Cora: Thomas (12)

Read the full Cora Stallman series here.


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.”

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Cora: People Are Talking (3)

More evidence than answers.

Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 3-4, 1925. Mattoon, IL.

Cattle and crops can’t go untended, so it didn’t raise eyebrows when Anna and Thomas Seaman returned from Cincinnati immediately after Cora Stallman’s funeral. She was buried on Monday afternoon, Aug. 3; they were back in Mattoon that night.

Perhaps more unusual: Once they returned, Thomas took to his bed.1

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Cora: Her Life Before (2)

Cora Stallman died on a farm, but she lived most of her life in the city.

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Meet Cora Stallman

Cora is a book I haven’t opened in years. She is a box with a dusty lid.

cora yearbook portraitAnd yet, when I recently told a friend I was planning to write about Cora, she immediately answered: “Oh, I think about her a lot. I’m so glad she’s getting remembered.”

Cora stays with you.

For Cora, I pestered a medical examiner, and joined the historical society of a county I’ve never visited. I spent about two years of scattershot research on her. At the end of it, for a lot of reasons, I put her away. Maybe now it’s time to reopen the book, to blow off the dust.

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Cora: The Discovery (1)

Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 1-2, 1925. Humboldt, IL.

The story, as Thomas Seaman told it many times that bewildering summer day, to the sheriff, the coroner, the undertaker — it went like this:

This wasn’t his farm; it belonged to his wife, Anna. She was out of town and he was just staying here to help his sister-in-law, Cora Stallman.

On Friday night, Cora was in the farm’s cottage (or maybe the main house) and he slept on the cottage porch. He got up at 6 AM to milk the cow. He came back to the cottage and called for Cora but got no answer. Concerned, he searched the cottage, the main house, and the field. More concerned, he walked to the house of Anna’s hired hand, Boston “Bos” Lilley, and asked for help.

The two men spotted Cora at the bottom of a half-full cistern, next to the cottage. Using a wooden clothesline prop, they maneuvered her body out of the cistern and onto the grass. She was fully dressed, wet, and not responding. They tried to resuscitate her, but without luck. Water might have come out of her mouth. Bos went to call for help. Another hired hand, Ed Landreth, helped Thomas carry the dead woman into the farm’s main house.

By noon, the farm was buzzing with the sheriff, detectives, the coroner, the undertaker, farmhands, reporters, and others. All day long, cars on the farm road kicked dust into the August sunlight.

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