'Murder in Room 30': Defending William Gummer against case that was 'a house built on sand'
This week, Forum Communications marks the 100th anniversary of "North Dakota's Most Sensational Murder Trial," the killing of 18-year-old Marie Wick on June 7, 1921, in a downtown Fargo hotel. In the second part of Tracy Briggs' story, we look at why prosecutors think the hotel clerk committed the crime.
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Who was William Gummer? Depends on who you ask.
In 1921, some claimed he was a boy in a man’s body, an unsophisticated farm kid from Mayville, N.D., the naive youngest of eight children who was inexperienced in the ways of the world.
But ask others and he was a lothario, a slick and promiscuous lady's man who preyed on women for sport. Gummer, they claimed, was prone to dangerous outbursts, which erupted only after he flashed a smile — his almost wicked grin.
This week in "Murder in Room 30: The Killing of Marie Wick," Forum Communications combs through the archives and evidence into how a young farmgirl from Grygla, Minn., ended up dead during her first trip to "the big city."
Part 1 looked into how 18-year-old Marie Wick left her family farm on June 6, 1921, to board a train to Fargo for an overnight stay before visiting relatives in Pettibone, N.D. — but she never made the second part of her journey . Her dead body, brutally beaten, was discovered in downtown Fargo’s Prescott Hotel the following morning. After ruling out others, police arrested Prescott Hotel clerk William Gummer for the murder.
In Part 2, we’ll look at what led investigators to believe Gummer was the culprit and how Gummer proclaimed his innocence while pointing his finger at a mystery man — a hotel guest who signed in the night Wick was killed, but was never heard from again.
A key figure from the start
Right away, 22-year-old William Gummer was a key figure when Fargo Police officers and Cass County Sheriff Fred Kraemer showed up to investigate Wick's murder. Gummer was among the first people Wick met after arriving in Fargo. It was him who checked Marie into her room at the hotel that evening, and him who discovered her lifeless body in the morning. Was he so close for comfort that he had to be involved, or was he a victim of circumstance?
Sheriff Kraemer said they arrested Gummer after thoroughly ruling everyone else out. They ruled out Wick’s hometown friend, Arnold Rasmussen, who she went sightseeing with the night she came to Fargo. They also ruled out a man who was supposedly paying attention to her on the train from Crookston. And authorities say they were able to check out and verify the movements and alibis of every other guest in the Prescott Hotel that night.
The prosecution claimed there was simply no one else who could have done it. They laid out their reasons in William Gummer’s trial in Valley City, N.D., in February 1922. The trial had been moved from Cass County to Barnes County because of the sensational nature of the crime and the fear that a fair and impartial jury could not be found in Cass.
The prosecution states its case
Cass County State's Attorney William C. Green made several points as he pointed a finger at Gummer.
- Green speculated that the murder had to have been done by someone familiar with the hotel — the layout and routine of the place.
- This person would have had to have known there was a single woman alone in Room 30 when he broke in to commit the crime after midnight. Gummer would know that because he checked her into the hotel.
- Green said not only would Gummer have known that Wick was in Room 30, but also that at least until about 1 a.m. the room next door was unoccupied, so there would be less chance to be heard sneaking into her room.
- Also, Green said the person who broke into the room and attacked Wick while she slept would have had to have known the layout of the room since the shades were drawn and it was dark. No one heard Wick scream out before she was attacked, so whoever choked her did so quickly without having to fumble his way through the room waking her up.
- But Green said the light did come on at one point during the attack as there was blood on the lightbulb. He contends that if an outsider had committed the murder, they would have been too afraid to turn the light on because it would attract the attention of the hotel clerk on duty. Because Gummer was the clerk on duty, he knew no one else would notice a light going on in Room 30 in the middle of the night.
- Green said the murderer had to have been familiar with the murder weapon, the brass nozzle of a fire hose taken from the hallway. He said as an employee of the hotel, he would have known exactly where to find that hose and how to unfasten the nozzle.
- Green said Gummer had a clear motive to sexually assault Wick and to eventually kill her. Green claimed that Gummer was angry after Wick rebuffed his sexual advances shortly after she checked in. Gummer admitted talking to his friend Andy Brown around 10 p.m. and telling him there was “a good looking girl in Room 30” and also that he had called her on the phone to “find out if she was sporty or not.” However, Gummer said when she rejected him, he “gave the matter no further thought.”
"He told his friend there was 'a good looking girl in Room 30' and also that he had called her on the phone to 'find out if she was sporty or not.'"
- Cass County Prosecutor W.C. Green pointing out Gummer made sexual advances on Wick
- In the testimony, Gummer admitted on two previous occasions he had been intimate with women who came to the hotel alone, but explained that they consented to his advances. Attorney Green went on to say that Gummer had motive to kill Wick after the attack as she would have been able to identify him since she had met him earlier. If an outsider had broken into the hotel, Green said, he might not have killed her after the rape because she wouldn’t have been able to identify him later to police.
- Green showed the jury bloody trousers — probably the best piece of evidence that law enforcement had. A pair of bloody trousers were found at the foot of the basement stairs of the hotel, but not until June 13, almost a week after the murder. The pants were not found in earlier searches of the hotel in the days following the murder, so Green speculated Gummer, while on duty in the days after the crime, ditched them down the stairs.
Green said it was simple: Gummer had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime. He claimed Gummer was cold and calculating and that the only law he lived by was “the law of his own desires.” In his closing argument, the state's attorney pointed out that Gummer was his own worst witness, getting flustered and angry on the witness stand when questioning wasn't going his way.
"He didn’t like it and the longer he went on the less he liked it and what was the result? His real nature broke out and took control and then you saw the real Gummer. The Gummer that Hans Wick’s daughter saw as she lay on her bed of torture and watched that instrument of death come crashing down and down and down!"
— Cass County States Attorney W.C. Green, 1922
It’s interesting to note that Green’s closing argument was being made in front of an all-male jury. Women in North Dakota weren't allowed to serve on a jury until 1923 — the year after the trial — and then only if they went down to the courthouse and petitioned to be on a jury.
But the lack of women on the jury perhaps played into Green’s final pitch to the jury members as fathers.
"Do you want some other father’s daughter to see that William Gummer? Do you want that cold, merciless stare and that sardonic grin to leave some other girl the choice of giving up her virtue or her life? No power on earth can give Hans Wick his Marie back, but you 12 men have it in your power to say that no father or mother or daughter need ever again fear William Gummer’s filthy soul by saying in this room that he shall be confined to the penitentiary at Bismarck for the balance of his life, saying it, not in the spirit of hatred, not in the spirit of revenge, but that justice may be done!"
— Cass County States Attorney W.C. Green, 1922
The defense fights back
Gummer, his lead attorney, W.H. Barnett, and attorney Hjalmer Swenson (also Gummer's brother-in-law) answered back. They claimed the prosecution’s case was “like a house built upon the sand" — weak and full of circumstantial evidence.
- The defense pointed out that the crime could have easily been committed by an outsider or hotel guest as at least four guests were out of their rooms and in the lobby during the time of the murder, which had now been narrowed down by police to between midnight and 1 a.m.
- The defense said police failed to locate and rule out a man named James Farrell of Willmar, Minn., who had signed the hotel registry that evening but, for some reason, doesn't show up as occupying a room in later accounts. And unlike all of the other people who signed the registry, Farrell was never interviewed or even found. Barnett pointed out that Gummer saw Farrell at the front desk and his description of him matched a man named James Farrell who had lived in Willmar at least in 1918. But there is no record of police going to Willmar to investigate it.
- However, the prosecution argued that there was no James Farrell — he was made up to help cover Gummer’s crime. They argued that once Gummer killed Wick, he knew he needed to point the finger at someone else, so he had his friend and roommate, Andy Brown, write James Farrell’s name in the hotel registry. The prosecution brought in a handwriting expert from Minneapolis who testified that it appeared Brown’s handwriting matched Farrell’s signature.
- The defense also had another explanation for the prosecution's argument that the murder had to have been committed by someone familiar with the hotel. They pointed out that Fred Lawrence was a longtime guest who would have known the hotel, as would Andy Brown, a friend of Gummer's who was also hanging out at the hotel a lot. Defense attorneys argued they weren't trying to pin the blame on anyone, just that reasonable doubt existed about Gummer's guilt.
- The defense also said the timing just didn't add up. They said Gummer was in the hotel office for all but 15 minutes of the midnight hour when the murder was thought to have taken place. He was found sleeping at his desk when the banker H.J. Hagen arrived at the hotel around 1 a.m.
"Is it reasonable to suppose the accused man could have committed the assault in the 15 minutes unaccounted for and be asleep behind the desk when Hagen came in?"
—Gummer defense attorney H.W. Swenson
- Hagen's name came up in another point made by Barnett and Swenson about how police treated a man of high status like Hagen differently than they'd treat a simple "boy" like Gummer. Barnett said the state had based their claim of Gummer's guilt on his past life (and sexual history). But if Hagen had been arrested, would they have taken his past into account or given him the benefit of the doubt?
- Gummer's defense argued that prosecutors were "overly enthusiastic," caring less about who they'd convict and just that they'd convict someone, to help them maintain their reputations as "good prosecutors."
The Cass County Prosecutor W.C. Green "is the greatest little prosecutor in the state," but the state's case is "a house built upon sand."
—Gummer defense attorney W. H. Barnett
What about his fingerprints?
While newspapers wrote at least one story about how the fingerprints of another man suspected earlier in the case, the former banker Hagen, did not match the evidence found in Room 30, there is no mention of whether Gummer’s fingerprints matched the evidence in the room or not.
In the accounts obtained by Forum Communications, there is no mention of the suspect's fingerprints by either the prosecution or defense. If they matched, you'd think the prosecution would have used that as evidence. If they didn't match, the defense would have used it.
Whatever the evidence, circumstantial or not, it only took the jury of 12 men just six hours to render a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder for Gummer. He was later sentenced to life at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck. But this story is far from over..
Next time, on "Murder in Room 30: The Killing of Marie Wick," Gummer grants an interview from prison the day he arrives to start his life sentence. He insists he is innocent and does so for years. Someone was listening.
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