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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

The Strange Disappearance of Fletcher Wagner

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Spoiler alert: A version of this article was published in 2012 in HistoricIndianapolis.com. Since then, descendants of Calvin Fletcher have come forward with a treasure trove of information about Fletcher Wagner and his mysterious disappearance, including a report from a private detective and an undated letter that is believed to be Fletcher's final letter to his parents.


Fletcher Wagner was a promising young man with a brilliant future. By the time he turned 22, he’d launched the first daily high school newspaper in the country, won numerous awards in speech and debate, written a play that predicted the San Francisco earthquake, graduated from Stanford in three years, and was nearly through his studies at Harvard law school.


There seemed to be no doubt in anyone’s mind – including Fletcher’s — that one day he would carry on the legacy of public service left by his great-grandfather Calvin Fletcher. That is, until the day that Fletcher Wagner disappeared.


In April 1904, Wagner traveled from Harvard to the Indiana Statehouse to sit for the Rhodes Scholarship examination, which was administered at the same time, in the same way, to thousands of hopefuls throughout the world. Although he hadn’t made any special effort to prepare for the grueling two-day test, Wagner easily passed to the next round, where his challenger was George Hamilton, an orphan from Richmond who had worked his way through Earlham College.


Under the rules of the competition, only one winner could be selected from Indiana every two years. The selection committee was comprised of the presidents of Indiana University, Notre Dame, DePauw, Earlham and Wabash. Wagner and Hamilton were kept in suspense all summer after an attempt to select a winner in June faltered when only two of the panel members showed up for a meeting at the Claypool Hotel.


The panel finally got together in early August and chose the “plucky” orphan over the privileged Wagner. This defeat did not sit well with Fletcher Wagner, who up to that time had a nearly unblemished record of success in everything he tried. And to add to his humiliation, the Indianapolis Journal and a number of other newspapers erroneously reported that Wagner had won the Rhodes Scholarship, which put the young man in the unfortunate position of having to explain repeatedly why he would not be headed to Oxford.

Letters to the committee from Wagner's supporters.

As part of his application for the scholarship, Wagner had submitted a voluminous scrapbook filled with clippings touting his various achievements and his lofty place in Indianapolis society. However, at least one of the members who was absent from the July meeting did not have the opportunity to review the scrapbook before the panel voted in August to award the scholarship to Hamilton. Wagner apparently believed this to be a procedural error that should compel the committee to reconsider its award of the scholarship to Hamilton.


Instead of heading to Oxford as he had hoped, Wagner returned to Harvard law school in the fall of 1904. Over the next few months, he and his supporters launched an unsuccessful campaign to overturn the selection of Hamilton by asserting that the committee's process was tainted by favoritism and other improprieties. The Indianapolis Star backed Wagner's claims in an editorial dated December 29, 1904. This prompted Earlham College president Robert Lincoln Kelly, who served on selection committee, to issue a searing statement:

Ever since the matter was closed Wagner has been harassing the committee because of alleged unfairness... He has not learned how to take defeat.

According to Kelly, one committee member had even gone so far as to state that "if he had any doubt in regard to the selection [of Hamilton] it has been entirely removed by Wagner's subsequent attitude."


Weeks before his anticipated graduation from Harvard law school, Wagner wrote a newsy letter to his mother telling her all about his success in establishing an intercollegiate newsletter for debaters and in recruiting board membership from various colleges for the newsletter. Fletcher was relieved that he was now able to hand over the responsibility for publication of the newsletter to the new board and told his mother he would have more time to write her now. He signed off with ”Please be good and happy.”


Little is known of Fletcher Wagner’s life after that day.



I first learned of Fletcher Wagner when I found an old valentine on eBay. The card is from a secret admirer, although I suspect that the admirer was his grandmother or some other female relative, given the fact that young Fletcher was only seven years old when the Valentine was mailed in 1889.


Both Fletcher Wagner and the anonymous sender of the valentine are long gone, but the house where the card was delivered still stands on Broadway in the Old Northside. I can see the Wagner house from my desk as I write this article, ghostly white in the early morning fog.



After I bought the valentine, I tried to track down information about Fletcher Wagner but kept coming up empty. I finally found him buried in a footnote to a relatively obscure book published in 1964 by the Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis in the “Gay Nineties”: High School Diaries of Claude G. Bowers.


According to the footnote, shortly after Wagner learned that he did not win the Rhodes Scholarship, “he left his room in Cambridge and did not return and was never heard from thereafter.” A relative who was interviewed for the book in 1963 recalled Wagner as “a quiet, reserved, studious fellow with a warm heart and a sincere nature.”


Wagner disappeared in 1905. City directories list his mother, Sarah, as residing in the house for another 25 years. By then, most of her original neighbors on the formerly affluent street had fled to the suburbs, leaving their once-grand homes to be demolished or chopped up into multiple apartments. Yet for some reason, Sarah Wagner stayed.


The Wagner house was vacant for the first six years that we lived in the Old Northside. Often at night when I looked at its darkened windows, I imagined Sarah sitting there, year after year, waiting for the knock that never came from the son who never returned.

I started searching for Fletcher Wagner in earnest when I found another one of his valentines on eBay. A vast number of old newspapers and historical records had been digitized and added to the internet since the last time I went looking for Fletcher Wagner. I was hopeful that I could find an answer for his disappearance, one that was not so sad or disturbing.


Unfortunately, all I found were a few breadcrumbs of digital information that seemed to lead to even more questions. According to the 1964 book, Wagner went missing from Harvard shortly after he lost his bid for the Rhodes Scholarship in the fall of 1904. So I was surprised to see that in 1906, The Indianapolis Star reported that Fletcher Wagner was an attorney in New York City and in 1910, the census listed him as practicing law in Indianapolis and residing at his parents’ home on Broadway.


This gave me a glimmer of hope that perhaps the elderly relative who spoke about Fletcher Wagner nearly 50 years after his disappearance was confused or mistaken. Perhaps Fletcher had only vanished in a metaphorical sense, forced to move back home with his parents after failing to succeed as a lawyer in New York City.


If he really was in Indianapolis in 1910, however, he certainly wasn’t working very hard to promote his law practice. There’s no listing for Fletcher Wagner in the city directories during that time frame nor in the membership rolls of the Indianapolis Bar Association. Further, if he really was living with his parents, he was noticeably absent from all major family events. When his grandmother died in November 1910, he was not among the eight male family members who served as pallbearers. When his younger brother Herbert got married in January 1911, he was not among the six groomsmen. And when his father Theodore died in April 1911, the obituary stated that Dr. Wagner was survived by his widow Sarah, residing at the family home on Broadway; his son Herbert, residing on St. Joseph Street; and his son Fletcher, no address listed.


Shortly after her husband’s death, Sarah Fletcher locked up the house on Broadway, leaving everything exactly as it existed during happier times. She took an extended holiday in St. Augustine, where a friend wrote “I hope you will come back very much better. I’m glad you are far away from the scenes of your happy days and your sad sad days.” Upon her return to Indianapolis, however, Sarah did not venture far from the home where she had raised her family. She moved into her parents’ house at 715 East 13th Street (now the site of an interstate overpass). The vacant house on Broadway became the target of vandals and looters.


Sarah was living at Link Apartments at the time of her death in 1939. She was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery with her husband and her younger son, Herbert, who had died in 1935. Her obituary notes that she was also preceded in death by her son Fletcher. She never sold the Broadway house.


Epilogue


After a previous version of this article was published in 2012, a few tidbits of information regarding Fletcher Wagner's disappearance made their way to my inbox. One reader alerted my attention to a 1948 column in The Indianapolis Star (8/23/48) that said Fletcher had disappeared while studying ancient history in China. A college professor in Germany wrote that he had seen an article in an old German newspaper reporting that Fletcher had been found in Europe.


But the real breakthrough came after Robert Renaker and Jerald Faulstich purchased the dilapidated Wagner home in 2018. In addition to embarking on an extensive restoration of the once-magnificent house, the two men also began taking a deep dive into history of the house and its former residents, including Sarah Fletcher Wagner, the granddaughter of Indianapolis founding father Calvin Fletcher, and her husband, Dr. Theodore A. Wagner. They were especially fascinated by the sad and strange disappearance of Fletcher Wagner, which they had read about in my 2012 article.


Faulstich began the laborious task of working his way through the Fletcher/Wagner family tree in an effort to find any descendants who might have old photos of the house or information about the Wagner family. He struck gold when he found Georgia Brist in Lafayette, Indiana.


Brist is the great-granddaughter of Sarah and Theodore Wagner, who were Fletcher Wagner's parents. One of seven children, she has become by default the keeper of the Fletcher/Wagner family archives, which until 1986 were stored in 50-gallon barrels in the basement of her parents' farm in rural Wayne County. After her mother died that year, Brist began sorting through the massive amount of letters, documents, books and diaries, some of which date back to the early 1800s.


Brist donated several boxes of the material to the Indiana Historical Society in 1986. The collection (Fletcher, Emily Beeler (Mrs. Calvin Jr.) Family papers, 1825-1918) has been processed but has not yet catalogued. It includes Sarah Fletcher Wagner's diaries and various letters from both the Fletcher and Wagner families. She donated seven additional boxes of Fletcher/Wagner family material to the IHS in 2017, and was slowing wading through the remaining boxes when she received an email from Faulstich in 2018.


Intrigued by his interest in the Wagner family home and its former residents, she began corresponding with Faulstich. Over the next year, they shared various bits of information that she had found in the family archives and that he had learned in his research. Then in 2019, Brist agreed to travel to Indianapolis to meet Faulstich and Renaker at their home and to bring a box of letters that finally shed some light on why the promising scion of one of the city's most prominent families had simply vanished just weeks before he was set to graduate from Harvard Law School.


Despite the Wagners' apparent efforts to keep Fletcher's disappearance out of the public eye, the correspondence reveals that Sarah and Theodore Wagner were desperately working behind the scenes to discover their eldest son's whereabouts. Fletcher had sent them a postcard from Glasgow in 1905 but then nothing else for the next four years.


The Wagners hired a private detective who scoured Europe and the United Kingdom in search of Fletcher to no avail. Finally in 1909, the Wagners appealed to the U.S. State Department, which issued a bulletin instructing the American consuls abroad to make inquiries in their respective jurisdictions regarding the well-being and whereabouts of Fletcher Bernard Wagner.

From the Georgia Brist collection

On February 26, 1909, the Belfast Evening Telegraph published a description of Fletcher Wagner and asked readers to contact the American consul if they had seen anyone who met that description. An innkeeper from a nearby village read the article and came forward the following day with credible information about a man who had stayed at the inn two nights earlier and closely matched Wagner's appearance in every respect except for a luxuriant mustache. According to the innkeeper, the man was well-educated, shared the same interests as Fletcher Wagner, and even carried a paper parcel of clothes with the name "Wagner" written on the outside.


The mystery man had stopped at the inn on February 24, departing the next morning to travel by foot to Belfast where he planned to catch a steamer to Liverpool. From there, he would board the Lusitania to sail to the United States. The man told the innkeeper and his wife that he had traveled throughout South America and Australia, and was very anxious to return home, where he had not been home or a very long time.


It was noon on Saturday, February 27, when the American consul in Belfast received this information. The Lusitania was set to sail for the United States at 5 p.m. that evening. The consul wired his counterpart in Liverpool, who enlisted the help of city police to search the Lusitania and scour local hotels and hospitals.


Once again, Fletcher Wagner had vanished without a trace.


Then at some point, Fletcher Wagner sent a letter to his parents. Its edges are ragged, as if someone had ripped open the envelope in a frantic effort to get to the contents. The letter is undated and has the ring of a final farewell.

Fletcher wrote that he had landed in Toronto and was doing newspaper work. He explained that he was very tired when he left home and that one failure after another had caused him to lose faith in his abilities. He desperately needed a rest, which he had found in hard work.


He told his parents that while he was improving, he could not return home until his mind was "quite settled" and his self-confidence restored.


"I am much better already," he assured them. "A little more, and it is done. If you allow me my own time in my own way, the wound will heal and I will still be useful to you all."


"But you will do me a great injury if you disturb me too soon," Fletcher warned, "besides causing me much embarrassment... You will bring back the old torments before I am strong enough to know my way."


Fletcher pleaded with his parents to stop placing advertisements in newspapers "as though I was a defaulter, or a forgetful husband, or an escaped lunatic, for which I am none of that." Instead, they could contact him directly by placing a message in either the Toronto Globe or the Scientific American.


"I have no fear of losing you to death or by my own death," he wrote, "because this world is only a small part of the whole scheme, and what we do not finish here, we complete elsewhere."


It's unclear whether Fletcher ever saw his parents again in this world. But he has returned home, in a manner of speaking, thanks to the friendship that has developed between Brist and the current owners of the house on Broadway where Fletcher grew up.


Since they moved in five years ago, Faulstich and Renaker have been faithfully restoring the Italianate home to its 1890s appearance. One day, Georgia Brist showed up at their house with two old photos of the parlor. Taking the place of pride in both photos were large portraits of Fletcher and his younger brother, Herbert.


Amazingly, both of the portraits had survived the years and were among the Wagner family artifacts passed down to Brist. Today, they are hanging in the parlor of the house that Fletcher Wagner once called home.


From left, Sarah and Theodore Wagner with her parents, Calvin Fletcher, Jr. and Emily Beeler Fletcher; the Wagner family at home; and the parlor as it appears today.



Fletcher Wagner's Legacy


Fletcher Wagner amassed a remarkable slew of accomplishments during his short lifetime. While a student at Stanford, he was a prize-winning member of the debate team, edited several student publications, and won a national prize in 1903 for writing the best essay on "College Fraternities.”


But Fletcher Wagner’s most enduring legacy was the Shortridge Daily Echo, which he founded in 1898 after two earlier unsuccessful attempts to publish a student newspaper. During its initial 72-year run, the Daily Echo served as a training ground for many future writers, including Dan Wakefield and Kurt Vonnegut. Aspiring female journalists also learned their craft at the Daily Echo, as later recounted by a 1938 Shortridge graduate:


“For somebody who wanted a career in journalism, the opportunity at Shortridge was almost unbelievable. Echo editors were given such huge responsibility. We wrote, assigned the stories, planned the layout, everything, and we certainly felt impelled to do a good a job,” Madelyn Pugh Davis recalled in a 1981 history of Shortridge.


Although Davis had planned to be a newspaper journalist, she ended up in radio and television instead, eventually landing in Hollywood where she is best known as the co-writer of I Love Lucy. She never forgot her Shortridge roots or her Echo experiences, however, even writing an episode where Lucy pretends to be a Shortridge graduate in order to get a job as a reporter.


Had he lived later or lived longer, Fletcher Wagner might have ended up with a career in television. His classmates at Stanford recognized his talent for entertainment, and in 1903 awarded him the honor of writing the junior class play. The plot of the musical comedy revolved around a student dubbed “The Sleeping Corpse,” who fell asleep for 1,000 years and woke up to a changed world. The play was well-received at the time, but later became a curiosity for its eerie prediction of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Muncie Star Press, May 6, 1906

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