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Mysterious America

The Strange Death of Cora Stallman

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Cora Stallman stood out. She was approximately six feet tall and 175 pounds, physically larger than average. She was a 45-year-old unmarried former schoolteacher, a college-educated woman from Cincinnati, Ohio who routinely rode a horse into town. Some neighbors described her as eccentric, odd, and even “stuck up” or “demented.”

Others that she was kind and benevolent, especially toward children. When Cora’s brother-in-law discovered her body mostly submerged in a cistern on his wife’s farm in Humboldt Township, it ignited a mystery that remains unsolved.

It was 1925, the year F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and the battle between evolution and creationism was waged in the “Scopes Monkey Trial”. On a 600-acre farm two miles southeast of Humboldt, Illinois, a village of approximately 330, in the early morning hours of Saturday, August 1, 49-year-old Tom Seaman went to check on his sister-in-law, Cora, but she was not at home.

He sought out Boston Martin “Bos” Lilley (1886-1972), a tenant farmer on his wife’s land, and together they searched the property, including a small cottage where Cora kept her belongings. Tom’s wife, Anna, was away on a Mississippi River cruise.

“Then as we walked north my eyes fell on the cistern,” Tom later testified. The wooden planks covering the opening were slightly ajar. “It was then about 5:30 o’clock. I remarked, ‘I hope she ain’t in there.’ Then I looked down in the water and saw something like a coat. I got the clothes line prop and reached it down in the water and discovered then it was Cora down there.”

Click here to order the book Tales of Coles County!

According to Coles County Coroner Frank Stephen Schilling (1881-1953), Cora was fully clothed and sitting in three-to-four feet of water, mostly submerged except for part of her face and back, with minor scratches on her forehead. A few nearly-illegible letters were found in the water.

Newspaper articles initially reported Cora Stallman’s death as a suicide, but as authorities investigated, they found no easy answers. Her lungs were not filled with water, ruling out drowning, and there were no visible wounds on her body severe enough to cause death. Examination of her internal organs later found no evidence of poison or severe illness. The case only got stranger from there.

Thomas Ellison “Tom” Seaman (1876-1941) married Anna Stallman (1877-1962), his second wife, on August 16, 1919. Anna, from Cincinnati, had inherited the adjacent Lane Bogart farm. Shortly after marriage, the couple had a falling out and drew up a contract in which they would reside separately on their respective farms during the busy season, although Tom came to Anna’s for one meal a day.

Cora Stallman moved to Illinois about 1920 to act as her sister’s business manager and lived in a small cottage on her sister’s farm, where she had daily interactions with both Tom and Anna. Owing to their unusual arrangement, tongues wagged that “something” was going on between Tom and Cora, although both Tom and Anna denied it.

Then there were the letters. In the months preceding her death, Cora received dozens of threatening, often lengthy anonymous letters apparently written by multiple persons, including one signed “KKK”. They described visceral, nasty disdain for Cora on behalf of local townspeople.

“You are as common as dirt, and a regular snob. Impudent when you shop in Humboldt. Your horse is a nuisance, keep him where he belongs,” one said, and “We know you are from a common family. You drive into Humboldt like you smelt a stink. If you don’t like us, stay out you snot nose. You need not think you are so much either…” said another. Bos Lilley and his wife, Edith, and Tom Seaman also received threatening letters, some of which came after Cora’s death. Cora and Anna had taken to wearing whistles for fear of being attacked.

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At around 10:00 a.m. on Friday, July 31, Bos Lilley was speaking with Tom’s nephew, Oscar Seaman, Elmer Howard, a tractor salesman from Arcola, and Howard’s 14-year-old nephew, Keith Dixon, when they heard a sharp whistle coming from the direction of Anna Seaman’s house. There they found Cora, who told them a strange man dressed in overalls and a straw hat had come out of Anna’s house, struck her and knocked her down, and told her he would kill her if she told anyone what happened. The four men searched a nearby cornfield and found a straw hat and overalls.

That evening, Cora was seized by a fit of delirium, tossing and turning in bed. She raved about “nasty medicine” the man who attacked her made her drink. Tom, who called Oscar and his wife to come over to help, offered to send for a doctor, but Cora said she didn’t need one. At around 10:00 p.m., she settled down and ate bread and butter and drank tea. After another hour, she told Oscar and his wife to go home.

Then, at around midnight, she told Tom, who slept in his clothes on the porch in case something happened, to go to bed. Later, Tom said he awoke that morning at 5:00 a.m. to what he thought was the sound of Cora moving around the house. He left to milk the cow, and when he returned, she was nowhere to be found.

That was when Tom sought Bos Lilley’s help and the two men pulled Cora’s body from the cistern. A short time later, after Coroner Frank Schilling arrived, they found a large piece of cardboard on the porch with “We have got your sister” painted in crude lettering.

Both Anna Seaman and Edith Lilley suspected Cora had written the threatening notes and letters herself, although the handwriting did not match her’s. Both thought she was disturbed. “Of course, she committed suicide,” Anna, who contradicted herself several times, said. “She had been unbalanced for a long time.”

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Edith hesitantly agreed, testifying, “I never thought Cora crazy until the last week or two, when she was always watching the road and then coming in and reporting she had seen curious acting people no one else had ever seen. It looked queer to us.” Cora’s diary was filled with codes and cryptic symbols.

The anonymous letter writers were never found, nor was the stranger who attacked Cora on the Friday morning before she died.

Was Cora Stallman murdered? Did she commit suicide? Or did she die of fright, hiding from imaginary pursuers? Almost exactly one month after Cora’s body was found, after interviewing over 45 witnesses, the coroner’s jury determined that she died of “unknown causes.” It recommended her case be taken up by a grand jury, but to this day, no one has ever been held responsible for her death.


Sources

  • Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial-Star (Mattoon) 1, 4-6, 21, 28, 31 August 1925; 1 September 1925; 14 October 1925.
  • Decatur Herald (Decatur) 2-4, 6, 8, 27 August 1925; 1 September 1925.
  • Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago) 3-6 August 1925.
  • The Daily Independent (Murphysboro, IL) 3 August 1925.
  • The Decatur Review (Decatur) 28 August 1925.

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