The Power of the Press in the Sutton Case

Academic Building at the USNA, Mahan Hall


Governmental actions should be neither secret nor unjust. . . . If we cannot get justice through the courts, every newspaper in the United States shall have the facts as we have them and then see what the opinion of the world will be.” Rosa Brant Sutton

A Soul on Trial  Rowman & Littlefield  (2007)

Rosa Sutton’s statement, made in a letter to a marine she thought she could trust, reveals why this story mattered so much a century ago—and why it does now. Government transparency on matters unrelated to national security is central to democracy. In this extraordinary case, the secret element was what was not said at the initial 1907 naval investigation into her son Jim Sutton’s death and what was not in the official record. And Americans’ weapons against government reticence have long been its journalists. A lot was at stake as America wondered:  Did Sutton die of suicide, murder or an accident?

As the time grew closer to the second investigation into Sutton’s death, the press focused on the question of whether or not the 1907 inquiry had been a cover-up. Rosa declared that “no official conduct should fear publicity,” and by the spring of 1909, this feisty 47-year-old Oregon housewife and mother of five had traveled to the nation’s capital and become the driving force behind what the Baltimore Sun believed was “one of the most remarkable inquiries of its kind ever conducted in the Navy.”

On July 19th, 1909, the first day of the inquiry, a New York Times editorial, “Scandals Will Come to the Surface,” concluded that no matter what happened in Annapolis that summer, justice at this point was “belated, reluctant and coerced.”

Rosa Sutton had opportunities that her own mother would not have had a generation earlier. At the end of the nineteenth century, the nation had become a neighborhood, and its newspapers proliferated. New modes of transportation and communication led to the exploding population of America’s cities. “Public opinion” was no longer confined to the educated middle classes—a vast urban and immigrant population now turned to morning, afternoon, and evening papers for information and entertainment. For reporters, the story of a heartbroken mother confronting a military bureaucracy proved irresistible; the paranormal aspects of the Sutton story only added to its potential to fascinate.

The Sutton case would compete for attention on the new wire services with the Wright brothers’ daring flights, urban calamities, or any one of several grisly criminal trials. In cities across the country the major papers all followed Rosa’s crusade for justice. In New York the case also stimulated the decade-old circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal.

It was the job of the papers to be guardians of democracy and the legal system that is key to making democracy work. A century ago, men and women, including public figures, depended on the newspapers for the most basic information—even information about their own family members. Telephones were still not used widely. In a very real sense, the press corps became a third protagonist in this story. For weeks before the 1909 inquiry opened, local and national newspapers kept the public focused on disparate views of Jim Sutton’s character, his possible romance with a blonde blue-eyed beauty who had retreated to a Canadian boarding house to try to escape publicity, conflicting testimony about what really happened on the evening Sutton died, and the mysterious disappearance of his best friend Lieutenant Edward Roelker,

The 1909 Sutton Inquiry into the cause of Sutton’s death highlighted the distinctions between civilian and military justice a century ago. Naval Justice – spelled out in the Articles for the Government of the Navy – was unfamiliar to most Americans. Until this inquiry that became a “trial” was a headline story across America. Reporters flocked to Mahan Hall in Annapolis for a compelling drama; to them it was the first performance in the Academy’s new Beaux-Arts building to garner national attention.