Does the Ghost of Jimmie Sutton Still Haunt Annapolis?

An Image from Ghost Hunters that is also the Cover of A Soul on Trial.

Well, maybe. Apparently several people think so according to a Pilgrim Studios, SyFy Channel one-hour episode of the popular cable reality show “Ghost Hunters” that aired on April 18, 2012.* I first heard about “A Ghost of a Marine” two days before the airdate; a colleague noticed that the promos contain several images that appear in A Soul on Trial and in the gallery  created for the book on this website.

Producers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson (who still work as Roto-Rooter plumbers–though now part-time– in their day jobs) founded The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) in 1990. But to the dismay of his many fans, Grant is about to leave “Ghost Hunters.” It’s one of many paranormal-themed programs that have become big hits over the last decade. (For an interesting perspective see “Consigning Reality to Ghosts” by Mike Hale. New York Times 12/13/2009.)

What drew Grant and Jason to Annapolis is the claim of some residents that sightings of Sutton’s ghost may have occurred in or near Beach Hall, home to the U.S.Naval Institute. Beach Hall has been rebuilt on the ground where the Naval Academy Hospital once was. For almost a week after his controversial death on October 13, 1907, Sutton’s rigid body lay in the hospital basement covered by a sheet while his sister, Rose Sutton Parker, made her way by train across the United States from Portland, Oregon. (That’s Rose Sutton Hicks to those of you who have been following our Salome to Hollywood Blog.)

Of course I was curious and contacted Pilgrim Studios in North Hollywood.  A helpful assistant was quick to inform me that e-mail addresses are never given out at Pilgrim. On 4/16 I sent a friendly fax to President and CEO Craig Piligian, one of the show’s Executive Producers. I mentioned that the program was about my great-uncle and that I had written the only book about the Sutton case. I thought viewers might be interested in learning more about the story and seeing the gallery of images for A Soul on Trial.

No response as of yet (4/23). That’s ok, these are busy people. But I was in for a surprise.  Right up on the screen as the program aired, I saw the same photo that is in my book (and web gallery) of Jimmie in his Naval Academy uniform; a few minutes later, there was our family photo of Rosa Sutton. It plays an essential part in the narrative of “A Ghost of a Marine.” And at one point the Tech Manager Steve Gonsalves holds up a copy as they try to lure Jimmie’s ghost out of hiding. (See image below.)

Viewers also see the drawings of the bullet’s trajectory as it penetrated Jimmie’s skull that I unearthed after months of research. This composite image was created and photographed just for the book. “A Ghost of a Marine” even features the 1908 photo of the Naval Academy that is on the cover. Wow! That’s great publicity for the story except that no one contacted Rowman & Littlefield or me about these images. (I had to pay usage fees for many  images in the book and give credit to archives, historical associations and newspapers for every one.) Plus we took original photographs of  images such as the one of Rosa and the skull drawings specifically for A Soul on Trial and the web gallery.

But this entertaining “reality show” is on a science fiction channel. It’s not a PBS program or a documentary funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Accuracy matters a lot in Public Broadcasting and in NEH-funded programs that have support “from viewers like you.” Their producers pay to license images and acknowledge every source.

So does it matter if the “Ghost Hunters” TAPS team members refer to Rosa as “Rose”? Or that TAPS’ Investigator Amy Bruni, while doing her computer research onscreen from “Command Central” during the show, calls out that Jimmie had a brother named “Dan.” (It was Don.) And why flash on an image of a soldier in World War II clothing as if that’s Jimmie’s ghost? Or say that “three men got in a fight over a young lady” that precipitated Sutton’s death? These are not major errors but the docu-style format implies that the team is telling the truth.

Sutton Family Archive Photo of Rosa Sutton c A Soul on Trial

Four experienced Executive Producers plus an Executive in Charge of Production, Leigh Purinton, are responsible for this show. With all this talent perhaps someone should be checking for accuracy. Some viewers might appreciate that even when they watch commercial television for the theatrics and they are not covering the costs.

* The program aired on the 25th anniversary of Jane Hall’s death. If there are ghosts, her beloved gram, Rosa Sutton, and her Uncle Jimmie may have a lot to say about “A Ghost of a Marine.” After all, they know the real story.


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 one hundred years ago when she came up against the United States government in a military forum. Her later years  as a grandmother and her role in her two grandchildren’s lives is part of the Salome to Hollywood Blog on this on this website.

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 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 a century ago there was a great deal of interest in the paranormal which seems to be true today as well.

Even now (in 2012) many television programs are based on the paranormal; in fact Pilgrim Studios has just 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. (No one asked my publisher or me about using those images.) What is really surprising is that the ghost of Jimmie Sutton is apparently 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 Salome to Hollywood Blog on this site.