Monday, August 1, 2016

Thomas W. Wood -- Miserable Ending of an Old Soldier, 1882

The San Francisco Call newspaper, 1882:

GRAVE NO. 1,116

Where Thomas W. Wood is Buried in Potter’s Field.

Miserable Ending of an Old Soldier After Thirty-five Years’ Service — Death Preferred to Dependency.

“What is the number of Thomas W. Wood’s grave?”
“About when was he buried?”

The Superintendent of the Potter’s Field—dreary burial place of unclaimed and indigent dead—took down a common bill file, and soon turned to a “permit to inter,” bearing the name “Thomas W. Wood.”

“Number 1,116,” the Superintendent said.

The number was marked in pencil on the top margin of the permit. On the bottom margin was the single word “Morgue.” The number was the Superintendent’s memorandum of the grave.

The word “Morgue” was the City Undertaker’s memorandum for the driver of the dead wagon. Thomas W. Wood’s body was taken from the Morgue by the City Undertaker and buried in grave No. 1,116, in the Potter’s Field. 

The cause of his death was suicide. Such was the brief history shown by the official “permit to inter,” to which the Superintendent turned. The permit further showed that death occurred February 11th, burial the 16th, and that the age of the deceased was fifty-seven years.

What did the unusual length of time between the death and burial mean?

This: That Thomas W. Wood had served in the Army and Navy for thirty-five years, and the officers at the Morgue thought some other than a pauper’s burial was due him. They had kept his body, therefore, as long as possible. Their efforts to find some society willing to give the body a Christian burial were unavailing.

The be sure, he had only been a private in the Army and a Marine in the Navy. Yet from 1847, when he was but twenty-two years old, until only a few weeks ago, worn out, and fifty-seven years old, he had served faithfully.

“Will you direct me to his grave?” the reporter asked.
“Certainly,” the Superintendent replied. “Come this way.”


The path led through a field in which a few sturdy sage-brushes were beginning a war on the prevailing sand dunes. On the opposite side of a broken-down fence stood a black dead-wagon and a mournful-looking, dirty, white horse.

Beyond the dead-wagon a man stood in a put up to the waist, digging a grave in the soft, find sand. He threw the sand into a half-filled grave, separated a foot from the one he was digging. The half-filled grave was marked by a plank, painted a rusty white, and numbered, in black figures, “1,118.” Another next beyond was “1,117.”

“That’s Wood’s,” the Superintendent said, pointing to the third grave from the digger.

He pointed to a rusty white plank, nearly buried in the drifting sand, marked “1,116.” There was no mound, no grass, no fence or flowers. There was a drifting waste of white sand, studded with four thousand one hundred and eighteen rusty-white and weather-beaten planks.

“Have you put in this morning’s two?” the Superintendent asked of the half-buried gravedigger.
“Yes sir,” the man said, nodding out of the sand between him and No. “1,116.” 

Then he bent over his work and threw more sand from the half-made grave into the half-filled grave, marked with plank No. “1,118.”
“The two brought out this morning have been buried,” the Superintendent said to the reporter. 

“Why is he digging another grave, then?”
“Oh, it saves work. A grave has to be filled up, and it may as well be filled with the sand from the next grave made.” 

“But the drifting sand may fill this before it is used.”
“It won’t have time. We average forty a month. That’s more than one a day. Two to-day.”


“Where do they come from?” 

“From the Morgue, mostly. Some come from the City Hospital, some from the Poor House, and some from the Foundling Asylum.”

A wire “straight line” ran along the row of graves in which the digger worked, that each plank should be placed in exact line. Long even rows of numbered planks stretched away toward the Golden Gate.

“How many are there?”
“I numbered up to three thousand, and then began with “one” again, and he is now digging 1,119 for to-morrow.”

The reporter looked down the long silent aisles formed by the thousands of planks, in exact rows, and then thought of the sources which supplied the bodies over which the white sand drifted. “Found in the bay;” “midnight brawls,” “resulting in murder;” worn-out tramps, who waysided in the Poor House before lodging finally in Potter’s Field; and among them all the body of Thomas W. Woods, native of Fairfax, Virginia, who had nothing in his pocket, when searched at the Morgue, but a bundle of “Honorable Discharges” from the army and navy.

“Does each plank mark a single grave?”
“Not all. Sometimes we get two foundlings at once, and then we put two in one grave. It saves ground and the cost of a head-board. Such graves only have one number, but the records are marked ‘head and foot,’ which shows that two bodies are in the grave.


ON June 3, 1847, young Thomas Wood enlisted for the Mexican war. He was honorably discharged July 13, 1848. He reenlisted at various times for various terms, never remaining out of the army more than a few days until 1870. 

After serving through the war of the Rebellion, he was discharged in 1865, reenlisted for five years and received his last honorable discharge from the army October 30, 1870. This last certificate of honorable discharge, found in his pockets with all the others, is countersigned, “Character very good.” 

On December 21, 1870, he first enlisted in the marine corps of the navy, at the Navy Yard, in Washington, D. C. His last two honorable discharges from the Marines are countersigned, “Character excellent.” 

All of the certificates state that the honorable discharges are granted for expiration of term, except the last, dated Mare Island, November 27, 1881, which states that the discharge is granted upon report of “Board of Medical Survey.”

After thirty-five years of continuous service, —— or old hulk, worn and battered by campaigns and cruises, by battle, and action, and ——; the poor old hulk, condemned after over a third of a century of service, is supplied with a parchment certificate of good character, and sent adrift, and old hulk, indeed, it were better if he had been, for the craziest old worthless hulk in the navy, after years of service, is laid up in ordinary, and kept, if not in decent repairs, at least from going to pieces.

The Board of Medical Survey condemned him as too much worn for further effective service, and knowing no way, at his time of life, to earn a living, having given his youth and middle-age to his country, he drifted to this city, without occupation, home or friends. 

He had in the world $25 and the red tape certificate of the Board of Medical Survey, that, having worn out in thirty-five years honorable service for his country, the honorable Board had cut him adrift.

At the Morgue, the hotel man, with whom Wood had deposited all his money, told the rest of the story. It is simple. Wood was temperate; drew only such money as we necessary for a bare cheap living, and when his money was all gone and no more to come, the old man, rather than find himself a penny in debt, or ask for a penny he did not earn, poisoned himself.

In his pockets were his bundle of honorable discharges, nicely tied with red tape, and a number of affectionate letters from a married daughter living near the old home, back in old Virginia.

The Coroner’s deputies, accustomed as they are to stories of hopeful or faithful lives, miserable ended, saw something in this which appealed to fraternal sympathy and to the fraternities of Veterans of various titles. To the Navy and Army department offices they appealed while the body remained at the morgue, but in vain.

The burial could be delayed no longer. The dead wagon carried away the old private’s body, and the burial, according to stipulations, took place at a cost of $2.60 to the City and County of San Francisco.

The dead wagon drove over the field where the sage brush battles with the sand, to the sand dune beyond the tumble-down fence. The contract box, with the old soldier’s body, was dumped into grave 1,116, and the sand from graves 1,117 and 1,118 was shoveled over the box, with no one by to say even the poor words “dust to dust, ashes to ashes!”

The Superintendent field away the permit to inter, which alone shows, that Thomas W. Wood, thirty-five years a Soldier and Marine, lies beneath the white sand in grave 1,116.

-- end of article, San Francisco Call, February 18th, 1882.

Editor's Note:

The newspaper article above is from the San Francisco Call. I have not edited it or changed it at all. It appears here as it did on February 18th, 1882. And yes, some stories of the Old West leave me speechless. This is one of them.

Tom Correa


  1. Why didn't he go to his daughters?

    1. Hello Sojourner, It does make one wonder, doesn't it. And I was just talking with someone else about your question. As for notifying his daughters, I don't know about that because it doesn't answer that question in the 1882 article. I can only speculate that they never attempted to contact them. And even later when those buried in San Francisco who were dug up and relocated to Coloma, many became marked as "unknown" because no one attempted to locate families of those buried. Of course by some estimates there were more than 500,000 buried in San Francisco's various graveyards. A very large percentage of those who were supposed to be moved were never moved at all and just paved over, and believe it or not their headstones were used for civic improvement projects. It is said that the University of San Francisco campus is located on graves that were never moved. As for why the families weren't notified or no one was held accountable. San Francisco government has had a very long history of corruption and graft. And no, it hasn't changed.

  2. Thomas Wilson Wood was born on November 9, 1824 in Virginia and as far as I know fought in both the Mexican-American War as a private and the Civil War as a colonel. He married his wife Ethel in 1855 and had two daughters. After being honorably discharged from the Navy, Wood led a pretty lonely life. His wife died in 1869 and he refused to see his daughters. What's even worse is that some people condemned his service in the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was forced to relocate to San Francisco where the only job he could find was working at a livery stable. His employer, Jonas Atwood, fired him soon after because of his drinking. On February 11, 1882, while he was still 57, Thomas Wilson Wood stole Atwood's .45 caliber Colt revolver and shot himself in the chest. He left a note saying, "This is all my fault. Goodbye." He was buried five days later on the 16th. His story is a rather complicated one and has since been lost in time. Hopefully, the whole story will one day be told.


Thank you for your comment.