Oct. 27—Editor's note: This is is part 4 of the "Murder in Room 30" series. If you haven't read or listened to the previous episodes, find them here:
In the spring of 1922, 23-year-old William Gummer was walking into the state penitentiary in Bismarck, where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life. After a month-long trial, the hotel clerk was convicted of murdering an 18-year-old woman at Fargo's Prescott Hotel where he worked.
Meanwhile, not far away from where the murder happened, a young man named Ralph Croal was working as a clerk in the Cass County court that spring. The 29-year-old was a proud graduate of Fargo High class of 1911, an avid baseball fan and preparing to marry his sweetheart Clara Hanson that summer.
Life was very different for these two young men in their twenties in the 1920s, but in the years ahead, the paths of the successful young attorney and the convicted murderer would intersect and forever change the final outcome of what had been called North Dakota's most sensational murder case.
Would the life sentence of William Gummer be considered justice served or would we later look back at him and think of him as a man wrongly convicted?
Listen to the podcast here:
This is the final installment of "Murder in Room 30, the Killing of Marie Wick." In episodes one through three, Forum Communications told you about the tragic death of Marie Wick, an 18-year-old from Grygla, Minnesota, who was murdered during her first overnight stay in the "big city" of Fargo. She was found dead in her hotel room on June 7, 1921.
Hotel clerk William Gummer was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for the crime. Gummer professed his innocence from the day police showed interest in him. He thought they rushed to judgment and failed to look into a mystery man named James Farrell who signed the hotel registry that night, then disappeared.
In this final episode of the story, Forum Communications will look at how Gummer's attorney, his brother-in-law Hjalmer (H.W.) Swenson fought tirelessly for years to get Gummer out of jail. Swenson agreed Gummer did not commit the assault and murder and fought tooth and nail to earn Gummer a pardon.
But the pleas would fall on deaf ears until a new state's attorney took over in Cass County. Ralph Croal took office in 1939, 17 years after Gummer was sent to prison. As he reviewed the evidence in the brutal crime, he started to come to the same conclusion as Swenson, perhaps the prosecution did rush to judgment all those years ago and maybe they got it all wrong.
The first words William Gummer uttered to the warden of the North Dakota State Penitentiary when he arrived that cold Sunday morning in March of 1922 were "I'm not guilty of this." The warden brushed the comment off, implying "That's what they all say."
But fortunately, Gummer had a firm believer in his older sister Theresa's husband, H.W. Swenson, an attorney from Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The two men met over the next 18 years, trying to strategize about how to get Gummer pardoned. Gummer took and passed a lie detector test, they made appeals to the North Dakota Supreme Court and the state board of pardons. All were rejected. Gummer remained in jail. He was 23 when he walked into prison and 41 when his last pardon was denied. But in 1940, Swenson opted for another tactic. A commutation of Gummer's sentence.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a commutation "reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, but does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence or remove civil disabilities, such as the right to vote or to hold public office." It falls short of a pardon, which absolves the person of guilt for the crime.
Under North Dakota state law, no prisoner serving a life sentence is eligible for a reduction of his or her sentence until that person has served half of their life expectancy. It was determined that date would be October 1941 for Gummer. So the fight began to garner enough support and evidence to petition the pardon board for the commutation.
Ralph Croal had been digging into the Gummer case since 1934 while he was still an assistant states attorney. But the real breakthrough came in 1936, when a man in Denver named Arthur James apparently bragged to some friends that he and his friend Blackie Carter (also known as Paul Welch) murdered a girl at a hotel in Fargo around the same time of Wick's murder. He joked that a clerk named William Gummer was doing life for their crime. Three people signed affidavits verifying they heard James making that confession.
Croal and Swenson investigated and concluded that Blackie Carter could very likely have been the "James Farrell" that had signed into the hotel registry the night of the murder, but was never heard from again.
You might remember from an earlier story and podcast episode, the prosecution argued that there was no James Farrell and that it was Gummer's friend Andy Brown who forged that signature to throw suspicion off of Gummer. But could Blackie Carter be James Farrell?
Croal teamed up with Swenson to find out. They traveled to St. Paul where Carter was operating a service station.
Croal, Swenson and Twin Cities law enforcement drove up to the service station to talk to Carter. He denied committing the crime. But all three men say they thought he was lying.
He admitted he was in Fargo that night and that the day following the murder he traveled to Minot. So then does it add up that he indeed could be James Farrell who could not be found the next day?
When they asked for a handwriting sample to compare it to that of James Farrell's signature, a handwriting expert said Carter's writing was similar in character and slant as that of James Farrell's signature. But perhaps more interesting was seeing how Carter wrote the hometown James Farrell wrote in the registry. Farrell misspelled Willmar, Minnesota using just one L in Willmar and so did Carter.
But keep in mind, a different handwriting expert during the trial said Gummer's friend Andy Brown's handwriting was also similar to Farrell's.
So Carter's guilt might not be a slam dunk. But Croal was convinced he was their man.
Even so Croal said they could not arrest Carter because at that time, "he could not be convicted of the crime except on evidence that is just as circumstantial, or perhaps more so," than the evidence upon which Gummer was convicted in 1922. While Croal might have been frustrated not to arrest Carter, he felt at least there was enough evidence to question whether Gummer really belonged in prison.
In December of 1944, Croal testified to the pardon board saying:
"I feel that the facts which we have developed are sufficient to show that the crime was committed by Blackie Carter and therefore that Bill Gummer could not have been the man who committed the crime."
It would be up to the pardon board to decide whether it was enough to let Gummer walk.
So we go back to where this story started: a small farm outside Grygla, Minnesota as an aging couple faces another Christmas without their Marie.
Hans and Katrina Wick struggled with the thought that the man convicted of killing their oldest daughter might soon walk free. Somewhat surprising however, is that neither Hans nor Katrina Wick was thoroughly convinced Gummer was guilty, but they suspected he might know who did do it.
Katrina Wick said in a telephone interview on Dec 10, 1944, "I don't think he should be given his release. They should keep him there."
Mrs. Wick would be disappointed. A short time later, the pardon board ruled that after nearly 23 years in prison, Gummer's sentence would be commuted. He would walk out of prison later that month.
Even though a commutation does not turn a guilty verdict to innocent, the pardon board seemed to hint that Gummer might have been innocent based upon his favorable lie detector test as well as statements made by Carter and James.
The board ruled, "After carefully considering all of the matters, the state board of pardons has reached the conclusion that grave doubt exists regarding the guilt of William Gummer and that as a result thereof and obvious good conduct as an inmate of the penitentiary for 23 years, that board should exercise the authority vested in it by the constitution and statutes of the state and grant clemency to Willam Gummer."
On Dec. 28, 1944, Gummer, the man who walked into prison a confident 23-year-old sure that he wouldn't be in the state penn long, left a 46-year-old, no doubt worn down by his ongoing legal fight. At 23, he agreed to a long sit-down interview with a newspaper reporter to state his case, hoping it would do some good. But on his release day, he told prison officials that he was happy to be out, and while he "appreciated the interest of newsmen," he declined to be interviewed.
He also did not reveal any future plans to anyone but was taken, at his request, to the Bismarck Bus Depot where he reportedly boarded a Fargo-bound bus.
If he got off the bus in Fargo, he'd find things had changed. For one, the hotel where he worked, where the murder took place , The Prescott Hotel, didn't survive the scandal. It closed a little over a year after the murder. The building that had been home to the Daily Argus newspaper before it was The Prescott, was eventually used by the YWCA. It was later torn down and is now a parking lot.
Perhaps after he got off the bus, Gummer stopped into the states attorney office to thank Croal for his efforts or check up on the case or maybe he just grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee and took another bus home to see his family in Mayville, hoping to never think about the case again. We don't know.
But we do know that following that day, Croal and Gummer's brother-in-law and attorney Swenson continued to dig into the case, hoping to find evidence to put Carter behind bars. However, their hopes were undoubtedly dashed just six years later, when Carter, 54 and farming in Wisconsin, agreed to take a lie detector test and undergo truth serum sessions.
The man who administered the sessions, Professor C.B. Hanscom of the University of Minnesota, said "the questioning and lie detector tests had absolutely cleared Carter."
Carter went back to his farm in Wisconsin. Swenson, disappointed that his years of searching still hadn't fully cleared his brother-in-law, remained undeterred. He continued to seek justice until his death just eight years later in 1958. Cass County States Attorney Ralph Croal also died in 1958. The likelihood of a conviction after their deaths was extremely low.
What happened to Gummer after he was last seen getting on that bus for Fargo? It turns out he would live another 37 years after his release from prison. But what did he do? And were they good years, or was he plagued by his time in the state penitentiary?
According to newspaper reports, Gummer began working as a barber shortly after his release. He worked in Bottineau, Mayville, Larimore and Grand Forks. He met and married Grace McKenzie in Crookston, Minnesota in 1954. A newlywed at 56, he never had children.
He retired as a barber in 1972 and lived in Montana and Grand Forks. He died on June 23, 1981 at the age of 82 and is buried in a cemetery in Mayville, N.D.
In photos of Gummer in his later years, he simply looks like a more weathered, slightly wrinkled and grayer version of the mugshot taken the first day at the penitentiary. There's even a hint of "that smile" prosecutors read as unseemly.
Was it a personality flaw, a hint of an evil lothario who preyed on women? Or was it just a smile that changed his life forever? Marie Wick has been gone now for 100 years and we still don't know the answer.
Listen to "Murder in Room 30 — The Killing of Marie Wick" on The Vault by Forum Communications on Apple, Spotify or on this Forum Communications website.
This podcast can also be found under "The Vault" at inforum.com/podcasts/ or on Apple, Spotify and Amazon. Search for it using "The Vault and Forum."