Meet the “Eternal Litigant”
by James Rada, Jr.
When you consider it, a horse cart rental led to multi-million dollars in lawsuits.
Dr. Harrison Wagner of Woodsboro hired a horse and cart owned by John Flickinger in 1878. When Flickinger paid off his doctor’s bill, he reduced the amount by the amount Wagner owed him for the rental. Wagner denied ever hiring the cart, but he lost his case in court.
Having lost with a weak case, most people would move on. Not Wagner. If something positive could be said about the man, it was that he never gave up.
“He then had Flickinger arrested for perjury, and nine witnesses swore that what Flickinger had testified was true, while many more contradicted this evidence point-blank,” the New York Times reported years later. The case cost Wagner $1,000 with no result reached.
It is believed this loss somehow changed the middle-aged bachelor, who lived alone in his house on Main Street in Woodsboro.
“He would leave town suddenly on horseback, by the back streets, and not return for days. While away, he would visit farmers, and beg them on his knees to hide him in their hay-lofts or garrets, as a crowd of ruffians from Woodsboro were on his track who had sworn not to sleep until they had murdered him,” according to the New York Times.
He had the sheriff in Westminster lock him up for his own safety. He barricaded himself at times in his own house. He told people he had been engaged to a woman, but political shenanigans caused the woman’s family to break the engagement.
In 1876, Wagner went to Baltimore and swore out a warrant before the U.S. Attorney saying his life was in danger in Woodsboro, and he named nine men trying to kill him. “Two deputy marshals, armed to the teeth, were at once sent to Woodsboro to break up the infamous gang. When they get there they found the ‘desperadoes’ all reputable and well-to-do citizens, willing to go with the marshals peaceably if the law required it. Only one of them was taken to Baltimore, and he was dismissed, with the remark that Wagner was undoubtedly crazy,” the New York Times reported.
Undeterred after another court loss, Wagner believed that the nine men were liable for his time spent protecting himself from them. He sued for time lost, day’s labor, injury to business, disturbed peace of mind, and more. He went after not only the men, but their family members and friends.
“When a man goes to bed here at night nowadays, he never knows whether the sheriff will be around first thing in the morning to levy on him or not,” according to the New York Times.
When the local magistrate quickly dismissed the lawsuits, Wagner filed even more in other jurisdictions in the county; over 2,000 in just a few months. The total damages Wagner claimed among all the lawsuits was $6,000, and for this, he sought $100,000. Over half of the lawsuits were against the Adams Express Company “the only cause for any of them being imaginary damage done to a single small package.”
It was thought these suits also came to nothing, but in 1879, it was discovered that 128 judgments of $98 each were still active. Wagner pursued them against the estate of William Shank who had died the previous year.
Although it was conclusively proven Shank had never borrowed money from Wagner, because of the preciseness of the way paperwork had been filed, it still had to go through the Orphan’s Court. This tied up the estate and threatened to leave nothing for Shank’s rightful heirs.
Other Woodsboro merchants had their own problems because of Wagner’s open lawsuits. They found their credit with some Baltimore businesses had been suspended because of the outstanding judgments.
“Wagner was denounced in the severest terms, and if he attempts to prosecute his claims by levying up the property of his victims, there is sure to be trouble,” the New York Times reported. “The imaginary conspiracy from which he had been fleeing for years will become a reality.”
The other plaintiffs in Wagner’s suits had had enough they had Wagner indicted as being a “common barrator.” This was a rare charge with only a handful of cases found on record. A common barrator sounds much like a cross between modern “ambulance chaser” and practicing law without a license. Wagner had one of his rare victories in this case when it was ruled that for the charge of common barrator to be appropriate, Wagner would have had to be encouraging others to file multiple frivolous suits. Wagner was filing his suits on his own behalf.
A few months later, all of his outstanding lawsuits came back to potentially bite Wagner. Although he hadn’t collected on the outstanding judgements as the cases were being appealed, he was potentially the owner of a lot of property on which he had to pay property taxes.
“From his statements it appears that the collector of State and county taxes in making out the schedule of property which is to be the basis of taxation for the year 1880 included the judgements which he (Wagner) had obtained against the estate of William Shank, of Woodsboro for $13,000…,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
Wagner appeared before the county commissioners asking for relief from unfair taxation. They told him that he hadn’t been taxed yet since the cases were still outstanding, but if the courts found in his favor that is the amount he would owe. In essence, the state and county had done the same thing to Wagner that he had done to the citizens of Woodsboro, except that the state and county had a legitimate claim.
During the following year, the cases were dismissed because Wagner was back in court in 1881 trying to get them reinstated.
Wagner soon moved out of the county, but not out of the county newspapers.
In 1883, newspapers reported that he filed more lawsuits against the Adams Express Company in the Washington, D.C. courts. This was another effort to revive some of his earlier Frederick County lawsuits. The total amount Wagner sought from these suits was $101,000. Denied satisfaction in Washington, he met a magistrate in Licksville, Virginia, to convince him to issue a judgment against the express company.
“Justice Alnutt refused to issue, when Wagner became very demonstrative,” the Sun reported. “Several residents of the village standing near told Wagner they would lynch him if he attempted the Woodsboro racket in that neighborhood. One man was especially anxious to at least give him, as he said, his deserts (sic) by throwing him in the canal near by (sic).”
Wagner quickly left.
In 1885, he next showed up in Mecklenburg, North Carolina, filing 11,443 small suits seeking $1,242,850 in unspecified damages. These suits were dismissed.
In 1890, Wagner was finally arrested and charged with a crime. Officials said he forged the name of the late William Dinsmore on a bond of nearly $2 million that he filed against the Adams Express Company.
“He went about it all so quietly, and worked it all in such an underhand way that it was only by the suspicion of the county clerk at Fredericksburg, Va., becoming aroused that the fraud became known,” the Frederick News reported.
Wagner was sentenced to one year in prison for forgery.
By 1897, Wagner was in the U.S. Circuit Court in Baltimore suing Frederick County commissioners for $1.1 million. He lost the case but appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals in Richmond the following year and lost once again.
He continued to file lawsuits against government, companies, and individuals in the years following; never winning but continuing to press forward. He even tried to perpetrate a fraud against the U.S. Congress in 1902. The House Committee on Invalid Pensions had “an alleged copy of a bill purporting to have been passed by the Senate placing him on the retired list of the Army as an assistant surgeon has been circulated, and that an equally fraudulent copy of an alleged favorable report on this bill has been palmed off on the committee,” according to the Frederick News. When his case was researched, it was found he had only been contracted as a nurse for a single year during the war.
Wagner was committed to insane asylum in 1907 after filing another fraudulent lawsuit against the late Joseph Reisinger of Rockville. He was convicted in the case, but a lunacy commission found him of unsound mind and committed him rather than send him to prison.
He spend a short time in the asylum and then went to live with his brother in Ohio. For unknown reasons, he returned to Washington, D.C., to be recommitted.
In 1911, Wagner applied to be released saying “he would rather go to the penitentiary than stay in the government hospital,” according to the Frederick News. Frederick County citizens showed up at his release hearing opposing the action and Frederick County government opposed his release writing, in part, “He fraudulently obtained judgments against nearly every prominent citizen in this county…”
The eternal litigant lost his final case and remained in the asylum.