Sunday, October 30, 2016

1920 Mass Murder On Wolff Farm in North Dakota

On April 24, 1920, the headline on the cover of The Bismarck Tribune read.

I have searched high and low for information no else has for this story. I want it to reflect the person's involved and their family trees. I will start with the victims.

Jacob Wolff was born on 18 Apr 1879 in Pawlowsky, Odessa, Russia. He married in 1905 Turtle Lake, ND to Beata Bossert born 15 Apr 1885 in Hoffnungstal, Bessarabia, Russia. Jacob came to America in 19 when he was 21 years old. Beata about 1902. 

According to the 1900 Census, he was a servant for the Ketterlings in McIntosh Co, ND. Very few short years later he is married and living in Lake Williams, McLean County, ND in 1910 (Census) with 4 children. 

Jacob & Beata (Bossert) Wolff with daughter (not sure which one).

The Wolff's had the following children
Bertha born 1907-1920
Maria born 1910-1920
Edna born 1913-1920
Lydia born 1914-1920
Martha born 1917-1920
Emma born 1919-2003

Jacob and his family were well liked by their neighbor's and friends. 

 The day of the murders will be remembered forever. IT's a sad event but what follows gets hard to swallow. Not only were these family members murdered, but another was too. For some unclear reason, the boy is continually referred to as the hired farmhand 13-year-old Jake Hofer He is related to this family, his father was Bernhardt Hofer brother of Emanuel Hofer who was Christina Bossert sister to Mrs. Wolff. This is very upsetting to me. I figured this out by reading a few articles and doing some genealogy. This poor boy should have and still should be referred to as a family member.
                                                   The Funeral!!!!!!
                                                             At the Wolff Farm

Mrs.Wolff's sister holding Emma the only survivor 


Thousands of families and friends and neighbors all came to the funeral to say goodbye and give condolences to other family members. 

Emma was raised by her Aunt and Uncle (Her Mom's sister) until she finished high school This is the only photo I could find of her.

Emma Wolff


Here are photo's of the Wolff family and 13-year-old Jake Hofer. The dates of birth for Mr. and Mrs. Wolf is wrong. 

 THE MURDERED FAMILY, is the English translation of the German inscription -- "Die ermordete Familie" -- that appears on the front of the Wolf family tombstone. 

Turtle Lake, McLean County, North Dakota
Turtle Lake Cemetery

The Crime Scene photo's 

Mr. Wolff and 2 of his daughters were found in the barn.

Notice there's still food on the table from breakfast.

Some of the family members were found in the cellar

Newspaper Clippings

Now for the other innocent people's lives ruined.

Henry C Layer the accused. was born 12 Nov 1885 in Eigenfeld, South Russia. Came to America on 12 Oct 1886 landed in New York.

His first wife was Mathilda Miller I could not find a marriage date for them They had two children.

Elizabeth Katherina Layer born 1908
Edward Layer 1910

They were divorced 11 Mar 1911

Second wife was Lydia Brokofsky they married on 30 Jan 1912 in Ashley, ND
Their children were. 
Blanche Rose Brokeofsky born 1910 (Stepdaughter, who always referred to him as her dad even after his death).

Blanche Rose Brokeofsky

Alvin Layer born 04 Dec 1913
Emil Berthold Layer born 17 Mar 1915
Berthold Layer born 01 Aug 1916 died 14 Oct 1922 (This story I will add after the children).
Edwin John Layer born 26 Jul 1917
Willard A. Layer born 09 Jun 1919

All the children except for Blanche and possibly Willard were placed in the Ward Home for children in Fairmont, MN After Henry was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the Wolff Family.

Here's a clipping describing what happened.

This is an article in the Fairmont (MN) Sentinel from October 14, 1922,
concerning the death of Berthold Layer

Tragedy at Ward Home

Instantly Snuffs Out Life

Of Inmate, Aged 6 Years

Little Berthold Layer Falls Under Wheels of Heavy Load of Sugar Beets---One of Seven Children Without Parental Care.

There was sadness at the Ward Home today as the little orphans gathered around the stilled form of Berthold Layer, aged 6, who was instantly killed this morning when a wagon loaded with sugar beets passed over his head, fracturing the skull just at its base.

Among the orphans were three of Berthold’s brothers and a sister. Edwin, aged 4, was too small to realize just what had happened, and tears welled in his eyes as he attempted to comfort his sister, Blanch, and brothers Alvin, and Emil.

The little boy had gone to the beet field south of the orphanage with the other boys and F.C. Fuller, the driver of the wagon. He was returning to the house with them about 9 o'clock this morning.  Mr. Fuller had driven into the lane and was about to drive through the gate when the accident occurred.

"I told the children to stay away from that wagon," said Mr. Fuller, "and did not see Berthold, who was on the opposite side. The bang-board obstructed my view, and the first thing I knew was when the back end of the wagon rose up. 'Berthold had been run over' shouted one of the boys. I picked him up, but the life must have left him instantly.  He made no outcry.

Dr. Richardson, who hurried to the orphanage to make an examination, said that death was practically instantaneous.

Berthold was one of a family of seven children, four of whom were brought to the Ward Home last June. The father and mother of the children are living, but have parted and Berthold and the three brothers and one sister who to the Ward Home this year, made their home with their mother and grandmother. Their home was at Turtle Lake, N.D. The children were brought to Fairmont by Rev. George Newcombe of Bismarck.

Funeral arrangements are being held up pending word from the he boy's mother."

After this tragic event Henry C Layers second
wife Lydia Brokofsky divorces him on 21 Dec 1922. I believe the children may have been adopted out to a family with the last name of Benn.Whild researching each child was listed with this name in certain family trees.

Henry C Layers

Henry maintained his innocence even as he laid in the prison hospital, he told the warden he was innocent and that a man that was admitted to the State Hospital in Jamestown was responsible for the murders. Unfortunately according to the warden he gave no name of this man.

Two families destroyed. Hurt. Betrayed. 

Hopefully, someday the whole truth will come out and these families can heal. There are still family members out there very hurt on both sides. I pray they find peace and the unanswered truth.


  1. I appreciate your research on this tragedy. I, too, think Jacob Hofer should have been identified as a relative. What on earth could have made anyone murder all of this beautiful family? It is also so tragic about the Layer children.

  2. I think it may have been somebody passing through. Henry Layers said he knew who did it and the man was at the State Hospital in Jamestown.Unfortunately he never named the man.

  3. The reason Jacob Hofer is buried with the Wolf family is because both his parents had died by this point. His mother died when he was 1 year old and his father when he was 10. In the 1920 census, taken in January of 1920, Jacob is living with what appears to be a brother of his step mother who had remarried after Bernard died and moved to Montana. He is listed as a Farm hand there as well.

  4. Thank you very much for this wonderful information, I really appreciate it.