Here is an amazing case in which spiritism charges murder though the verdict of the courts is suicide. . . . I am enabled here to give to the world for the first time the details of the part which spiritism has played in the affair from the beginning to the present time; a part so utterly astonishing that it is without a parallel in history.
—Edward Marshall, New York Times
On November 12, 1911, a large feature story appeared in the New York Times—one of more than 57 articles and six editorials to appear in the paper about this case. “Weird Claims of Spirit Testimony” covered the front page and most of the second page of what was then the magazine section of the paper. Readers were fascinated by the paranormal aspects of the story — then as now they asked themselves two questions: Can living people communicate with the dead? Or is there life after death? After the Civil War, the number of people who wanted to contact their departed loved ones increased dramatically. And at the beginning of the 20th century there was a widespread interest in ghosts and the supernatural just as there is today.
The Department of the Navy and its representatives were not only skeptical about Mrs. Sutton’s apparitions—they used what they termed her hallucinations to attack her credibility; but many of their fellow Americans found her psychical experiences intriguing if not sensational.
The visions that she saw occurred at a time when a serious group of scholars—psychical researchers—believed that it was possible to study people who had apparitions using scientific methods. In order to save her own reputation, Rosa Sutton asked for help from America’s foremost psychical researcher, James Hyslop. Hyslop and his Oregon associate, George Thacher, ultimately found much could be learned from what Rosa called her visions— her postmortem visits from Jimmie.
In an age of mass violence, searching for something outside of life on earth, not surprisingly, has continued to preoccupy millions of people from all parts of the globe.
In the past decade this story of a mother’s effort to prove her son was not a suicide has taken on new significance. Headlines about suicide bombings would have been unimaginable many years ago. Even more ironic is the fact that some who chose this type of sacrificial suicide believe there will be a reward for their actions rather than a barrier at the gates of heaven. Today there is concern about an upswing in military suicides and the Armed Forces are doing what they can to prevent such tragedies .
The Navy has a suicide prevention hotline—and the Catholic Church, mirroring changes in society, acknowledges that there may be factors that lessen or remove the subjective responsibility of victims of suicide. Only God may judge among the many reasons for suicide whether or not it is a mortal sin. Priests may be more willing to consider mitigating circumstances than they were when Jimmie Sutton died. But suicide still is “a gravely immoral act” in the eyes of the Church and always a devastating occurrence for lo for loved ones left.