May 1993

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The Life and Death of

Edward H. Rulloff


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.

© 1990, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
Index to articles by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.


An earlier version of this article was published in the Summer,1960, issue of New York Folklore Quarterly. The quotation from "A Substitute for Rulloff is taken from Mark Twain, Collected Tales Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, edited by Louis J. Budd, published by The Library of America, 1992, pp. 522-3, and Notes, pp. 1054-5.

The Wilder Brain Collection

The Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University is reported to be the first such collection in the United States although a few others were made subsequently. It was the work of Professor Burt Green Wilder of the Department of Biology for the purpose of research and teaching. He was interested in the correlation between mental characteristics and cerebral peculiarities, and believed that "it was desirable that the brains of well-known persons of marked idiosyncrasies should be carefully preserved and thoroughly studied." to this end he prepared a bequest form that he distributed to colleagues and students and even at Cornell Alumni dinners.

Wilder's publications made him a widely recognized authority on the human brain. His research led him to the conclusion that there were no profound differences between the brains of Whites and Negroes. At the time of his retirement in 1910, the collection contained 668 human brains of all ages. The collection continued to be a source of study and research publications well into the Twentieth Century. The last curator of the collection left Cornell in 1963 and the collection became inactive. A number of the brains were discarded and the remainder of the collection transferred from the Biology to the Psychology Department. A viewing collection of 28 brains, currently on display, includes the brains of Rulloff, Professor Wilder himself, Henry A. Ward, founder of Ward's Nautral Science Establishment of Rochester, New York, the subject of a biographical article by Robert Koch in this publication last December, January, and February.

This note on the Wilder Collection is based on information provided by Cornell University
Archivist Gould P. Colman whose assistance is appreciated. —H. A. W., Jr.
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