August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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The Curious Case of Chauncey L. Wood

By David E. Ortman


“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
-William Shakespeare

Despite the words of the bard, sometimes the good also lives on. In this “case,” attorney and three-time mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota, Chauncey L. Wood (1851–1911), made it into two Washington court decisions more than a century apart over the question of where bones should be interred.

According to the Rapid City Library, Wood was:

born in Jones County, Iowa, April 20, 1851.... He attended college at Cornell College in Iowa and studied for the bar at Iowa State University.... Wood traveled to the Black Hills in April 1878 to join school mate J.W. Nowlin. Nowlin and Wood eventually developed one of the most extensive law practices in the Black Hills under the name of ‘Nowlin & Wood’. He was a conspicuous figure in the political history of the Black Hills. He was a leader in the Democratic Party of Dakota. He was a profound lawyer and a powerful and eloquent pleader.1 Because of his knowledge of constitutional law, he was selected as one of the delegates to represent the Black Hills at the Constitutional Convention held in Sioux Falls on July 4, 1889. At this convention, he helped frame a constitution for the new state of South Dakota. Chauncey L. Wood was three-time mayor of Rapid City.2

The Washington Supreme Court picks up the story in 1911:3

The first wife having died, Mr. Wood remarried in the year 1894. His widow, Bessie F. Wood, plaintiff, survives him…. In 1905 Mr. Wood and his wife sojourned at Seattle while making a trip through the west. The climate and surroundings attracted Mrs. Wood, and she determined to make her home at that place. A home was accordingly purchased on Queen Anne Hill, and she has ever since, and is now, residing and intends to there reside in the future. Mr. Wood made occasional trips to Seattle; plaintiff [Bessie Wood] says every year, but we think not more than three or four trips are shown by the record. Plaintiff made infrequent trips to Rapid City, but on such occasions rooms were taken at the hotel, although a pretentious home was maintained by Mr. Wood at Rapid City, which he occupied while his wife was in Seattle….4

Mr. Wood left Rapid City early in December [1910], arriving at Seattle on the fifth of the month. On the 26th, he was taken ill of appendicitis. An operation followed and, although pronounced successful—and it was so in the sense that the patient survived the anaesthetic—he nevertheless died after lingering until the 16th day of January. Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Wood, when on his deathbed, asked her if she intended to remain in Seattle, and upon being told that she did, he told her that, in the event of his death, she should purchase a lot and bury him where he would be a comfort to her and the baby, a child which they had raised from infancy and which was legally adopted a day or two before his death.5

Wood’s sons [respondents Ben and Buel Wood] by his first marriage were arranging their father’s body for shipment to South Dakota for burial when their stepmother, Bessie Wood, obtained a preliminary restraining order in King County District Court. At trial, the restraining order was lifted. Mrs. Wood appealed to the Washington Supreme Court to allow burial to take place in Seattle.

South Dakota entered the union on November 2, 1889, and Washington on November 11, 1889. Neither state had a long history of state legal case precedents, so it was not unusual to refer to cases from other states. In 1911, the Washington Supreme Court looked to cases from Pennsylvania, Iowa, New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Although, the Court found the general rule that “it is now well settled that a widow is entitled to control the burial of her deceased husband as against his next of kin,” the Court rejected a rigid rule and looked to “the inherent equity of the case, to be gathered from all the attending facts and circumstances, should control the court’s decree” and that “when otherwise doubtful, the chancellor should give heed to the wishes of the deceased if they can be ascertained.”6

After further discussion of the applicable legal principles, the Washington Supreme Court then went on to affirm, with some eloquence, the trial judge’s finding that Wood had in fact wished to be buried in South Dakota:

The trial judge found, and we think he is sustained by a clear preponderance of the evidence, that the hope of the deceased so often expressed was sincere, although he had cherished the thought of coming to Seattle a year before; that at and for some time before his death his declarations that he wanted to be buried where he had met the struggles of life and won its rewards, expressed his true intent. In the instant case the deceased was prominent in the social, political, and business life of his state. He had been a factor in its development. He had helped change its swaddling clothes for the garments of statehood. The man and his memory belong to that state and not to this, and under all the circumstances, we are inclined to follow the lower court and hold that the will of the deceased, when coupled with his relation to the state of South Dakota, shall have control over the desire of the widow that the remains of her husband be interred near her, but far from the place he called home.7

And so it was that in 1911, Chauncey L. Wood was returned to South Dakota for burial.8 But not forgotten. Over a century later a Washington Court of Appeals case cited to this 1911 case in discussing whether a mother in Oregon could exhume and reinter the remains of her son, a prominent Microsoft computer programmer, from Seattle to Oregon.9

David E. Ortman is a Seattle attorney who grew up in South Dakota.

1 Attorney Wood was involved in at least one early South Dakota Supreme Court decision: Wood v. Conrad, 2 S.D. 405 (January 15, 1892) (an action to determine title to land).

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