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Killer Instinct

A century and a half after his execution, the legend of Edward Rulloff lives on

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A portrait of Edward Rulloff. Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collections

“Thus died the man of vast pretense and overweening vanity,” the New York Times reported nearly 150 years ago, “who was a thief when a boy, who had spent eighteen of his fifty-one years in prison, who was a bungler in crime while a charlatan in learning, and great only in depravity.”

This spring marks the sesquicentennial of the death of Upstate New York’s most infamous rogue: Edward Rulloff, the serial murderer and wannabe scholar who escaped justice for decades before it finally met him at the end of a hangman’s rope on May 18, 1871. Dubbed “the Genius Killer” by a nineteenth-century press that breathlessly followed his career in crime, Rulloff has remained a figure of fascination for more than a century and a half—the subject of multiple books, innumerable media stories, even a recent true-crime podcast. “ ‘Rogue scholar’ is a good description of him,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14, citing the title of a Rulloff biography published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003. “The fact that he had this academic sense about him but also killed people added to his lore. He certainly considered himself an academic and wanted to be remembered for his research and writings—that’s what makes him more intriguing than if he’d just been a murderer, and also what makes him appealing at an academic institution like Cornell.”

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Rulloff’s brain, now in several pieces, is one of the specimens in Cornell’s collection.Jason Koski/UREL

While Rulloff had no connection to the University during his lifetime—and his residency in Tompkins County predated Cornell’s founding—he has long been part of Big Red lore. Most prominently, the eponymous Collegetown eatery and watering hole was a popular gathering spot for some four decades, keeping the Rulloff legend alive for generations of students until its closure last year. The University Archives includes a number of Rulloff-related artifacts, including one of the engraved invitations to his execution and the papers of Francis Finch, the attorney who represented him during a key legal battle and later joined the law faculty. And of course, Rulloff’s brain—an uncommonly large specimen—is the most famous entry in Uris Hall’s Wilder Brain Collection (a visit to which is on the list of “161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do”). “He was a colorful character; he broke the norms,” says Carol Kammen, an authority on Tompkins County history and a former lecturer on the Hill. “He was a larger-than-life person who broke the rules, who engaged the public’s imagination because the press built him up; he made for good copy.”

Rulloff went by various aliases over the years, but he was born John Edward Howard Rulofson near Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1821 (at least according to Rogue Scholar; other sources put his birth one or two years earlier). His family hit hard times when his father died in 1827, leaving his mother a widow with three young sons. Rulloff was a studious boy—legend has it that he would read long into the night, unless his mother took away his candle—but the family’s financial straits derailed his dreams of higher education, and after leaving school around age sixteen he went to work as a clerk in a local dry goods store.

And there, apparently, his life of crime began. A series of fires were suspected to be arson aimed at covering up inventory thefts, and when Rulloff was observed sporting a fancy suit that was among the stolen goods, he was convicted of embezzlement and served two years in prison—his first term of incarceration, but hardly his last. After his release he emigrated to the U.S. and eventually found work on the Erie Canal; there, he impressed a Tompkins County man named Will Schutt, who invited him back to his family home. That decision would prove fatal to several of Schutt’s relatives—including his younger sister, Harriet, who would become Rulloff’s wife and most famous victim.

Kate Winkler Dawson, a journalist who specializes in historical true crime—and whose podcast, Tenfold More Wicked, focused its debut season on Rulloff—describes her subject as “the nineteenth-century Ted Bundy.” And indeed, like that notorious American serial killer, Rulloff’s charm and intellect both facilitated his misdeeds and helped him elude capture. The Edward Rulloff who arrived at the Schutt farm in Dryden in mid-1842 was an outwardly impressive figure; he spoke multiple languages including Greek, Latin, and German, and he soon found work as a schoolmaster. His students included a teenaged Harriet, who fell hard for the erudite older man, and their courtship continued after Rulloff began training in Ithaca as a doctor of herbal medicine. Accounts vary as to when Rulloff’s true colors began to emerge—whether his unpredictable temper and potential for violence had shown themselves prior to the wedding, and to what extent Harriet’s family had therefore opposed the marriage—but the two were wed on the final day of 1843.

Their union was fraught from its very start: a kiss that the bride received from the minister who performed the ceremony sent Rulloff into a jealous rage. Throughout their marriage, Rulloff was suspicious of any attention (actual or imagined) that Harriet received from other men. Their tumultuous relationship included physical abuse and even the threat of murder-suicide; at one point, she claimed, Rulloff told her he’d procured poison and would force her to take it before swallowing it himself. The couple’s daughter—Priscilla, named after Rulloff’s mother—was born in April 1845. Two months later, mother and baby vanished.

A pen-and-ink drawing of a nicely-dressed Ruloff brandishing a weapon at a fraught woman holding a baby.

A recreation of the killing of Rulloff’s wife, drawn in 1871, was long on drama and short on accuracy: neither her clothing nor the furnishings reflected reality.Provided

The Rulloffs were by then living in a small house in Lansing—some ten miles away from the Schutt farm in Dryden, a considerable distance by nineteenth-century standards—and he explained his family’s absence by claiming that mother and daughter were traveling (though their alleged location changed repeatedly). In fact—as he’d confess decades later to E. H. Freeman, a journalist who became his biographer—he’d killed Harriet in a fit of rage by striking her over the head; while he never admitted to killing the baby, he said he “gave it a narcotic to stop its crying.” After putting the bodies in a chest, he borrowed a wagon and team from a neighbor and drove along the lakeshore looking for a spot to dispose of them. He took a boat, rowed out to deep water, weighed the corpses down, and dropped them overboard.

And as awful as that crime was, Harriet and Priscilla may not have been his first victims—or the only people he killed that month. Just weeks earlier, Will Schutt had made the terrible error of asking Rulloff—who by then loathed him and the rest of the Schutt family—to use his skills as an herbalist to treat Will’s sick wife and infant daughter. Both died within days. “In later years,” observed the author of Rogue Scholar, “most people would believe that Rulloff had murdered them both.”

After the disappearance of his wife and child, Rulloff first feigned innocence and then went on the run. He was soon apprehended and tried in Ithaca for his wife’s abduction; since attempts to dredge the lake for the bodies had come up empty, he wasn’t indicted for murder. He was convicted—he’d helped formulate his legal defense, whose central argument was that there was no evidence of a crime—and spent ten years in Auburn Penitentiary. On the day of his release, the Tompkins County sheriff arrested him again—this time for Harriet’s murder. When Rulloff and his lawyers argued that this constituted double jeopardy, the district attorney dropped that charge—and replaced it with one for Priscilla’s murder. After a trial in nearby Owego—an impartial jury being impossible to find in Ithaca, where rumors were rife that a lynch mob would mete out justice to the much-hated Rulloff if the courts didn’t—he was again convicted.

His legal team appealed, arguing that murder couldn’t be proved in the absence of a body. And here the story gets even more dramatic: as the case worked its way through the courts, Rulloff escaped from the Ithaca jail—most likely with the help of Al Jarvis, the jailer’s teenage son, whom Rulloff had tutored in languages. He was eventually recaptured but, thanks to Finch’s brilliant lawyering, won his appeal. Not only was he set free, but the “Rulloff Rule”—the principle that the “mere absence” of a person was not enough to prove their death, but that additional evidence was needed if someone were to be convicted of their murder—became enshrined in New York law for decades.

Having escaped the hangman’s noose again, Rulloff devoted himself to two pursuits: writing his magnum opus in the field of philology (the study of the structure and development of languages) and committing crimes to fund his lifestyle. “He was a student by instinct, and evidently became a scoundrel from choice,” the New York Times would write a few months before his death. “Even when he had become the central figure in a network of criminal deeds, his old habits clung to him, and his keen intellect explored the labyrinths of comparative philology when disengaged from the work of directing his accomplices in multifarious acts of villainy.”

A dark-haird man grapples a younger man and brandishes a knife. A masked Ruloff holds a pistol pressed to the young man's chest.

In this visualization of the fatal scene in Halbert’s store, Rulloff (far left) shoots the clerk who has tried to apprehend one of his accomplices in the burglary.Provided

In 1861, one of his many thefts landed him in Ossining (“Sing Sing”) Prison, where he served more than two years and met Billy Dexter, who—along with Jarvis—would round out Rulloff’s small gang of thieves and fraudsters. Based in New York City, the trio was particularly fond of stealing luxury fabrics, which weren’t easily traceable. The gang’s final heist, the burglary of the Halbert Brothers dry goods store in Binghamton, would prove their undoing—and provide further evidence that while Rulloff may have been a criminal and a genius, he was no criminal genius. “He really did make some pretty dumb mistakes,” observes Dawson. “It’s not like the guy was on the run for thirty years; he was in and out of prison, just under different names. He botched things—but he was often able to wiggle out of them.”

In August 1870, Rulloff, Jarvis, and Dexter broke into Halbert’s and were confronted by two clerks who slept in the store as a sort of overnight watch; one of them, Fred Merrick, was killed in the struggle when Rulloff shot him through the head. The burglars fled; Jarvis and Dexter were later found drowned in a nearby river, but Rulloff was apprehended on his way out of town, as locals were on guard for suspicious characters. He nearly talked his way out of it—but in a macabre twist on the Cinderella fable, his left foot (missing a big toe long ago lost to frostbite) was a perfect match to a shoe he’d removed to avoid making noise during the break-in and had failed to retrieve in the ensuing chaos.

The Halbert’s case became a cause célèbre—especially once it came out that Rulloff had previously escaped justice for a double homicide. In one of the era’s “trials of the century,” he was convicted of Merrick’s murder and sentenced to death—a fate he tried to argue his way out of on the grounds that he was simply too brilliant to kill. His philology treatise, he promised, would offer groundbreaking insights into the relationship between language and human behavior; since it was invaluable to scholarship, he must be allowed to continue his work. “Rulloff was a psychopath,” says Dawson, who’s currently penning a book on him entitled All That Is Wicked. “There’s a checklist you can go through to determine how much of a psychopath somebody is; based on interviews and evidence from his trials, he’s off the charts. One thing you hear from psychopaths is, ‘Why me?’ and Rulloff really had that down. Everything was bad luck, bad circumstances, he fell into it; nothing was his fault.”

But all arguments in favor of sparing him failed—including those of his lawyers, who appealed on several grounds including that Rulloff was so hated in Binghamton he couldn’t have received a fair trial. As a bloodthirsty crowd of thousands celebrated outside the jail, he died before 150 invited witnesses in New York State’s last public hanging. “Justice was finally done; it should have happened for killing his wife and daughter, but it didn’t,” says Gerald Smith, who for more than three decades served as historian for Broome County and the City of Binghamton, where Rulloff’s execution hood and shackles remain in a local museum. “It was sort of like O.J. Simpson finally winding up in prison—but not for the crime you would have thought.”

The total number of Rulloff’s victims remains a mystery. Some believe he drowned Jarvis and Dexter, though Dawson doubts it—both because none of the three were particularly good swimmers and because Jarvis was the closest Rulloff ever had to a real friend. “But he was absolutely capable of killing people,” she says, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more bodies than we ever found out about.”

Neither does Dawson believe another persistent legend, which holds that Rulloff was innocent of his most heinous crime: the murder of his baby daughter. As it happens, Rulloff had a niece—his younger brother’s only child—who was born the same year as the missing girl and was also named Priscilla. Could Rulloff have drugged the baby, just enough to keep her quiet as some accomplice spirited her away to his brother’s home (then in Maine), to be passed off as his own? Dawson doubts that Rulloff was a skilled enough herbalist to sedate her without inadvertently killing her—and in an era when people generally kept an eye on their neighbors, no witnesses ever surfaced. Nevertheless, as the Times wrote of the then-twenty-five-year-old woman in 1871: “Her age, the fact that there are no other children in the family, and the circumstances of the disappearance of Rulloff’s child have given rise to the belief . . . that she is the missing child.”

Following Rulloff’s death, Freeman—the reporter who’d conducted extensive jailhouse interviews with him—published The Veil of Secrecy Removed; billed as “the only true and authentic history” of Rulloff and his crimes, it included a detailed confession about Harriet’s death and the disposal of her body. The Rulloff legend that endures to this day was cemented by one particularly spooky statement he allegedly uttered while awaiting execution, in which he pledged to haunt Ithaca for all eternity: “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.”

While those phrases may or may not have actually escaped Rulloff’s lips, he almost certainly did not utter his most well-known quotation. And it’s rather a shame—since, in the pantheon of famous last words, it would have ranked up there with Oscar Wilde pledging that either the wallpaper had to go or he would. “Hurry it up!” Rulloff told the hangman, according to the apocryphal tale. “I want to be in hell in time for dinner!”


Bygone Bistro

Rulloff’s restaurant, in memoriam

Will future Cornellians know the Rulloff legend? Given the demise of the eatery that long bore his name, it’s much less likely. “Without a place in Collegetown named Rulloff’s,” says Mark Anbinder ’89, an authority on the Ithaca food scene, “it’s not going to be in the front of people’s minds the way it has been for the past forty-plus years.”

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Not only is Rulloff’s closed, but the entire building was demolished last summer to make way for redevelopment.Robert Barker/UREL

A fixture in Collegetown since 1977, the restaurant was a popular student haunt. As University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14—who celebrated his twenty-first birthday there—recalls, “It had a good European pub-style feel to it. It was a little more old-fashioned than some of the other bars in Collegetown: antiques on the wall, lots of woodwork.” After changes in ownership (and, Anbinder laments, a focus on late-night alcohol sales over quality food), Rulloff’s was widely considered to have gone downhill, and it closed in 2014. “It was never a fancy bistro, but they had very good burgers—I think for a while they had the best burger in town,” Anbinder recalls of the restaurant’s heyday. “And I loved the story—I loved connecting the legend of Edward Rulloff with the eatery.”

Happily for Rulloff’s fans, the establishment was reopened in 2015 by the family that owns Collegetown Bagels (CTB), Ithaca Bakery, and Agava. While prices were markedly higher, Anbinder says, “they were doing some fantastic food,” with menu items themed to the Rulloff legend (i.e., “executioner’s” rather than “shepherd’s” pie). But when the restaurant’s landlords announced that the entire block would be demolished in May 2020 and the parcel redeveloped, Rulloff’s—and CTB, which occupied the same building—needed to relocate. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, forcing the restaurant to close months earlier than anticipated—and, given the dining industry’s dire economic straits, putting the kibosh on plans for a Rulloff’s renaissance.

Today, some bits of Rulloff’s survive in the new CTB; located in another historic building right across the street, it includes some wainscotting and seating from the old restaurant. According to owner Gregar Brous, the majority of its iconic fixtures—including the twenty-eight-foot-long bar, decorative mirrors, an upright piano, and a clock that allegedly stopped at the moment of Rulloff’s death—are in storage awaiting a buyer, hopefully one who might reconstitute the eatery. “Everything’s available,” says Brous, who has so far resisted the temptation to sell the items piecemeal. “I’ve been kind of holding out, to see if anybody’s interested in the whole package.”

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