Listen to Turtle Lake Murders episode #1
Listen to Turtle Lake podcast episode #2
Listen to Turtle Lake podcast episode #3
Listen to Turtle Lake podcast episode #4
TURTLE LAKE, N.D. — Little Emma Wolf wears an old fashioned, cotton nightie as she sits in the wooden cradle in an old farmhouse with the patterned wallpaper. One can speculate that the old, black and white photo was taken in her Aunt Christina Hofer’s house just days after a tragic event Emma didn’t remember but what would impact her for a lifetime.
As told in Episode#1 of The Turtle Lake Murders, little Emma Wolf was the only survivor of the mass murder of her family on April 22, 1920. Her parents and five sisters were killed, along with a teenage farm hand. Emma was in the house, too, but for whatever reason, she was spared the gunman’s bullets that killed her parents and older sisters and the wave of the hatchet that killed her 3-year-old sister.
In Episode #2, Forum Communications took a closer look at why the confessed killer spared Emma’s life, along with other questions about the murders. Episode #3 looked at whether the murder of the family was a hate crime and if justice happened too swiftly for political reasons. In this final installment of The Turtle Lake Murders, whatever happened to Emma Wolf? Did she have a happy life? The story and podcast also take a closer look at some of the lesser known people who survived the murders but lived with the fallout, just like Emma did.
The names of those who lost their lives in North Dakota’s worst mass murder have been well documented: Jacob Wolf, 41; Beata Wolf, 35; Jacob Hofer, 13; Bertha Wolf, 12; Maria Wolf, 9; Edna Wolf, 7; Liddia Wolf, 5; Martha Wolf 3.
But these eight people aren’t the only victims of that dark day. The fallout from the murder changed the community and the lives of so many — the family of the man convicted of the crimes, as well as the only Wolf family member to survive — 8-month-old Emma.
Emma died in 2003, but her only son, retired pastor Curtis Hanson, shared stories about what he calls his “very loving mother, who was a tremendous cook and made the best German kuchen in the world.” But, he says, she was also a negative person who dealt with her share of troubles.
“She was a person who grew up not trusting anybody. Because she inherited her father’s farm, people wanted her land but not her. So she couldn't trust anybody, or she got hurt by a lot of different people,” Hanson said.
Hanson says his mother lived all her life in Turtle Lake, not far from the site of the murders, land that is still in the family today. So what happened after the day Emma's family was murdered just feet from her crib? Her story certainly did not stop that day.
What happened immediately following the murders?
Baby Emma was found crying in her crib Saturday, April 24 — two days after the murder — by Wolf neighbors John and Jessie Kraft. There have been many rumors about the condition in which she was found.
One story that is part of the lore of this tragedy is that even though she had been left alone, her diaper was dry and she was clean, fed and seemingly well cared for. So was someone, even the suspect, coming back to the scene of the crime to make sure Emma was okay? In his novel, “The Murdered Family,” author and Turtle Lake Native Vernon Keel says he could find nothing in the legal or historical record to support that story. This is not to say that it did not happen that way, just that nothing was found in the research to support this claim.
When Emma had been discovered in her crib, she had probably been alone in the house for two days. She was immediately taken to a neighbor’s house until her Aunt Christina, her mother’s older sister, could take her in. Christina could been seen in a funeral photo holding Emma, all in white, by the second casket.
Christina and her husband, Emmanuel Hofer, had to fight to adopt their niece because the appointed guardian of the Wolf estate wanted her to be raised in an institution until she could inherit the land. The Bismarck Tribune notes the Hofers met with Governor Lynn Frazier to get his advice.
They did win custody of Emma, only to have it briefly challenged again when Emma was in the second grade because someone claimed her aunt and uncle were unfit parents.
"She was seven years old and the sheriff came in and took her right out of class, and she told me one time when we were driving," said Hanson. "She said 'Curt, I tried to hang on to my teacher's neck until my little arm couldn't take it anymore.'"
The Hofers again prevailed, and Emma was raised right alongside her cousins as another sister. In fact, Hanson said his mother believed she was a “Hofer” when she was little, but other children knew she was from “that Wolf family,” and she’d be teased.
By the time she was in eighth grade, the Hofers health was failing, and Emma was eventually sent to live with different guardians, Emil and Vera Haas, who owned the general store in town.
“She worked in the store for her room and board, and she said, ‘I would get a banana from the store, and we'd go up and have a banana split,'” Hanson recalls his mother telling him later.
Emma graduated from Turtle Lake High School and attended a year of school at Minot State University where she earned a teaching certificate. She taught for one year before marrying Clarence Hanson in 1940.
The couple had three children: Priscilla, Curtis and Sheila. The young family chose to stay in Turtle Lake to raise their family.
The family never moved away from Turtle Lake, which might seem unusual, given the tragic history there. But Hanson says his mother didn’t look back on it or wonder about what could or should have been.
“She never talked about it. She didn’t seem to have any ‘what if’s’. Maybe she did in her own mind, but not around us,” Hanson said.
A resilient community
In the years that followed, that stoic German disposition that Emma possessed was also pretty common in the community of Turtle Lake, where even those closest to the families involved seemed to live by the idea of: what's done is done — move on.
Some even speculate that the community, especially the German Russian community, became more united because of what they saw as a backlash in the press.
“This one got such public interest that German Russians really feared that this (murder) is going to be used once again to humiliate us and to make people fear us and distrust us,” says Dr. Tim Kloberdanz, a German Russian professor.
NDSU Archivist John Hallberg told WDAY News in 2015 that the community was still feeling the effects of World War I.
“They had been ostracized, through propaganda during World War I. So, I think they had each other. For something like this to take place in the community, I think was quite traumatic,” Hallberg said.
The confessed killer's family torn apart
It was also quite traumatic for the family of Henry Layer, who confessed to the crimes and was sentenced to life in prison. He died, just five years after the murders, from complications from an appendectomy. His family had to live in the community knowing their husband and father was blamed for the crime, even though so much doubt had been cast on Layer’s guilt.
According to Vernon Keel, the author of “The Murdered Family,” when Layer went to prison, his wife Lydia was not able to keep the family together. She kept one-year-old Willard with her, but sent her daughter Blanche and four sons to an orphanage in Minnesota, where one, Berthold, was killed two years later, at the age of six, when he was run over by a farm wagon.
According to Keel, Blanche said later that she and two of her younger brothers returned to North Dakota some time after 1925, which was the year her father died in prison and her mother remarried. On her return, she was taunted, ridiculed and made fun of mainly, but not only, by children she encountered.
She eventually moved to Washington state, where she married and had children. Her loved ones remember her as kind and caring, always putting others' needs before her own. But, they say, she was also nervous and anxious, and they recall her suffering through periods of emotional stress off and on during her lifetime.
One of her daughters remembers her as a wonderful, beautiful person who was always there for them, even though she was sick a lot. She also believes that her mother was a victim of the Wolf family murders of 1920, up to the day she died in February of 1981.
After 101 years, the players in this drama are all gone, yet people still visit the property to see where it all happened.
Sgt. Curt Olson with the McLean County Sheriff’s office says the property isn’t easy to find, and even if you do, it’s chained off. Hanson says he drives past the mass grave for the family every week. He and others pay their respects to "The murdered family", but like the Germans from Russia a century ago, they hope one dark day doesn’t define them forever.
“Being known for the biggest homicide in North Dakota is not something you really want to hang on your "welcome" sign for the county,” Olson said. “But, you know, I think this county picked up and moved on afterwards. It's a sad part of history, but it's there.”
The entire Turtle Lake Murders podcast: