Soul on Trial: A Marine Corps Mystery at the Turn of the Twentieth Century


Marine Lieutenant James N. Sutton died on the grounds of the Naval Academy on October 13, 1907, and the Marine Corps would never be the same. This is the true story of an Oregon mother’s crusade to save her son’s soul from the stigma of suicide and to confront venerated military institutions in her search for answers about her son’s death. From the corridors of power to common city streets, Americans were fascinated by accusations of drinking, gunplay, romantic rivalry, cover-ups, wounded honor, and ultimately ...
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Marine Lieutenant James N. Sutton died on the grounds of the Naval Academy on October 13, 1907, and the Marine Corps would never be the same. This is the true story of an Oregon mother’s crusade to save her son’s soul from the stigma of suicide and to confront venerated military institutions in her search for answers about her son’s death. From the corridors of power to common city streets, Americans were fascinated by accusations of drinking, gunplay, romantic rivalry, cover-ups, wounded honor, and ultimately murder in Annapolis. Splashed across the front pages of newspapers nation-wide, the Sutton case commanded the attention of members of Congress, high-ranking military officials, renowned attorneys, the Cardinal of the American Catholic Church, and America's foremost psychical researcher. Touching on lives great and small, A Soul on Trial is a rich portrait of Progressive Era America. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, and part courtroom drama—the book follows the stories of Rosa Sutton, her daughter Rose, and three Marine Corps lieutenants whose futures were at stake as the Naval investigation unfolded. It is a riveting tale of the power of the press, the secrecy of the military in times of crisis, and the lives of young officers whose private battles were often as difficult as their professional ones.
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Editorial Reviews

The Oregonian
Cutler. . . seamlessly weaves together the proceedings . . . the resulting tapestry never seems contrived or unduly weighted with tangential diversions.
U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings
[This] intriguing story is enhanced by some revealing looks at the culture and politics of the period. Notable Naval Book of 2007
American Journalism
A Soul on Trial is a good read, a well-researched account of an overlooked and sensational controversy, and a promising example of how to examine and contextualize, rather than just to cite, newspaper sources from the past.
John Whiteclay Chambers II
This is an intriguing tale of the death of a young Marine Corps officer, a military cover-up, and a mother's crusade that brought it to the nation's attention. The Sutton murder mystery fascinated reporters, members of Congress, high-ranking military officials, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and even spiritualists. Engagingly written, A Soul on Trial is an extensively researched and astutely analyzed account of a riveting episode from the turn of the last century that is relevant for us today.
Nathaniel Fick
Robin Cutler has written a lively and gripping account of a pivotal era in American history. Modern readers will identify with her timeless themes—citizens confronting their government, and a mother's love for her son—as they are drawn into this true tale of drama and intrigue.
Donald J. Mrozek
Robin Cutler's A Soul on Trial is a gripping mystery story as well as an outstanding example of current social history at its best. This wonderfully fresh and lucid book offers much to the general reader as well as the specialist, since it is a truly insightful fusion of social history, the study of religion and spiritism, the history of military justice, and 'history and memory' inquiries into truth-telling and myth-making. I recommend this book enthusiastically!
Jonathan Lurie
This is an incredible story and wonderfully presented. Robin Cutler invites us into a complex tale of an investigation into the internal values and practices of the military, replete with accusations of murder, cover ups, and undue institutional privileges. In the midst of the Progressive Era, we have a mystery worthy of Hollywood. Cutler's book is better than fiction!
Deborah Blum
Thanks to Robin Cutler's meticulous research and talented story-telling, this book is a compelling portrait of America in the early 20th century, a country caught between the honorable beliefs of its past and the driving energy of its future. All of those elements combine to make this a provocative story and a terrific book.
Michael P. Parker
A Soul on Trial is a truly arresting book. In the course of her meticulously researched examination of the 1907 death of Marine Lieutenant James N. Sutton, Robin Cutler provides a panoramic overview of American life in the decade before World War I. Rosa Sutton embarked on an unflinching quest to uncover the truth about the death of her son, a quest that raised troubling questions about the role of the professional military in a democracy as well as the power of the popular press in shaping the national agenda. Sutton's ordeal also illumines from a new perspective the vast gulf that separated, and still separates, the ways men and women experience the world. Cutler evinces an insider's knowledge of Annapolis and the naval culture, international in its sphere of action yet at times surprisingly class-bound and provincial in its outlook, in which the Sutton case unfolded. She is a skilled story-teller who weaves the disparate strands of this event into a rich and vivid narrative, one that resonates strongly with American lives today.
April 2008 Marine Corps Gazette
A Soul on Trial is a fascinating work of nonfiction. . . . A timeless account of the importance of properly conducting initial investigations and military court proceedings.
Spring 2008 Oregon Historical Quarterly
Cutler's well-written and painstakingly researched account is a page-turner with surprises throughout.
8/1/08 Leatherneck
Exhaustively documented, A Soul on Trial is a gift to the expanding archives of Marine Corps history. Cutler's mastery of detail is noteworthy for one without apparent personal military experience. . . . A superbly evocative description of a crime and a time.
September 2008 Journal of American History
Cutler has made a substantial contribution to the histories of the navy, the Marine Corps, and the Naval Academy. . . . This is an exhaustively researched case study, yet at the same time it is so captivating, dramatic, and vivid that readers will feel as if they are sitting in the inquiry room sweating through the humid Annapolis summer with the hearing's participants. This book could easily become a screenplay, and it is narrative history at its finest.
Thomas C. Mackey
In this excellent historical narrative, Cutler sheds light on many aspects of the social, cultural, military, and legal history of the Progressive Era. Her appreciation of the historical context combined with good control of the legalities at stake make this intriguing story about the Sutton case hard to resist. A Soul on Trial exhibits a nice feel for the new roles of women in the early 20th century. Cutler also offers us a detailed portrayal, drawn from impressive digging into archival documents, of the culture and traditions of the Marine Corps. Always a closed fraternity, we see in the Corps’ handling of the media scrutiny regarding Jimmie Sutton’s death that everything old is new again. A super story about military justice and the way military culture and civil society relate to one another.
Publishers Weekly

During 1907, Marine lieutenant James N. Sutton, a native of Oregon, died suddenly on the campus of the U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. In short order, a formal navy inquiry ruled Sutton's death a suicide. The Marine's mother-a devout Catholic but also a spiritualist-said she received visits from her dead son in which he challenged the navy's verdict and asked his mother to get him justice. Rosa Sutton's subsequent battle with military authorities gained headlines nationwide and sparked a formal 1909 inquiry presenting evidence that Sutton had been the victim of foul play. Author Cutler, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, is James Sutton's great-niece and Rosa Sutton's great-granddaughter. Thus, she had complete access to a family treasure trove of documents relating to the case. However, Cutler is out of her depth in trying to narrate the complex tale. She takes her eye off the ball with long-winded tangents on the politics, media and culture of the Progressive era. The result is a captivating story delivered a deathblow by its artless telling. Photos. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742548497
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/25/2007
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.29 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin R. Cutler has spent most of the past two decades as a public historian both at the National Endowment for the Humanities and as president of two nonprofit organizations. She holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University and taught history for eleven years in universities in New York City. Cutler was the project director and coproducer of ROANOAK, an Emmy-nominated dramatic miniseries for PBS, and the producer/writer of the award-winning PBS documentary Indian America: A Gift from the Past. Ten years ago she discovered the extraordinary primary sources that make it possible to explore the century-old case of Jimmie Sutton's death for the first time. She lives in New York City. You can visit her website at
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Table of Contents

Part 1 Part I Chapter 2 "You Must Clear My Name" Chapter 3 "Full of Animal Life and Spirit" Chapter 4 "Sister Coming for Remains" Chapter 5 "We Are Not Sleeping" Chapter 6 "That No Injustice May Be Done" Chapter 7 "A Wider Forum" Part 8 Part II Chapter 9 A Serious and Grave Affair Chapter 10 "An Officer Said It" Chapter 11 "Sutton Mystery Deeper" Chapter 12 "To the Best of my Recollection" Chapter 13 Sacred Reputations Chapter 14 Every Scrap of Evidence Chapter 15 "The Ferocity of a Tigress" Part 16 Part III Chapter 17 The Court, the Corps, and Public Opinion Chapter 18 Jimmie Sutton's Body and Soul Chapter 19 Politics and the Paranormal Chapter 20 Epilogue
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2007

    A Soul on Trial

    The author found a locket among the things she was going through after her mother's death, and it led her on a ten-year journey that ended with the publication of this well written, well researched page-turner. A Soul on Trial operates on three levels: it is a social history of the United States in the decade before World War I in which Robin Cutler catalogues the rise of the power of the media. We see also the influence of personal connections among gentlemen in the years before the World War dealt a near death blow to what was essentially a 19th century class structure. This is its broadest reach and first level, which provides the context for the second: the story of the effort to find out what happened on the night of October 13, 1907 that left Lieutenant James N. Sutton dead of a bullet wound in his head. The initial inquiry had been pro forma, and the effort to reopen it was spearheaded by Sutton's mother. Her reasons, interesting and important though they were to her and her family, are not central to the drama itself, but only because of her insistence did a second inquiry take place, two years after the first. A Soul on Trial is an account of the 1909 inquiry that laid bare what is the third and deepest level of the book: the prima facie incompatibility between the necessity of loyalty on the part of service men and women to the military service to which they belong and the moral necessity to so act as to serve justice. The author lays bare the tension by respecting the complexity of the players in the drama and giving the reader a vivid sense of what was at stake in the 1909 inquiry in which, in the broadest sense, it was a way of life and a code of honor that was on trial. An important piece of social history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2007

    A reviewer

    A Soul on Trial provides a fascinating glimpse into family life, politics, and military crime in the early twentieth century. I particularly enjoyed learning about the role a mother took in challenging military assumptions on the death of her son Rosa Sutton was a courageous and dedicated leader ahead of her time. The rich story, compelling narration, and detailed historical references make A Soul on Trial an excellent book that both serious and casual history buffs can enjoy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2007

    Fascinating read!

    I highly recommend A Soul on Trial, a fascinating mystery made all the more interesting because it is set in the context of American social history, politics and journalism in the decade before World War I. When Lieutenant James N. Sutton died following a brawl in front of the Marine Corps barracks in Annapolis, Maryland in 1907, a hasty investigation found his death a suicide. This book chronicles his Catholic mother's three-year crusade to save her son's soul from the stigma of mortal sin. Rosa Sutton, a persevering Oregon housewife and mother of five, was convinced that Jimmie appeared to her after he died and urged her to clear his name. Her struggle to learn the facts from the government became a sensational political story that resonates today. At the center of the book is the unprecedented inquiry that took place at the Naval Academy in 1909 -- a dramatic struggle between Rosa and a savvy Marine Corps judge advocate Major Harry Leonard. This is a compelling true story well told by the author, a historian, who discovered hundreds of documents about this case that have never been examined before in the National Archives.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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