Thursday, Aug. 27, 1925. Coles County, IL
Untangling the events of Cora Stallman’s last day alive is no simple task.
The most obvious solution would be to get sheriff’s records or a transcript of the inquest testimony. Many years ago, I contacted the Coles County coroner’s office, hoping to do just that. The coroner himself was kind enough to search for me. Sadly, nearly all documents related to Cora’s case had disappeared in the intervening decades. “Sometimes the basement floods,” he said with some regret.
The best available record of inquest testimony — maybe the only one left — is an article from the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette that quoted witnesses at length. However, even that presents a mishmash of conflicting stories and hazily remembered moments. We can only try to piece together Cora’s last hours from a scrap bag of statements.
Cora herself makes the confusion more acute. Her last days were marked by strange and erratic behavior, by events where she was the sole witness. There’s no way to know whether her stories later made unwitting liars of her own advocates.
The quoted statements at least allow us to pin Cora to three places and times on her last day. They all come from people who knew Cora personally, and interacted with her that day.
Farmer Ed Landreth, who lived a quarter mile from the Lilleys, testified about seeing Cora that last morning.
“I saw her last when she was driving her horse and buggy north on the road about 9 o’clock on Friday morning, July 31, and in less than an hour she was driving back, possibly a little faster than she went. She asked me if had seen a man drive by in an Arcola car. I had seen her get as far as the bridge, then turn and come back. The next time I saw her, she was dead.” [d]
The attack she reported on her own farm — the angry man in overalls, the hit that knocked her into the dirt — happened around 10 AM. Tractor salesman Elmer Howard, on the scene, testified to the time. Others were there as well. No one saw the attack actually take place.
The third sighting happened later that day in Humboldt.
Ida Thompson, “a firm-visaged woman of 60,” ran a general store in Humboldt. Cora was a regular customer, one Ida knew on sight. “She often came in with children and bought them knickknacks,” she remembered.
In the witness chair, she testified that Cora had been in her store that Friday afternoon. She even remembered that Cora had bought bananas.
Cora was driving a horse and cart, not a car. It’s rather more work to get a horse going, especially for multiple trips. Where was she going on the road that morning, and why turn around? How did she recover her day after a stranger assaulted her at home? Why then drive several miles to Humboldt just for bananas?
These events become more curious when remembered in light of words from Cora’s brother-in-law, Thomas Seaman: She was varying degrees of sick or nauseated, possibly delirious, throughout her last day.
It seems like a lot of activity for an ill woman.
One place Cora did not go that afternoon in Humboldt was the post office. Assistant Postmaster W.V. Shrader attested to that. He and his wife ran the post office, making him a central figure for questions about the anonymous letters that had drifted around Coles County.
He had gotten one complaint from Bos Lilley about an anonymous letter, back in April — but, “None of the anonymous letters looked like Miss Stallman’s writing.”
He knew the Seamans and Cora by more than just their handwriting.
“Mr. Shrader said he had never received a written order from Mrs. Anna Seaman to give her mail to Miss Cora Stallman, but he had a specific order from Thomas Seaman never to send any of his mail to Anna Seaman’s house.”
Shrader testified about two specific customers in the post office that Friday. The first one he only heard, didn’t see. Judging by its footsteps, he thought it was a child; the letter they mailed was directed to Thomas’ brother, Ed Seaman.
The second customer was Edith Lilley.
* * * *
Edith was willing to concede the visit, at least. She bought one stamp, and mailed a letter (not anonymous) to her sister. But other things…
It started when Mrs. Frank Bolin — farm wife and undertaker’s assistant — was called to testify about Cora’s body. It was she who had washed and dressed the body for burial.
However, she had another story to share. Mrs. Bolin was on the community’s party phone line. She had heard Ida Thompson and Edith Lilley, and they were talking about Cora.
A Short Digression About Party Lines
A party line is a shared phone system, as if you and your neighbors shared the same phone number. Party lines came to Coles County in the early 1900s, part of a national effort to bring telephone service to rural areas. These shared phone loops were a more practical solution than running costly individual phone lines to people who might live miles apart.
Using a party line requires some etiquette. If someone is using the line and you need to make a call — say, to the fire department — the other people had to hang up before you could make your call. If you planned to make several calls, it was polite to space them out, allowing others to use the line.
If you were on the phone, and another member picked up their receiver, they could hear your discussion. If they did not announce themselves, you might not know someone else was listening.
Party lines were, naturally, a gossip’s delight.
As you can imagine, this story caught the attention of Coroner Frank Schilling, State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher, and the rest of the room. Ida Thompson was called back to the stand, to clarify what “#2” might mean.
Ida, as it happened, was Edith Lilley’s step-grandmother. Edith’s mother had died when she was only four, and her father remarried two years later. At six, Edith had a 16-year-old stepmother — Minnie Thompson. It was Minnie’s mother, Ida, who ran the grocery store where Cora bought bananas.
Ida had a ready answer: You see, “#2” was their code for a secret family picnic spot. The code ensured no one else would find it. “I wanted to refer to it as #2 because there are always so many eavesdroppers on the line.”
Edith being the other party to this conversation, she was then recalled to the witness box to verify her step-grandmother’s testimony.
At first, Edith claimed she didn’t know what “#2” could have meant. After being “refreshed,” she had a new story: “#2” was their special code for Cora.
Both Ida and Edith suspected Cora of writing the anonymous letters. To see if they could catch her, “Grandma” would watch the post office and Edith would watch Cora. “We decided that if Cora came to town and dropped the letter in the post office, Grandma was to telephone me it was ‘No. 2.’”
Ida Thompson, firm-visaged step-grandmother and savvy picnicker, was called to the witness chair for a third time. State’s Attorney Fletcher reminded Ida of her oath — and that perjury was a crime. She would not budge: #2 was a picnic location.
But Edith would not yield. “[L]ooking her step-grandmother in the face, [Edith] said it was arranged between them in the Lilly barn one evening when they were alone that ‘No. 2’ was always to take the place of Cora Stallman in a telephone conversation.”
I’ve thought a lot about this allegation Edith makes about Anna Seaman. Granted, she couches it as a lie from Cora, and the reason she stopped speaking to her. But why mention it at all? Her husband, Bos, had lived on the Bogart/Stallman property for 20 years. They depended on Anna for their income. Whether it’s true or false, it seems like a tremendous risk.
It is one more piece I can’t place.
Edith ended her testimony with the following: “I never thought Cora crazy until the last week or two, when she was always watching the road and then coming in and reporting she had seen curious-acting people no one else had ever seen. It looked queer to us.”
Certainly, there were things to unpack in that statement. However, it was after 6 PM. Everyone was exhausted and probably hungry. Schilling adjourned the inquest for the day. It would resume on Monday.
Anna and Thomas Seaman would testify last. ☗
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 27, 1925
Decatur Daily Review; Aug. 27, 1925
Decatur Herald; Aug. 27, 1925
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 28, 1925
Decatur Daily Review; Aug. 28, 1925
Decatur Herald; Aug. 28, 1925
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 3, 1925
Party lines wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_line_(telephony)
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