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.
FS Schilling, the coroner, and Frank Shirley, the deputy sheriff, did their best to make some sense of it all. Schilling gave Cora’s body a brief examination. She was tall, about 5’ 9”, and fit for her height. She showed no signs of struggle, save for a few scratches on her face, maybe from going in or out of the cistern. Her clothes and her hair were still wet.
The scene itself told them more — but the questions also began to pile up.
A cistern is like a well, but it collects rain and surface moisture instead of underground water. The cistern’s opening was covered with boards, leaving a gap of only about a foot square. A journalist on the scene noted, “These were easily removed as the nail holes had worn so the nails would not hold firmly.” It’s unclear if he merely saw that, or if he tried it himself.
Detectives could see about 3 or 4 feet of water in the cistern, along with floating sheets of paper. The damp pages were fished out with a rake, and Schilling ordered the cistern drained.
What wasn’t soaked turned out to be anonymous, angry letters. In the cottage itself, which Thomas said was for Cora’s use, there were more letters. He said they had been appearing around the property for months. The cottage also held the farm accounts, her books, and a diary. In the stove, someone had been burning paper. By the bed, slept in, was a glass and pitcher of water.
And on the porch of the little cottage, someone had left a crudely hand-painted sign reading, “We have got your sister scared green. Read your letter.” Thomas said he had not spotted the sign until after he pulled Cora from the water.
Thomas explained that he was staying on the farm at Cora’s request. There had been… incidents.
Just the morning before, Cora claimed to have been attacked. Out of nowhere, a mysterious man knocked her down into the cinder driveway and then ran off into the corn fields. She said he was wearing a straw hat, overalls, and large boots. No one saw the attacker, but several people saw Cora after, lying on the driveway, her face dirtied with cinder residue.
The coroner’s men recovered a hat and boots from the field, but no overalls. The boots might match ones Cora had owned; no one could be sure. Thomas suggested that Cora could have burned the overalls in her cottage stove.
This was only the latest strange incident. A week before, Cora had reported being harassed by a woman while traveling back from the town of Humboldt. Earlier in the week, a random gunshot was heard in the middle of the night. With her sister Anna away on a trip, it was too much for a woman alone.
To assuage Cora’s increasing anxiety, Thomas slept on the cottage porch and she stayed in the main house. He was not the only visitor, either — Thomas’ brother Edward and his wife Etta had stayed until 11 PM. They’d all had a meal together, and that was the last he’d seen Cora.
Anna was due back that day. Two men were dispatched to meet her train in Mattoon and convey the terrible news. In the confusion, Thomas also went to get her. At some point the undertaker heard Thomas asking himself: Oh why did this have to happen when Anna was away?
Once Anna was home, Schilling swore in some men to act as an inquest jury and Anna formally identified her sister’s body. Schilling announced his initial finding: He didn’t think Cora had drowned. It could have been suicide, perhaps, or poison. More investigation was needed.
* * * * *
On Sunday morning, two doctors performed an autopsy at the farm. At the coroner’s recommendation, and the family’s request, some of Cora’s organs were set aside for further testing. Once they had done their work, Mrs. Frank Bolin, farm wife and undertaker’s assistant, washed and dressed the body. Cora was going back to Cincinnati, to the family plot that held her mother, sister, and brother.
After a brief service on Sunday afternoon, Anna, Thomas, and two of his sons boarded a train in Mattoon to take Cora home.
Sunday evening, the State’s Attorney announced that he was interested in the case. ☗
Mattoon Journal-Gazette, Aug. 1 and Aug. 3, 1925.
Decatur Herald, Aug. 3, 1925.
Chicago Tribune, Aug. 3, 1925.
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