Did the man who confessed to murdering seven members of a family and their hired boy near Turtle Lake, N.D., in 1920 really do it?More than a year after the release of the book The Murdered Family, author Vernon Keel, a Turtle Lake native and former UND faculty member, said that’s the question readers want to talk about. He will be in Grand Forks on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 5 p.m. in the UND Bookstore to discuss that question and the facts behind his work of historical fiction.
Although Keel’s book is a novel, it’s based upon the historical record of eight gruesome murders that occurred on a farm near Turtle Lake. Jacob Wolf, his wife Beata, five of their six children and their hired boy, 13-year-old Jacob Hofer, were found dead on the family farm. All but one of the children had been killed by shotgun blasts. The bodies weren’t discovered until two days after the murders occurred. For whatever reason, the Wolf’s eight-month old daughter Emma was spared.
“The most interesting thing is that the conversations have changed,” Keel related about his travels around the country to promote The Murdered Family. “I used to spend most of my time talking about the book, but now people want to talk about the mystery of the Wolf family murders, which is the subtitle.”
Initially, it was believed that more than one person committed the murders, but suspicion turned to Henry Layer, the Wolf’s neighbor who had a dispute with Jacob Wolf. Layer was arrested and soon confessed to the crime, but later claimed that he’d been beaten, threatened and coerced into giving the confession and pleading guilty.
Layer’s appeals for a change of plea and a trial were denied by the North Dakota Supreme Court. He was sentenced to life in prison and died in the State Penitentiary in Bismarck five years later, always maintaining his innocence.
“There’s nothing in the novel that contradicts anything in the legal or historical record,” Keel said. “There are things in there that aren’t in the record, such as the dialogue from a newspaper interview. I had to work backward from the news story to recreate the dialogue that would have occurred for the reporter to get the information that ended up in his story.”
Against the backdrop of the murders was the intense political rivalry between North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier of the Nonpartisan League and Attorney General William Langer. Langer was seeking the Republican nomination for governor so he could run against Frazier. Langer involved himself in the investigation from the beginning, knowing that a quick solution would benefit his political future.
Another factor that raised doubts about Layer’s guilt was that two versions of the story emerged. The Wolfs and the Layers were both part of the German-Russian immigrant community that settled in parts of North Dakota and South Dakota. On the heels of World War I in which anti-German propaganda was common in America, the German-Russians preferred to keep a low profile.
“The German-Russian reality was different,” Keel said. “They wanted to believe that the man who had signed the confession had committed the crimes. They wanted to get on with their lives. The way the German-Russian newspapers told how the murders actually occurred was different from the official version.”
Born and raised three miles from where the murders took place, Keel has a personal connection with the events that made national and international headlines more than 90 years ago. His father knew the Wolf family and the accused murderer. In addition, Emma Wolf later became a friend of Keel’s mother. Growing up in the Turtle Lake area, he was familiar with Emma’s children.
“One of the unanticipated rewards of the project was to get to know those kids better,” Keel said. “I told them that I was working on so they’d know when the book was published. We’ve become good friends as a result of the book.”
Like many other residents of the area, Keel said his father seldom spoke of the murders.
“People were reluctant to talk about it,” Keel said, but the book’s publication has helped change that. “One old-timer at event in North Dakota had a copy of the book and told me that he enjoyed it. He also told me, ‘Thank you for giving us permission to talk about this story.’ There never had been a complete telling of this story until this book, and now they can talk about it.”
Keel, who lives in Denver, came to UND in 1976 from South Dakota State University to head the journalism department. He was director of UND’s School of Communications until 1989 when he left for a position at Wichita State University.
He began his career as a journalist at the Turtle Lake newspaper. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and taught media law.
As a journalist who’d never written anything but non-fiction, the decision to make The Murdered Family a work of historical fiction wasn’t easy.
“As I got into the research, I began to think of six of the victims as children whose lives were cut short. They were not much more than names on grave markers in the cemetery,” he recounted. “But by telling the story as historical fiction, I could bring them back to life and make it more personal.”
The Murdered Family website
Vernon Keel, author
The Murdered Family
Patrick Miller, writer/editor
UND Office of University Relations