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.
Untangling the events of Cora Stallman’s last day alive is no simple task.
The most obvious solution would be to get sheriff’s records or a transcript of the inquest testimony. Many years ago, I contacted the Coles County coroner’s office, hoping to do just that. The coroner himself was kind enough to search for me. Sadly, nearly all documents related to Cora’s case had disappeared in the intervening decades. “Sometimes the basement floods,” he said with some regret.
The town hall at Humboldt is a one-story frame structure opposite the Odd Fellow Hall. It is about 40 x 50 feet and there was a crowd of upward of 150 people in it at the inquest. In addition to these, there were multitudes of the largest, “barb-wiredest” flies that have ever tormented a coroner and a lot of gentle listeners at an inquest. The windows of the town hall have wire screening in them, but instead of fly screen, it is two-inch mesh poultry netting attached to frames. Just what “make” of flies these “screens” were intended to keep out is not estimated, and many wondered why so many flies and of such scorpion propensities should levy on the audience.
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.
Just who is responsible for a “tip” to the metropolitan papers that a possible murder had been committed is a matter of conjecture. There were nineteen out-of-town reporters in this city on Saturday afternoon, it was reported by officials. All of these were from recent scenes of sensation and crime, equipped with cameras and prepared for a continued stay in investigating the Humbolt township tragedy to a finish. This city was their headquarters. Officials and citizens alike, town and country were the targets for questions and pictures, and details of which these people little dreamed were keenly illustrated in the work of the “newshounds.” Though the object of their search was not to be attained in the environs of this city on this occasion there was afforded a good closeup of metropolitan writers in action. A good idea was formed by many as to how sensational stories are written and the notes for them secured, a number of these questioned said today.
One of the city newswriters even went so far as to say that “he hoped this would hold on for another two or three days,” evidently intending to convey the impression that the assignments accorded them by their papers had proven a real “holiday.”