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Edward Howard RULLOFF






Real name: John Edward Howard Ruloffson
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Robbery
Number of victims: 3 +
Date of murders: June 23, 1845 / August 17, 1870
Date of arrest: August 17, 1870
Date of birth: July 9, 1819
Victims profile: His wife, Harriet Schutt, and three-months old daughter / Frederick A. Mirick (dry goods clerk)
Method of murder: Striking in the head with a pestle / Shooting
Location: New York, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on May 18, 1871 - The last public hanging in New York
photo gallery

Edward Ruloff murdered his wife and child in 1845 but the state convicted him of abduction of his wife. After serving ten years, he was then tried for the murder of his child, convicted and sentenced to hang. He escaped while his appeal was pending. Ironically, the Court of Appeals reversed his conviction on a technicality; the absence of his daughter’s corpse.

Many years later, in 1870, Ruloff shot and killed a dry goods clerk during a robbery. Ruloff was tried, convicted and hanged for the murder. Since no one claimed his body, his head was removed for study at Cornell University. Body snatchers dug up the rest of his remains.


Edward H. Rulloff (sometimes Rulofson or Rulloffson) (b. 1819 or 1820-d.1871) was a noted philologist and criminal. Rulloff is also notable for his brain which as of 1970 is the second largest on record and can be seen on display at the psychology department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Rulloff was born near St. John, New Brunswick to German immigrants. As a youth, he served a two-year jail sentence for embezzlement before moving to Ithaca. Self-educated, Rulloff studied many fields, but excelled at linguistics. In 1869, he presented his theory of language origins The Method of Languages to the American Philological Association. Rulloff believed that his book, "Method in the Formation of Language" would prove to be definitive.

Rulloff was accused of many crimes during his lifetime. Notably, he was accused of beating his wife and daughter to death as well as poisoning his sister-in-law and niece. Rulloff spent time in prison on several occasions but was always released due to a dearth of evidence against him. Rulloff moved about Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio for several years.

In 1870, Rulloff was sentenced to death for the murder of a store clerk in Binghamton, New York. Because of his notoriety as a linguist, some people believed that Rulloff's life should be spared so that he could continue to contribute to that field of study. Mark Twain satirically wrote an editorial, proposing that another individual be hanged in Rulloff's place.

Rulloff's execution was the last public hanging in New York. Rulloff's final words were "Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner." After his death, Cornell professor Burt Wilder declared Rulloff's brain, the largest on record. Rulloff's brain can be seen on display as part of the Wilder Brain Collection. A tavern in Ithaca bears Rulloff's name.

Rulloff was the brother of photographer, William Rulofson.


The Life and Death of Edward H. Rulloff

By Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

It was after midnight in the early morning of August 17, 1870, when the shrill alarm of the fire bell broke the stillness in the small city of Binghamton. Three men hurried down to the Chenango River, but only one made his way across safely. In their haste to escape, his two companions were lost in the water and drowned. In the town a badly frightened clerk, employed by Halbert and Brothers dry goods store, was telling a horrifying tale of attempted robbery and cold-blooded murder.

Two clerks, named Gilbert S. Burrows and Frederick A. Mirick, sleeping in their quarters over the store, were awakened by three men who bored holes in the back door and entered. When discovered, the burglars fled, but one of them was captured by the two young clerks, and when he shouted for help, the other two returned, armed with pistols. Three shots were fired at Burrows who fell back, hit by flying splinters. Then the man with the gun came up behind Mirick, who was struggling with one of the robbers, and shot him in the back of the head. He died instantly.

This crime aroused Binghamton and the Southern Tier to a high pitch of excitement and gave it a subject for animated discussion for many years thereafter. Within twenty-four hours of the murder, a man identified as Edward H. Rulloff was captured by the railroad tracks leading out of town, and the bodies of the other two robbers were recovered from the Chenango River. The case that unfolded was a strange one indeed.

The Binghamton newspapers, The Broome Republican, The Democratic Leader, and the Binghamton Standard devoted pages to the case, and the trial of Edward H. Rulloff for murder was held in a spirit of high excitement A reporter from the New York Sun who came up from New York for the trial, reported that public opinion was so outraged by the crime that the attorney for the defense was threatened and defense witnesses were intimidated. The trial was held in Binghamton in January 1871.

The evidence was damning. Although the surviving clerk could not identify Rulloff positively as the man who shot at him, shoes belonging to the accused man were found with burglar tools left in the store. These were easily identified because Rulloff had two toes missing, amputated after they were frozen when he escaped from jail in Ithaca several years before. His association with the two robbers, who were identified by the clerk, was traced back to New York City and found to be of long standing. When captured, he had blood on his hat and shirt.

Nor did Rulloff s past help him. He had been jailed in Ithaca and several other places, under various names, and had served terms in Auburn and Sing Sing prisons.

The defense had no real evidence to offer. Rulloff would admit nothing. He cross-examined the prosecution's witnesses himself and raised objections to the testimony of some of the witnesses. His lawyer evidently tried to base his case on creating a reasonable doubt of his client's guilt in the minds of the jury. According to the report in the newspaper, his summarization to the jury was a plea for sympathy and did not deal with the evidence. The jury took six hours to decide on a verdict of guilty and Rulloff was sentenced to be hanged on March 3rd.

Appeals postponed the execution. In April, Rulloff was taken to Elmira to be resentenced and his hanging was set for a new date, May 18. Rulloff had become one of the principal celebrities of the Southern Tier and crowds gathered at Elmira to catch a glimpse of him, and crowded around the train as it stopped at Waverly, Owego, and finally at Binghamton. At the resentencing in Elmira, Rulloff made a last desperate effort to save his life. He admitted that he was one of the three thieves who had broken into the store, but blamed the murder on one of his companions who had died in the attempt to cross the river.

This confession probably did more to eliminate any lingering doubt as to his guilt than to help him. The Binghamton newspapers certainly had no questions. Poor Rulloff was exploited to the limit, each paper seeking to out do the others in turning up some sensational bit of information. When he complained about the treatment he received from the press, one newspaper smugly noted, "He is a man entirely devoid of the finer sensibilities of human nature, brutish and crime-hardened to the last degree possible, and incapable of appreciating or comprehending the motives that prompt the press to sustain law and order."

Who was this man condemned to die for a brutal murder? The facts of his life were slowly brought out and printed piece by piece in the various newspapers. Edward H. Rulloff (or Rullofson) was born July 9, 1819 or 1820, near St. John, New Brunswick. His parents were German immigrants. The boy first went to work as clerk in a store, was caught embezzling money and served two years in jail. Coming to the States to make a new start, he arrived in Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, in 1841 or 1842.

Although evidently with little formal education, the young man was unusually intelligent and interested in learning. He took a job as school teacher in Dryden, about eleven miles east of Ithaca, and on December 31, 1843, he married Harriet Schutt, one of his pupils and daughter of a prominent family of the town. He seems to have been insanely jealous of his wife and treated her cruelly. Acquiring some knowledge of medicine, he moved to Lansing, a few miles north of Ithaca, and began to practice as a doctor.

His career in this profession was interrupted by the mysterious disappearance of his wife and infant child. His wife and three-months old child were last seen on June 23, 1845. When questioned persistently about their whereabouts by the girl's family, Rulloff fled to Geneva, and then to Rochester, and Buffalo, and finally was captured by his brother-in-law in Cleveland.

Charged with abduction of his wife and daughter, he was tried and found guilty in the Tompkins County Court and sentenced to ten years in Auburn State prison. In prison he had access to books and time to study and developed a proficiency in language. When he had served his sentence, he was re-arrested and tried in Ithaca for the murder of his wife and child. Again, he was convicted but this time a court of appeals set aside the verdict on the grounds that murder could not be proved since the bodies were never recovered.

The story, that was generally believed, based on a reported confession, was that Rulloff murdered his wife by giving her chloroform, opening a vein in her throat and bleeding her to death. He then smothered his infant daughter and put the two bodies in a large chest with weights. He had help to load the chest in a team-drawn wagon, drove to the vicinity of Ithaca, rowed out into the lake and sunk the chest in Cayuga Lake. This could not be proved because the bodies were never found and no trace of the missing persons ever discovered.

While in jail in Ithaca in 1856, he taught the son of the jailor foreign languages and began a friendship with the boy that continued until the ill-fated night in Binghamton. The jailer's son was one of Rulloff's two companions who were drowned in their escape from the scene of the murder.

For several years Rulloff left the Southern Tier for the vicinity of New York City, where he continued to be associated with crime and served time in Sing Sing prison and local jails. He also devoted himself to various studies and, it was reported that he published a book on philology entitled Method of the Language under the name of E. Leurio in 1870. As a linguist he claimed to understand Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian; and a smattering of Hebrew and Sanskrit, and to have discovered a new theory on the origin of languages.

In appearance Rulloff was described as about 51 years old; five feet, nine inches high; weighing about 170 or 180 pounds. He had an extremely large head, black eyes, black hair, and beard slightly tinged with grey. Visitors noticed his small, sensitive hands and his striking personality. He was an excellent conversationalist and, when animated, his eyes shone "like diamonds." Many scholars and others came to Binghamton to visit him in jail.

His unorthodox views on religion did not increase public sympathy for him.

Even as a school teacher in the 1840s it seems, he argued that the Bible could not possibly be true and denounced Christianity as a myth and foolish deception. While in jail awaiting execution he was asked by a reporter if he believed in Providence. "That is a wonderful question, sir," he replied, "I have this conviction: that religion must be a matter of faith and not of knowledge; that God's decrees are inscrutable."

A month before Rulloff was executed, Mark Twain wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune proposing "A Substitute for Rulloff." With tongue in cheek. Mark Twain declared his belief in capital punishment, but suggested that Rulloff might be of use to society if properly utilized, and Twain agreed to provide a substitute to be hanged in Rulloff's place after the example of Sydney Carton who took the place of Charles Darnay in Dicken's Tale of Two Cities.

Twain wrote, "For it is plain that in the person of Rulloff one of the most marvelous intellects that any age has produced is about to be sacrificed, and that, too, while half the mystery of its strange powers is yet a secret. Here is a man who has never entered the doors of a college or a university, and yet, by the sheer might of his innate gifts has made himself such a colossus in abtruse learning that the ablest of our scholars are but pigmies in his presence...

"Every learned man who enters Rulloff's presence leaves it amazed and confounded by his prodigious capabilities and attainments. One scholar said he did not believe that in the matters of subtle analysis, vast knowledge in his peculiar field of research, comprehensive grasp of subject and serene kingship over its limitless and bewildering details, any land or any era of modern times had given birth to Rulloff s intellectual equal." Twain stated in a private letter to the editor of the Tribune that he hoped to arouse public support for commuting Rulloff's sentence. New York Governor John T. Hoffman rejected all appeals for clemency however.

Rulloff went to his death without the consolation of religion. On the morning of his execution in the yard of the Broome County Jail in Binghamton he demanded of his jailer, "You won't have any prayers nor any damned nonsense down there, will you?" His wishes were respected. He went down quietly to the scaffold, declared that he had "nothing to say, and then his last words were, "I can't stand still," as he had trouble keeping his balance with his arms pinioned and his head hooded.

At about 11:30 of the morning of May 18, 1871, the weight was dropped. Rulloff s body was jerked up and his neck broken. A physician stood by and took his pulse. At the end of five minutes it was 92 beats per minute. After eight minutes it was 84, and after ten minutes it was down to 44. No pulse was discernable after 10 minutes and he was pronounced dead.

Society was not through with Edward H. Rulloff yet. A death mask of plaster was made of his face and his body put on display for the morbid crowd that gathered in Binghamton. One local newspaper estimated that almost 6,600 saw the corpse and not more than 600 of these were local people. When a brother from Pennsylvania failed to claim the body, it was buried in Potter's Field.

His brain was secured for the collection of Professor Burt Green Wilder of Cornell University who declared it was the largest on record. It is presently on display with other brains from the Wilder Collection in Uris Hall at Cornell. So Rulloff, the man designated by the New York Dispatch as "The Most Remarkable Criminal of the Age," lives on in history and in legend.


The Genius Killer

By Katherine Ramsland

One for the Money, Two for the Show

A man walking to work in Binghamton, New York, early in the morning on Friday, July 6, 1870, crossed the bridge that spanned the Chenango River. He glanced upriver and saw something bobbing in the current, apparently snagged on a rock. He'd never seen it before and knew it didn't belong there. In fact, it appeared to be wearing a garment that had filled with water. This man signaled to another resident not far away and together they went to investigate.

What they'd seen was the fully-clothed body of a man, face down, in the shallow part of the river. Using a boat, they towed the body to a more accessible area and fetched the sheriff. Whoever he was, this man had drowned. Both men knew he might be connected to a recent murder about which the whole town was talking. A crowd soon gathered to see the drowned man's corpse.

Not far away, in the same river, another man spotted a lumpy object in the water. He didn't give it much thought until word spread that a body had just been pulled from the river. He went to the spot to have a closer look. Getting some assistance, he rowed toward the object, which failed to move, and discovered that he'd found yet a second body. He wasn't surprised. By then, everyone in town knew that two, perhaps three, men had broken into the Halbert brothers' dry goods store and killed the night guard. Two had been spotted going toward the river to escape. Apparently, they'd drowned. It seemed to have been an accident, but soon there'd be reason to wonder if they'd been murdered.

Townspeople gathered as the two swollen bodies were pulled from the river and laid out. The eye of one had been gouged out by a hook used to drag him in. The residents cheered at what seemed like the divine hand of justice, striking down men who had killed one of their own. Local reporters arrived to write about one of the most exciting items to come their way. The bodies were delivered to the undertaker for photographs, and then the hapless deceased were moved to the courthouse to be embalmed. Their clothing was searched for items to assist in identifying them.

The definitive book on this case is Rogue Scholar by Richard W. Bailey, an English professor who compiled articles from various newspapers, as well as books written at the time by leading reporters on the case, Edward Crapsey and Edward Hamilton Freeman, a.k.a, "Ham." Crapsey wrote for the New York Times, and a search of the historic archives produces many of his articles. Crapsey, apparently, struck a snobbish attitude toward the townspeople and the murderer, but Ham seemed more intrigued with the killer's alleged genius. In fact, he managed to get quite a few intimate interviews for his biography and even kissed the man. It's rare to find this case mentioned in any studies of serial killers or encyclopedias, perhaps because two of the murders (if not more) could not be proven.

At the moment, there was a third body to deal with. In Halberts' store, a young man, Frederick Merrick, had given his life to protect the merchandise — particularly the expensive silks. It would be some time before the story was accurately recreated, but the surviving guard, Gilbert Burrows, said there had been not two burglars who'd broken in that night but three. He told all that he knew.

The Crime

Two burglars entered Halberts' in the early morning hours on Wednesday, waking the two clerks who slept there at night to guard the place. Merrick grabbed a pistol to warn them off and threw a stool at them. Then a third man emerged and threw a chisel at Burrows, rendering him temporarily senseless, but he revived to assist Merrick to fight off the burglars. Merrick grabbed one man, holding him bent painfully over the counter. Then the third man held up a gun. He pulled the trigger, shooting at and missing Burrows but then shooting Merrick at close range in the head. Young Merrick had been a clerk there only a short time, but had proven himself with unusual dedication. Now he'd given his life. Burrows ran out to the street to hail the police as the burglars fled.

A girl saw two men leave the store by the back door and go toward the river. She could not determine if they'd gotten into a boat or had waded into the river itself. Another woman saw three men go into the river. The sheriff knew that either they'd find another body, or someone who had committed this crime was still alive. If that was true, he wanted to find him.

In the excitement and the rush to find a doctor, several men rushed past a man walking out of town. Little did they know that they had nearly touched the person who was about to make this botched burglary one of the most famous crimes in the nation.

Even as law officers arrested the usual suspects from around town, having not yet found the bodies in the river, this man was followed as he wandered away. Since he was a stranger, several young men went after him, but he jumped in front of a train to try to lose them. He didn't get far. They cornered him and forced him to accompany them back to town, placing him in jail with two other suspects. He'd tried to ruin his clothing, as if to hide evidence, but his shirtfront appeared to have blood on it.

When the drowned men were arranged, each suspect was taken to view them. All claimed not to know these men, and there was nothing in their behavior to indicate deception. The stranger in particular was composed when he looked at the corpses from several angles, and gave his name to a grand jury as Charles Augustus. But then he changed it to George Williams — suspicious but not a clear link to a murder. He claimed, according to one reporter, to have been practicing law and gave his age as 52. There was no reason to detain him, not even when a man recognized him as Edward Rulloff, recalling that he'd once been accused of murdering his wife and child.

Rulloff admitted to his identity, but added another slick lie: he'd pretended to be someone else because he knew that in this part of the state, having accidentally been in town when a murder occurred, he figured he'd become a suspect. Thus, he was free to go...for the moment.

The Third Thief

The next step was to ascertain the identities of the burglars. The detectives prepared to track down various items taken from the burglars' pockets that might provide leads. Bailey lists them: "six keys, a letter to one Henry Wilson, and a scrap of paper with the name and address of William Thornton, an attorney in Brooklyn."

In addition, one burglar had a peculiar booklet in his pocket called Napoleon's Oraculum, or Book of Fate. It offered a method for answering questions about one's future via channeling an unknown source of energy through a series of dots and lines. Reportedly, Napoleon had consulted it religiously, attributing his success to its guidance. The book was found in his "Cabinet of Curiosities" after his 1813 defeat at Leipzig. Reportedly, a French expedition had removed it from the tomb of a pharaoh in 1801, and after it was translated, Napoleon had relied on it to predict the success or failure of his future ventures. It had been copied, and this book from the burglar's pocket was itself a well-used copy.

But there was another item that had been left behind in the cellar of Halberts' store, which turned out to be of more interest than initially believed: a pair of men's Oxfords that seemed specially made and utilized for a deformed left foot. Halbert did not recognize them, so they offered potential for matching to a suspect. But the drowned burglars' feet were normal and intact. The shoes did not belong to them (although the sheriff later admitted he'd not tried them on the feet of the deceased).

After Rulloff had already left, someone else recalled an odd thing about him: the man was missing his big toe, and had several odd protuberances on his feet. These shoes looked like a good fit for such anomalies. A deputy took off to find him and managed to locate him walking quickly down the road, as if in a hurry to put a lot of distance between himself and Binghamton.

He was brought back to town, and like Cinderella, was made to try on the shoe. The pair fit him. However, it was a single circumstance that proved insufficient to support a murder charge. It looked as if, once again, they'd have to let him go.

But there was one more item: Rulloff had a train ticket in his pocket to Batavia, as had the two dead men, but that, too, could be mere coincidence. It wasn't that courts in those days shied away from a totality of circumstances — in fact, they made most cases with this method — but two items was a far cry from making a murder rap stick. The detectives figured that once they knew who the drowned burglars were, they'd have a better means for learning whether they had an association with Rulloff. They weren't about to let him move on just yet.

On the Trail

The detectives also figured that Brooklyn-based attorney, William Thornton, was an obvious choice for a first meeting, and they were right. He looked at the photograph the investigators had of the dead burglars and identified one as Billy Dexter. He did not know the other man but offered Dexter's address. There, a woman affirmed Dexter's identification and offered an associate's name, Edward Howard. She identified this man from a photo the detectives had of Rulloff. That was their first link between the two men.

They found where Rulloff had lived and used a key from his effects to open the door. This proved to yield a wealth of circumstantial information, from burglary tools to items tied to the two burglars. The detectives even picked up a manuscript that Rulloff had been working on, according to people who knew him (which itself would become part of the case), and they identified the other burglar, Albert Jarvis.

It turned out that Jarvis had been a boy, the son of a jailer, when he'd first met Rulloff, who was then in prison. Apparently, they'd struck up a friendship, which led to an association in later years that had eventually led to the boy's sad demise. He'd accepted the schemes that Rulloff had laid out for bettering oneself in life, and since Rulloff was an intelligent and impressive man, he'd easily led the young man into a life of crime.

Once these associations were made, Rulloff's status changed dramatically. By now, his past was coming to light. It wasn't a stretch to believe that not only was he the mastermind of the botched burglary, but he'd probably killed the young clerk himself. Many people believed it was not the first time he'd killed, but in the earlier incidents, he'd gotten away with it. They intended to make sure that this time would be different: he was going to pay with his life. DA Peter Hopkins prepared his case. He started with Rulloff's sinister background.

Who Was Rulloff?

John Edward Howard Rulloff had long sought to be famous, but not for the deeds that eventually propelled him to it. Born into a family in which his brothers had both gone off to find their fortunes, he wallowed in poverty as he spent long hours putting together what he believed would be the most important book for humankind, Method in the Formation of Language. He taught himself a number of different languages, with varying degrees of facility, in order to get to the origin of all thinking and communication, because he believed that knowledge of the way language had begun offered primal information about who and what human beings fundamentally were. That he was a scholar, no one had any doubt, given his long hours immersed in books. That he was as fully learned as he presented himself would become controversial. But that would only become a concern toward the end of the case. Let's return to its beginning.

Rulof Rulofson, the family patriarch, had settled in a German community in New Jersey, then had gone to Nova Scotia. He was the grandfather of John Edward Howard Rulofson, who would use many different names over the course of his life. Born in 1821, Rulloff was the eldest of three brothers, and by manhood sported a full beard. He had a way of charming people with a gentle manner and most who met him were impressed with his apparent intelligence. Whenever he used his real name, he preferred Edward, but he changed the last name to Rulloff.

He endeavored to train himself in many subjects, practicing (badly) as a physician, an investor, and a teacher. He even tried his hand at the primitive form of psychology, used during the early nineteenth century, known as phrenology. Little did he know it would one day be turned on him as an exemplar of a certain type.

With the rise of modern science and the emphasis on natural law and material substance, the appraisal of human character from external appearances had become a fashion by the mid-nineteenth century. Phrenology involved examining the bumps or depressions on a person's skull to determine how the different areas of the brain were functioning. The brain was considered dividable into thirty-five different organs, each associated with such traits as "cautiousness" and "adhesiveness," and the larger the organ, the more pronounced the trait was believed to be. Theorists believed a child could overcome a disposition toward delinquency and later criminal conduct by strengthening those brain organs that controlled the desirable traits.

More importantly, Rulloff styled himself as a philologist, a new discipline during his day, in which learned men studied the structure and organization of language, particularly word origins and their commonalities across different languages. He pushed himself day and night to learn Latin and Greek, looking for codes that would reveal just what language means. He compiled Method in the Formation of Language and offered it for sale for half a million dollars, believing it would make him one of the most famous and brilliant men of all time. That was the measure of his arrogance and false sense of self-worth. In fact, he liked to present himself as a person to whom these things came naturally and used every opportunity to let loose a phrase or literary name that would impress a new acquaintance. But there were no offers on his book.

Why financial success eluded Ruloff seemed, to him, a mystery. Perhaps it was because he saddled himself with a family, which not only became a burden but also caused the incident that would attach to his name more surely than his facility with language...not to mention that he also became a petty thief.

Criminal Career

As a young man, Rulloff had served as a clerk in a dry-goods store, but there were apparent thefts on the record and several fires. When Rulloff appeared in a new suit, he ended up with his first jail sentence. Upon release, he adopted an alias and went out into the world again. He'd not learned his lesson. Instead, he became craftier. After traveling around, he came to the home of Will Schutt in Dryden, New York, and in 1943 married Will's sister, Harriet. But Rulloff was a jealous man and was immediately suspicious that his wife preferred another man with whom she'd been acquainted. On occasion, Rulloff was seen to beat Harriett, but she did not complain. They had a daughter, Priscilla, in 1845, but that did not help the situation. Rulloff proved a hard man to get along with.

In May, Will's wife, Amelia, and his infant daughter grew ill. Since he knew that Rulloff had some rudimentary knowledge of medicine and herbs, he asked for assistance. Rulloff attended to both. They remained ill and in June, the baby finally expired, followed soon after by her mother. Since Rulloff had spoken darkly of his grudge against Will, some people believe that he poisoned both of the deceased in retaliation. Will was heartbroken over his loss but did not suspect that the demise of his family was anything more than the common maladies that struck many women and infants during and after giving birth. These two just hadn't been strong enough for the brutal winter in upper New York State.

That same month, however, only about two weeks after the grim double funeral, Rulloff's own wife and daughter disappeared. The last sighting of Harriet was on June 23, when she borrowed soap from a neighbor. She had said nothing at that time about going away. Also, a young girl was in the home with Harriet and Priscilla later that day, and she, too, reported that there'd been no hint of an impending journey.

During the evening, there was activity in the Rulloff home. Apparently, Rulloff and Harriet had an argument over their future plans, with Rulloff wanting to go west to seek a better job opportunity and Harriett desiring to remain close to her family. Rulloff's own version, given to Ham Freeman years later, was that they argued over the baby and in the heat of the moment, Rulloff grabbed a pestle that he used to crush medicines and struck her in the head. He apparently cracked her skull and she fell to the floor. He tried to revive her, he claimed, and dress the wound, but she remained senseless and expired some time during the night. Rulloff never told anyone what had happened to his daughter, aside from giving her a narcotic to stop her from crying. Both simply vanished and he gave out various stories about Harriett leaving on her own.

Although Rulloff claims he then contemplated killing himself, he apparently thought better of it. Instead, he borrowed a neighbor's horse and cart, and placed the bodies in a large chest. (He only alluded to Harriet's body in his tale, but the baby had vanished as well, so it's probable that he had killed the child and placed her with her dead mother. By another account, an acquaintance of Rulloff's said that Rulloff had admitted strangling Harriet and smothering Priscilla, but by then Rulloff was a celebrity prisoner and anyone could have made up an account in order to claim some celebrity-by-proxy.) With assistance from others, Rulloff placed the chest on the cart and left. He came back the following day, returned the horse and said nothing. He then set out, with his books and manuscript, for what he called an extended trip.

A month later, curious parties decided to enter the home, and they found evidence of an unprepared departure, uncharacteristic of Harriet. The skirt she'd worn on the last day anyone had seen her lay on the floor. Still, it was another month before an investigation was launched. No one knew where Rulloff was, and by that time, he was somewhere — and someone — else.

Not a Man of his Times

It was the age of psychiatric study of the criminal, and medical men looked more earnestly for ways to recognize killers before they launched their deadly careers. Cesare Lombroso, a professor at Turin in Italy, was at work on the cases he would present in 1876 in L'uomo delinquente, summing up anthropological ideas from the preceding decades. He had made numerous measurements and studied many photographs of criminal offenders, looking for ways to classify them with objective tests. He was convinced from his extensive studies that certain people were born criminals and could be identified by specific physical traits: for example, bulging or sloping brow, apelike nose, close-set eyes, large jaws, and disproportionately long arms. In other words, delinquency was a physiological abnormality that could be observed in someone's simian appearance. The police, it was suggested by those who reported this work, could make arrests more accurately if they learned to spot the right traits.

Lombroso's ideas spread across Europe and America, supported by the new evolutionary thinking, and sometimes a defendant's presentation alone could be a factor in a criminal conviction.

In those days, not much was known about psychopaths, or those people who broke the social contract for their own gain without remorse. Such people made others feel vaguely uneasy and precipitated ongoing discussions among alienists about "dangerousness" and homicidal insanity. (One even suggested that the brain contained an "organ of murder.") People without remorse, yet with their reasoning skills apparently intact, weren't exactly mentally defective, but something human seemed to be lacking.

In 1809, Philippe Pinel had introduced the label "mania without delirium," and more than two decades later, British physician James Prichard called it "moral insanity," to indicate that one's faculty for moral behavior and reasoning had been affected. He believed illness or trauma caused it. In 1881, German psychiatrist J.L. Koch introduced "constitutional psychopathic inferiority," which covered a multitude of disorders but emphasized the loss or impairment of the power of "self-government," and four years later William Stead called such people "psychopaths"— someone to whom nothing is sacred. It would be another half century before psychology crystallized the disorder for practical purposes. So they struggled to make sense of someone like Rulloff.

Rulloff Returns

Because of Rulloff's sudden absence, his neighbors began to suspect he might have done away with his wife and child. They talked of forming a posse to go after him, but then Rulloff came back to town, acting as if everything was normal. When asked about Harriet, he said she was in the lake region. He was surprised to learn that people were talking openly about him as a murderer. He then went to stay with his inlaws, assuring them that all was well, but this time he said that he'd moved his small family to Ohio.

Not everyone was willing to accept his story, and one of Harriet's brothers insisted that Rulloff take him to see her. He agreed to write her a letter, but when Rulloff subsequently disappeared, he was located again and forced to take a journey. He clearly was not happy about this arrangement, and once they reached Ohio, Rulloff slipped away again. A warrant was issued for his arrest. He was found, returned to Ithaca, and locked into a cell. Officials, now convinced of Harriet's demise, issued a reward for the discovery of the bodies. The DA prepared to prosecute Rulloff.

His trial began early in 1846, but there were no bodies available to prove murder, despite an attempt to find them in Lake Cayuga. Since it could not be proven that they had been killed, their disappearance seemed sufficient grounds for a lesser charge: abduction, focusing on Harriet. Rulloff, with a grasp of legal issues, fought tooth and nail to be freed before the case got into court. He failed in this and had to listen as a case was made against him. He couldn't prove otherwise, and could only argue a lack of evidence. He directed his defense counsel on what to do, but some of the jurors had already decided that Rulloff should be imprisoned for something, even if not for murder. They convicted him and he was sentenced to ten years in Auburn Prison.

That decade was no pleasant experience, but as usual, Rulloff put the time to good use, learning skills and areas of knowledge that would assist in his cons, once released. In addition, he took up a correspondence with an educated man. Those who knew Ruloff noted a rigid temperament, ready to retaliate over minor quibbles but generally willing to follow the rules and apply himself to required tasks. He educated himself more fully and formed ideas for his future.

Yet even a decade of incarceration did little to mitigate the anger of those who intended to see Rulloff hang for murder. The search for the bodies of Harriet and Priscilla continued. On the day Rulloff expected to be released in 1856, another warrant was issued for him on suspicion of the murder of his wife. He went with the sheriff to Ithaca. There, DA John A. Williams listened to Rulloff argue that this was a form of double jeopardy; Williams dropped the charges. However, the public reaction was so strong that Williams drew up another indictment, on the murder of Priscilla. Rulloff insisted he was not guilty, and his attorneys' request for a change of venue was granted. The trial was set to start in Owego, in Tioga County, New York.

Priscilla's Avengers

While Rulloff had been in prison, Bailey recounts, the authorities had been busy gathering whatever evidence they could. This included tracking his movements as much as possible after he'd left the home he'd shared with his wife and daughter. The trunks he'd been seen to take with him had ended up in Chicago, and the people who had kept them against a debt Rulloff owed provided the contents. This included clothing for a baby.

In addition, there was psychological evidence, although few people realized at the time that this was what they were utilizing. Rulloff's lies, evasions, conflicting stories, aliases and strange behavior all counted against him. However, the fact that he'd returned to town as if nothing was amiss was in his favor. Still, he'd been unable to prove that his wife and child were alive and living where he claimed they were living. Nor was there any other evidence from the past decade that they were alive. (In an age of no credit cards, this "evidence of absence" was more difficult to prove.)

The case went to trial before a jury of people who had long heard the stories of the wife killer. The judge cautioned them that a person's disappearance was not sufficient evidence to believe he or she had been murdered. Possibly, they had packed up and left Rulloff themselves, offering no means of finding them. Indeed, Rulloff's attorney used this fine point of law to defend his client. But it was a weak defense, so it was no surprise when Rulloff was convicted. But he knew well enough that the case was sufficiently complex on certain legal issues that he could appeal, and he did.

The panel of judges looked into the matter of whether someone could be convicted of murder when there was no body — a legal stickler even these days. Daniel Dickenson, the prosecutor, argued that circumstantial evidence was convincing even without a body. While the judges debated this, Rulloff went back to prison. There, he learned that the legal minds had decided in favor of the guilty verdict: Rulloff should remain in prison to await sentencing.

During this time, he made the acquaintance of the boy who would become a significant player in his future: Albert Jarvis, the son of the undersheriff. Jarvis was sixteen years old and his parents saw no problem with having this prisoner tutor their boy in the ancient languages of Latin and Greek. Rulloff was, after all, a scholar, even if he was also a murderer. The murders had been situation-specific, not likely to influence his behavior with their son. They clearly underestimated the wiles of a psychopathic predator.

If the law was not on his side, Rulloff had other ways to get what he wanted, and he spent many hours with the impressionable boy who would come to regard him as a father figure. He'd also found a means to flatter the father (writing his biography) and to gain the mother's sympathy; she could not bring herself to believe that such a nice man had murdered anyone, and there was talk that she fell in love with him. When Rulloff escaped in the spring of 1857, it seemed fairly clear from the difficulty of such a feat — getting past eight locks and a chain around his ankle — that he'd had inside help.

On the Lam

A $500 reward was issued at once for Rulloff's apprehension. What he'd worn was fully described on a handbill, which was distributed around the county. From these, people found out that the "learned murderer" was about five-foot-ten, 180 pounds, with a thick neck and large head. Police warned that he might be disguised. A reporter from a local newspaper stated that a visitor to the jail had given Rulloff a large sum of money. Al Jarvis confirmed the story about a stranger who had visited and asked a lot of questions about Rulloff. Al's father was fired and replaced, and when a locksmith demonstrated how easy it was to pick the locks at the jail, they were all changed.

Rumors abounded and Rulloff remained free, so the reward was upped to $1,250. Al was indicted for assisting Rulloff's departure. Rulloff himself found a way to remain free via a series of quick robberies. Yet he made a mistake: under a false name, he had his photograph taken and was soon identified as the fugitive. This image made its way to different people who'd been robbed, providing a means for mapping Rulloff's movements. It turned out, he wasn't far from Ithaca.

Yet he soon went west, into Ohio, and word of the reward followed him. A farmer put two and two together and took several men, including a constable, with him to capture Rulloff. They surprised him, and he attempted to persuade them of their error, but they were having none of his smooth talk. They wanted the money. To their minds, it was better to take in an innocent man and learn they were mistaken than to let a guilty man go free. Rulloff struggled against them, but they overpowered him, taking him to the sheriff in Ithaca. Identified as their man, he went back into his former cell, now with more secure locks.

Given the difficulty of trying him for a case in which there was no corpse, the prosecutor decided to pursue another case in which suspicions against Rulloff had been raised: the deaths of his sister-in-law and her baby. Will Schutt was only too eager to provide any assistance he could in this matter. But this case, too, would prove difficult.

The prosecutor looked to a precedent-setting case out of New York City for which Bailey provides details: A man accused of poisoning his wife a year earlier was tried for it after she was exhumed and her body tested positive for arsenic. The man was convicted and executed.

So Amelia Schutt's remains were exhumed and examined. Copper deposits were found in the tissues, and it was determined that this foreign substance had been introduced into her system. Yet the investigation essentially came to nothing, and, aside from rumor and suspicion, these deaths were never attributed to Rulloff.

In the meantime, he was sentenced to hang for the crime for which he'd been convicted before his escape, opening the way for an appeal. Attorney Francis M. Finch took up his case.

Appellate Strategy

The phrenologists who studied Rulloff's head from afar, as they liked to do in those days of "armchair phrenology," believed that a head of the size of his harbored significant intelligence. There was little dispute on that score at the moment, and his "winning" manner made more than a few doubt his guilt. But those who knew him believed otherwise.

In an ironic twist, Finch went before the justices to argue that circumstantial evidence was indeed legally sufficient to convict someone, even if there was no body, but added that the mere absence of a person did not prove a criminal deed. The justice conceded that in order to hang someone, there should be unequivocal proof. As 1859 opened, a new trial was ordered for Rulloff. But the prosecutor knew there was little of hope of a different outcome, since he had no new evidence. Subsequently, a lynch mob began to form and Rulloff was moved to Auburn. Eventually, with Finch's legal assistance, he was free again and he looked around for employment. But then Al Jarvis came at him with the need for money to support himself and his mother.

Rulloff had moved to Pittsburgh, where he claimed to be a scholar from Oxford in order to secure a teaching job, but it wasn't long before he returned to New York to assist Jarvis. They formed a fatal friendship, built on petty crime and the idea of easy self-enrichment. Under another name, Rulloff spent another two years in jail for burglary. There he met an incarcerated burglar, William T. Dexter, a.k.a., Billy. When both emerged from prison, they joined with Jarvis to make a criminal trio. Billy and Al were both in their early twenties and they looked to Rulloff's age, experience and intelligence to form the right plans. They moved through various schemes, at times serving short stints in jail. Then Al Jarvis targeted Halberts' in Binghamton as a viable target for theft. He invited Rulloff to see the place for himself, and Ruloff agreed that they should take the plunder.

Instead, it turned into a fiasco, in which three people died and Rulloff was left to take the heat. Indeed, with his past background of slipping out of the noose for a crime that shocked the community, it was clear that everything would be done to ensure that no technicalities sprang him this time. The DA, now Peter Hopkins, prepared for what would be viewed by many as the trial of the century.

Rulloff's Trial

Rulloff's wealthy brother hired George Becker to take up his defense, and Becker teamed up with Charles L. Beale. The strategy was to first question whether Rulloff had even been in town during the incident, and second, to indicate that any shooting he might have done was to save Jarvis from Merrick's vicious attack. To fund his defense, Rulloff proposed to write an autobiography, believing it would be a bestseller, but his brother offered to pay.

The trial began on January 4, 1871, and was covered fully by the New York Times, as well as the area's local papers. Reporters noted each day that there were far too many people in the room than should be: some 2,000 in a space built for half that many. Clearly, the Rulloff legend had spread far and wide.

Rulloff, known also by "Seurio" (Times) or "Leurio" (Bailey) was charged with burglary and first-degree murder. The press made much of his suspicious demeanor and crafty eyes. By this time, sensational trials drew reporters from out of town, and even from overseas. Because of Rulloff's apparent intelligence — even genius — he defied the criminal stereotype and thus engendered a great deal of curiosity. Besides news, the case spawned many commentaries as well, even after it was settled. Many people conjectured that a genius could not also be a murderer.

The case was this: Dexter, Jarvis, and Rulloff had entered the store, and one of them had shot Merrick, killing him. Jarvis and Dexter then drowned while trying to escape. Hopkins claimed to have definitive proof that Rulloff was there, and he offered Rulloff's shoe as evidence. In addition, he had a clipped newspaper found in a bag cast aside during the escape that exactly matched a newsprint clipping found in Rulloff's rooms.

Gilbert Burrows recounted his experience during the incident before the court, and Rulloff asked questions to try to shake his confidence in his identification of the third burglar. Burrows insisted he got a good look and Rulloff was the man. He had no trouble remembering.

Next was a handwriting analysis, to connect Rulloff to one of the two dead burglars, via a note found in the drowned man's pocket. His massive hand-written tome came into evidence and Rulloff insisted that the work he'd put into it proved he was not spending his time in petty robbery. No one listened. Instead, they continued with the identifications of the two drowned men and their association with Rulloff. Despite his attorney's attempt to say that evidence could have been planted in Rulloff's room, Rulloff had little advantage. The judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence of complicity among the three men to accept that Rulloff had been part of the fatal incident. Now it remained to be proven that he was the shooter.

Rulloff's defense was that he had informed Merrick that they would not hurt him, but the young clerk had attacked so ferociously that he'd had to do something. In fact, Merrick, he said, had tried to shoot him at close range. Merrick then grabbed Jarvis and would not release him. The shooting was a matter of self-defense and defending a friend; Rulloff also said that it was actually Jarvis who'd shot Merrick, but given the position he was in, that seemed highly unlikely to anyone listening.

The night had then ended with the burglars fleeing the store and drowning in the river. (Rulloff would later say that Jarvis had assured them the river was shallow and they could cross it. They had entered, but the water was soon deep, and Jarvis, who was injured, and Dexter, who could not swim, were carried away. Many would doubt this tale, believing that Rulloff had persuaded them to enter the water so as to be rid of them as witnesses to the shooting.)

Rulloff called no character or alibi witnesses on his own behalf, and both sides summarized their cases, with the defense giving a largely emotional appeal. The jury was out only four and a half hours, taking several votes before the members made their decision. Upon returning to the courtroom, the jury's foreman pronounced Rulloff guilty of first-degree murder. The judge asked Rulloff if there was any reason not to pronounce a sentence of death, and Rulloff said he'd rather not speak at present. He was thus sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871. But that was far from the end of this case.

The Learned Murderer

Once ensconced in his cell again, Rulloff continued to be an object of great curiosity. While considered monstrous, he was also unique for his intellectual abilities, and many scholars wished to engage in a correspondence with him. It was a foregone conclusion, more or less, that he'd killed his wife and daughter, and many suspected that he'd also killed his sister-in-law and her child. In addition, there was talk that the dead burglars were among his victim toll, although his only official victim was Merrick, the clerk. Rulloff's fame grew, day by day, until he reached celebrity status. Many people were curious about his so-called theory of language. People came to just look at him, thinking him more than just a common murderer, and he played to this by writing, reading, and looking through books as if he couldn't be bothered with anything else.

Even as the sheriff printed special invitations to the hanging, Rulloff was busy explaining his ideas to correspondents. Thus, certain intellectuals raised the question of whether Rulloff shouldn't rather be studied than hanged. Some scholars pronounced him a fraud, able to say just the right Latin phrase or refer to some bit of minutia, but put to the test, Rulloff was no more than a clever con man. In a New York Times commentary from 1871, the author said that Rulloff's letter to the Binghamton Leader was "a most unique mixture of acuteness, erudition, pure nonsense, and pretentious impudence" which ignored the fundamental principles of science. He was described as either a deliberate charlatan or a hopeless monomaniac. Yet others who spent time with him found him to be quite well-versed in many areas, as well as highly skilled. Many sent him books to read or dictionaries to use and more than a few insisted that he was an accomplished scholar of languages.

Rulloff wrote letters to inquiring scholars and with interest followed the debates over whether he should be executed or studied. He also submitted to several interviews, although he feared how journalists would ultimately portray him. In one interview, he offered what would become both a signature phrase and a mystery: " cannot kill an unquiet spirit." He swore that people would still sense his presence in the streets and in their rooms. He would come as a chill in the night to remind people that they had wrongly killed him.

The sheriff continued to remind Rulloff that, with his appeals denied, he was going to die: He ought to make plans for the final disposition of his remains. But Rulloff dismissed this necessity by telling the sheriff he could do whatever he wanted with the body. (He would later change his mind about that.)

Rulloff began destroying all that he had written while in the cell, but his manuscript remained safely beyond his reach in a bank vault. His guards were careful to watch for suicidal behavior, and time passed quickly. Rulloff mentioned to his attorney that he was a martyr to the cause of science and believed himself a wronged man. Finally, the day of the execution arrived.

Impatient to the End

On May 18, 1871, Rulloff was taken to the gallows. It was a fine spring day, drawing people from all over. Rulloff was suddenly concerned about what might happened to his body and he requested that it be locked into a vault until his brother came to claim it.

There are several stories about his last moments, and apparently each journalist told it as he pleased. Bailey relates the following: As guards watched to ensure that Rulloff did not commit suicide and rob them of the spectacle, several reporters came to bid Rulloff good-bye (one of whom, Ham, failed to provide him a lancet or morphine that he'd requested). He apparently hoped that the governor would issue a last-minute pardon, but that didn't happen. His brother also did not show up.

On the gallows, say several sources, he urged the hangman to "hurry it up. I want to be in Hell in time for dinner." However, Bailey truncates this by reporting that he simply grew impatient over inexplicable delays and wanted to just get it over with. He apparently stated that he had "nothing at all" to say.

The hangman pulled a white cap over Rulloff's head and face, then tested the rope. In short succession, Rulloff was raised up with a quick snap. He struggled for breath for several minutes, putting one hand out of and back into a pocket, and his heart beat for over twenty minutes before he finally died. His neck had never broken as it was supposed to do, so he had been strangled to death. He died at 11:40 A.M. It was the last public hanging in the state of New York.

Oddly enough, an article appeared in the Times, reporting that Rulloff's daughter had been found and was alive and well. She was being raised by Rulloff's brother in Pennsylvania, was 25 years old (the right age), had received many gifts from Rulloff over the years, and was running a hotel in Parker's Landing. She believed Rulloff was her uncle, but there was talk in her county that she was actually the missing child. Her name was not revealed.

Rulloff's Brain

Rulloff had been correct when he'd anticipated interest in his body. Many people wanted to claim it. One man made a death mask to display at his art gallery. Then the body was placed on public display for all the curious to see. Rulloff's brother never showed up, says Bailey, so Dr. George Burr was given the body for the Geneva Medical College. He would bury the remains, he said, but he wanted the skull and brain. His hope was that, with science, they would yield something about Rulloff's criminal disposition via measurements of the gray matter and/or the cranium structure.

Burr did have the body interred in a cemetery, but medical students dug it up again (it was later found in a potter's field). Then Burr went on a lecture circuit to discuss how he'd found Rulloff to be a criminal type, stretching the facts to fit his theory, as the brain was closer in size to that of many geniuses. It brain weighed over 59 ounces, heavier than most adult male brains.

It eventually came into the hands, according to Cornell University's Chronicleonline, of Burt Green Wilder, a former Civil War surgeon who became an animal biologist at Cornell. He launched a collection of human brains in 1889, so as to learn if the differences in size, shape, chemistry, or weight could account for certain behaviors or personality types, including the mentally ill. At its peak, the collection had some 600 specimens. Eventually many were tossed out, but Rulloff's brain remains part of the reduced collection to this day, pickled in formalin in a glass jar.

The Eatery

At 411 College Avenue in Ithaca, New York, stands a pub named for Rulloff. They use his likeness and offer his history as the "learned murderer." Despite some doubt over his actual scholarly abilities, the eatery's Web site touts Rulloff as possessing the skills of a physician, lawyer, scholar, draughtsman and carpenter. They also claim that he spoke 28 languages and dialects, although he didn't satisfy other learned men about this claim. His theory about language was not well received, nor did most people who knew him consider him to be "mannerly." The restaurant's Web site puts a brighter sheen on his character than comes across in Bailey's book or Crapsey's New York Times articles. Nevertheless, it's clear that Rulloff was an unusual man, and while he's been more or less forgotten, he certainly merits a place among the more complex serial killers in America.



MO: "Herb healer" who killed patients (including his wife and daughter), selling bodies for dissection; also killed male burglary victim

DISPOSITION: Hanged on one count, May 1871.



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