Excerpt from A Soul on Trial

This excerpt is from Chapter 11. The marines’ attorney, Arthur Alexis Birney, examines Rosa at the “trial” that riveted the nation in the summer of 1909. Rosa had written several emotional letters to Harry Swartz, a young marine she thought was a friend of her late son; Swartz turned her  letters over to his superiors who used them as evidence against her in court; they also appeared in the press across the United States and once they entered the court of public opinion, Navy officials bristled.

Henry Davis was Rosa’s distinguished attorney; Henry Leonard, the dynamic one-armed war hero and judge advocate, became Rosa’s nemesis. References to the “inquest” refer to the original hasty 1907 investigation– Rosa found it full of holes and memorized much of the testimony.


Up to this point Arthur Birney had kept a much lower profile than Mr.
Davis, and it was now his turn to take center stage. Physically, he was far
more impressive than his opponent. At least six feet tall and fit-looking, with silver white hair and a walrus mustache, Birney shared his brother lawyer’s self-assurance. Like Henry Davis, Birney was a professor as well as a trial attorney and completely at ease speaking in public. He was also an Episcopalian, but Rosa’s spiritual quest appeared to have little interest for him. His brother attorney was childless, while Birney was the father of seven and harbored firm ideas about how to raise manly sons.

Mr. Birney knew his harshest judges would not be the men in uniform sitting at the table before him, but reporters – in his view they were responsible for [this second] inquiry.The proceedings were instituted, he said now, “very largely for the purpose of satisfying the public mind.” . . . . The Navy Department had been satisfied with the original investigation, “but there was spread from Maine to Texas, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the charges which these letters contained.Using rhetoric very similar to Leonard’s, Birney said that if Rosa’s charges “are simply the hysterical ravings of a woman, with no evidence whatever to sustain them, the Court is entitled to know what it is that has poisoned the public mind, to such an extent that these young men came here at the beginning convicted of an awful crime.”

After hearing Birney’s caustic remarks, Henry Davis grew
concerned about Rosa’s composure. He urged the court to focus on the task assigned by the Department’s precept: to investigate whether Sutton caused his own death. But he too acknowledged the pivotal role of “the public” interest in the case. . . Davis hoped that Birney would spare his client and said that the only reason for bringing the letters into the courtroom was to gratify “a prurient curiosity or something worse.”

Rosa was fully prepared to explain everything she had said to Swartz and “perfectly willing” to have her examination conducted publicly. And so, for much of the next hour, she could watch as two men – first a stenographer, then Major Leonard – read her heated prose out loud. Her daughter, Rose, got up from the inquiry table in the middle of Leonard’s performance and left the room.

Finally, the attorney for the accused lieutenants had his  chance to go after “the accuserin front of the “largest audience so  far” – most of whom were women. . . .  The temperature hit ninety-seven degrees; dressed in black silk from head to toe, Rosa used her fan continually. Birney moved on. “In one of your letters you speak of your son’s forehead being crushed. To quote your exact language,you say: ‘That shot was only fired to hide their crime. His forehead was crushed, nose broken, lip cut open, teeth knocked out, big lump under his jaw from a blow or a kick, and an incision in the back of his head one and one-half inches long.’ Had you read the testimony of Dr. Pickrell, Surgeon U.S.  Navy, at the time you made the statement?”

“I don’t think he said very much. I read what he said,”  Rosa replied tersely, wary of falling into a trap.

“Have you read the testimony of Dr. Cook?” asked the
lawyer, who, curiously enough, had questioned Cook that morning about the injuries Rosa described to Swartz even before Major Leonard introduced her letters into evidence.

“I read everything in that testimony,” said Rosa, no doubt thinking about the inquest.

“Will you tell me where you received any information that
your son’s forehead was crushed?”

“Why, it says so in that testimony.”

“In the testimony?”

Rosa explained, as she had to Major Leonard, that a hospital steward said Jimmie “‘had a hole in his forehead.’She tried as best she could to recall the wording of the 1907 Inquest.

“Will you indicate where in this testimony before the
court of inquest any such thing as that appears?” Birney asked.

“Well, it is the evidence of one of the witnesses.”  At this point, Henry Davis came to her defense. “Lieutenant Bevan said it.” He read from the 1907 testimony: “ ‘The flash appeared just in front of [Sutton’s] head. I supposed he had shot himself in the forehead and the hospital steward stated when he came that he felt the wound in the front part of the head.’ ”

The more questions Rosa answered, the more evident it  became that many of her accusations did indeed have a source other than Jimmie’s ghost. Her son’s apparition had, it seemed, provided leads about his death that Rosa was able to corroborate from what she read in the 1907 testimony, from letters she received, and, she would later disclose, from her daughter’s sleuthing in Annapolis. . . . 

Mr. Birney switched to another topic–one he assumed would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how unstable Rosa Sutton really was.

“Did you consult a medium?” he demanded.

“I did not.”

“You obtained no information from that source?”

“I certainly did not,” Rosa said firmly. This was insulting.

“You have said in one of these letters that you had a
supernatural appearance from your son?”


Again Birney asked if she had used a medium. He knew that  people constantly claimed to hear from dead relatives with the help of mediums –the practice was widespread – and one the Court would deem ludicrous. Probably unaware of the Catholic ban on such practices, Birney assumed Rosa had done the same.

“No, sir . . .” Rosa replied. “I told you I did not  consult a medium. It was not necessary.”

“It was only at your home, then?”

“It was in my own home, in broad daylight.”

“His appearance?” To Birney this whole supposition was

But Rosa was positive about what she had seen. “Yes,” she said.