One chill February afternoon in 1921, a call rang into the Englewood police station from a Greek restaurant on 63rd Street. Could they please come remove some patrons who wouldn’t leave?
Police arrived to find two reluctant customers: Ruth Townsend (61) and her daughter, Marian (26). The pair had just been evicted from their home a few blocks away, at 57th and Stony Island. It was cold outside. They came to this restaurant, where they’d eaten before, because they had nowhere to go and nothing to go with.
Accustomed to handling sympathetic hard-luck cases, the police took the now-homeless women to the Hackett Stevenson Memorial Lodging House, a women’s shelter on South Prairie Ave. They probably thought that was the end of it.
But a week later, on Valentine’s night, the police had reason to return — and they weren’t bringing valentines. The Townsends’ neighbors had watched their eviction take place, and had seen the furniture piled up in the backyard. They also noticed something that was missing from the scene. Rumors began to spread. Eventually one of the neighbors had approached the police to say: Ruth’s elderly mother was living with them. We haven’t seen her since last summer.
The cops wanted answers. Where was Ruth’s 93-year-old mother, Nancy Chamberlain?
The first half of 1926 was mostly thorns, few roses for Lady Bledzo. In just four short months, her boyfriend (and chief funder) “Yellow Kid” Weil went to prison; she was attacked by his wife; she moved from hotel to hotel; and her face was cut up in a car crash.
Whatever Lady Bledzo was trying to achieve in life, this was probably not it.
“…[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.
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.