I have had a long time to think about Cora Stallman.
Over years, whether during the periods of all-consuming research, or the lapses when I put her away, I’ve been turning this case over in my head. I’ve asked myself every what-if imaginable — even the unimaginable ones. I’ve considered the people, the town, and the fields that stretched around them.
Mostly, I’ve treated this story like a kaleidoscope, twisting it this way and that, watching all its many elements fall into new patterns and form new theories.
All of this is a long-winded way to say: Despite everything I know, I’m still unsure how Cora died.
I don’t think Thomas Seaman killed her. I think it was an accident…for reasons we will unpack down the road.
“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.”
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.
By the sixth day, the people of Coles County were tired. The suicide-or-murder question still hadn’t been answered. Cora Stallman’s curious death had made national papers, bringing 19 press agents to Mattoon. They chased the story, and the locals, like a honking flock of geese. For the journalists, too, their time in small-town Illinois was getting old. Telegrams in their pockets barked: Get a story or get home.
Fortunately for everyone, on Thursday, Coroner FS Schilling and the other investigators — State’s Attorney Charles Fletcher, Sheriff Tom McNutt, and Deputy Sheriff Frank Shirley — were ready to talk.
By August 5, Cora Stallman had been dead for five days, but investigators seemed no closer to finding out how that had happened. The truth continued to evade them like a silver fish in a summer pond, always a second beyond their grasp.
Whatever path Cora Stallman followed into Coles County, Illinois, it was her older sister Anna who had cleared the way.
Anna must have been formidable. I’ve only found one photo of her, and you can barely see her face. At Cora’s inquest in late August 1925, she told the news photographers not to take her picture — and they obeyed.1