Cora: People Are Talking (3)

More evidence than answers.

Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 3-4, 1925. Mattoon, IL.

Cattle and crops can’t go untended, so it didn’t raise eyebrows when Anna and Thomas Seaman returned from Cincinnati immediately after Cora Stallman’s funeral. She was buried on Monday afternoon, Aug. 3; they were back in Mattoon that night.

Perhaps more unusual: Once they returned, Thomas took to his bed.1

The investigators’ work did not stop for the weekend. Deputy Sheriff Frank Shirley, Coroner FS Schilling, and State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher continued to sort through the letters, Cora’s diary, and the evidence found on Anna’s farm. The clues were many, but easy conclusions were few. By the time they held a joint press conference on Tuesday morning, each man saw the answer pointing in a different direction.

Deputy Sheriff Shirley felt Cora had committed suicide. A murderer, he said, would have replaced the boards that covered the cistern’s opening.2 The coroner felt it was definitely not suicide, and that Cora had not drowned. He was unwilling to call it murder, for now. And the State’s Attorney conceded he had hastily deemed it a suicide on Saturday; he was now undecided.

Cora’s organs were waiting to be tested for poison or other substances — pending the funds to do so. Mattoon was a small town with small budgets, and testing would be costly. Schilling told the assembled press that he hoped her organs would go, soon, to be tested at the University of Illinois.3

The three men did agree on one thing: They saw no basis to rumors that Cora herself had written the threatening letters found on the farm. The language was all wrong for her, the handwriting didn’t match, and they contained handwriting from multiple people.

Fortunately, they had a very good specimen of Cora’s handwriting: the diary she had kept for the whole of 1924. She wrote mostly about the mundanities of farm life, but Thomas made many appearances. Some passages contained a sort of code, which the investigators were puzzling over. The press would not get to see it yet, but excerpts were provided. (I’ve collected them here.)

About a second rumor, Schilling was less forthcoming. Gossip had also been busy that weekend. Now the word around town was that Cora had been sick before her death on Friday night, maybe very sick. Was it true that she had spoken about a man who forced her to take something? The coroner had no comment.

Back to Anna’s farm they all decamped that afternoon, to ask more questions.

mattoon street

The Stallman story was now appearing in newspapers across the country. While the reporters in town awaited firmer evidence, they filled column inches with those threatening letters.

No images of the letters ever appeared in the papers, which is curious to me. Many of them were handwritten — publishing a photo of the writing could have highlighted likely suspects. Instead, the newspapers were limited to excerpts and descriptions. Even without the images, their ominous tone is clear.

“The night your wild gines [guinea hens] made so much noise we got on to you — beware…”4

Some of the letters were directed at Cora, some to her neighbors. Eventually, Anna and one of Thomas’ brothers would also receive letters.

The first letter, to Anna’s farmhand Boss Lilley, arrived that April. “You are carrying tales about people you shouldn’t. And be less attentive to Miss Stallman.”2

Cora received her first letter two weeks later.

“You’re living off your sister’s farm and we’ll get you out of the neighborhood just like we’ll get your friend, Boss Lilley, out of there.”2

The letters were signed with various different initials. Some demanded money. One of the letters was 29 pages long and carried the handwriting of seven different people. 3

And some of them were downright mean.

“We know you are from a common family. You come into Humboldt like you smelt something bad here. If you don’t like us, stay out you —— nose. You need not think you are so much either; you drive around like you was some lady.”3

“You are as common as dirt, and a regular snob. Impudent when you shop in Humboldt. Your horse is a nuisance. Keep him where he belongs.”5

Because this was central Illinois, in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan even made an appearance. (In 1924, the Klan had attempted to get its candidates installed on Mattoon’s school board. They were a presence in the area.) Some letters were signed “KKK.” According to the Chicago Tribune, Boss Lilley had been vocal in his dislike of the Klan. The Seaman family was not supportive of the Klan, but not actively working against them.

“If you don’t like the school flag, say so to JWB. The KKs saw you at the end of Boss wheat field. Stay out.” JWB was a school district trustee.5

Perhaps the most curious letters were two apologies. It’s unclear if they were meant to be read together.

“Look under your front door for the check. So sorry we made a goat of you. When R. saw you crying, he was sorry too. You happened to be the goat. The day boss thrashed [threshed?] so we picked you again. We are even with Boss Lilley now, but think we got at it wrong. We thought we could get some money. Sorry we scared you so much. We expected it, but we are now on our way to Chicago. Four men and two women. Sorry we made a simp out of you, since no reward has been offered the first time, nor by any of your rich people.”

“We felt sorry when we saw you crying and felt we made a mistake to make a goat out of you. We are on our way to Chicago and we want to say three times someone has followed your buggy out of the cornfield.” The letter (written on the back of a check) was signed “John, A Fred, and Pete and two GI girls.”5

I’ve pondered over these letters for a long time, trying to understand their motivation and how they fit into this story.

I don’t think Cora wrote them. When people commit a hoax like this, the underlying goal is typically sympathy, built around a sense of the receiver as a victim. I don’t see that here. No doubt, some of them are quite pointed and personal. But if the goal is to have people come to your side for protection, why throw in something about the school flag? It doesn’t fit.

Moreover, she doesn’t seem to have done anything with these. If you take the time to write and send yourself a bunch of harassing letters (over three months), you then must make sure others know about them. Aside from telling her family, she didn’t take further action. She didn’t go to the sheriff or anyone else. She just…saved them?

So that leads to probably multiple letter-writers — and not necessarily working together.

And yes, that apology letter mentions that someone has been following her. That, too, seems to have gone unexamined by the investigators.

So many questions hang in the air.

mattoon library

Aside from the farm evidence and the letters, one other subject had people talking: Cora herself.

There was no shortage of locals who were willing to give their opinions on Cora as they’d known her, and plenty of journalists ready to listen. Depending on your newspaper of choice, you could get some wildly differing takes.

The Chicago Tribune described her “quaint, calm manner, her gentleness, and her culture” as causing “vicious envy and malice.”3 The Decatur Herald went with “queer and aloof.”5

The Decatur paper also dedicated a front-page section to the Seaman family’s — or at least Anna’s — insistence that Cora had definitely committed suicide. According to Anna, Cora had been acting queerly for a while. She had written the letters herself. Any attacks on her were false, the product of Cora’s delirium. And all three of them had lived in the same house together. Rumors about their separate living arrangements were simply untrue.

The denial was necessary. As I said, gossip had also worked through the weekend. People were talking.

If the Decatur paper was friendly to Anna’s views, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette was even more so. At points, like when it described her house as “one of the most beautiful country homes in this part of the state,” the coverage becomes almost questionable. The paper’s Aug. 4 article includes several paragraphs quoting unnamed “family friends” that sound like they came directly from Anna. The “friends” stress again that Cora had become deranged and had drowned herself. There was no water in her lungs precisely because of Thomas’ efforts to resuscitate her.6, 2

Then follows a full paragraph detailing the Seamans’ living arrangements, and the placid normality of them. In this version, they live on two farms only during harvest season, say the “friends.”2

It seems like a lot of protesting to me.

The Chicago Tribune, unlike the Mattoon paper, was not published by a town booster. It opted for a…bolder tack. Anna and Thomas, the paper stated, had actually separated a year after their marriage.

“He went to meals at her home but that was all. … Miss Stallman and Mr. Seaman were good friends. … Talk arose, the names of Miss Stallman and Mr. Seaman were linked. There were unpleasant stories in support of which there now appears to be no evidence whatsoever.”3

It’s an old journalism technique, raising an issue just so you can nobly bat it away. You can almost see the writer wink at you. ☗

Next time: Anna and Thomas.

[1] The Philadelphia Inquirer; 4 Aug 1925; Page 4
[2] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; 4 Aug 1925; Page 5
[3] Chicago Tribune; 4 Aug 1925; Page 3
[4] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; 4 Aug 1925; Page 1
[5] The Decatur Herald; 4 Aug 1925; Page 4
[6] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; 3 Aug 1925; Page 5
Coles County map image
Mattoon street postcard
Mattoon library postcard

© 2019 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved

Author: Ms. Snoop

ABOUT I was lucky to be born into a family of genealogists, and to be gifted a family tree already bristling with names. Along the way, other names have somehow found me. My job is to listen to their stories.

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