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WDAY: The News Leader

Published April 23, 2014, 10:18 PM

A look back into North Dakota's horrific "Crime of the 20th Century"

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - It is considered to be North Dakota's "crime of the 20th Century."

By: Kevin Wallevand, WDAY

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - It is considered to be North Dakota's "crime of the 20th Century." Tonight we take you back to a rural farm near Turtle Lake, where 94 years ago this week, a disagreement between two farmers left 8 people brutally murdered.

It left the Germans from Russia community reeling from disbelief and sorrow. A photo taken the day of the funeral tells the impact of that horrific crime, April 28th 1920, when thousands showed up at the farm of Jacob Wolf, where he, his wife, six daughters, and a young neighbor boy would be remembered.

Their 8-open caskets spread across the farm yard. Just days earlier, the Wolf family had been shot by neighbor Henry Layer following a dispute over a cow. It is believed Layer used a shotgun to kill 7- a hatched to kill another. Before burying them in a cellar below the farm kitchen, and under manure and straw in the barn.

John Hallberg/NDSU ArchivesRegional Studies: “I was thinking how horrific the descriptions were, they did not have photos to put in newspapers easily so they would go into graphic descriptions of the crime scenes and they would get real graphic.”

Before burying them in a cellar below the farm kitchen, and under manure and straw in the barn.

Wounds he inflicted on his victims and chasing them down.

Think of the time, 1920, long before NCIS and CSI and so ND detectives had one thing, a suspicious suspect.

Hallberg: “The evidence that linked, there wasn't much physical evidence, that connected to the crime, he confessed after grilling, he showed up at the farm during the investigation, and at the funeral he asked to see all the bodies to see the wounds.”

The mass murders rocked the huge Germans from Russia community in North Dakota, that stretched like a triangle across a good chunk of the state.

Hallberg: “They had been ostracized because of propaganda from World War One, and so they had each other and for something like this to happen was traumatic.”

The story obviously made headlines, and even became part of a high profile political war in North Dakota.

There was a survivor, baby Emma, who was in a crib at the time of the murders and left untouched.

Mr. Layer says he would have killed her but she slept through the whole event and survived.

She is pictured at the funeral wearing white.

One grave, measuring 8 feet by 26 feet would hold all 8 caskets, as mourners sang this song from their native homeland.

After a drama filled trial, Layer would be sent to prison, where he would die 5-years later.

A novel, based on the murders has been written. And today a marker along with the gravesite is the only reminder of that horrible day, one building still stands at the farm. A homestead always remembered as the site of one of North Dakota's darkest days.

After her husband was sent to prison, Lydia Layer sent five of her six children to a Minnesota orphanage. A 6-year old son died in a farm accident there.

And Emma, the only survivor of the shootings that day in 1920, went on to live to be 84. She died in 2003.

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