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The Prickly Case of The Barbed-Wire King vs. Doc Wilson

One day in 1889, the President of the Blackstone National Bank in Uxbridge, Mass. was surprised when Doc Wilson strolled into the bank with a $3,000 check and a letter from Philip L. Moen, Worcester's barbed-wife king, explaining that the bank should cash any check Levi “Doc” Wilson presented without question.

The bank knew Doc Wilson. And everyone knew the name Philip Moen. What they didn't understand was what possible connection the two men had and why Moen would be so generous. Whenever Wilson needed money, he merely had to send a note to Moen and thousands more would be forthcoming. For decades to come people would wonder why . . . and they never got an answer.

Worcester's Barbed-wire King

barbed-wire king

Newspaper illustration of Doc Wilson and Philip Moen

Philip Moen was known around the country (and probably the world) as the Barbed-Wire King. Moen, born in 1824, had married the daughter of Ichabod Washburn in 1846. Washburn and his twin brother Charles had joined forced to make an early barbed-wire manufacturer in Worcester that grew to become one of the “big four” makers of the innovative wire that helped fence in the American west.

Ichabod took Moen into the business and by 1889, Moen was running the company. Holding extensive patents for innovations in barbed wire, and an ever-growing appetite for the product, Washburn and Moen was the largest company and Worcester.

Moen was an influential city leader, with a brother-in-law in Congress who could advise presidents on industrial policy. Doc Wilson would seem an unlikely friend.

The Horseman and the Millionaire

Doc Wilson, born in 1848, was not an actual doctor. Born in Arnoldtown, Conn., Levi Wilson was a stagecoach driver and occasionally doctored to horses. But in 1882, Wilson became a hotel operator. He bought and remodeled a hotel in Uxbridge, Mass., but soon sold it.

Wilson began investing in properties in Rhode Island, and hobnobbing with politicians and lending money to businesses. Meanwhile, the exact source of his money was not known, but he was never short of it. Levi Wilson was known as a wealthy man.

Cashing the check from Philip Moen gave the first inkling of the source of Wilson's wealth. In 1892, the question became to a public scandal. In Boston, Levi Wilson sued Philip Moen for more than $100,000 that he claimed was owed to him. Moen countered that he was owed money from Wilson, not the other way around.

The barbed-wire king acknowledged that he had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Doc Wilson. But he steadfastly refused to explain precisely why. Wilson had approached him and had told him he knew something scandalous that he would reveal if Moen did not pay him. Moen testified that he had paid Wilson, but he kept the precise nature of the scandal to himself.

Wilson, meanwhile, finally broke his silence with a charge of his own. The scandal was this: He was not Levi Wilson, but rather Levi Moen – the secret child of Philip Moen. He had been given to Joseph Wilson in Rhode Island to raise as his own, but on his death bed Joseph had confided to him that Philip was his father.

Philip Moen said Doc Wilson's story was nonsense. But still the payments kept coming from one of Worcester's wealthiest men. Wilson lost the lawsuit, and when he returned to Providence his creditors were worried. They demanded he pay all his debts because they feared he had lost his source of funds. They had him arrested to force payment. But more money flowed to Wilson and he soon paid his bills.

Secrets Go to the Grave

Rumors continued circulating that Doc Wilson was actually the inventor of the patents that the Washburn and Moen fortune was built upon. Or, some suggested, Washburn and Moen had stolen the barbed wire innovations from someone else, and Wilson knew who that was. Would his threats to tell what he knew explain the payments.

In 1891 Philip Moen died. Washburn and Moen Manufacturing was turning out 100,000 tons of barbed wire each year. Moen left a fortune of some $30 million, and his will set aside $750,000 specifically for the purpose of fighting off any future claims Doc Wilson might bring. The will also allowed that after 20 years, if any of the $750,000 remained, it would be given to Wilson.

Wilson, meanwhile, found success in business, first in Chicago and then in Newark, N.J., where he worked as an executive for a steel manufacturer. He adopted the name of Levi Moen, and late in life when a newspaper reporter asked him why had had taken that name, he said he should ask Philip Moen's son.

Levi Wilson/Moen died in 1922 at age 74 in the Newark City Hospital. He never offered further explanation of how he came to be a beneficiary of the barbed-wire king and his millions.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. l. h.

    March 18, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    Your dates are off. You say the suit was brought in 1892, but Moen died in 1891. I think you need to do more research and get it right.

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