The Scholar on the Gallows (Part Three)

Continued from Part Two

After being formally indicted for his role in the dry good store robbery, not to mention the murder of Frederick Mirick, Edward Rulloff finally went on trial in the Broome County courthouse  in early 1871.    Thousands of people, many of them women, stood in line for hours to get a good seat inside the courtroom to watch the proceedings.  As for Rulloff, not only was he ably defended by a "dream team" of three lawyers, but he also took an active role in his own defense (his old legal training likely came in handy at this point).    

When Gilbert Burrows gave his testimony about the robbery, Rulloff jumped in with his own objection (ignoring his lawyers completely).  Along with emphatically denying being one of the robbers (meaning that Burrows' testimony had any relevance to his case), but he also insisted that all of the physical evidence of the robbery not be presented to the jury for that same reason.   It was at this point that the presiding judge, Henry Hogeboom, cut off Rulloff's legal arguments and got the trial back underway.

But Edward Rulloff wasn't done yet and, assisted by his attorney, personally cross-examined all of the witnesses, including Gilbert Burrows.  During the course of this cross-examination, Rulloff came up with a new and novel defense, namely that Minick would never have been killed if the two clerks hadn't become violent in the first place.  As Rulloff pointed out, the amount of force they used exceeded the legal definition of legal violence meaning that they were at least partially responsible for what happened afterward.   Also, when Burrows insisted that the man who shot Mirick greatly resembled Rulloff (though he couldn't make a positive identification),  the cross-examination became even more fierce with rapid-fire questions.   Burrows held up well during the cross-examination and Rulloff, despite knowing that he was fighting for his life, handled himself as well as any lawyer could have in his place.  

Since Rulloff was being tried under a false identity, it was up to the court to prove that he was, in fact, Edward Rulloff, career criminal.   Not only was the judge who had previously identified him called in as a witness, but he brought in numerous court documents, all of them bearing Rulloff's signature.   Other witnesses testifying to seeing Rulloff (then going by the name of Edward C. Howard) with the two dead men, Jarvis and Decker, when they had rented local property together and that a note he had co-signed was definitely in his handwriting.

Once again ignoring his defense counsel, Rulloff objected that the documents were not admissible since they failed to prove that he was one of the three robbers and denounced all of the evidence presented as being circumstantial.  While Judge Hogeboom acknowledged the point, he allowed the documents to be added as evidence.   Unfortunately for Rulloff, the Binghamton Police had done their investigation too well.   On discovering that he had been posing as philologist Edward Leukto, they searched the rooms where Leukto had been staying and found enough evidence to prove his identity as Rulloff and link him to the burglary.

Finally, after eight days of straight legal obfuscation by the defendant, a jury found Edward Rulloff guilty of murder and Judge Hogeboom sentenced him to be hanged on March 3.    The accused heard the sentence with an uncharacteristic silence but that was hardly the end of his legal efforts.   Not surprisingly, he appealed his sentence and cited many of the legal objections raised during the trial as proof that his death sentence should be overturned.  

Newspapers were fascinated with Rulloff's story and numerous stories were published describing his past crimes, including the unsolved murders of his wife and daughter, and the deaths of his fellow burglars, Jarvis and Dexter, who had been lured into a life of crime by the brilliant criminal's influence.   His history as a philologist came up as well, including the mysterious manuscript that he carried around with him just about everywhere.  This was the magnum opus that he had tried to present in Poughkeepsie which purportedly "disclosed a beautiful method in languages spoken and explored by millions of our race."   None of his fellow philologists had ever had a chance to review the manuscript in detail, presumably since nobody could afford the $500,000 price tag that went with it.    

But Rulloff's magnum opus became news for another reason,   In a letter that he wrote to the Birmingham Leader on January 16, he said:  "Strange as it may seem, no man this day upon God's earth has lived with a higher object than myself, and few have accomplished a more desirable result."   He insisted that his work on philology "contained most of the leading principles connected with the formation of methodical language" but was still incomplete.   Though he made no effort to dispute his crimes, his main argument involved delaying his execution to allow him to complete his lifelong work (giving a very literal meaning to the term "publish or perish" in his case).   

As arguments go, it wasn't a particularly effective one since most newspaper editorials quickly dismissed Rulloff's strange ideas about language as nonsense.   It still led to one of Mark Twain;s most hilarious satire pieces which was published in the New York Tribune in May of that same year.   In his letter to the Tribune, Twain wrote, "I am not sorry that Rulloff is to be hanged, but I am sincerely sorry that he himself has made it necessary that his vast capabilities for usefulness should be lost to the world. In this, mine and the public’s is a common regret. For it is plain that in the person of Rulloff one of the most marvelous of 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 yet, by the sheer might of his innate gifts has made himself such a colossus of abstruse learning that the ablest of our scholars are but pygmies in his presence."    To get around the need to execute such a prodigy, Twain provided the following solution:  "If a life be offered up to the gallows to atone for what Rulloff did, would that suffice?   If so, give me the proofs for I, in all earnestness and truth, I aver that in such a case I will instantly bring forth a man who, in the interests of learning and science, will take Rulloff's crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff's place.  I can and will do this thing and I propose this matter and make this offer in good faith.  You know me, and know my address."

Suffice it to say, nobody took Twain up on his offer and Edward Rulloff's numerous appeals failed as well.   After months of legal deliberations, he finally went to the gallows on May 18, 1871.  In the weeks leading up to his execution, Rulloff's only real regret seemed to be that he would never be allowed to finish his marvelous work on language.   According to one account, his final words before being hanged were, "Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner!”

But the strange story of Edward Rulloff didn't end there.  Not only was his hanging well attended (it would be the last public hanging in New York state), but many of the witnesses posed to take pictures with his dead body.   Some even took clippings of his hair as souvenirs.   Even the autopsy of his brain made news as, according to one story, "the brain weight fifty-nine ounces, being nine and a half or ten ounces heavier than the average weight"  making it one of the largest on record.   

Though the magnum opus that would have supposedly revolutionized philology was never published, largely due to lack of interest, the story of Edward Rulloff led to numerous books and scientific treatises, many of which can still be found online.   Largely forgotten today, "the man with two lives" was widely considered to be one of the most fascinating criminals of his generation, both for his grandiose scientific ambitions as well as his criminal career.   While probably not  the way he would have wanted to be remembered, Rulloff's sizable brain can still be seen on display at Cornell University's Wilder Brain Collection.   If nothing else, he is in distinguished company there.  



Related Stories

  • That Healthy Glow (Part 1)
  • The Scholar on the Gallows (Part Two)
  • When Children Know Their Rights


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