The Scholar on the Gallows (Part One)

On May 18, 1871, Edward Howard Rulloff was hanged in the jail yard in the rear of the County Jail in Binghamton, New York.   His execution came after one of the most remarkable trials in New York's history, perhaps not by coincidence, would be the last public hanging in that state.   But the notoriety surrounding Rulloff's strange double life, not to mention the full extent of his crimes, would continue to perplex crime historians for decades to come.

Born in a small town located near St. Johns, New Brunswick, Edward Rulloffson was, by all accounts, an extremely intelligent child even though his family couldn't afford to provide him with a proper education.   Despite his poor background, Edward read voraciously and became a self-educated expert on a wide range of subjects.  Though he managed to get hired as a clerk for a local lawyer and seemed set on becoming a lawyer in his own right, Edward's taste for the finer things in life, along with his habit of stealing things that didn't belong to him, quickly put an end to his legal career.

In 1839, Edward Rulloffson was sentenced to two years in the Penitentiary at St. John which he apparently served without problems.   If his family was hoping that Edward's prison stint would get him to settle down, they were soon disappointed.   Instead, he decided to disappear completely and try his luck in the United States.    Just a few months after his release, Edward Rulloff (as he was now calling himself) had established himself in Ithaca, New York by working as a clerk in a pharmacy.  While there, he devoted himself to learning everything he could about medicine (and poisons).   Eager to show the world how intelligent he really was, Edward soon moved to Dryden where he became a schoolteacher.   

And that was where he met his wife-to-be, Harriet Schutt.  Though her family had misgivings about their prospective son-in-law, especially due to his violent temper, they eventually consented to their marriage which took place in 1843.  Nobody knew about Edward's criminal history at the time, only that he had come from Canada and was eager to establish himself as a medical doctor (despite his lack of any real medical training).

Edward and Harriet moved to nearby Lansing where Edward began his practice as a "botanical physician."   And he did a convincing job of it.   In fact, his own brother-in-law called him in to treat his infant son who suddenly became ill in 1845.    Nobody became suspicious when the baby went into convulsions and died less than a day after Rulloff treated him.   In what seemed like a macabre coincidence, the child's mother died two days later showing the exact same symptoms (Rulloff had treated her as well).   After attending the double funeral, Rulloff went home to his wife and young daughter.

What happened next  is still a mystery.   Though a neighbour would later report seeing Harriet and her daughter after visiting the Rulloff home on the evening of July 22, 1845, no trace of them was ever found afterwards.  All that anyone knew was that Edward went to a nearby house to borrow a horse and carriage to help transport a very heavy trunk .   The neighbour even helped load the trunk on the wagon.   As for his wife and child, all that the good doctor would say was that they had gone "between the lakes" and he was preparing to join them.    Wherever he went with the trunk, it was light enough for him to carry it inside his house without assistance after he returned.

 Though neighbours were immediately suspicious, Edward certainly didn't behave like someone with a dark secret.   After returning with the trunk, he locked up his house and asked his neighbour to watch the place for him since he was going "between the lakes" himself.   He then walked to Ithaca to visit his still-grieving brother-in-law before dropping out of sight completely.   

A few weeks later the rest of Harriet's family became concerned at the extended absence of Edward and his family.  Though the neighbours had reassured them at first by saying that the family was off visiting "between the lakes", nobody had expected them to be gone for so long.  After becoming suspicious by the conflicting stories that Edward had told neighbours before leaving, they finally broke into the house to find that most of Harriet's clothing, which she would have likely taken with her on an extended trip, had been left behind.  That. along with stories about the mysterious trunk that Edward had been transporting before his family disappeared, led to talk that the  doctor had killed his family and either buried them in some remote part of the county or, even more gruesomely, had sold the bodies to a medical school for dissection ("resurrection men" had been in the news at the time and it seemed like as good a guess as any).

When Edward finally returned and paid a visit to this brothers-in-law in Ithaca, they immediately asked him about Harriet and told him about the murder rumours.  Though he laughed it off, family members became even more suspicious when he kept changing his story about what had happened to Harriet and her daughter.  Though his ever-trusting brother-in-law, W.H. Schutt stood by Edward and even allowed him to stay at his home, the rest of the family, including Harriet's mother, remained firmly convinced that Edward was guilty of murder.    

Facing the threat of arrest, Rulloff tried to relieving suspicions by writing a letter to his wife at the address in Madison, Ohio where he insisted she was staying.   The letter, which he showed to his skeptics, asked Harriet to write and confirm that she was still alive.   Immediately after posting the letter however, Edward promptly fled Ithaca with his other brother-in-law, Ephraim, in close pursuit.  Ephraim managed to catch up with him several times but Edward managed to get away finally.    The determined Ephraim then went to Madison and found that nobody there had ever heard of Harriet Rulloff or the friend with whom she had been supposedly staying.  

Ephraim then notified the authorities about what he had learned and, with their help, finally caught up with his brother-in-law in Cleveland where he had been trying to book passage on a ship.   Edward Rulloff was returned to Ithaca in handcuffs and held in the country jail.  Since police could find no trace of Harriet or her daughter, all that Edward could be charged with was abduction.   Still, the outcome of his trial was a foregone conclusion and he was sentenced to ten years in prison.  

Though he served his sentence as a model prisoner,  the good people of Tompkins County were still convinced that he had gotten away with murder.   And so did the Tompkins County District Attorney who, in 1848, quietly obtained an indictment against Rulloff, still without any evidence, which charged him with murder.    This was quietly filed away pending the completion of his prison sentence.    As the end of Rulloff's sentence grew closer in 1856, a media campaign was mounted against him and a town meeting was called to decide what to do next.   The announcement for the meeting was certainly inflammatory enough with a glaring headline of "SHALL THIS MURDERER GO UNPUNISHED?".   It also claimed that Rulloff had made threats to kill his wife's family (he hadn't) and that there was a secret plot to smuggle him out to the country (there wasn't).   

Rulloff, for his part, was looking forward to getting out of jail and had spent his ten years learning new languages and even starting a new carpet industry at the prison that proved extremely profitable.   Still, in January 1856, just as his discharge plans were being handed to him, a bailiff arrived with an arrest warrant and he was taken back to Tompkins County Jail to stand trial for murder.

 To be continued





Related Stories

  • When the Ripper Came to Town (Part Three)
  • The Bewitched King
  • When the Martians Invaded Ecuador


The information provided on the is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979