Cora: The Bullet Hole (5)

Read the full Cora Stallman series here.

Wednesday, Aug. 5, 1925. Coles County, IL.

By August 5, Cora Stallman had been dead for five days, but investigators seemed no closer to finding out how that had happened. The truth continued to evade them like a silver fish in a summer pond, always a second beyond their grasp.

They could agree that she had died early Saturday morning. But whether it was suicide, murder, or an accident depended on who you talked to.

The coroner, FS Schilling, was unconvinced that Cora had committed suicide. He wanted more tests, particularly to check her organs (viscera, kidneys, liver, lungs) for poison. But Coles County was already cash-strapped and facing an imminent tax vote. Getting the money to pay for tests would be difficult. Schilling also wanted to hold an inquest, but EM Mulliken, the undertaker who had attended Cora, was out of town. So that, too, would wait.

On the other side of the investigation, State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher and Deputy Sheriff Frank Shirley both felt Cora had committed suicide. Fletcher noted that Cora had died in the cistern without signs of a struggle or murder. Perhaps, he suggested, hitting the cold water had caused a cramp and — given that she was “undergoing a periodical illness” (meaning menstruation) — the shock of it could have killed her. [1, 2]

Clearly, they were stymied. With no wounds and no obvious signs of poison, all they really had was a body and a pile of disconnected clues.

As the Daily Illini put it, the case had, “All the earmarks of suicide except cause of death.” [3]

The Decatur paper used its editorial page for opinions and, sometimes, unsigned, slightly snarky asides.

At least on the mysterious letters they may have caught a break. The postmaster from nearby Humboldt IL, had stepped up to say that he saw a young girl of 12 or 14 mailing one of the letters on the day before Cora died. [2, 4] Cora had not been in Humboldt that day. Sheriff Thomas McNutt would investigate.

Aside from the sheriff’s department, the state’s attorney had someone else backing his argument: Cora’s sister and brother-in-law, Anna and Thomas Seaman.[2]

Anna and Thomas continued to stick together, and to the version of events that most blamed Cora for her own end. “Of course she committed suicide,” said Anna. “She had been unbalanced for a long time.” [4] They also insisted that Cora had written ALL the letters — despite the news about a possible young sender, and the many forms of handwriting found on their pages. [2]

So it was on Wednesday that four investigators — Fletcher, Schilling, Shirley, and McNutt — returned to Anna’s farm with more questions. This time they focused on two elements: Cora’s diary, and the bullet hole in the wall of her cottage.

The diary continued to keep its secrets. Cora had used it only for 1924, and it was only some October entries that were in her special code. (As an aside: Cora had studied Greek at college. Why bother inventing her own code when she could just write in another language? This has always puzzled me.)

Detectives were not the only ones mystified. Anna was reportedly “surprised to hear of her husband’s attentions to her sister” and that Cora’s diary named Thomas so often. [2] According to the Chicago Tribune, he was mentioned almost daily. [2, 4] Investigators hoped that the inquest would clear up their questions about the coded passages. They told the press that they planned to have the diary read out loud, and to question Thomas about passages related to him.[2]

I find it interesting that they so clearly stated this intention to the media. Were they telling the public, or were they telling Thomas and Anna?

Cora's Cottage near Mattoon; 1922; Tribune Co
Cora’s Cottage near Mattoon

The bullet hole was first spotted on Saturday, by the deputies who searched the cottage after Cora died. It was in the south wall of the cottage’s little living room, between two windows, and about four feet up from the floor. [1] They could tell that the bullet had been fired inside the room, and its path had traveled upward. Some chips of plaster were knocked off the wall. [2, 3]

The “upward” part is what catches my attention. If you try to hold your hand a few inches under four feet and then point upward, it’s awkward. It doesn’t feel natural.

According to Thomas, he heard a gunshot at about 3 AM on Friday, July 31. Some articles say he was asleep in the main house, but others say he was on its back porch or even seated on a chair (at 3 AM?). He ran to see what had happened, and met an alarmed Cora halfway, running towards him. She told him, “They shot at me.” He asked her where Anna kept her own pistol, and Cora told him it was in Anna’s locked safe. In that case, he told her, he couldn’t approach “them” unarmed. [1]

Thomas added that on Saturday (the day Cora’s body was found) he asked Anna about the gun. She told him, no, she kept the gun in her clothes closet — and that Cora knew that. The pistol was indeed found in her closet by investigators. Although Anna told them that she kept it unloaded, one chamber appeared to have been recently fired. [2]

As you can guess, I have a lot of questions about this story. It falls just on this side of plausible, but the flaws are glaring. It doesn’t help that Thomas is the sole source; the only other witness is dead.

I can see three scenarios.

1) Someone inside the cottage shot at Cora, or at something, in the living room. But how did they get Anna’s gun? Wouldn’t Cora be in the bedroom asleep?

2) Cora, love-struck or at least emotionally involved with Thomas in some way, fired the gun to get his attention and bring him running to her aid. Why would she feel the need to do that?

3) There was an argument or struggle of some kind. Could that explain the awkward angle of the bullet hole?

And more questions.

Who fired the gun?

Who put it back in the closet?

Why would Cora lie about where it was kept, when people are (according to Thomas) shooting AT her?

If someone was shooting at your home in the middle of the night, wouldn’t you call the sheriff? Wouldn’t you at least call them the next day?

Why is it so hard to pin down where Thomas was at 3 AM?

Thomas had more to tell them. Because Cora was shaken by the incident Friday morning, he slept on the front veranda of the house (main house? Or the cottage? Unclear) on Friday night. She slept IN the cottage.[2] It had been a strange several days, he said. Cora was acting oddly even before the gunshot, “and had said someone attacked her” but she had fended them off. [1] She was also nauseated all day Friday, the last day of her life.

The investigators agreed that this last clue might indicate poisoning. However, they felt if Cora had been vomiting, that would have eliminated traces of poison.[2]

So many clues, so few hard answers. But, as it turned out, the coroner had some conclusions. ☗

Next time: Coroner Schilling lays out his thoughts.


[1] Decatur Herald; Aug. 5, 1925

[2] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 5, 1925.

[3] Daily Illini; Aug. 5, 1925

[4] Chicago Tribune; Aug. 5, 1925

© 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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