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.


Military and Civilian Justice

With the Navy Department’s decision, Rosa Sutton would enter a forum—in fact, a separate subculture—that was as unfamiliar to her as it was to most civilians. Then, as now, Americans lived in “a democratic society committed to civilian control of the military . . . .From its educational institutions to its justice system, the U.S. military still tends to close ranks against outsiders in the face of criticism; this response may cause more public outcry than the original offense warranted.


— [pgs. 75, 301]

America’s Constitution ensures that Congress and the executive branch of government have power over the armed forces. But military society remains separate from civilian society. Historically, there has been a reluctance to interfere in the operations of military justice out of respect for the mission of our armed services, which exist in part to protect Democratic values.

In 1909, enlisted men and officers were subject to command authority of the most arbitrary type—to men whose primary goal was to make sure that order, discipline, conformity to rules and loyalty to one’s unit were paramount. A person’s innocence and guilt could be less important to those in command than the good of the service. Although there is now a Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces with three civilian judges who do not have life tenure, before 1951 this court did not exist.

Civil law provides for impartial judges, indictment by a grand jury, and due process. But some Americans’ rights as civilians, including  complete freedom of expression, are given up by those who join the military. Formal and unspoken rules about free expression exist for military personnel because the need for absolute loyalty to one’s leader is so essential for an effective fighting force. No disrespect may be shown to superior commissioned officers or to high-ranking government officials from the president on down. For many months the media in the United States has focused on how much command authority the executive branch of the government should have over individual rights.

Should situations exist in which loyalty trumps truth?  As was true 100 years ago, many face this question inside courts martial or courts of inquiry. The insularity of military personnel from the civilian world—considered necessary but now under increasing scrutiny—could certainly encourage military witnesses to justify silence or a memory lapse during a court proceeding for the good of the service. Enlisted men and women are under orders to be absolutely loyal to their superior officers; all Marines, for example, put loyalty to their band of brothers first. Testifying against them could put them in conflict with what they have been trained to do.

From Rosa Sutton to Mary Tillman

For the American press and its readers, Rosa Sutton came to represent every mother who had lost a son in the military and sought the facts about his fate. This dilemma resonates as strongly today as it did in the decade before World War I. — [A Soul on Trial pg. 303]

It is ironic that citizens from patriotic military families are at times forced to confront an institution that defends democratic values—and yet  the privileges and guarantees of our Constitution are not always applicable to service members themselves. Rosa Sutton and Pat Tillman’s mother, Mary, each made her case in the same way by using the media and appealing to Congress. The Sutton case is quintessential American story, possibly the first of its kind.  Rosa Sutton became an iconic figure to her fellow American citizens and began to relish that role.  Today, there are several mothers fighting to get the truth from the military—in many cases from the army. The language these mothers are using and the hurdles they face exactly parallel Rosa Sutton’s challenges a hundred years ago. None of these mothers wanted to go to the media or to appeal to Congress. But these are the two primary sources of support they have.

Like Rosa Sutton,  Mary Tillman  and her family have tried to learn the truth about what happened to Pat in a case in which lapses of memory —  convenient or genuine –help shield  those who may have been responsible for his death in 2004.  The search for the truth about Tillman’s death may have only just begun; it may only be fully understood when misleading testimony can be weighed in the context of how military justice functions in the early 21st century, what private battles individual officers  and government personnel faced, what allegiances they had, and what personal and professional factors may have affected their recollections.

The Power of Public Opinion

The influence of a gaping and curious public can have no effect on the conduct of the Judge Advocate in this matter. . . . The hallowed grave of a dead son is no more sacred than the grave of a military reputation and there are a great many military reputations at stake in this hearing.

—Major Harry Leonard [pg. 176]

Major Leonard proved to be a formidable judge advocate and an ideal one to handle Rosa Sutton in what began as an impartial investigation into the facts surrounding Sutton’s death. As it turned out, Rosa needed to be handled—she was strong minded and just as determined as he was to defend values that were (and are) sacred to a large number of Americans. So Leonard had a plan to attack her credibility. But the “curious public” did have a strong influence on his actions at the inquiry in the summer of 1909. Both of his comments reveal his concern about his own reputation, and his awareness that his job was to be impartial; at the same time, as a Marine Corps officer, his actions were also driven by his loyalty to his fellow Marines. This is a timeless conflict that has long governed the exigencies of military justice and it plays out in this case in a way that makes the subject fascinating and telling.

America’s service academies—then as now—are always scrutinized more than any other institutions of higher education in this country. Because so many citizens had a stake in what happened in this case, the government’s representatives fought for the hearts and minds of Americans inside this military courtroom. The Marines’ code of conduct was just as important to them as Rosa Sutton’s mission was to her. So the nation’s newspapers shaped the dialogue and the lawyers’ closing arguments both wthin the courtroom and outside of it.