Aug. 31, 1925. Humboldt, IL.
“A crowd that filled the town hall here to overflowing endured stifling heat of the stuffy wooden building to hear the proceedings.” — Decatur Herald
It was late-summer hot and the flies were relentless, but the spectators at Cora Stallman’s inquest stayed in their chairs. They were waiting to hear the last witness, maybe the most anticipated of all: Cora’s brother-in-law Thomas Seaman.
For all of August he had been a cipher. While his wife Anna (and probably her friends) promoted the Seamans’ side to the newspapers, he was quiet. Thomas had stayed mum even as the gossip ran loose with speculation about him, and about his relationship with Cora.
Now he could have his say.
As in previous days, Coroner Frank Schilling led the questioning, with State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher as his second. With his usual deliberate care, Schilling began by having Thomas explain the parameters in which he, Anna, and her sister Cora had operated their three lives across two farms.
“I live on my own farm, where I have a home, and with my wife, who has a home on her own farm,” Thomas said. “We have been married six years, and I have known her sixteen years. There is just a road between her farm and mine.”
And then this: “The home on my farm is just as my first wife died and left it.”
Tomorrow, the newspapers would say that Thomas’ account had provided no real surprises. If the newspapermen in the crowd were hoping for a shocking confession or a romantic declaration, they were out of luck. His time on the stand showed very little of the man who reportedly “took to his bed” in grief after returning from Cora’s funeral
But at a number of places, Thomas contradicted earlier testimony or even his own words. He also seemed to make a point of portraying Cora’s last days as marked by suspicious behavior.
The Last Week
As Thomas put it, he was not supposed to even be on Anna’s farm.
Yet he had stayed there almost every night that last week of July because Cora was scared by the threatening letters she had been receiving — and because she asked.
“I knew that Anna was going away on the trip with some women. I was not supposed to stay on her place, but Cora came to me the day that Anna left and said she had a package to give to Ed Seaman [Thomas’ brother], and she wanted me to go with her when she gave it to him.”
The mysterious “package” — which might have been a letter, or maybe something else — came into play again. This was the same one that Cora tried to deliver via farmhand Bos Lilley, and which she eventually gave to Ed by hand, then told him to burn instead. Cora’s behavior around this piece of mail is admittedly odd and inscrutable — even childish. Involving three different people in a plot to deliver a mysterious letter sounds like the act of a teenager, not a middle-aged woman.
I’m not surprised that Thomas described it as “one of her schemes.” But exactly what “schemes” he meant, no one asked him to detail.
* * * *
Whatever the pretext that allowed Thomas to break his wife’s rule about being on her farm, he was there, possibly as early as Wednesday.
He certainly was there the night that he said he heard a gunshot, came running, and was met by an alarmed Cora who claimed people were shooting at her.
(Exactly which night is its own question. Earlies articles pin the gunshot as happening early on Friday morning. However, the Decatur paper quoted Thomas’ Aug. 31 inquest testimony as saying it was Thursday night, and the Mattoon paper dated it to Wednesday night. It’s impossible to know which newspaper got it wrong, or whether Thomas slipped up. He’s the only surviving witness.)
I’ve detailed my own three scenarios for the gunshot/bullet hole story before: shooting attempted by stranger, shooting faked by Cora, or stray gunshot due to a struggle over the gun.
Why ask Anna about her gun at all? Thomas couldn’t have thought that a stranger arrived on the farm to shoot at Cora, but had to steal a gun to do so. Criminals tend to bring their weapons with.
When the gun was later found in Anna’s closet, it had been recently fired. This would indicate the shot happened later in the week, and that whoever used it knew where the gun was stored, and had the time and means to replace it afterwards. It had to be someone with access to the farm and the main house.
Meaning: Either Thomas or Cora.
The events of Cora’s last day alive, Friday, were well established by the time Thomas took the witness chair. She had interacted with numerous friends and neighbors that day, and they had painted a full picture of her last hours.
Thomas’ words provided not just new detail about her last daytime hours, but different detail.
When it came to the morning’s farmyard “attack” — which only Cora herself witnessed — Thomas spoke about the attacker’s missing overalls that were left behind in the cornfield. He claimed they may have actually been an old pair of his own, that he had left behind at Anna’s. In his retelling, he gave the overalls to Cora and didn’t see them again.
However, he also said: “I know I noticed smoke coming from the chimney in the front room of the little house, and when I asked Cora about it, she said she was burning some catalogues.” His implication, clearly, was that Cora destroyed the overalls. The problem is that when investigators sifted through those ashes early in the case, they found paper ashes, not cloth; and in the cottage stove, not the fireplace.
Thomas also claimed Cora went to Humboldt that afternoon to mail a letter. Other witnesses backed up her presence in Humboldt that day, although not at the post office.
Complicating it all: Thomas described Cora as in a delirium “all afternoon and night” on Friday.
* * * *
Cora’s physical state was an increasing concern as Friday moved into night. It was dire enough that Thomas needed help, calling on his nephew Oscar and Oscar’s wife Eunice. The three of them spent the night caring for her in the little cottage.
For hours, Cora was thirsty, nauseated (by some accounts, all day), muttering, delirious, maybe feverish, and making rambling statements about a man who “forced” her to take something. She was too ill to do anything, but they still let her refuse medical treatment.
And then… she recovered.
At least that was the testimony of Oscar, Eunice, and now Thomas. Sometime late that evening, she suddenly got better. Eunice and her husband had already stated that her condition improved enough that she was able to eat some food or tea, and they left at about 11 PM.
Thomas adds some unusual details. Cora saw “a light, then people.” She offered to cook him dinner. And then she made up his bed for him…?
Of anything, this is the point where I believe Thomas the least. I don’t think Cora could have recovered from being so sick, so quickly. I mean, he says he never went back into the main house, and then says the newly recovered Cora made up a bed for him there, in the main house. She saw a light, and then was well enough to perform some housekeeping?
The Seamans left a revived Cora at 11 PM, and within six hours — maybe as few as four hours — she was a dead body in her own cistern. Whatever happened in the dark early morning, I think it was something other than Thomas said.
He was the only witness, on a farm where he knew he wasn’t supposed to be in the first place.
I just don’t believe him. ☗
Decatur Herald; Sept. 1, 1925
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Sept. 1, 1925
© 2019 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved