Edward H. Rulloff was considered by many to be a genius, a man of great intellect, ahead of his time, ready to revolutionize the study of philology. And just as many thought him a fraud and a conman. He was well versed in medicine, law, and language and an educator respected by his students. He was also a thief and a swindler who had trouble leaving a city without a run-in with the law. When an 1870 burglary in Binghamton, New York went bad, leaving three men dead, America would face the paradox of the “Man of Two Lives.”
Date: August 17, 1870
Victim: Fred A. Merrick
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: Edward H. Rulloff
The man first told the police his name was Charles Augustus then later said he was George Williams. He was taken to see the two drowned men but did not recognize either of them. The bodies had been on public display all morning and hundreds of curiosity seekers had passed by. Among them was Judge Ransom Balcom who instantly recognized the suspect and said to him:
You are Edward H. Rulloff; you murdered your wife and child in Lansing in 1845.
Then he turned to the coroner’s jury assembled near the corpses and said:
This man understands his rights better than you do, and will defend them to the last.
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 was working on a manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field. The 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.
The problem with the charge of murder was the lack of corpses. They believed that Rulloff had sunk the bodies in Lake Cayuga, but repeated dredging had turned up nothing. In 1846 he was brought to trial anyway. Rulloff directed his own defense, and tried to focus on the lack of evidence, but the jury was predisposed to convict him of something. He was found guilty of abduction, and sentenced to ten years in Auburn Prison.
On the day of his release in 1856, a warrant was issued against Rulloff for the murder of his wife. Rulloff argued that it was double jeopardy, and rather than argue this point, the district attorney charged him instead with the murder of his daughter. Rulloff was tried again and convicted again. This time he appealed, but the verdict was upheld.
While awaiting sentencing in the Ithaca jail, Rulloff began tutoring Albert Jarvis, the son of the undersheriff, in Latin and Greek. He also became close with his mother, Jane, who did not believe that Rulloff was a murderer. In 1857 Rulloff escaped from jail. It was fairly obvious that he had inside help, since in addition to a chain around his ankle, there were eight locks between the cell and the outside. Al Jarvis remained a friend and associated of Rulloff for the rest of his life, and Jane Jarvis would later secretly visit when Rulloff was living in Brooklyn.
Rulloff was recaptured and sentenced to hang. He appealed again and this time succeeded and a new trial was ordered. Tired of waiting for justice, the people of Ithaca formed a lynch mob, ready to storm the jail but Rulloff was transferred to Auburn before any damage could be done.
Prosecutors decided there was little hope of success in trying him again for murder without corpses and there was no interest in prosecuting him for escaping jail, so Rulloff was extradited to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was wanted for jewel theft. Rulloff was not prosecuted there either. Though nearly everyone in Western New York believed Rulloff was guilty of abduction , theft, assault, fraud, jail-breaking, and murder, he was now a free man.
Philology and Theft
Though Al and Billy preferred to work without Rulloff—he had an unfortunate knack for getting caught—he was with them in Binghamton that night in 1870, robbing Halbert’s dry goods store. Through the contents of their pockets, the drowned men were identified as Al Jarvis and Billy Dexter, and traced to the Brooklyn apartment where Rulloff had been living under the name Edward C. Howard. Rulloff was charged with the murder of Fred Merrick.
Trial: January 4, 1871
Edward Rulloff’s trial received extensive press coverage and over 2,000 people a day came to watch in a courtroom built for half that many. The prosecution introduced witnesses from Brooklyn as well as the eye-witness Gilbert Burrows. Rulloff once again directed his own defense, claiming that he was not in Binghamton the night of the murder and that whoever committed the murder acted in self-defense and not premeditation. The jury deliberated for four and a half hours; the issue of debate was not guilt but the degree of the crime. Most wanted first-degree murder, but some were pressing for second-degree or manslaughter. In the end Edward Rulloff was convicted of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.