tribune and in German newspapers, among documents and photographs.
Area people at the book signing asked Keel to clear up aspects of what’s become local legend.
“Is it true that the murderer, or someone, came back and fed the baby?” one wanted to know, since it was fully two days before the murders were discovered by a neighbor who noticed harnessed horses in the yard and clothes hanging on the line overnight. “What happened to (Henry Layer) the confessed murderer’s family?" asked another. “What happened to baby Emma?" asked another. “What happened to the Wolf farm?” one asked.
Keel said he reached a point where the research had to stop and the writing — four months, with another three for editing, fact checking and insertions — had to start.
The book is already in its second, albeit modest, printing of 1,500 copies.
Keel said his first decision as author was to “novelize” the story, rather than document it.
“There is nothing in this novel that contradicts the legal and historical record. Even much of the dialogue is taken from sworn statements. I wrote it as fiction to make it more complete and more interesting,” he said at the book signing.
He said the novel format allowed him to breathe some life into the family, particularly the six daughters.
“When I got into the research, I saw victims, not more than names and ages. I wanted to bring them to life. Like me, like anyone who’s grown up here, they had dreams and aspirations for life. I couldn’t capture that if I didn’t write fiction,” Keel said.
Keel said he’s pleased with his effort. “It’s the first time anyone has told the story,” he said.
He means, of course, other than the retellings over the years at family gatherings, or those times during the year when residents go the Turtle Lake cemetery to tend to graves of their own departed and pass by the Wolf grave at the cemetery entrance.
The monument, which stands above a grave 8 feet wide by 20 feet long in which the caskets were lowered side by side, is a reminder of a horribly bloody chapter in the town’s history.
As one of Keel’s characters says, putting it there, so prominently, was the right thing to do for the family and for the town: “This is not something we can deny, and it’s not something we want to forget. This was an awful thing that happened to a whole family, almost. And you can bet that people are going to think about this for years to come as they see this mass gravesite at the top of the highest hill in the town cemetery.”
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 748-5511, or firstname.lastname@example.org)