A Soul on Trial: A Marine Corps Mystery at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is the true story of an unprecedented conflict between democratic values and military justice in the age when the modern mass media was born. It is also a riveting tale of the power of the press a century ago, and of the lives of young officers whose private battles were often as challenging as their professional ones. After her son died under mysterious circumstances in 1907, Rosa Brant Sutton came 3000 miles from Portland, Oregon to challenge the Navy’s suicide finding. Inspired by her Catholic faith and several alleged postmortem visits from her beloved “Jimmie,” she embarked on a crusade to save his soul from the stigma of a mortal sin– a sin that would keep him out of heaven.
Rosa’s spiritual journey soon became a political one that would take her through the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., to a courtroom in Annapolis, and, finally, face-to-face with Jimmie’s corpse in Arlington Cemetery. A ghost story, murder mystery, and courtroom drama, this book also explores the values of a proud and honorable Marine Corps forced into the center of public discourse by Rosa’s uninhibited pursuit of justice. The Corps’ brilliant judge advocate, Harry Leonard, already a war hero at thirty-three, was the perfect foil for Mrs. Sutton, her renowned attorney, and America’s relentless reporters.
By 1909, millions of Americans had a stake in this confrontation between a patriotic mother and her own government in a military forum. Rosa’s story was irresistible to Progressive Era journalists and high-ranking military officials who joined with members of Congress in a search for verifiable truth that played out on a national stage. In order to save her son’s reputation and defend her own sanity, Rosa ultimately turned to James Cardinal Gibbons, the highest official in the American Catholic Church, and Dr. James Hervey Hyslop, America’s foremost psychical researcher. Hyslop commissioned a detailed field study of her paranormal experiences as part of his research on whether or not the dead communicate with the living. With the press corps as a catalyst, these two men helped Rosa achieve an American brand of justice, as well as redemption both for Jimmie and for herself.
In 1998, Robin Cutler first discovered the extraordinary primary sources that make it possible to reconstruct the Sutton case for the first time. Among them are hundreds of newspaper articles and thousands of pages of government documents, including the court transcripts of both naval investigations into Sutton’s death. The record of the 1909 inquiry provides a unique window into military justice, society, and the power of the press in the decade before World War I.