Author Q & A: Why Does Rosa Sutton’s Crusade to Save Her Son’s Soul Still Matter?

For all the details about this case see the website home page, and the tabs for A Soul on Trial.

Was Rosa Sutton the first mother to challenge the military over the death of her son in a courtroom?

Probably; scholars and reviewers have all said this is a unique story. (See Press tab.)  But many military court documents still lay buried in the National Archives waiting to be discovered. So unless you know of a case, the answer may be unknown. My History News Network essay discusses this case and its relevance today.  Click here  or cut and paste to your browser.

And here are a few other questions I have been asked in interviews with some answers :

How did you come across this story and what convinced you to write a book about it?

After my mother died in 1987 I found a mysterious locket in a drawer with a photograph of a midshipmen and a lock of his hair. Years later, while going through other papers, I discovered the young officer was her uncle, James Sutton, and his death had caused a national sensation. (The locket had been worn by his sister Rose (then Mrs. Parker)* at the 1909 Annapolis inquiry into Sutton’s death.) It took several months for the wonderful staff at the National Archives to find the court transcripts of both inquiries into the fate of Lieutenant Sutton. The 1907 transcript is full of inconsistencies, and the lengthy report of the second inquiry that captivated Americans throughout 1909 is a fascinating window into military justice before World War I.

I also began searching for articles about the case in papers from Maryland and Washington, D.C. and soon realized what a big story this was and how reporters helped shape its outcome. The 1909 “trial,” as the press called it, was the trial of the decade to many contemporaries. In fact, headlines about Rosa’s crusade appeared all across the United States. An unusual set of circumstances made Rosa Sutton’s quest for justice and redemption for her son unprecedented .

What did you learn about Rosa’s personality? What was she like ?

Rosa was a feisty, funny, devout and irreverent woman devoted to her 5 children, especially her oldest son. She was horrified by the thought he might  have committed suicide–to her that was a mortal sin and much of her mission was shaped by her Catholicism.  Her outspoken temperament was formed in the Pacific Northwest where her parents were pioneers. Rosa’s apparent psychic abilities created quite a stir over one hundred years ago when she came up against the United States government in a military forum. 

Naval officials accused her of being cold and calculating as well as unstable – do you agree ?

Rosa’s mission and her goals changed over the course of her three-year crusade to find out what happened to Jimmie. After judge advocate Harry Leonard and Arthur Birney, the attorney for the young Marine Corps lieutenants, gave her a hard time and accused her of hallucinating, her views hardened ; at times she may have wanted revenge. But she never gave up her belief that her son had been murdered. Rosa had many supporters; she was not unstable. On the contrary, she was very sharp as Dr. James Hyslop proved in his exhaustive study of her premonitions and psychic experiences.  

Why did this story matter so much over a century ago and what makes it timeless ?

I think it mattered then for the same reasons it matters now. It’s an appealing story of a mother desperate to find out the facts about what happened to her son. Rosa was a private citizen taking on big government and speaking truth to power. As I became immersed in the documents I became caught up in how complex it was to decipher the truth in the face of conflicting testimony. Also in 1909  there was a great deal of interest in the paranormal which seems to be true today as well.

Many television programs are based on the paranormal; in fact Pilgrim Studios produced an episode of “Ghost Hunters” about a search for the ghost of Jimmie Sutton in Annapolis  (“A Ghost of a Marine.”  4/18/2012 ). It’s quite a yarn–with several inaccurate bits.( Such as Sutton’s brother was Don not Dan, his mother was Rosa not Rose.) The hunt is popular entertaining fantasy transformed  into a reality show. And almost all the still images in the program are identical to those in my book and the Soul on Trial gallery on this website so that may take a bit of detective work. What is really surprising is the claim that the ghost of Jimmie Sutton is still around Annapolis, and especially Beach Hall, the home of the Naval Institute where the Naval Academy hospital used to be located.

Did Jimmie Sutton commit suicide or was he murdered?

Well that turned out to be a far more intriguing and complicated question than I realized when I started looking into this case . And for the answer you should read the book. It’s a detective story – and I hope readers will have fun following all the threads that I found; each reader will be a historian for a time and make up his or her own mind about what really happened in the early morning of October 13th (Annapolis time), 1907.

*A decade later Rose would become Mrs. Randolph Hicks. Her critical role in the life of her niece and nephew, Jane Hall and Dick Wick Hall, Jr. comes out in the Journeys through History Blog on this site.


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