This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”
In some way, shape or form, most Cornellians are familiar with the Rulloff name. If you’ve ever lingered in Collegetown, you’re aware of Rulloff’s restaurant and bar over on College Avenue. If you’re a real campus adventurer, you might even be aware of Edward Rulloff’s brain, stored in preservatives over in Uris Hall. But, apart from the piece of news that he was a convicted murderer and noted linguist, not much else is shared. So this entry is to shine a little more light on the murderous man of many talents.
Edward H. Rulloff (officially John Edward Howard Rulofson) was born around 1820 to Rulof Rulofson, a second-generation American who had the unfortunate luck of being a loyalist living in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. Unsurprisingly, he left for New Brunswick, where he was granted land and became, of all things, justice of the peace. Some articles suggest that Edward developed his talents as a result of an incident where his younger brother Rulof was critically injured due to a beating from a school teacher (it took young Rulof several weeks to recover; the teacher begged for forgiveness, which was apparently given, and the brother became a prosperous lumber merchant in northern Pennsylvania).
Edward was, as an adult, described as a serious and studious individual, professorial, even grandfatherly. He was devoted to his research, often spending several hours a day researching and writing, in spartan accommodations – the life of a hard-nosed academic. He went by numerous names and aliases – Edouard Leurio, Edward Rulofson, and his preferred name, Edward Rulloff. Edward Rulloff considered himself a self-taught but well-respected philologist – that is, a person who studies language formation.
Edward Rulloff’s research was that he believed there was “method” in the incongruities of the world’s languages (a sort of “key” for decoding languages). This pursuit was dubious at best; his theories were but one of dozens, with most of the others tying into “superior” and “inferior” languages and overt racism. Besides the philology, Rulloff was a self-trained physician, an inventor, and a self-proclaimed expert on phrenology (a debunked science suggesting that bumps on the human skull were indicative of certain behaviors and character traits). However, he had never gained much wealth, which he wrote off to “misfortunes”, as he opined during his many forays into self-pity. He hoped to build his name on his manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, and gain the wealth and respect he craved.
But there was more to Edward Ruloff than his elderly professor persona; as a young man, he served two years for embezzlement. Arriving in Dryden in the 1840s, he was arrested for several burglaries and robberies between 1845 and 1871, and was accused of beating his wife Harriet and their young daughter to death (it was alleged their bodies were dumped into Cayuga Lake; although never proven, he served ten years, possibly because the jury believed an innocent man does not flee to Chicago and then lure his brother-in-law out west on a wild goose chase), as well as poisoning his sister-in-law and niece. Although Rulloff was in and out of jail (and broke out of the Tompkins County jail at least once, only to be apprehended in Ohio after being recognized by an old prison-mate), he avoided real punishment due to a lack of evidence in his crimes.
Eventually, his luck ran out. After murdering a store clerk in Binghamton, Rulloff was sentenced to death by hanging. He was caught because he left behind his shoes fleeing the scene, and missing his left big toe, the lack of a left toe indent in those shoes made for an easy identifier of their owner. His was the last public hanging in New York State, on May 18th, 1871. It is claimed his last words were “Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner.” His brain was collected by Cornell professor Burt Wilder, who declared it the largest he had ever examined.
As it would seem, Rulloff’s vicious behavior seem to have run in the family. His youngest brother, a notable 19th century photographer named William Rulofson, was known to have a vicious temper himself. William had ten kids from two wives, of which one of them, Charles, murdered his half-sister. The boy was nine years old.
…and to leave this entry off, here’s an excerpt from Rulloff’s Restaurant’s biography of Edward Rulloff:
“Unrepentant to the end, Rulloff proclaimed in his final interview, published in the Ithaca Daily Leader the week before his death, ‘…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.‘”