Earlier this year, I was driving down Illinois Route 84, heading north toward the town of Fulton. The road runs alongside the Mississippi River along the edge of the state, and can make for a beautiful drive on the right day.
Unfortunately for me, it was a very dark night, which is not very conducive for sight-seeing. Everything was fine until I stated coming up to a main intersection just south of Fulton. Normally, I would turn left there and head back into Iowa. But not that morning.
In the lane to turn left, there was a big panel truck, like a UPS or bread delivery truck. It was beige with no markings, but still looked like someone kept it in pretty good condition. The truck was just sitting there, dead. No yellow caution lights blinking, no interior lights, no headlights. It just sat there.
I started slowing down about 100 yards before I got to the intersection. There was just something…wrong…about the whole thing, something that made me just want to get away as fast as I could.
Normally you only spend maybe ten seconds at that intersection before zooming off again. But in those few moments after I first saw the truck, I realized something. There are a lot of places down there to hide in the dark, where deep shadows linger in inky pools just outside of the sickly, orange-yellow glow of the street lights.
Honestly, I expected to see someone around that truck. I hoped that I would see someone around that truck.
I wanted to see a driver checking a tire, or a passenger calling someone on their cell phone. Anything would have made it more alive, make it feel safer.
But there was nothing. Just a dead truck, sitting there on the road. And at 5:30 in the morning, there wasn’t anyone else out there at the intersection, either.
Suddenly, I felt very isolated, and very alone.
Every horror movie that I’d ever see flashed through my head, and I made a decision right then and there to make all those hours watching them count. With no other cars at the intersection to worry about, I barely touched the brake pedal as I made my way quickly past the truck.
As I did, I looked inside.
It was pitch black inside. There weren’t any lights on, not even dash lights. Somehow, that bothered me even more.
With hardly a second thought, I floored it through the intersection and headed straight north, not bothering to slow down for another mile or so.
The next day, I told this story to a friend of mine. He had been about fifteen minutes behind me on the same road that morning. He said that when he reached that intersection, he didn’t see anything.
The panel truck was gone.
I have no idea what was going on that morning, or what exactly that was. All I know is that it was weird. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t someone hiding down in those woods by the road, waiting for someone like me to stop and see if there wasn’t anything wrong.
Travel can be a sketchy thing. Nearly everyone that who has spent any solid amount of time travelling around has at least a few strange stories about things they’ve seen. Some of them make you laugh, while others are far more disturbing.
So often when we take a trip, we worry about our cars and about the weather, hardly giving a second thought to what other dangers can be out there.
When 18-year-old Marie Wick decided to go see her aunt in Pettibone, North Dakota, there can be little doubt thought about them.
A young, attractive woman, Marie was born and raised in Grygla, a small town in Northern Minnesota. She was practical and hard-working, and she was aware of the dangers that she could face in undertaking the long trip. So she prepared carefully, thinking ahead and trying to contemplate any obstacles she might face.
The most daunting that she could think of was Fargo, North Dakota.
Fargo had originally been settled in 1871 by homesteaders looking for a better life. Over the next several years, it had grown from a bawdy frontier town into something much more respectable. It was the largest city in the region, and was bigger than any other city Marie had ever been to.
Understandably, she was a little intimidated by it. Still, the train she needed for Pettibone was going to run right out of Fargo. She would be by herself, and she would prefer to have someone that she knew and trusted to help her get around.
After some thinking, she thought of her old friend Arnold Rasmussen.
The two had grown up together and had been friends for a while. She knew that he was living in Moorhead, a town close to Fargo. He would be perfect.
She wrote to him, asking if he would meet her at the train station at Moorhead and help her get around town. Thankfully, he wrote her back, telling her that he was only too happy to help her out.
With preparations made, Marie set out on her journey from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The same day, she took three short train trips toward Fargo. That evening, she arrived in Moorhead, where she was met by Arnold Rasmussen.
They talked on the rest of their way to Fargo. They must have caught up on each other’s lives, talking about parents, old friends, and jobs.
During the course of the conversation, Marie told Rasmussen that some of her fellow passengers that day had mentioned that they were staying in a place called the Prescott Hotel. It sounded like a decent enough establishment, so she asked if he would take her there.
The Prescott had been running in Fargo for twenty years in 1921. It was clean and respectable, with heat, electric lights, and dining facilities on site.
Rasmussen gladly escorted her there, and the two arrived at about a quarter past 10 p.m. They patiently waited in the lobby as the manager, Anna E. Lawrence, took care of some other customers. Coincidentally, Marie recognized them as some of her fellow train passengers earlier that day.
When she had finished with them, Anna Lawrence handled Marie’s check-in, then called to a young man descending the stairs from the floors above.
The 22-year-old man was the night clerk for the hotel, William Gummer. Lawrence asked if him to take Marie to her room. Gummer smiled and readily agreed. Taking the room key, Marie followed the night clerk to her room, Number 30. After taking a moment to make sure that everything was satisfactory for Marie, Gummer left to take care of his other responsibilities.
A few minutes later, Marie came back downstairs. She turned her key back in to the front desk, then left with Rasmussen to eat at a local ice cream parlor.
As they sat, Marie told Arnold all about street cars. She had never seen one before, and was fascinated by them. She was equally amazed when Rasmussen put a nickel in the coin-operated player piano and it started to play on its own.
The two had a great time together. When they were finished eating, Rasmussen walked her back to the Prescott, then said good night and returned to his home in Moorhead.
At about 11 p.m., Marie collected her key from the landlady, and requested that she receive a 6 a.m. wake-up call for the following morning. With that, she headed upstairs to her room.
The next morning, Gummer called Room 30 for a wake up call, as per her instructions. No one answered. A few minutes, he tried again. No answer. After the third time trying with no result, Gummer walked upstairs and knocked loudly on the door. Silence.
Giving up, he left and cleaned up the main office. When he was finished, Gummer tried again. When no one answered this time, he must have started to suspect that something might be wrong.
Walking to the front desk, Gummer took the spare key to Room 30 and went back upstairs. He unlocked the door, and stepped inside. Taking one look around the room, he walked backwards out of the room, and, probably almost from instinct, closed and locked the door.
Gummer went to the nearest phone and called Fred Lawrence, the son of the hotel manager. After he explained what he had seen, Fred immediately went to take a look. Asking a maid to unlock the door, he went inside to for himself what was going on.
There, on the bed, was Marie Wick, covered in blood. There was no doubt that she was dead. He immediately called the police.
When the first officer arrived at the hotel, Gummer told him that the young woman who had rented Room 30 was dead. She was covered in blood, and he thought that she had committed suicide. Taking the key again, Gummer took the officer to the room and showed him inside.
It was obvious to him that Marie was dead. Her hands and feet had been bound to the bed by strips of torn sheets. She had been gagged by a pillowcase, held in place by more sheet strips. It appeared as if she had been sexually assaulted and then murdered.
Police immediately started investigating the grisly crime.
It looked as through Marie had struggled with her attacker, even having had her nose broken in the process. Marks left in the wall indicated that the attack had swung at her several times but had missed. After she had been raped, it looked like she had first been strangled, and then bludgeoned with something heavy.
Initially, the murder weapon was thought to be a hammer, mostly due to the shape of a few of the indentations left during the attack. During the search of the crime scene and the surrounding area, however, a heavy fire hose nozzle was discovered in the hallway outside. It was covered with blood, hair, and tissue. The nozzle had been used with such force that it had been dented, presumably during the attack, rendering it unable to be properly screwed back on to the connecting hose.
The west wall of the room, only about eighteen inches from the bed, was smeared with blood. There was also a large amount of blood on the floor. Bloody fingerprints could be seen on the wall, but the only ones good enough to be read seemed to come from Marie herself.
Investigators discovered white fibers both on the floor and on the body, including some in Marie’s left hand. Bloody towels were discovered on the bed, and it appeared that the killer had used them to clean themselves up after the murder.
Shredded newspaper had been used to plug up the keyhole, presumably so that no one could see what was happening inside the room.
Investigators confirmed Marie’s identity when they searched her belongings. They contacted her parents, who came straight to Fargo. Her father, Hans, identified the body of his daughter, and then broke down.
Examination of the body confirmed that Marie had been raped. Five, deep bruises had been left in distinct fingermarks on her neck, clearly showing that someone had choked her. She had also been attacked with the fire hose nozzle. Her skull had been fractured, and four deep cuts had been left in her scalp. These cuts had produced the blood that covered the room.
The cuts were incredibly deep. When the coroner sewed them shut after the autopsy, he used between 150 to 170 stiches to close the wounds.
A hatpin was found next to the water jug. The tip had been bent, and authorities concluded that the killer had used it to pick the door lock and gain access to Room 30.
Police also wanted to talk to the guests staying the rooms next to Room 30. One of them, H.J. Hagan, a former bank president, was initially considered as a possible suspect. Not only did his room adjoin Wicks, but the two rooms actually shared a common door.
However, he was quickly exonerated when no evidence of a physical altercation was found on his body and his fingerprints didn’t match the ones found in the room. The sheriff was also able to determine that the door between the rooms hadn’t been opened.
The man in the other room, James Farrell, also came under police suspicion when he couldn’t be found. They had already accounted for the whereabouts and actions of all the other hotel guests and workers that night, and they wanted to talk to him.
Despite a tremendous effort to locate him, James Farrell had effectively disappeared.
Over the next several days, police followed every lead available to them, but none led anywhere. Chemical analysis of blood stained clothing found at the scene presented no new evidence. Professional examination of the white fibers found in Marie’s hand were inconclusive.
In a strange turn of events, a pair of blood-stained pants were found in the basement of the hotel a few days after the murder. The area they were found had already been searched, leading the police to believe that someone who worked at the hotel might also be the murderer. With that in mind, they proceeded along that line of inquiry.
On June 15, authorities arrested William Gummer, the night clerk at the Prescott Hotel, for the murder of Marie Wick. Both the sheriff, Fred Kramer, and the states attorney, William C. Green, were very tight-lipped about their case against the 22-year old hotel employee. They told reporters that they were waiting to present their evidence at the court hearing.
For almost a week, Gummer sat in jail. By all appearances, he seemed to be doing well. He slept soundly and ate well. When his parents came to visit him, he told them that he was absolutely confident that he would be acquitted and everything would turn out well.
On the morning of June 21, William Gummer was brought into a packed courtroom, full of spectators eager to see how the proceedings would go. To their undoubted disappointment, the prosecution asked for a continuance. It was granted, and the new hearing date set for June 28.
After another week had passed, the preliminary trial was started. Not only wasa the courtroom packed, but the hallways leading up to it were as well. Outside, nearly a thousand more people were gathered on the courthouse lawn, eager to catch a glimpse of Gummer.
As the first general testimony was presented and evidence began to be introduced, William Gummer sat in silence, his face pale and concerned.
On the first day, witnesses were interviewed, Marie Wick’s letter to Arnold Rasmussen was read, and a physician described the condition of Marie’s body.
The following day, the first officer to arrive at the scene testified that he saw Gummer open the door to Room 30 using a key with a brass tag. Keys with tags were normally given to the guests. The prosecution argued that Gummer must have grabbed the guest key on his way out of Marie’s room after committing the murder.
A maid said that she had heard a loud pounding coming from one of the rooms above her. She said that it sounded like someone was hitting the headboard of their bed with a shoe. Not too much later, she heard footsteps walking from the room towards the hotel office.
On June 30, William C. Green, the states attorney himself, took the stand in order to relate testimony given to officials by William Gummer earlier that month.
During that interview, Green claimed that Gummer’s statement contradicted his previous accounts of his actions the morning of the murder. The discrepancies placed him in the hotel room far earlier than investigators had initially been told, which would have given him time to do whatever he needed to do – clean himself up, get rid of evidence, or even commit the murder.
Even worse, Green said that Gummer had not only bragged to the police about his various sexual exploits at the hotel during the interview, but had freely confessed to having called Marie Wick that night and propositioning her. She was definitely not interested, and firmly told him no.
The court ruled that William Gummer stand trial for the murder of Marie Wick at the next session of the district court, and be remanded to the custody of the county sheriff until then.
That same day, after the preliminary trial, the coroner’s jury gave their official verdict on Marie Wick’s death. They had been advised by their legal counsel to wait until after the hearing to announce their conclusions. They stated that Marie had died from a combination of being choked, strangled, and blunt force trauma. It was also their official opinion that her death had been caused by William Gummer.
Early the next year, a jury was selected and the trial of William Gummer began. Gummer was ultimately found guilty on February 25, 1922, and sentenced to life imprisonment at North Dakota State Penitentiary.
In an interview given to the Bismarck Tribune shortly after his incarceration, Gummer maintained his innocence. He also said that he didn’t plan on being at the prison for the rest of his life. Even in his dire circumstances, Gummer was positive that new evidence would one day be presented that would exonerate him.
Over the course of the next twenty-two years, he and his brother-in-law, attorney H.W. Swenson, continually tried to prove Gummer’s innocence. Finally, in 1935, they seemed to have a break.
In 1935, a man named Arthur James was brought to Bismarck, North Dakota from Wyoming after being arrested for murder. He made a statement to police stating that Gummer didn’t have anything to do with the killing of Marie Wick. He stated that it was himself and a man named Harry Carter who had committed the crime. Three people even signed affidavits testifying to the fact that they heard the confession.
When this was brought to the attention of then Cass County attorney A.R. Bergesen, he concluded that, after an investigation of the claims, that Carter couldn’t have been in Fargo the night of Marie Wick’s death, and that there was no proof of Gummer’s innocence.
In 1943, the new Cass County attorney, Ralph F. Croal, and Swenson went to St. Paul, Minnesota. They had been informed that Harry Carter was there, running a local gas station. He was also an FBI informant, feeding them information about bank robberies occurring the area at that time. Another convict, George Keith, was a friend of Carter’s and went with the two lawyers.
Keith was able to positively identify Carter as the person they were looking for and the gas station operator was taken into police custody.
When questioned, Carter denied having ever made a murder confession to anyone and firmly stated that he had never even been to Denver. Authorities present during the questioning, after having listened to the story that he presented, concluded that he was lying.
They theorized that Harry Carter was none other the mysterious James Farrell, the occupant of the room next to Marie whom authorities could never find. Analysis of a handwriting sample submitted to the FBI by Carter during the interview and a photocopy of the signature of James Farrell taken from the Prescott Hotel register were verified as a match by two different hand writing experts.
Unfortunately, the evidence linking Carter to the murder of Marie Wick was circumstantial at best. There wasn’t enough to arrest him, let alone actually convict him. Authorities had no choice but to release him.
Regardless, this new development in the Wick case did have a profound effect on Ralph Croal. He was convinced that it was Carter, not Gummer, who had killed Wick in 1921.
Approaching the appeals board, he told them that, based off evidence presented to him, he was satisfactorily convinced that William Gummer was an innocent man and should be released from custody. After convening a special meeting, the board examined Croal’s findings and voted to follow his recommendation.
By the end of December 1944, William was finally proven innocent and was set free. He eventually married and lived his remaining years quietly, passing away in 1981.
When Marie Wick decided to take a trip and visit her aunt, she was aware of potential dangers. She was an intelligent young woman, and took precautions.
Unfortunately, cruel fate intervened.
Travel can be unpredictable. Travel can be dangerous. And, on some occasions, it can even be deadly.
Girl Murdered In Fargo Hotel. Grand Forks Herald, 6/7/1921
Clothing of Murdered Girl is Examined. The Bismarck Tribune, 6/10/1921
Eliminating Theories in Murder Case. Grand Forks Herald, 6/11/1921
No Further Light Thrown on Murder Mystery in Fargo. Grand Forks Herald, 6/13/1921
Fargo Hotel Clerk Arrested for Wick Murder. Grand Forks Herald, 6/15/1921
Continuation Granted in Murder Case. Grand Forks Herald, 6/21/1921
Fargo Murder Case Reviewed in Preliminary. Bismarck Tribune, 6/28/1921
Damaging Testimony Against William Gummer Introduced in Trial Today. Grand Forks Herald, 6/29/1921
Sensational Turn in Gummer Case. Grand Forks Herald, 6/20/1921
Gummer Visited Wick Room. The Bismarck Tribune, 6/30/1921
Coroner’s Jury Holds Gummer Responsible. 7/2/1921
Prescott Hotel in Fargo, Scene of Murder, Is Closed. Grand Forks Herald, 10/15/1921
Gummer Case Shifted to Valley City. Grand Forks Herald, 11/3/1921
Trial of Alleged Murderer of Marie Wick Scheduled to Begin Next Tuesday at Valley City, N.D. Grand Forks Herald, 1/12/1922
Gummer Guilty; Brown Held. The Bismarck Tribune, 2/25/1922
Gummer Enters Prison for Life; His Iron Nerve Never Breaks as He Discusses Case. Bismarck Tribune, 3/20/1922
Marie Wick’s Parents Not Fully Convinced Who Killed Daughter. Bismarck Tribune, 12/11/1944
Man Named ‘Blackie’ Carter Slew Girl, Charges Croal. Bismarck Tribune, 12/11/1944
‘Blackie Carter’ Not in Custody, But Available. Bismarck Tribune, 12/11/1944
Gummer to Get Freedom Dec. 28. The Bismarck Tribune, 12/11/1944
The Tragic Murder of Marie Wick in Fargo 1921. www.strangeago.com
State v. Gummer. www.casetext.com
Prescott Hotel. Fargo, North Dakota: Its History and Images, NDSU Archives
Gavett, Joseph L. North Dakota: Counties, Towns & People, Part 1. Judd’s Workshop Publications, 2008
U.S. Census Records