The wind and the corn talk things over together.
And the rain and the corn and the sun and the corn
Talk things over together. — Carl Sandburg
Aug. 10-27, 1925. Coles County, IL.
Coles County had rolled into the deepest part of summer, with days of 90 degrees or more.
The heat had to be endured — there was just too much to do. There were church picnics and family reunions, orchestra dances and club outings. At the tiny town of Dorans, about a mile west of Anna Seaman’s farm, a nightly tent revival meeting ran for two weeks. “Our services are short during the summer weather,” advertised the First Christian Church.
The electric fans never stopped rumbling.
So when the soaking rains came in the second week of August, it was what the people needed. It was as much rain as they had seen since March, 4 inches in about 5 days. Everything was wet. But it was good for the corn, so the people were happy. The water would carry the corn and broomcorn through to harvest. It might even be a great year.
It was, at least, something to discuss. About Cora Stallman there was little to say. She was no longer on the front page, as her case remained in limbo.
But newspapers still needed to be sold, and readers wanted answers.
The St. Louis Times went first. The paper offered to pay for forensic tests on Cora’s organs, only to have state’s attorney Charles Fletcher decline. Not to be outdone by any Missouri paper, the Mattoon Journal-Gazette took the next swing, offering a $500 interest-free loan to the county.
Naturally, no loan like that comes without a stern talking-to, which the Mattoon paper provided via a Monday editorial on page one.
The paper’s editor, Ernest B. Tucker, was a longtime (and influential) Mattoon booster. Improving local roads and businesses was his trademark. His name was not on the editorial, but his mark was there.
As the column explained, the paper was concerned about justice being served, but also the idea that Coles County couldn’t afford to do so. It was pragmatic about its goals for the money: Absolving any innocent people whose names were connected with the case — maybe the Lilleys, but almost certainly the Seamans — and repairing the county’s image as a broke laughingstock.1
All the pressure did have one result. Coroner FS Schilling tried to reassure the public that, despite what they saw, the branches of county government were working “in harmony,” not at squabbling and factious odds.
For himself, Schilling wanted to correct the St. Louis paper’s account, that he was eager to take their money and get the forensic tests done. He may well have been. But now, he said, he’d been more measured and less enthusiastic to jump borders than they had alleged.1
Schilling was the only official going on the record, so it’s not a surprise that the newspapers tracked him down at his home the next day. He still had no answers for them, and he had other concerns. He was sick, and his business was suffering because of the attention this case demanded. “Please let me alone until tomorrow,” he asked.
Frank Stephen Schilling was not just the county coroner — he was also an undertaker with a successful mortuary business. He had only been coroner since 1920, having defeated Ira Mulliken (Cora’s undertaker) for the job.2
If there is an element of constancy or reliability anywhere in the Cora Stallman case, it is in Schilling and the way he worked. His manner was calm and science-focused, a welcome relief from the gossip and vacillations of others. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but I appreciate his steady, measured manner.
His life was not always so level. His early first marriage failed under allegations of cruelty and drunkenness, and he spent years after that in Iowa, trying to make a go of the undertaker business. His life seems to have settled down once he came to Mattoon.
He actually had a lot in common with Thomas Seaman, Cora’s brother-in-law.
They were both Illinois farm boys. Like Thomas, he lost a wife while in charge of two young children. And Like Thomas, he married a local girl two years later.
“By making consideration the key in one’s attitude, the undesirable side of the job can be almost eliminated. Consideration of the dead, the relatives of those who have died and any other persons concerned is the first thing to think of,” he offered many years later.2
Schilling’s consideration for Cora shines above all else. He ended up becoming her strongest advocate. He refused to be swayed by the easy or convenient answer. He was also not afraid to publicly call out Anna and Thomas on their inconsistencies. By insisting on finding the truth about Cora’s death, he was really arguing for the truth of her life and how she lived it.
He fought for Cora’s truth more than her own family did.
* * * *
* * * *
Weds-Thurs, August 12-13
The newspapers did not let up. The Mattoon paper dug in again on Wednesday with another scolding editorial.
“The Journal-Gazette most certainly does not like the idea of broadcasting to the world that a woman may die under very mysterious circumstances in Coles County, and a complete and searching investigation cannot be made because the county is not financial condition to pay for an expert chemical examination.”3
A week of embarrassing financial disagreements naturally weighed on County Treasurer AC Shriver. He had his own thoughts to air. According to Shriver, despite what Schilling and Fletcher had said the week before, he felt they could have gotten the testing done on credit after all.4
In half a defense for Shriver, I will add this. Until March 1925, Coles County employed an unusual bookkeeping system, where county officials kept their own separate, private cash accounting records, not public ones. Public money (shockingly!) sometimes ended up in private accounts. By the audit’s reckoning, Fletcher himself owed the county government almost $2000. The county was now in the midst of changing how it handled money.
Confusion was inevitable, and Cora was its unlucky recipient.
Friday, August 21
A week passed. Summer storms now brought lightning and wind, enough to break an iron pump in two. Farmers started harvesting broomcorn before the weather could take it from them.5
On Friday, the Mattoon paper tried again to get something, anything, new from Schilling.5
No one was surprised that he still couldn’t pin the inquest to a date, or that inquest jurors were again out of town.
There is one new thing in here, but the paper doesn’t seem to have noticed. When Schilling was asked if Cora’s organs had been sent for testing, he did not say no.
He refused to answer the question.
* * * *
Thurs., August 27. Decatur Herald.
Next time: The inquest gets under way.
 Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 10, 1925
 Decatur Review; Nov. 29, 1940
 Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 12, 1925
 Decatur Herald; Aug. 13, 1925
 Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 21, 1925
© 2019 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved