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The sky was cloudy and the temperatures were chillier than normal that Sunday morning, March 19, 1922, when a car coming from Valley City, N.D., pulled up to the North Dakota State Penitentiary.
In the car? Officer William Skeels escorting 23-year-old William Gummer to the place where he was set to spend the rest of his life. Gummer had just been convicted in the June 7 murder of 18-year-old Marie Wick of Grygla, Minn. The crime was among the most brutal in the region’s history and the trial called North Dakota’s most sensational.
Gummer got out of the car and walked calmly through the doors of the prison. There he found the warden and told him, “I’m not guilty of this.”
The warden replied, “Well, that’s too bad. For if you were guilty I’d try to get you out. You know we have 250 men in here and they all say they’re not guilty and I wouldn’t want to have one guilty man to show them bad tricks.”
So what if the warden mocked his pleas of innocence? He’d continue to make them for the next 22 years.
"I'm not guilty of this."
- The first words William Gummer spoke to the warden as he walked into the North Dakota State Penitentiary to start serving his sentence.
This is the third installment of "Murder in Room 30: The Killing of Marie Wick." In Parts 1 and 2, Forum Communications told you how Wick, a farm girl from northern Minnesota, boarded a train bound for Pettibone, N.D., to visit relatives. But her overnight stopover at a Fargo hotel proved deadly.
She was choked, gagged, sexually assaulted and murdered in the early morning hours of June 7, 1921. Police questioned the one friend Wick had in Fargo-Moorhead and the other guests at the hotel. All were cleared of any wrongdoing.
But one week after the murder, police arrested Gummer, a native of Mayville, N.D., who was a clerk at the hotel.
Prosecutor William Green, the Cass County state's attorney, said Gummer had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime. In court, Green painted a picture of Gummer as a man who turned violent after Wick rejected his sexual advances. He also said he would have been the only person who knew there was a girl alone in that room the night of the murder because he’s the one who checked her in.
Green also said as a hotel employee, Gummer would have known how to unlatch the nozzle on a fire hose in the hallway that was used to beat Wick to death. He would have also been the only person with access to the basement stairs where a pair of bloody trousers were found.
All seemingly significant evidence, but Gummer seemed eager to talk about them as he sat down for his first interview shortly after he arrived at the penitentiary. The interview was published in the March 20, 1922, issue of the Bismarck Tribune.
The story Gummer told the reporter that day is one he would repeat for years to come: He did not kill Marie Wick.
As William Gummer, convict No. 3600, sat down for the interview, he was described as lacking "prison pallor" even though he had been jailed for sometime. He looked healthy. He was of slight build, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, medium weight and freshly shaven. By what he was wearing during the interview, it appears the conversation happened just moments after he arrived at the penitentiary.
The reporter noted, “He had not been dressed in as yet. He wore brown trousers and a silk shirt. This he will exchange for khaki trousers and a hickory shirt.”
During the interview, the reporter said it appeared Gummer had retained the “iron nerve” he exhibited in court. He was composed most of the time and even smiled and laughed when he answered questions about the murder.
The reporter opened to Gummer: “Your nerve didn’t fail you as you came in here.”
Gummer replied, “No, because I don’t expect to be here always. I figure something will turn up to solve this crime and I’ll be free.”
"I figure something will turn up to solve this crime and I’ll be free.."
- William Gummer on the first day of his life sentence, confident he won't be in prison long.
Very quickly in the interview, Gummer said he felt he got a raw deal in his trial.
The interviewer asked, “You had a good lawyer to prepare your case, didn't you?"
“Yes, but I don’t think the jury — they had had enough intelligence to try that kind of case. They selected men who hadn’t read the newspapers and I don’t consider that kind of a man of sufficient intelligence to try that kind of a case. There were a couple of old men on there who were pioneers. I learned one thing in that trial and that is that people can get on the witness stand and they’ll be believed as much as someone telling the truth.”
"They selected men who hadn’t read the newspapers and I don’t consider that kind of a man of sufficient intelligence to try that kind of a case."
- William Gummer on the jury that convicted him
In addition to blaming the jury for its inability to comprehend the case, Gummer blamed overly ambitious Cass County officers who were too eager to rush to judgment instead of thoroughly investigating the case. Gummer told the reporter he also blamed himself for his conviction because when he was first approached by law enforcement, he told a lie about his whereabouts that night because he didn’t want to confess that he was asleep on duty while clerking at the hotel.
Gummer agreed with the prosecution that the motive of the crime was rape, but disagreed that it had to be someone who was familiar with the hotel — in other words, an employee like him — that committed the crime. He and his lawyers claimed that while police checked the alibis and whereabouts of the hotel guests and cleared them, there’s no way they got everyone.
"There were too many people about the hotel about midnight," he said.
During the trial, Gummer’s attorney pointed to a man who had signed the hotel registry that night named James Farrell who was never seen again after signing in. And Farrell does not show up in a diagram of the guests who slept in the hotel the night of the murder.
The defense claimed police never followed up and looked for him even though beside his name he wrote Willmar, Minn., so they knew where to start looking. Prosecutors, however, claimed there was no James Farrell and that Gummer’s friend and roommate, Andy Brown, forged the name to throw suspicion off Gummer.
But as Gummer sat down moments before he would be incarcerated for life, he told the reporter he didn’t want to get into his theory of the murder because he had been advised not to discuss it. It would be something he and his attorney would talk about in the years to come as they fought to get Gummer’s conviction overturned.
In the meantime, Gummer said he wanted to focus on getting a job in prison "where I'll get a chance to use my brain. A fellow wouldn’t want to degenerate too much in here.”
However, the warden said there were more convicts than jobs at the time. Gummer would likely be able to get a job in the twine plant soon, but he was expected to spend most of his time in his cell on lifer’s row with the other 18 inmates. He would also get regular exercise time outside the cell and have the chance to write letters and take correspondence courses.
Because of the notoriety of the case, Gummer was coming into prison a celebrity. Other prisoners craned their necks to see the man who had occupied so much of the front page as of late. The warden also guessed that visitors to the prison would be asking about him — and that he might even take some attention away from Henry Layer, the current most famous and notorious murderer at the state penitentiary.
Layer was convicted of killing eight people in Turtle Lake, N.D., just a year earlier. He was featured in a previous podcast on The Vault entitled "Murder in Turtle Lake." Like Gummer, Layer professed his innocence until the day he died.
Gummer probably wouldn’t have guessed that cold March day in 1922, as relaxed as he appeared, that he wasn’t getting out of prison soon. In fact, the young man would be middle-aged when a change in the state's attorney meant a reexamination of the facts — and with that. the possibility that Gummer could be a free man.
Next time on "Murder in Room 30: The Killing of Marie Wick," we’ll look at the effort to get Gummer out of prison and the surprising thoughts Wick’s parents had about it.
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