Listen to Turtle Lake Murders episode #1
Listen to Turtle Lake podcast episode #2
Listen to Turtle Lake podcast episode #3
TURTLE LAKE, N.D. — The photo is almost reminiscent of the final scene of the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” — a row of cars can be seen off in the distance making their way to a small farmstead for something special. But the people who drove these old cars weren’t going to see a baseball game in a cornfield, many were German Russian immigrants on their way to the Jacob and Beata Wolf farm a couple of miles north of Turtle Lake, North Dakota to say goodbye to their own — in fact, eight of their own.
On April 28, 1920, a massive funeral was held at the farm to bury the Wolf family: Jacob and Beata, their five young daughters and a teenaged farmhand, all murdered by gun or hatchet just days earlier, in what is still considered the state’s largest mass murder.
Forum Communications is looking back at the horrific murders of April 22, 1920 in a podcast "The Turtle Lake Murders." Episode #1 details what happened that day as Henry Layer confessed to murdering the family and was sent to prison for the crimes in just three weeks. Episode #2 provides a look at how experts today are analyzing the evidence and contend that Layer might not have been guilty after all.
In Episode #3, Forum Communications will examine the bigger picture, which could help explain why there might have been a rush to justice. Could it have been a hate crime? Or did ambitious politicians want a swift conviction for their own political gain?
What was the world like in April 1920?
A century ago, it was actually quite similar to our current-day situation in that they were also on the tail end of a pandemic. In fact, April 1920 is widely considered to be the final month of the Spanish Flu pandemic. At the same time, the United States was just starting to recover from World War I, which had ended a year and a half earlier. But while Americans could breathe a sigh of relief at the end of these two trying events, German-Americans were still a little uneasy, not from the pandemic necessarily, but from their treatment during the war years.
“The most hated and vilified ethnic group by race in 1920 were German Americans,” said Dr. Charles Barber, professor of history emeritus from Northeastern University in Chicago.
Barber says the hatred spawned from World War I, eventually faded into the 1920s, but less than two years after the war, German Americans, including Germans from Russia living in North Dakota, would face ethnic slurs, denial for employment, vandalism of their property and violence against themselves and their families.
Propaganda posters showed Germans as bloodthirsty barbarians and even as gorillas brutalizing Americans.
It was so bad that when one war poster showed an American bulldog attacking a German dachshund, real dachshunds were abused in American cities, including Cincinnati.
A defensive community
German Russians are a unique set of immigrants in that they were of German descent, but actually immigrated to the United States by way of Russia. German nationals had started moving to Russia in the late 1700s, after Russian Empress Catherine invited Germans to come to Russia and hold onto their German heritage in exchange for starting farming operations there. However, after 100 years or so, the Russians soured on the plan and many Germans chose to move to the United States — a great deal of them to North Dakota, where they could buy cheap farm land and set up their little German cities much like they were allowed to do in Russia.
They proudly held on to their German heritage, sometimes angering other ethnic groups in the state who chose to speak English at church and school.
Because of this German pride, German Americans, including those from Russia living in central North Dakota in the so-called "Sauerkraut Triangle", were accused of being more loyal to the German Kaiser than the American president.
Was this a hate crime?
So, if one were to question whether Henry Layer was truly guilty, could there be reasonable speculation made that the mass murder was a hate crime against German immigrants from other non-Germans in the area?
“There was talk of these Scandinavian fellows that came through and worked on farms,” Professor Tim Kloberdanz said. “They were itinerants, you know, blame the itinerants, right?”
Despite the whispers and rumors, Kloberdanz said he’s never heard of the German Russians really blaming any outside group. Instead, many seemed to understand that another German Russian immigrant, Henry Layer, was most likely the murderer.
That might have actually made it worse for the German Russian community, which feared that many non-German Americans would read the papers and make assumptions that all German Russians behave in the violent way Layer did.
For that reason, the German Russians in the state, including in the Turtle Lake area, closed ranks and leaned on one another to ward off any negative attention.
Was the rush to justice politically motivated?
Another theory in recent years regarding the possible miscarriage of justice with the Wolf murders surrounds the people who were assigned to find the killer, in particular, the most controversial politician to ever hold office in North Dakota — a man with a reputation for being too aggressive in getting anyone in jail for the crime.
Bill Langer, better known by some as “Wild Bill” Langer, was a fiery orator who served two separate times as governor and was a longtime U.S. Senator. But in 1920, he was a young attorney general with a very full workload.
Consider what was on Langer’s plate in the spring of 1920.
Prohibition was just months old, so he was trying to learn how and when to prosecute any offenders.
He, like the rest of the nation, was fresh off the Spanish Flu pandemic and the challenges that went along with that.
He was infighting with his one-time allies in the Non-Partisan League, a political organization of which he helped found and was gearing up to challenge his former NPL colleague, incumbent Governor Lynn Frazier, for the governorship.
He was part of a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of state-owned institutions, including the Bank of North Dakota, which the NPL helped set up. The justices heard arguments just three days before the murders took place. (By June, the court ruled in favor of the NPL enterprises).
On top of all of these challenges, Langer now faced the state’s worst-ever mass murder. By all accounts, he was doggedly determined to find the killer — and fast. He and law enforcement officials from McLean County chipped in their own money to offer a $1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. Some Langer critics contend Langer only did that to make Governor Frazier look bad for dragging his heels on the matter.
Langer and Frazier reportedly had met to talk about the case and both agreed that the last thing they needed in the middle of an election year was an unsolved murder of this magnitude. So did that mean they were too eager to rush to judgement and punish the easiest target, neighbor Henry Layer, who was known to have an ongoing feud with Jacob Wolf?
Maybe. But Dr. Barber doesn’t buy it.
Barber, who has done extensive research on Langer and has even written a musical about him, says Langer was criticized frequently, especially by those in powerful positions. Criticism probably would have come if he was aggressively pursuing a suspect or not being aggressive enough.
“It's always unfair in politics. But Langer didn't care about that,” Barber said.
In fact, by all accounts, Langer’s aggressive prosecution of Layer ended up hurting his election chances with one of his most solid voting blocks — German Russians. Langer was of German descent himself and frequently went into German communities and spoke their language. Going after Layer, a fellow German, seemed like betrayal to some.
“I know those people who said, ‘I'll never forgive Langer for (going after Layer)’ because he didn't somehow understand that this guy didn't do it,” Barber said.
Langer lost his bid for the governorship in 1920. But later, after winning back his German Russian voters, he won the state’s top job in 1932.
Was Langer politically motivated to rush through Layer’s conviction to make his political opponent look bad? Was he trying to look good to the German population, only to have it backfire when he convicted another German Russian? It’s hard to know. Langer didn’t speak at great length about the murders in his later years, at least in public. But like anyone involved in the case, it probably lived on in his mind forever.
Next time, on The Turtle Lake murders, what happened next? What became of Baby Emma, the little girl whose entire family was murdered a room away? Did she have a happy life? What kind of life did Layer’s family have after that? And how does Turtle Lake choose to view the murders now?
Other stories by Tracy Briggs:
The entire Turtle Lake Murders podcast: