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 1906 San Francisco earthquake, graduated from Stanford in three years, and was halfway 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 adminstered 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 two of the panel members failed to show 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. Little is known of Fletcher Wagner’s life after that day.
I first learned of Fletcher Wagner when I found this old Valentine on eBay a few years ago. 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 finish 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 1904. 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 thought of Fletcher Wagner again last week, when I found another one of his Valentines on eBay. A vast number of old newspapers and historical records have 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 2010, 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.
Although city directories in various years between 1911 and 1929 show Sarah as residing on Broadway, by 1922 she was living in the Chalfant Apartments at 24 E. Michigan. She subsequently moved to the Link Apartments, where she remained until her death in 1939. It does not appear that she ever sold the Broadway house, which remained vacant until 1940.
Sarah 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.
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 upon ” 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 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.