New Mexico has Billy the Kid and Tennessee has Davey Crockett. But would you believe upstate New York has its very own fondly remembered folk-villain as well? He was the philologist-murderer Edward H. Rulloff.
Rulloff’s Restaurant in Collegetown, having adopted the 19th century academic’s name in 1977, celebrates Halloween with a yearly costume party and drink extravaganza, “Halloween in Hell,” on Oct. 31. The night is one long, sardonic toast to Edward Rulloff.
Ithacans party with Rulloff in Hell, not Heaven, because of his sordid history, a double life of scholarship and sociopathy. He was at once a gentlemen, an academic and murderous thief. His brain, the second largest on record, continues to feature at the Wilder Brain Collection in Cornell University’s department of psychology.
The details of Rulloff’s life, especially ones concerning his murders, are troubled by conflicting accounts in public documents, court cases, newspaper articles and journal entries, compiled in a short biography in Lives Passed: Biographical Sketches from Central New York, written in 1937.
“Ithaca’s newspapers from 1865 until well after his execution, carried frequent mention of Edward Rulloff, Ithaca’s gentleman and murderer,” according to Rulloff’s segment in Lives Passed: Biographical Sketches from Central New York, written in 1937. “The public memory of this intelligent but twisted man lives on.”
For instance, on June 22, 1845, when his wife and child were seen for the last time and he rode off the next morning with a suspicious trunk in his horse’s carriage.
Rulloff’s story to his in-laws was that his wife and daughter had departed their home to visit relatives and he was headed off to visit them. However, most people at the time believed the trunk contained his family’s corpses, after multiple patients had died of mysterious circumstances.
Court records revealed that Rulloff was supposed to have admitted to his lawyer during his future trial that he had indeed disposed of their bodies in Cayuga Lake. Still another theory maintains he donated their bodies to Geneva Medical College.
But whenever his in-laws pursued an answer from him, he calmly answered, “She is between the lakes.”
Ithacans and his wife’s family demanded Rulloff’s imprisonment unless he could solicit a letter from his wife, proving she was still alive.
When Rulloff fled from Ithaca upon sending the letter, his brother-in-law Ephraim Shutt followed the fugitive throughout upstate New York and then Ohio. He caught up with him in Cleveland and with the help of authorities, returned him to Ithaca in handcuffs.
But when the local district attorney found no body in Cayuga Lake, Rulloff could only be found innocent of kidnapping, not murder. In Jan. 1846, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Accounts describe the prison guards’ disbelief at such an articulate, intelligent and cultured gentleman of a prisoner.
While behind bars, he gained the trust of Sheriff Jacob Jarvis by tutoring his 18 year old son, Albert Jarvis, in French and Latin. On May 5, 1857, Rulloff escaped incarceration with the younger Jarvis to northwestern Pennsylvania. Local wanted posters read:
“Said Rulloff is about 5 feet 8 inches high, stout build, short thick neck, large head, a man of quick precise motions, and stoops forward when he walks, speaks English, German, and other languages, and had a beard of some six of eight weeks when he left.”
During his fugitive life, his exploits maintained typical Rulloff duality; he committed countless robberies while maintaining a dignified post of teacher at a writing school. During on of his fateful ventures, he succumbed to frostbite and lost his large toe on his left foot—a detail that would eventually result in his demise.
From 1865 to 1870, Rulloff resurfaced as James H. Kerron and committed a series of burglaries throughout upstate New York. They kept a low profile, living in a boarding house in New York City.
Between illegal escapades, Rulloff completed a book on linguistics entitled Method in the Formation of Language, which is today regarded as a masterpiece. Rulloff convinced his accomplices that such a work would earn them a great deal of money.
This was put to the test in 1869 when Rulloff, disguised as famed professor of philology Edouard Leurio, attended the American Philologist Convention in Poughkeepsie. He managed to get the manuscript read by the convention’s publication committee which, to Rulloff’s disappointment, was rejected. Rulloff and his accomplices resolved to raise the money to publish the work themselves—through thievery.
The burglary of D. M. and E. G. Halbert’s store resulted in one of the store clerk’s murder, the mysterious deaths of Jarvis and Dexter and left shoe with a mysterious indent in the front at the crime scene. Authorities used this to identify Rulloff and send him to Binghamton where he was sentenced to death by hanging.
The entire town eagerly awaited the execution of a man who had previously evaded the law after murdering his family.
Just as the executioner released the trap, Rulloff uttered his final words, urging the proceedings to hurry so he “might be in Hell for lunch.”
Todd Nau, general manager at Rulloff’s, said this quote gave the restaurant its sardonic atmosphere.
“Our current menu features appetizers called ‘opening statements and our cheeseburger is called ‘first degree’,” he said. “It’s definitely a very sardonic figure but we have a lot of fun with it.”