Meet Cora Stallman

Cora is a book I haven’t opened in years. She is a box with a dusty lid.

cora yearbook portraitAnd yet, when I recently told a friend I was planning to write about Cora, she immediately answered: “Oh, I think about her a lot. I’m so glad she’s getting remembered.”

Cora stays with you.

For Cora, I pestered a medical examiner, and joined the historical society of a county I’ve never visited. I spent about two years of scattershot research on her. At the end of it, for a lot of reasons, I put her away. Maybe now it’s time to reopen the book, to blow off the dust.

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Cora: The Discovery (1)

Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 1-2, 1925. Humboldt, IL.

The story, as Thomas Seaman told it many times that bewildering summer day, to the sheriff, the coroner, the undertaker — it went like this:

This wasn’t his farm; it belonged to his wife, Anna. She was out of town and he was just staying here to help his sister-in-law, Cora Stallman.

On Friday night, Cora was in the farm’s cottage (or maybe the main house) and he slept on the cottage porch. He got up at 6 AM to milk the cow. He came back to the cottage and called for Cora but got no answer. Concerned, he searched the cottage, the main house, and the field. More concerned, he walked to the house of Anna’s hired hand, Boston “Bos” Lilley, and asked for help.

The two men spotted Cora at the bottom of a half-full cistern, next to the cottage. Using a wooden clothesline prop, they maneuvered her body out of the cistern and onto the grass. She was fully dressed, wet, and not responding. They tried to resuscitate her, but without luck. Water might have come out of her mouth. Bos went to call for help. Another hired hand, Ed Landreth, helped Thomas carry the dead woman into the farm’s main house.

By noon, the farm was buzzing with the sheriff, detectives, the coroner, the undertaker, farmhands, reporters, and others. All day long, cars on the farm road kicked dust into the August sunlight.

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A Whole Mess of Franks

Sometimes a mystery stays a mystery.

Frank Brovet(s), part 1


I should preface by explaining something about me. I grew up in a small family, with a limited amount of relatives. There were maybe a dozen Brovets in the whole country, and I spent my first few decades confident that I knew all of them.

Ah, the assurance of youth.

I think that’s part of why the Frank story frustrates me so. I had this misconception, and I was able to hold onto it well into my 30s. My brain still gets stuck on the point of: I know all of them, so there can’t be more. This Frank situation has been like hearing, “That’s what YOU think,” from the Universe, over and over.

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Frank Brovet, Genealogical Nemesis

The watchmaker, the seamstress, and a mystery.

Last I left off, I was researching Richard Schober at the Newberry Library. He was not my only find that day. Nor the biggest find.

Back then, the Newberry was a rare place offering free access to the Chicago Tribune’s digital archives. I was full of confidence after my first stab at detective work, so I decided to keep going. I knew had relatives in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe I could find a marriage announcement or something. Without too much thought, I typed my surname into the search box.

I hope you’re hearing the alarm blaring in your head. I did not hear it in mine.

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My First Stone

He was an artist. He was the best one.

I started nosing around graveyards because I was raised that way. My mother especially never saw a cemetery she didn’t want in on—the more crumbling and overgrown, the better. Bumming around cemeteries was simply a fact of my childhood.

The way I do it now, taking pictures and digging up names, is down to two things. 1) Now I have the Internet. 2) Richard Schober.

Schober is interred at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. His stone is a missable little grey hump. But if you see it, you’ll stop, as I did that day with my dad in the 1990s.

Photo shows a gray headsstone in the snow. It is decorated with an artist's tools, a man's name at the top, dates, and text in German.

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A Few Words on Ethics and Method

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to take a class from the queen of Chicago cemeteries, Helen Sclair. She was not just a singularly fascinating person, but also a principled one. Her concern for cemeteries, and their residents, has always stuck with me. In that vein, I wanted to set down a bit of the methodology and ethics that I use in my research.

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