Cora is a book I haven’t opened in years. She is a box with a dusty lid.
And 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.
Some years ago, my husband had a contract position with the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune Company had bought the photo archives of Hearst’s Chicago-American and Herald-Examiner newspapers (1900-1956), and now they had several thousand photos that needed cataloguing. My husband’s job was to sit in a sub-sub-sub-sub-basement of the Tribune building, doing data entry for about 10,000 90-year-old glass negatives. They were in their original envelopes, and the envelope would usually have some bit of information scrawled on it — a name, a date, etc. Rarely, a scrap of article would be tucked in as well.
(Before you ask: Of COURSE I was jealous.)
My husband is good and kind, and he knows exactly who he married. Every day he would jot down a few names that seemed interesting. He would bring me these scraps, and I would do my snooping. It was a great 7 weeks — for me, at least.
She was one of these names on ripped paper: Cora Stallman.
The first article I found about her was so cursory that I dismissed it. I remember a few column inches about a spinster who threw herself into a well. It sounded quirky, but I had so many other names to look at.
Later, when I had more time, I found the most curious story. I found an educated woman, a diary written in code, anonymous angry letters, and a death no one could be sure about.
That includes me.
I’ve hesitated a lot about telling you this story. I’ve wondered if I should even be telling it at all. I still don’t know exactly how Cora died. I’m unsure how some very disparate elements fit together. And most of my information comes from newspaper accounts, not government documents. Ultimately it will venture into uncomfortable territory, to places some people will really dislike.
And yet, I do want to tell this story. I want Cora to be heard.
To quote that same friend: “Dear Cora. Once again, we plunge into the murky depths of that cistern in Mattoon, Illinois, to try to find her.”
Cora Stallman photo from the University of Cincinnati yearbook, 1904.
Article from the Decatur Review, Aug. 1, 1925.