Aug. 31, 1925. Humboldt, IL.
“…[I]t further developed that neither Mrs. Anna Seaman nor Tom Seaman, her husband, knew of the many secret things of Miss Stallman’s life.” — Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, Sept. 1, 1925
Late in the last hot afternoon of August 1925, Thomas Seaman stood up from the witness chair and signaled the end of testimony in Cora Stallman’s inquest. Thomas had provided his contradictory, flawed account. His wife Anna, Cora’s sister, had revealed as little as possible. Neighbors and friends told their own stories about the ex-teacher who amused their children and gave gifts unasked. This version of Cora, true and untrue, had all been committed to paper. And now it was done.
A crowd of 300 people waited anxiously for the verdict, peeking in the town hall windows and adjusting their chairs impatiently. But before Coroner Frank Schilling could hand the case to the inquest jury, he had one last matter to discuss.
Three weeks prior, Schilling he been seemingly caught up in the embarrassing bureaucratic foolishness about forensic testing on Cora’s vital organs — who should pay, who wouldn’t pay, and who to hire for the job. In fact, he was quietly getting the job done. For over a week, he had been keeping the analysis from Fischer Laboratories; now it was ready for the jury’s certification. Who exactly DID pay for the tests, Schilling didn’t say. He explained: “I wish to state also that we sent these organs to the laboratory for analysis before any offer was made to finance the analysis, and that we have left nothing undone to sift this case through.”
Despite the new details in the report, “No evidence of poison” appears to have been judgment enough for the Mattoon newspaper, which stopped discussing the tests at that point. In contrast, the Decatur Herald’s response reads like relief. However, the writer included the most curious detail – one that had not been mentioned in any newspapers to this point.
The first time I read this line about the empty bottle, I honestly missed it. Only on rereading did it catch my curiosity. I called out to my husband: “It says she had a bottle of…ergot…?”
And he called back: “Ergot…? Wasn’t that for abortions?”
* * * *
And so we arrive at the moment where I always knew we would end up.
I knew about the ergot, and its implications, before I began publishing this series. I wanted the story to reveal itself, and to focus most especially on the people involved, before speculating about maybes based on a solitary mention in one paper. I wanted you to know Cora as wholly as possible, flawed and full of secrets to be sure, before trying to understand this choice she might have made.
I know the subsequent discussion may not be for everyone. If this is the point where Cora’s story ends for you, I respect that. I would ask that you not judge her too quickly or too harshly — there are so many factors to consider here. Empathy is crucial.
* * * *
In taking ergot, Cora was betting her life against a tricky opportunist with a troubling history.
Ergot is a fungus that grows on cereal grains, especially rye. It prospers by pushing grain out of the way to produce its own kernels, which contain powerful ergot alkaloids. These alkaloids can cause an array of problems — vivid, painful, sometimes fatal — when humans or livestock eat contaminated grain. Some ergot alkaloids contract smooth muscle tissue, leading to muscle spasms, constricted blood vessels, and convulsions. The alkaloids also contain lysergic acid, a precursor to LSD: Hallucinations and delirium are common symptoms. As detailed in Microbiology Today, “Between 990 and 1130 AD it is estimated that over 50,000 people died from ergot poisoning in southern France.”
And yet, it works as a headache cure. Ergotamine is still used in migraine medication. Those same vasoconstricting qualities also made the drug useful in obstetrics. As early as the 1500s, ergot was used to either hasten contractions or stop bleeding after labor. In the late 19th century it was occasionally prescribed for irregular menstruation, or to “help” women going through menopause.
But ergot is not to be trusted.
People react to the alkaloids and derivatives in different ways. You can easily overdose. Its use in obstetrics helped many women… but also caused many stillbirths and other complications. Even for doctors today, it’s very difficult to determine what constitutes a “safe” dose of an ergot alkaloid. Ultimately, ergot is a dangerous and unpredictable substance, and not suitable for unsupervised over-the-counter use.
Ergot the fickle trickster: You can suffer from ergotism (ergot poisoning) because you ingested the fungus once — or because you’ve ingested it for a while, and now it’s built up in your system. You can end up with a fatal case, or you may recover. And the symptoms you endure may depend on the variety of ergot species you ingested.
One species of the fungus causes gangrenous ergotism, which is exactly like it sounds. A second strain of ergot induces convulsive ergotism. In this form, symptoms include fever, muscle spasms, nausea, vomiting, confusion, hallucinations, mania or delirium, and convulsions. If the patient suffers a coronary vasospasm, a constriction of the coronary artery, it can cause heart arrhythmia or a fatal cardiac arrest.
I don’t think Cora was poisoned. I think she accidentally poisoned herself.
* * * *
And yes, this means I side with the authorities in their finding that Cora didn’t drown, but I disagree with their findings when it comes to whether she ingested something fatal. I don’t see that as contradictory, given her symptoms.
In the days after her death, witnesses described Cora as having been: sick; nauseated (possibly all day Friday); feverish; nervous and erratic; “deranged for some weeks;” brooding and suffering delusions; mentally deranged; delirious; raving; mumbling; and unbalanced. According to Thomas, on Cora’s last night, “She said she saw a light and then people.” She saw people no one witnessed, heard things no one noticed. And this may have gone on for weeks.
Cora showed nearly every symptom of convulsive ergotism. The ergot bottle found in her room was empty. It’s not difficult to draw a line connecting the two. Why the authorities missed that connection in 1925, only they could say.
* * * *
So why ergot? Why would an educated woman risk a dalliance with such a dangerous substance?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emmenagogues (drugs that induce menstruation) were openly marketed to American women. Drugs like pennyroyal, tansy, and ergot — all known abortifacients — were advertised using vague language about resolving “female issues” or menstrual “suppression.” But there was really only one issue they were attempting to fix: unwanted pregnancy.
This was the world in which Cora came of age. It was a time that predated ultrasounds, home pregnancy tests, and HCG testing. Many people still relied on fetal quickening as the true proof of pregnancy. Determining whether you were pregnant was mostly a matter of waiting and guesswork.
But if you were a lady in trouble, waiting was a luxury you couldn’t afford. The phrase “many saved from suicide” rings with desperate poignancy. Some women chose marriage. Some “went away” for a while. And some resorted to chemical or herbal abortifacients.
Was Cora pregnant? I don’t know.
It’s certainly possible that she took ergot for the most banal of reasons, as part of a menopause treatment. However, it seems unlikely. By the 1920s it was becoming increasingly unpopular, thanks to its dangerous reputation. And ironically, ergot is an unreliable abortifacient — in fact, it works almost not at all early in pregnancy.
And yet, she took it anyway. She kept taking it even as she got sicker and sicker. I don’t think Cora would have taken ergot, used an entire bottle, without a profound motivation.
She thought she needed it. She thought the risk was worth it.
* * * *
As happens again and again in this story, truth proves to be an illusion. The empty bottle is a concrete fact, and yet its appearance only generates more questions, and all of them unknowable. Whatever the truth of Cora’s death might have been, it lies somewhere beyond a hundred years of shadows.
And frankly, it doesn’t matter that much to me. I am OK with not having a concrete answer.
Whether Cora was actually pregnant, thought she was pregnant, or was just trying to regulate an aging body, is immaterial. Whether the angry letters were written by one person or three people, whether Thomas awoke at 4 AM or 5 AM that Saturday, is trivia. The coded diary and the gossiping townsfolk are fun, but they are not the story.
At its heart, this has always been about three lonely people, each lonely in their own way. They are its true mystery. They are what pull me back into this story again and again.
I imagine Cora, Thomas, and Anna, walled off in the little homes that keep them safe from the world but so desperately isolated. Around them, the low and level fields stretch to the horizon. They only have each other out there. But there are walls. There are boundaries. Some lines you just can’t cross.
I see them like characters in a myth. Thomas, Anna, and Cora all wanted the same three things — love, a stable life, a real home — and each of them could only be granted two wishes. And like all tragic figures, Cora reached for that third blessing.
She was a scholar of the classics. She would have known where hubris could lead.
And yet Cora reached for Thomas anyway. ☗
Decatur Herald; Sept. 1, 1925
Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette; Sept. 1, 1925
The Highs and Lows of Ergot
Ergot Intoxication: Historical Review and Description of Unusual Clinical Manifestations
Molecule of the Month: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
Ergot used in obstetrics, examples: Gynecology, Obstetrics, Menopause, Parts 1-3. Alexander H. P. Leuf. 1902
Ergot as treatment in menopause: Brooklyn Medical Journal, Volume 17. Medical Society of the County of Kings. 1903
A Thin Blue Line: The History of the Pregnancy Test Kit
Ergot bottle image
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