The Life and Madness of Edward H. Rulloff

7 May 2011
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The brain of Ithaca genius / murderer Edward Rulloff on display in the Uris Hall brain collection.

Edward H. Rulloff's Brain, on Display at Uris Hall, Cornell University

Visitors to Cornell University’s psychology department would be hard pressed to overlook the eight pickled brains, preserved in heavy glass jars, which are proudly showcased on the second floor of Uris Hall. A small sample of the 122 specimens in the university’s Wilder Brain Collection, each belongs to a notable scholar or learned individual whose think-meat was once deemed worthy of anatomical examination. One of these brains, however, is not like the others. If the brain of Edward H. Rulloff, a.k.a. Professor Leurio, were able to come alive, glowing and pulsating as it issued angry, murderous commands to you from inside your head, it would.

Rulloff was a criminal genius who left no question of how he should like to be remembered. One week prior his execution in May of 1871, he had this to say:

…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of the night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.

Rulloff was a murderer and a thief whose savant-like intelligence and erudition have invited comparison to Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. He committed robberies throughout his life in order to fund his grandiose research into the science of philology; an obsession that may have had unrecognized origins in a deep-seated sense of remorse.

Binghamton journalist E. H. Freeman was Rulloff’s jail-house confessor. His 1871 biography, The Veil of Secrecy Removed, recounts much of Rulloff’s story in his own words. It is the story of a long and ignominious criminal career that begins in Dryden, NY, where Rulloff established himself as a botanical physician, and married a seventeen year old pupil named Harriet Schutt.

An Unhappy Marriage

“Well, I married Harriet,” he recounted. “There never was much of any courtship or love about it. We rather slid into it. It was a short marrying in haste to repent at leisure. Some of the family tried to kick up a hell of a row about it, and that made me angry with the whole concern, and I have never forgiven their taunts and insults, both behind my back, and to my face. They called me a pauper, and made fun of my awkward manners. I knew I was better than they, and that my family was far superior.”

Rulloff was a jealous and possessive husband. The principal object of his jealousy was Harriet’s cousin, Dr. Bull. One day, he caught them kissing in the pantry. His response was not exactly rational.

“I resolved to put an end to her existence and mine,” he said. He took her aside and produced a vial of poison, demanding that she swallow it. He recalled to her how he had treated her brother’s wife and child, and how they had both died shortly after swallowing his concoction. He revealed to her that he had actually poisoned them, that it has been his revenge, and now he would poison Harriet and they would die together! When Harriet began screaming for help, however, he was forced to calm her down with assurances that he had only just been joking. Heh. Heh, heh.

In spite of his charming sense of humor, Rulloff was never able to fully regain the confidence of his wife. Convinced that her relatives were prejudicing her against him, he removed with her five miles away to Lansing. Here they successfully kept up appearances while Harriet gave birth to a baby daughter.

Then, one day in June, 1845, the couple began arguing over Rulloff’s proposal that they move to Ohio, where he could pursue a career as a lawyer or college professor. Harriet was understandably reluctant to further isolate herself from her family and vowed instead to take the baby and return home. When jealous insinuations were made about Dr. Bull, Harriet stood her ground, and Rulloff’s temper flared. He picked up a pestle clubbed her on the head, shattering her skull. Harriet fell to the floor, the baby in her arms, and died.

It was a long night for Rulloff, who instantly realized the implications of what he had done. He made preparations for suicide, but by the time morning came, he had found himself unable to work up the nerve to end his own life, and so instead he beat a clumsy retreat.

Edward H. Rulloff

At around eleven o’clock he called upon his neighbors, the Robertsons, to lend him a horse and wagon under the pretense of returning a wooden chest to his uncle at Mott’s Corners. As the chest was being loaded, Rulloff reportedly went into his house for a “flour sack or pillow case half full of something, and put that also into the wagon.” He was then witnessed traveling not in the direction of his uncle’s house, but toward Cayuga Lake, and when he returned, he still had the chest with him. He then informed Mrs. Robertson that he and his wife would be out of town for a couple weeks, and promptly fled to west, leaving his house in conspicuous disarray.

Rulloff made his getaway only to return home days later amid rumors that he had murdered his family. Tormented by his conscience, he had intended to render a confession, but when his hated in-laws began to question him, his pride kicked in and he once again fled. This time he was followed west by Ephriam Schutt, who tracked him down and carried him back to Ithaca in irons, where a bloodthirsty public had to be held at bay while he was imprisoned.

In spite of an expensive search effort, no bodies were ever recovered from Cayuga Lake. With no confession and no corpus deliciti upon which to rest a murder case, the grand jury was forced to instead indict Rulloff upon lesser a charge of abduction. He was convicted before a crowded court room and sentenced to ten years’ hard labor at Auburn State Prison.

Rulloff never confessed to the killing of his infant daughter, hinting instead that he had made certain discrete provisions for her. Indeed, Freeman raises the possibility that she was raised by relatives under an assumed identity, but it may simply be the case that Rulloff was too ashamed to admit to having killed a baby girl.

The Great Secret in Philology

A confirmed atheist, Rulloff did not find Jesus in prison, but he did have a conversion experience, of sorts. Locked in his dreary cell, he passed his time dwelling upon the science of philology; his great scholarly passion. One night, in a flash of inspiration, a glorious insight was revealed to him. It was, in his words, “the grandest discovery of this or any other age.”

Rulloff observed that languages evolved over time in fairly systematic, predictable ways. This, in his mind, could never happen on its own. Long ago, a class of priests or wise men had developed a method for the formation of languages; inventing letters, sounds, and grammars, and handing them down from on high as the progress of civilization demanded. The secret of this method had been lost to humanity during the Dark Ages, but at long last Rulloff was recovering it, discerning its patterns and mechanics by comparison of the countless languages he spoke with fluency. As Freeman puts it, it was as though “some bright angel whispered to him…the talisman of his fame and future…by which, in the great good he could thereby render the world…mankind would forget and forgive his sins.”

Had Rulloff been a humble professor, emotionally detached from his work and intellectually grounded by his fellow scholars, he might well have made real contributions to his field. Instead, he became a textbook crank, intoxicated with grandiose notions of his own self-worth. In “The Great Secret in Philology” he saw nothing less than the key to his redemption, and he clung to it jealously.

The Outlaw

Rulloff looked forward to quietly pursuing his philological inquiries at the end of his prison term, but his crimes would not be forgotten so easily. He was in the warden’s office fully expecting to be discharged when he was greeted by none other than the sheriff of Tompkins County, who re-arrested him on the charge of murdering his wife. Harriet had failed to materialize during the ten years Rulloff had spent in prison, and it was thought that the courts would now presume her dead, body or no.

A legal battle ensued while Rulloff was confined to jail in Ithaca, NY, where he was allowed to teach classes, receiving students in his cell. One of his students was sixteen year-old Albert Jarvis, the son of the jailor. Rulloff taught him Latin and German, and was kind to Jarvis’s mother; an amiable woman who showed him compassion. Jarvis’s father, by contrast, frequently beat his wife and brandished pistols about, threatening to kill her. Jarvis found a father figure in Rulloff, and Rulloff a young protégé in the son of his jailor. Thus is happened that ane winter day in 1858, the bolts of his prison were drawn, and Rulloff disappeared.

“The officers of the law were constantly on my track,” Rulloff related. “I lived by foraging upon the farmers, and upon beach nuts. I lived like a beast, and I fear that I became almost one.” Exposed to extreme low temperatures, he lost two of his toes to frostbite—a Mephistophelian injury which had the unfortunate effect of rendering him more identifiable to the police.

In spite of his early deprivations, Rulloff was able to survive on the lam by making use of his evil genius skills. One day he arrived at the office of Meadville, PA in inventor A.B. Richmond. Presenting himself as “James Nelson,” he was able to talk his way into a business partnership by demonstrating his broad scientific knowledge:

We went into the collection room, and first came to a case containing marine shells. The shells had been laying on cards, and some visitors, who had been examining them had transposed some. He immediately stopped and called my attention to the fact, saying, ‘Mr. Richmond, that is certainly not correct. The shelf is not correctly labeled. That shell is surely not Spondyius Spinosus, but is the Argonauti Argo,’ I discovered the mistake, perceiving how the mistake had occurred. Of course I was very much astonished to find that he should know anything about them, but I found, upon further conversation, that he was perfectly familiar with the science of Conchology, and also equally well acquainted with the science of Mineralogy. My astonishment increased when, a little further along, he picked up the skull of an Indian that had been found on a Western battlefield, and remarked, ‘Ah! that man received a terrible blow upon the right parietal bone. See, it has fractured the temporal bone and zygomatic process;’ and remarked further, ‘he must have been a man of considerable age, as the lambdoidal suture is almost obliterated.’ Upon further conversation with him, I found that he was a fine anatomist, a science to which I had paid some attention. We passed then to the case of insects, and I found that he was likewise acquainted with the science of Entomology, naming the insects in my collection as readily as I could.

Rulloff made a similar impression upon the faculty of Jefferson College, who were able to secure for him a professorship at Chapel Hill. He was about to decamp when he received a letter from Jarvis, notifying him that he and his mother were destitute, that Rulloff had abandoned them, and that he ought to pay up if he did not want his throat cut.

Rulloff promptly robbed a jewelry store and made a beeline to Jarvis, but aroused suspicion along the way. He was captured in Jamestown and sent back to Ithaca. Here the legal process resumed, and, to everyone’s surprise and indignation, Rulloff was acquitted by the Court of Appeals for the murder of his wife. It turned out that the law could not hang him without a body, after all. The public, on the other hand, would have done just that, had the sheriff not quietly transferred him to Auburn, where he was discharged in March 1859.

The Burglar-Philologist

Rulloff spent much of the 1860’s amid the underworld of New York City, where he lived with Jarvis. Jarvis believed in Rulloff’s philology and its prospects for delivering them into a life of wealth, leisure, and respect—but in the meantime, bills had to be paid. An occasional burglary could surely be justified when it was sponsoring scholarship so doubtlessly beneficial to society.

Jarvis was reckless and impulsive, often drawing the more sensible Rulloff into trouble he would otherwise have avoided. In 1861 Jarvis convinced him to attempt a burglary in Duchess County. Here Rulloff was captured and sentenced to two and a half years in Sing Sing, where he picked up a second partner-in-crime, William T. Dexter. In 1865 he spent another sixteen months in Withersfield State Prison when he was caught holding stolen merchandise on Jarvis’s behalf.

Finally, Rulloff learned of a philological convention gathering in Poughkeepsie. Here was an opportunity, at last, to present his findings to the world. He sent a communication in the name of Professor Euri Leorio announcing his great discovery of a method in the formation of language, all of which was detailed in a manuscript that he was putting up for sale at the modest price of $500,000.

The committee formed to study his findings was less than impressed, and Rulloff was sent back to New York cursing the fools who had failed to appreciate his obvious genius. Far from disabusing him of his crank theory, the rebuke of the scholarly community led Rulloff to redouble his efforts. Back home, Dexter and Jarvis assured him that they still believed in him and his work, and would even support him financially so that he could see it all the way through.

In 1870 the trio made their fateful attempt upon the Halbert Bros. dry goods store in Binghamton, NY, intending to steal silks. Wearing masks, they entered the shop by night. Dexter found two clerks, Mirick and Burrows, asleep on the second floor. He set chloroform burning at the top of the stairs, but it proved insufficient to keep the clerks unconscious, for when Jarvis stumbled over something in the basement, they both roused to find Rulloff and Dexter standing a few feet from their bed.

Rulloff demanded that they stay quiet. Mirick drew a pistol from under his pillow and fired it directly at Rulloff’s chest. It failed to discharge, so he threw it to the ground and lunged at Rulloff. He clutched at his face, tearing off his mask. As Rulloff fled down the stairs, Mirick hurled a stool after him. Meanwhile, Dexter had been knocked down by Burrows.

As Rulloff and Jarvis regrouped, the clerks held down Dexter and clubbed him on the head and face with a metal stool. When Rulloff fired his pistol in the air, Burrows backed down, but Mirick lunged at Jarvis, catching him by the privates and pinning him over a counter. Rulloff fired one more warning shot as Jarvis cried out in anguish before he finally held his gun to Mirick’s head, and fired.

The three fled from the store, Rulloff’ supporting the injured Dexter and exhausted Jarvis on his shoulders. In their excitement, they forgot the boat by which they had arrived and attempted to ford the Chenango River. The Chenango River is not especially deep, but it is wide and sweeping, and the three burglars were in no condition to swim. Dexter and Jarvis both drowned making the attempt. Rulloff himself escaped, only to be halted and arrested at the railroad depot the next day.

Trial and Execution

Unfortunately for Rulloff, he had left a pair of patent leather boots behind at the store, which were marked by a distinctive depression corresponding to his missing toes. This time, there would be no question of his guilt. His lawyers put up a heroic fight nonetheless, attempting to have the charge reduced to manslaughter, but in the end the prosecution prevailed. Rulloff was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

In a last ditch effort to save his life, the governor was petitioned to have Rulloff’s sanity evaluated but, much to the disgust of his counsel, he made a point of displaying his intelligence and assured the committee that he was of sound mind. Since his stay in Auburn State Prison, Rulloff had persisted on the idea that he had something of great value to offer the world. He was, in effect, being asked to sell this idea out. Instead, he stuck to his guns: he would rather go to his death a genius, than live on being thought a madman.

“When my great book on philology is completed, and placed before the world, I shall be ready to die, and I don’t care a damn how soon,” he said, requesting to be called upon by a committee of learned men. He hoped that by explaining the value of his philological work he might persuade them to petition the governor for a stay of execution until he could finish.

His request was granted, but the committee left unconvinced. Desperate, Rulloff persuaded Freeman to have an open letter to the governor published in the Binghamton Leader, which appeared on April 28th, 1871. In addition to professing his innocence and giving a variety of reasons why he should not be executed, the letter appealed to the governor to appoint a committee to examine his philological work.

The governor did not intervene. Moreover, a response was published by two learned men who had examined Rulloff on the Saturday before his execution, “attempting to make out that he was a humbug.” Rulloff laid eyes upon this article the night before he died, and it stung him. The world, it seemed, was not going to recognize his genius, and he would take the great secret of philology to his grave. In spite of his monomaniacal efforts to find redemption in his scholarship, he was, in the end, destined to be remembered as a murderer and a thief.

Rulloff went to his death proud and unrepentant, refusing the customary offer to make a religious confession. “Hurry it up!” he said from the gallows, “I want to be in Hell in time for dinner.”

He was hung in Binghamton on May 18th, 1871, his hands stuffed blithely into his pockets. His body went unclaimed. His corpse was desecrated. His brain was removed and taken for examination.

Today, just five minutes from the Cornell University building where his brain is on display, a Collegetown restaurant bears his name. Here many visitors to Ithaca learn for the first time of the learned murderer who so eloquently vowed to haunt those very streets in the dead of night. Though it has been more than a century since Rulloff was executed, the memory of his villainy still lingers among the descendants of those who cut him short. You cannot kill an unquiet spirit.


Freeman, E. H. Edward H. Rulloff: The Veil of Secrecy Removed. 1871.

Wikipedia: Wilder Brain Collection.

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10 Comments to “The Life and Madness of Edward H. Rulloff”

  1. I have been having trouble finding out if his work was eventually found to be worthy or not.

    • Victorian Gothic

      Rulloff’s work has never been taken seriously. He was likely making accurate linguistic observations, discerning real patterns in the evolution of words and languages, but he drew the wrong conclusion. He took the patterns he observed to be proof of centralized human planning–a priesthood handing down words from on high–whereas linguists understand the same phenomenon in terms of human speech patterns and other natural processes.

      His was crank theory, but the research it was based upon might well have been useful, if he had only been able to keep it in perspective. Instead, he was using his scholarship to fill an emotional need to atone for the murder of his wife, and that led him to entertain grandiose notions about having made the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.

  2. This was one of the most fascinating posts I’ve read. And have to say how much I love your blog.

    “In spite of his charming sense of humor, Rulloff was never able to fully regain the confidence of his wife.”

    I’d imagine that having one’s spouse try to force you to drink poison would be a relationship ender for many. Eek! Poor woman…

  3. So then it’s fair to say that while Rulloff was a typical Victorian polymath, he was by no means a philologist, or a scientist of any sort. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I’m a polymath too, though not Victorian, but not a contributor to human knowledge.)

    • I wouldn’t say that there was anything typical about Rulloff, but you’re right. He wasn’t wasn’t you’d call a “real” philologist.

  4. Even though I know he killed his wife(I think his child was brought up by his brother) I feel sorry for him.
    I might be biassed (he is in my family tree) LOL

    • I feel a bit sorry for a him, too. I get the sense he was addled by remorse, but was too egotistical to admit it to himself.

      It’s cool that you have such an interesting ancestor.

  5. Ursula – we should talk! He’s in my family tree too! His grandfather, Rulof was a brother to Laurence, from whom I descend. I live in California but am planning a visit to Ithaca next month to do some exploring.

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