His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search. — The Merchant of Venice
When Cora Stallman’s inquest resumed on the last day of August 1925, it had been just three days since the last adjournment, but a full month since her death.
She had died at the zenith of summer; now, the people were looking toward fall. In Arcola, the broomcorn harvest was under way. Threshermen and hired hands were in high demand. The county fair was in two weeks. And for some, a new school year loomed.
Out on her sister’s farm, Cora’s cottage stood empty under the receding sun. When its screen door banged in a late summer wind, or the last swallows dipped between the porch pillars, she was no longer there to notice.
Cora was gone, but the business of her death remained unfinished. If the investigation itself were a tended crop, it too must be brought in for the year.
All the summoned players reconvened at Humboldt’s little town hall at 9 AM on Monday, August 31. Coroner Frank Schilling had a full day planned. He began by calling up nine or 10 relatives of Thomas Seaman, who “were questioned principally concerning Miss Stallman’s sanity.”
The most important of these were Thomas’ 23-year-old nephew, Oscar, and his wife Eunice. They told substantially the same story: On the last night of Cora’s life, Thomas had called them to come help him care for Cora, described as delirious and “in a bad condition.”
Oscar had been at the farm earlier that day when Cora said she was attacked. According to him, she was delirious all Friday afternoon, and worse when he and Eunice arrived that evening.
This was not the first time this story, about Cora saying she was forced to take something, was detailed. It had been mentioned in articles earlier that month. Yet, no one at the inquest seems to have explored what Cora might have meant or who “that man” could have been. Delirium is a tricky thing.
No one called a doctor at any point that night, because, according to Thomas, “Cora didn’t want one.” She was delirious enough to be discounted about a mysterious man, but when it came to getting medical care, they let her be the judge? It doesn’t ring true.
The three of them spent the evening caring for her. Cora was sick until 11 PM, when she “became rational and urged that [Oscar] and his wife go home as she was all right. … ‘We offered to stay all night, but Cora said, No you go and get some rest.’”
The next morning, Oscar returned to the farm on an errand. He saw Tom, asked after Cora, and was told that she had drowned herself. Whatever his reaction to what must have been startling news, it wasn’t recorded.
“I never thought her crazy,” he offered.
* * * *
After the lunch break, Thomas’ youngest brother Ed was called up. His testimony was entirely about the anonymous letters, a frustrating conundrum Schilling was still trying to resolve.
Cora had a letter she was trying to get to Ed Seaman, but in the most roundabout way. First, she tried to get hired hand Bos Lilley to deliver it; he declined. She asked Thomas to do the task; he also declined. She eventually gave it to Ed herself, asking him to read it. He offered to take it to a lawyer, and Cora suggested that he burn it instead, as “it likely wouldn’t amount to anything.”
Your guess is as good as mine. Cora’s behavior around these letters doesn’t do her story any favors. I have tried to untangle what she might have done herself, versus what might have been done against her. I truly do not know.
* * * *
Boston “Bos” Lilley, the tenant farmer on Anna Seaman’s property, was next in the witness chair. Coroner Frank Schilling started by walking him through the Friday attack, and then the morning that Cora’s body was found in the farm’s cistern.
The Lilley farm was about a quarter mile from Anna’s. It was Bos who Thomas came to find, when he couldn’t find Cora.
As I’ve discussed, I don’t envy the Lilleys’ position in this case. They had significant and material reasons to support Anna and Thomas Seaman’s stories, and that can’t go unconsidered. Bos had lived on Anna Stallman’s land back when it still belonged to her uncle. It’s hard to testify against someone who is your landlord, and boss, and longtime friend. He and his wife had no good choices to make.
The story he related tells as much about Thomas as it does Bos.
Exactly when Thomas arrived at the Lilley home that Saturday morning is a real question. Newspaper accounts list multiple times — from 4 AM to as late as 6:30 A.M. Testifying that morning, Bos put it at 4:30.
Upon arriving, the first thing Thomas asked him to do was call a friend of Anna’s and ask if she was there. By itself this is odd — the friend wasn’t even on the riverboat trip that had taken Anna out of town. And Anna had a phone in her main house. Only after that call, and only after he walked Bos about 40 yards away from his house, did Thomas mention Cora — the whole reason for his visit.
“Tom Seaman told me that Cora had gone away and he wanted someone with him when he found her; that she had a high fever all Friday and Friday night, but that he thought her heard her up and around when he got up; that he thought Cora slept all night on the front sleeping porch of Anna Seaman’s home; and that he was confident he heard her clear her throat about the time he went to milk the cow.”
The Decatur paper portrayed this as Thomas worried that Cora had wandered off. Perhaps he heard a noise he mistakenly thought was her? It’s possible. But from the rough estimates of her time of death, we know there could have been no throat-clearing for him to be confident of. She was several hours dead. Why mention that detail?
Once back at Anna’s farm, Bos and Thomas proceeded to check every building — including the main house “from basement to garret,” the barn, even the woodshed — everything except the cottage, which they approached last and which was locked.
Note also: During their extensive search, neither of them noticed the large “we got your sister scared green” sign that would later be found on the porch.
It’s hard for me to read Bos’ recounting of Thomas’ discovery as anything other than a faux-surprised “Oh what do we have here…?” That may be my own bias — but it also feels like he was leading a goose chase. Thomas, according to multiple sources, had already checked these buildings before even getting Bos to join him. Why check again? Is he genuinely looking… or is he putting on the pretense of looking? Why save the cottage until last, and why is it locked, when it’s pretty clear (water pitcher, night clothes, messed-up bed) that Cora spent the night there? And why is no one calling the sheriff to help find the woman you think wandered away in delirium?
In Bos’ retelling, he first tried to use a clothesline prop (a long stick with a notch) to retrieve Cora’s body. He and Thomas then worked together to pull her out of the water. The fact that she was reachable would indicate she was upright — not seated on the bottom of a cistern six feet deep.
I’ve detailed my concerns about the cistern story before. I think Bos reads as somewhat plausible here, and his actions sound like man responding to the story he was told by his boss. However, the amount of water he claims Cora exuded just sounds phony. Even if she had inhaled that much water, which we know she didn’t, I don’t believe their efforts could have gotten all the water out of her lungs. CPR was not developed until the 1950s. In the 1920s, drowning resuscitation looked more like this.
I’ve also said that I’m skeptical she was ever in the cistern. I still am. I understand that implicates Bos and Thomas in a major lie, and I think long and hard about the weight of that accusation. But even if I’m wrong, and the morning happened exactly as Bos related, the worrying gaps and omissions in his story remain.
From their quoted testimony, I get the sense that Bos and his wife Edith liked Cora. They trusted her to take their children riding, and according to Bos, they never had any disagreements. The Lilleys were also in a position to see how the Seamans and Cora lived on the farm. According to Bos, “Cora lived in the big house at Anna’s as much as the little one.”
And: “He had seen Thomas Seaman and Miss Cora Stallman riding together in a buggy nearly every day for a year, but had never seen him riding with his wife.”
Anna Stallman Seaman, in her supreme fashion, began her inquest testimony that afternoon by telling a photographer not to take her picture. “You cover that thing up!”
Her account of life with Cora was similarly abrupt, opaque, and self-preserving. She and Thomas were not estranged, she insisted. Instead, they had their legal “agreement,” with two farms, merely because of farm work’s demands — not due to troubles in their marriage. He liked to get up very early and “look after his stuff.”
Anna cooked all his meals at her own house, while Cora took him home “with my consent.” Cora also did some cleaning at his place.
Anna having been gone the week of Cora’s death, she couldn’t speak to those events. She could only talk about her sister as she had known her. Anna didn’t think her sister was crazy, and she never heard her threaten suicide. She did, however, think Cora wrote the anonymous letters, “from the way I heard of her acting, and by Tom telling me of having seen her with an envelope in her hand,” as well as the way the letters appeared on the farm.
This testimony contradicts pretty much everything Anna had said about Cora’s sanity, from after the funeral until the inquest began. She had spent a full month insisting her sister was crazy and had definitely committed suicide. Whatever the reason for her sudden conversion, Anna kept it to herself.
No one else, not even Schilling, appears to have noticed. ☗
Next time: Thomas testifies.
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Aug. 31, 1925
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Sept. 1, 1925
Decatur Herald; Sept. 1, 1925
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