The Gummer Affair
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
At about 6:30 on the morning of June 7th, 1921, William Gummer, a 22-year-old clerk at Fargo’s Prescott Hotel, told his boss, “Something’s wrong in room 30.” Marie Wick, a pretty 18-year-old brunette from northern MN was brutally assaulted and killed in that room sometime during the night. Grey hairs were found clutched in her hand.
Fargo was an overnight stop for Marie as she traveled to see an aunt in Pettibone. During the train ride from Crookston, a middle-aged man with a small mustache bought peanuts for her and another young woman, and the three spent the rest of the trip playing cards together.
Marie checked into the Prescott at 10 p.m., went out for ice cream with Arnold Rasmussen, a hometown friend, and returned an hour later. She asked to be awakened at 6 a.m. and went to her room. When she didn’t respond to repeated calls the next morning, William Gummer went up and knocked on her door. When there was no response, he opened the door and found Marie’s wrists lashed to the bed frame and her head wrapped in pillowcases showing blood.
Authorities believed Marie was attacked while she slept and was choked into unconsciousness. She was gagged, tied up, and sexually assaulted sometime between 12:30 and 2 a.m. Two women in the hotel heard noises – one during this time frame, and the other at about 4 a.m.
Based on forensic evidence, it was speculated that the killer came back a second time, found Marie alive, retrieved the brass nozzle from a fire hose down the hall and bludgeoned her with it. She died on the floor between the wall and her bed, having gotten one of her hands free. The killer then laid her out on the bed, straightened her nightgown, neatly pulled up the covers and wrapped her head with the pillowcases. He retied her loose hand, cleaned the hose nozzle and put it back where it belonged. Left behind were cigar ashes and a bloody towel.
The next morning, all the hotel guests were identified and fingerprinted except one, James Farrell, who was never found. Under pressure to solve the case, a finger soon pointed at Gummer, the 6-foot clerk from Mayville. Authorities claimed James Farrell was fictitious and that Gummer or a friend forged the name into the registry to cover their tracks. Also, several women said Gummer made advances toward them when they stayed at the Prescott, which he admitted.
The case was tried in Valley City, where the prosecution created a convincing case. The evidence was all circumstantial, and the defense put on an equally compelling case. But Gummer had a personality flaw – often mentioned as “that smile” – that worked against him. On February 25, 1922, he was found guilty of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in the Bismarck penitentiary.
Gummer steadfastly maintained his innocence. He repeatedly petitioned for a pardon but was continuously refused. Then, in 1934, three people from Denver submitted affidavits stating one Arthur James told them that he and a man named Blackie Carter had killed Marie Wick. But, an investigator rejected the theory, convinced that James wasn’t in Fargo that night.
Ten years later, States Attorney Ralph Croal found the mysterious Blackie Carter (alias Paul Welch) operating a filling station in St. Paul. After interviewing Carter, Croal became convinced it was this man, not Gummer, who actually killed Marie Wick. Nearly 23 years after his conviction, William Gummer finally won his pardon. On this date in 1944, he walked out of prison a free man. He was 44.
Today, we’re bringing you a variety of stories from around the state in the fall of 1914. Here’s a bit of trivia from a Towner County newspaper: “For every five square miles of plowing you travel 2,500 miles. That’s equal to a single furrow all the way around the earth. Getting enough wheat for a loaf of bread requires a furrow fifty feet long.”
Back in the days of plowing with horses, it was said a man could plow a furrow one mile long by noon. Then he’d turn around and plow a furrow next to it in time to be home for supper. And we think we’ve got it bad!
Turning our attention to the 1914 hunting season, the editor of the Milton Globe, E.L. Peterson, also happened to be a Game Warden that year. A newspaper article stated, “Mr. Peterson is a game warden and is taking a respite from his newspaper duties to keep a ‘weather’ eye on ‘sooners’…To make it more hazardous for those who do not obey the law, Mr. Peterson states that he will change territory with other game wardens occasionally so that the sly violator who thinks he has left the neighborhood may be unexpectedly nabbed by a strange warden. Mr. Peterson (states that) those who stop and shoot from an automobile will be arrested and if you have a game bird in your auto you can’t get off with the excuse that you ran over it with your machine…You must hunt on your own land if you have no license and the law does not allow you even the adjoining highway for hunting ground.”
Up in Towner County, a story ran, “Someone stole a coat belonging to Steve Williams which had been left hanging in the barn back of the meat market. Mr. Williams’ hunting license and other papers were in the pocket of the coat and he misses these more than the coat, which was an old one used when hunting.”
A story out of Rock Lake said that George Shireman, an eye doctor from Saskatchewan, traveled to Rock Lake, late in the summer of 1914, to look after his farming interests there. On his way back to his farm in Canada, he decided to go hunting for prairie chickens with a friend – also a doctor. A chicken flew up from some brush and Mr. Shireman’s companion shot at it. He hit the chicken, but he also hit Dr. Shireman, who was on the other side of the bushes. In a tragic ironic twist, the optician lost his right eye in the accident.
Up in Starkweather, Dr. W. J. Brownlee was walking down the street carrying a gun he had loaned to a friend during hunting season, 1914. As a thank-you, the friend had given Brownlee some prairie chickens he shot. Game Warden W.E. McCull spotted Brownlee and demanded to see his hunting license. Brownlee told him the circumstances, but said if the warden would like to accompany him, he had a license at home. McCull refused and told Brownlee to hand over his gun and chickens. Brownlee turned around and asked McCull to show him his credentials, which McCull happened to have left behind at his house, that day, too. In the argument that followed, McCull hit Dr. Brownlee, and the doctor sued the warden for assault and battery.
Also in Towner County, a story came out, reading, “Everett Lawler had an exciting experience while hunting chickens Tuesday. When he pulled the trigger of the gun to bring down a stray hen, the magazine exploded and Everett narrowly escaped without a scratch. The magazine of the gun was full of shells and it is probable that every one of these exploded. The force of the explosion was so great that the magazine has not come down yet.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm