(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime, including his more detailed exploration of Edward Rulloff. -ed.)
An 1871 biography of Edward Rulloff was entitled The Man of Two Lives. This was an understatement.
Rulloff — also known as James Nelson, E. C. Howard, James Dalton, Edward Lieurio, etc. — had been a doctor, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a photographer, a carpet designer, an inventor, and a phrenologist. Most notably, Rulloff was a philologist, who could speak Latin, Greek and six modern languages and in 1870, was working on a manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field. But the real dichotomy of Edward Rulloff’s life was the fact that he financed his research by theft and did much of his philological work in prison.
Rulloff started both sides of his life early, working in a law firm and spending two years in the penitentiary for theft, both before age twenty. In 1844 his wife and daughter disappeared and Rulloff was charged with their murder. He handled his own defense and managed to beat the murder charge but was convicted of abduction and spent ten years in Auburn Prison.
After being released, Rulloff divided his time between is intellectual and criminal pursuits, and saw the inside of a jail more than once. In 1870 he was living in New York City, working on his book and running with a gang of petty thieves.
The morning of August 17, 1870, Rulloff and two others broke into Halbert’s dry goods store in Binghamton, New York. A gunfight ensued which left night watchman Fred A. Merrick dead. Rulloff was captured in the manhunt that followed.
Rulloff’s trial for the murder Fred Merrick was sensational, receiving national press coverage and attracting thousands of spectators. Once again Rulloff handled his own defense but this time he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.
Unsuccessful appeals delayed the hanging by two and a half months. While awaiting execution, the case became a subject of national debate. Some said it was wrong to take the life of such a learned man who may be on the verge of a great intellectual breakthrough. Horace Greely, owner of the New York Tribune wrote: “In the prison in Binghamton there is a man awaiting death who is too curious an intellectual problem to be wasted on the gallows.”
Others however believed that Rulloff was an intellectual fraud, among them Mark Twain, who satirized Greely’s position saying: “If a life be offered up to the gallows to atone for the murder Rulloff did, will that suffice? If so … I will bring forward a man who, in the interest of learning and science, will take Rulloff’s crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff’s place.”
Edward Rulloff was hanged on May 18, 1871. Before his execution, he confessed to killing his wife by smashing her skull with a pestle he used to grind medicine. Rulloff requested that his body be put in a vault so it would not be desecrated, but his request was not honored. Before his lawyer could claim the body, it was placed on public display and the owner of a local art gallery made a plaster death mask. His lawyer gave the body to Dr. George Burr of the Geneva Medical College who promised to bury the body in a private cemetery if he could keep the head for study. After the body was buried it was dug up and stolen by medical students. Edward Rulloff’s brain still exists as part of the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University.
Visit Murder by Gaslight for more information on the life and crimes of Edward Rulloff.