Murder in Room 30: The Killing of Marie Wick takes a closer look at the slaying of a small town girl in downtown Fargo 100 years ago
June 7 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most brutal murders to happen in Fargo, followed by what was heralded as "The most sensational murder trial in North Dakota history." 18-year-old Marie Wick of Grygla, Minnesota was killed in a downtown Fargo hotel during her first trip away from home. In the first of a four-part series and podcast, Tracy Briggs takes us through the twists and turns of the case in which justice might have come 20 years too late.
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In mid-December 1944, in the waning months of WWII, people all over the world were tuning into radio news reports from a distant European forest. After the successful Allied invasion at Normandy that summer, the Nazis were launching a counteroffensive along the western front to try and turn the tide of the war back in Hitler’s favor. The Battle of the Bulge, as it came to be known, would dominate the airwaves that cold and snowy Christmas season. But not for everyone, everywhere.
On a small farm in northern Minnesota, Hans and Katrina Wick’s thoughts were elsewhere 335 miles away in Bismarck, where the man convicted of murdering their beloved teenage daughter Marie would soon be walking out of prison.
The murder, which happened 22 years earlier at a downtown Fargo hotel on June 7, 1921, was among the most brutal in the region’s history, and the subsequent trial was called the most sensational in North Dakota history.
So why was the man convicted of murdering Marie getting out of prison? Did people really think he didn’t do it? And if he didn’t, who did? The thought weighed heavily on the Wick family that year. With the prison release, someone would get their loved one home for Christmas, but it wouldn’t be them.
For the next four days, Forum Communications will take a closer look at the Murder of Marie Wick — a teenage farmgirl from Grygla, Minnesota whose first trip to the the “big” city of Fargo ended in tragedy. What happened? Who murdered her and why? And did the wrong man spend 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit?
In addition to the stories, check out our podcast The Vault on Forum Communications websites and on Apple and Spotify.
The sheltered girl takes a trip to 'the big city'
The ‘20s might have been roaring for many in America, but not so much for 18-year-old Marie Wick. By all accounts, she was pretty sheltered, growing up on her family’s farm outside of the small town of Grygla, Minnesota (population 155).
Her Norwegian-born father Hans and American-born mother Katrina raised seven children here. Marie was the second born, following older brother Arne. Newspaper reports of the day said the pretty, dark-haired Marie had only ever ventured about an hour away from Grygla. The only things she knew of the world outside her hometown came from the movies she’d see in nearby towns like Thief River Falls, Minnesota.
So no doubt, she was probably more than a little excited — and maybe a little nervous — when she boarded a train out of Crookston, Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota, 75 miles away, where she’d stay overnight before making the second half of the trip to Pettibone, North Dakota to visit relatives.
If Marie and her parents were nervous, they might have been reassured to know that once in Fargo, she would meet up with a family friend from Grygla, who was now living just across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Once she arrived at the Northern Pacific Train Depot on Main Avenue, that friend, Arnold Rasmussen, even walked Marie to her hotel just across the street.
Staying at The Prescott
Marie had a room at The Prescott Hotel at 15 7th Street near the deLendrecies building, which still stands today. It originally housed The Fargo Daily Argus newspaper in 1886 and became The Prescott Hotel, named for owner William Prescott, in 1901.
An early advertisement declared it “one of the best equipped and strictly modern hotels of the city.”
It boasted of “electric light, steam heat, private and public baths, plus excellent cuisine and service.”
This was no flop house. It was a respectable hotel for a young woman inexperienced in traveling.
When Marie and Arnold walked into the hotel lobby, the night clerk, William Gummer, picked up Marie’s bags and showed her to her room — Room 30 — upstairs, at the end of the hall. According to reports, Marie came down a short time later, and she and her friend Arnold went out to see the sights of Fargo.
Marie’s eyes were reportedly as wide as saucers as she looked at streetcars she had only seen previously in the movies go up and down Broadway.
The friends enjoyed an ice cream soda before calling it a night.
Arnold walked Marie back to The Prescott around 11 p.m. She stopped at the front desk and asked that same night clerk who helped her with her bags earlier, William Gummer, for a 6 a.m. wakeup call the next morning so she could make her 7 a.m. train to Pettibone. He agreed. She walked up the stairs, went into Room 30 and was never seen alive again.
A tragic night
The next morning at 6 a.m., Gummer said he made repeated calls to Marie Wick’s room as she had requested. But she wasn’t answering. Gummer later told police he decided to go upstairs and knock on her door. When she didn’t answer, he used his pass key to let himself in. What he saw next was described this way by crime journalist Peter Levins in a 1940 retelling of the murder:
“Almost immediately in the dim light which filtered through the drawn shades, he saw that there was something wrong. Frightened, he stepped back, closed the door, and hastened to tell one of the hotel proprietors, Fritz Lawrence, together they returned to discover that Marie Wick had been bludgeoned to death.”
A nightmare scenario for the teenager’s first night in the big city.
The investigation begins
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies were called to the hotel in the early morning hours of June 7. After hours of investigating the bloody scene, they determined Marie had been attacked as she slept sometime between 12:30 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. She was choked into unconsciousness, gagged, tied up and sexually assaulted. Her wrists were tied to the bed frame with torn up bed sheets, and her head was covered in a blood-soaked pillowcase. Authorities say it appeared she was beaten with the brass nozzle of a fire hose that had been taken from the hotel hallway.
Immediately, the police started to look into the last people to see Marie alive. Could her family friend Arnold Rasmussen have had something to do with it? Did he sneak back into the hotel after he had supposedly dropped her off from their sightseeing adventure?
Not likely. Police said Arnold was spotted between 11 p.m. and midnight at Pan’s Cafe on Main Avenue, where he met his girlfriend Jenny Halgunseth. The couple walked to Jenny’s house. Both Jenny and her sister told police Arnold didn’t leave their house until about 2 a.m. Arnold’s roommate backed them up when he told them Arnold came back to their place just after that.
Investigators decided to go farther back into Marie’s day. They looked for a man who reportedly played cards with Marie on the train from Crookston to Fargo earlier in the day. They also took a good, long look at who else was in the hotel that night. They examined the hotel register to see the comings and goings of the other guests.
A bank president for a suspect?
One looked a bit unusual. A prominent man named H.J. Hagen, the former president of the Scandinavian American Bank of Fargo, was said to have signed into his room, after getting off the 1 a.m. train from an out of town trip. That was the same time period that police suspect Marie had been attacked. And Hagen was in room 31 right next door.
Hagen said he had nothing to do with the crime and asked authorities to take his fingerprints and examine his body for signs of a struggle. They complied. Days later after a thorough investigation, they announced that Hagen’s prints were not found in Wick’s room, and his body showed no signs of a struggle. He was ruled out. The investigation into the card-playing man on the train also yielded nothing.
Getting their man
But it wouldn’t be much longer that police would find their man — or who they thought was their man. One week to the day Wick’s body was discovered, they arrested the hotel clerk, William Gummer, for the crime...the same man who helped Marie up the stairs with her bags in the evening and discovered her body in the morning.
Next time on “Murder in Room 30 - The Killing of Marie Wick": what evidence did the prosecution have against the hotel clerk? Also, hear how Gummer pointed instead to a mystery suspect, a man named James Farrell, the only hotel guest who signed the hotel registry, but was never heard from again. Did Farrell slip away, getting away with the murder leaving Gummer to take the fall?
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