Cora: Until the Corn Grew Too High to See Them (9)

Read the full Cora Stallman series here.

Thursday, Aug. 27, 1925. Humboldt, IL

On the first day of Cora Stallman’s inquest, Edith Lilley was in the witness chair twice. Both times she had plenty to tell — and yet, she hardly figures in the resulting newspaper accounts. Her testimony was mentioned only at the ends of articles, when it was mentioned at all. Maybe this oversight was due to when she testified, halfway through the event, after people had been sitting in the stuffy town hall for hours. Or maybe it was simpler than that. A farm wife, despite knowing Cora as a person and friend, could not compete against the allure of learned experts — even ones who knew her only as a body. The newspapers wanted to hear from doctors and scientists, so that’s who they put on the front page.

The Cora Stallman story had suddenly sprung back to life the day before. Coroner Frank Schilling had spent the previous two weeks saying there was nothing to report. Yet on Wednesday, deputies from the sheriff’s office fanned out to deliver nearly four dozen subpoenas across the county. Schilling had been busy after all. 1

The Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette celebrated the return of its big story by splurging on three photographs. Below is the only photo I’ve found of Anna — and no, you can’t see her face. They also made room for photos of Cora’s diary, and of the “we’ve got your sister scared green” sign that was found on the cottage porch after she died.2

thomas and anna photo

diary and sign

Perhaps, at last, some questions would be answered.

* * * *

Come Thursday afternoon, Humboldt, IL — usual population 350 — watched as hundreds of people crowded into town for the inquest. The town hall was the only building big enough to hold them, and that just barely. Village business came to a near stop. It was hard to find a parking space. Late spectators, unable to get seats, settled for peeking in the building’s windows.3, 4, 5, 6

Despite occasional questions from State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher, the inquest was Coroner Schilling’s show. He directed most of the questioning, and was not above getting sharp with anyone who dragged their feet about answering. Between them, the two men deposed more than 30 witnesses in six hours. (It wasn’t even Schilling’s first inquest that day. In the morning, he’d conducted an inquiry into the suicide of a local teenager.)6

Schilling in 1940
Schilling in 1940

Despite their visibility in the newspapers, the expert witnesses were short on revelations. Doctors W.G. Wallace and T.O. Freeman, who performed Cora’s Sunday morning autopsy, reaffirmed their original findings. Everything about Cora had appeared to be perfectly normal. She had no broken bones, no bruises, and no organ issues. A few scratches on her face were the only injury. They could not find water in her lungs, nor any other evidence of drowning, such as excess bronchial fluid. Whatever had killed her, it was not evident to them.7

Undertaker Ira Mulliken, who had prepared Cora for burial, gave a similar report. As he examined her prior to Schilling’s arrival at the farm, he saw Cora’s clothes were “wringing wet” and her hair was soaked. She had been wearing a dress, boots, and sweater, and he noted her use of a sanitary napkin.5

Mulliken, too, could get “almost no water” from her mouth — certainly not enough to have drowned in. As far as he knew, and despite what the two men had said originally, neither Thomas Seaman nor Boss Lilley had been able to remove any water either. (The exact amount of “almost no water” is unclear. Depending on the newspaper quote, it was either “not more than half a pint,” “half a cupful,” or “half a teacup.” A best guess is less than 8 ounces.)

* * * *

The experts’ testimony — not drowned, not injured — was the most concrete that the crowd would hear that day. All the other statements carry a haze of uncertainty, based on memories that were now a month old.

Schilling did his best to pin down the events of Cora’s last day alive, Friday, July 31. It was simple enough to establish her sister Anna Seaman’s absence from the farm. Four local women – all members of a social group called the Tuesday Club — verified that she had been with them on a Mississippi River outing.

Next, he tried to investigate the attack that Cora claimed she had suffered that morning. There were multiple witnesses to her recounting it. As she told it to them: A man in blue overalls (with price tags still attached) and a straw hat had approached Cora in the cottage yard. He said something like, “Those people have got too much money here,” knocked her down, and promised to kill her if she told anyone. Then he ran off into the cornfield.7

A number of men were around Anna’s Seaman farm at the time: Thomas Seaman; Boss Lilley; Boss’ son Elbert; Elmer Howard, a visiting tractor salesman; Elmer’s young nephew Keith Dixon; and Thomas’ brother Oscar. None of them saw an attacker, before or after, or witnessed an attack. They were alerted by Cora blowing a whistle, and then she was found lying in the property’s driveway.

This was not her first odd encounter of the week. On Friday, Cora had described an incident from the day before (Thursday, July 30). She claimed that while returning from a trip to Humboldt, she was stopped by a woman driving a car, and who was accompanied by either a man or woman dressed as a man, in overalls and straw hat. The woman asked Cora if she’d “gotten that letter.” Cora was frightened, and said she thought this was the same woman who had menacingly delivered a letter to her on the farm several weeks earlier.8

The only witness to either incident, or the alleged letter delivery, was Cora herself. It is, at best, problematic.

Interestingly, a Mrs. Lathan (or Louthan) told the inquest jury a somewhat similar story. On that same Friday, Mrs. Lathan was stopped by a man in a car, who began asking questions about another property Anna Seaman owned. Mrs. Lathan found this encounter alarming enough that she immediately went home. Whether the incidents were connected, or mere coincidence, was never resolved.

* * * *

Boss Lilley, the tenant farmer for Anna and Thomas Seaman, was initially called to the stand in regard to the attack story. Having lived on the same farm for over 20 years, he was in some position to know both the Seamans and Cora, but he doesn’t seem to have been questioned on this relationship.

His wife, Edith, had more to offer.

“I never knew which house Cora lived in, the big one or the little one,” Edith told the crowd. “I used to see Tom Seaman and Cora Stallman walking up and down the road together every afternoon between 5 and 6 o’clock until the corn grew so high I couldn’t see them.”

As she described it, she and Cora had had a friendly relationship until about two weeks before her death. However, “when Cora got to talking so much against Mrs. Anna Seaman, she had told her ‘never to come on her place talking that way any more.’”

Exactly what Edith meant might be hidden in a quote almost at the end of the Daily-Journal Gazette’s article: “Cora had been telling us how Anna had quarreled with her, then slapped and beaten her over trivial things on the farm.”

In other words, Cora had alleged this to Edith just weeks before she died, and it was upsetting enough that Edith ended their friendship. ☗

Next time: More from the inquest.

[1] Decatur Review; Aug. 27, 1925
[2] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 27, 1925
[3] Decatur Herald; Aug. 27, 1925
[5] Decatur Review; Aug. 28, 1925
[6] Decatur Herald; Aug. 28, 1925
[7] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 28, 1925
[8] Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 3, 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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