100 Years Later: The Story of the Wolf Family Murder

Local News

On this day, exactly 100 years ago, a horrifying discovery was made on a farmstead in Turtle Lake.

Eight people were found murdered.

Although it’s unknown exactly how long the bodies went unnoticed, officials say April 22, 1920, was the day farmer Jacob Wolf, his wife Beata, five young daughters and a chore boy, Jacob Hofer, were killed. Only the baby, Emma Wolf survived.

At the grave sight, the headstone reads, in German, “The Murdered Family”.

“I asked my mom, ‘What is murder?…what is murder? I remember that,” recalled Curt Hanson, Emma Wolf Hanson’s son.

He’s now 75 years old.

Emma passed away in 2003, but Curt still visits the old family homestead. Although, it looks very different today.

“95 percent of the time, when I’m out here I think of it,” Curt shared as we walked the land. “And I often wonder what my grandpa and grandma were like. You know, I hear he was not an easy man to get along with.”

Curt’s grandfather was Jacob Wolf.

Gleaned from old newspapers, which can all be found at the McLean County Museum in Washburn, the story is that Wolf had trouble with a neighbor, Henry Layer, for a long time.

Layer ultimately confessed to all eight murders.

McLean County Museum Curator Rhonda Johnson says Layer even said, if he knew baby Emma was in another room, he would’ve killed her too.

But it’s widely debated whether or not Layer could have carried out the heinous crime on his own.

“We feel he had a part in it, but there had to be more than one,” Curt explained.

“The Sheriff was 34 years old. No, it’s not one of those things you pin on a badge and expect to deal with in North Dakota the next day,” shared McLean County Sergeant Curt Olson.

Sgt. Olson works for the McLean County Sheriff’s Office today, but he has always had a fascination with law enforcement history, which explains the old uniform and squad car that he drives off-duty.

“This is the biggest mass murder in North Dakota history,” he added.

Although the property now lies dormant, the story of the 1920 murders will always linger.

“Oh, it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Different relatives and other people would stop in and want to see my mother, you know, she was the ‘Wolf girl,'” Curt Hanson said.

He recalls the tale through his mother’s eyes. That title “Wolf girl” stuck with Curt’s mom her whole life, making it tough to leave the past behind her.

“They bullied her, and there were a lot of times, she said, ‘It drove me to tears’,” he added.

Hanson says no one really farmed on the land after the murders, until his dad, Clarence Hanson picked things back up in 1948 or ’49.

“She never felt loved until she met my dad,” Hanson paused and wiped away tears, “Then I think, man, a little girl doesn’t feel loved?” He trailed off again, “She had one little dress to wear to school…excuse me…”

Although the land sits quietly again, the Wolf family legacy lives on, thanks to the strength of the sole survivor.

Curt Hanson is one of three of Emma Wolf Hanson’s children. He has two sisters, one has passed away, but neither of them had any children.

Curt says he doesn’t know how much his own daughters even know of the story. So, although it’s a tale that will live on in McLean County, Curt Hanson is the last true link to the haunting tale of the Wolf family murders.

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