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Death of Henry Layer


One of North Dakota’s most notorious convicted killers died on this date in 1925. Henry Layer was sentenced to life in prison for murdering eight people, including seven members of the Wolf family who lived near Turtle Lake, North Dakota.

Layer was born in Russia in 1884. He came to Ashley, in what was then Dakota Territory, in 1886 with his parents. He lived there until 1916 when he and his second wife Lydia moved to north of Turtle Lake. They had six children together.

The conflict between Henry Layer and Jacob Wolf began after one of Wolf’s dogs bit one of Layer’s cows. The conflict ended violently 1920 when Layer murdered Jacob and Beatta Wolf, five of their daughters and their chore boy. Only the Wolfs’ infant daughter Emma survived. A neighbor discovered the murders and Layer was fingered for the crime within weeks.

In 1922, after Layers’ sentencing, his wife divorced him and reverted to her maiden name. All but one of the Layers’ children were sent to the Ward Home for Children in Fairmont, Minnesota. Lydia kept Willard, the youngest child with her. Then that fall, a sugar beet wagon ran over their six-year-old son Berthold, fracturing his skull and killing him.

Lydia remarried in 1925, and two of her children returned to live with her by 1930. She would later marry again, for a fourth time. She died in 1981.

As for Henry Layer, his term in prison wasn’t pretty. He was “badly beaten up,” telling the prison barber that the man who brought him to the Bismarck prison had hit him over the head. The prison doctor recorded bruises the size of a silver dollar on each of Layer’s cheek bones.

Layer maintained his innocence, despite having confessed. The North Dakota State Supreme Court denied an appeal. Five years after the murders, Layer died in the penitentiary 10 days after surgery for appendicitis. The location of his grave is unknown.

Dakota Datebook written by Jack Dura


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The Northwestern Reporter. (1922). Volume 184. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company. Retrieved     from:

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