A photo of illustration of Edward Rulloff, with spooky elements and the quote: "In the dead of night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence."

In this Spooky Season, a Look Back at Rulloff—Ithaca’s Infamous Rogue

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More than 150 years after his death, the scholarly criminal’s legend lives on—but was he innocent of his most heinous crime?

By Beth Saulnier

“Thus died the man of vast pretense and overweening vanity,” the New York Times reported more than a century and a half ago, “who was a thief when a boy, who had spent 18 of his 51 years in prison, who was a bungler in crime while a charlatan in learning, and great only in depravity.”

He was Upstate New York’s most infamous rogue: Edward Rulloff, the serial murderer and wannabe scholar who escaped justice for decades before it finally met him at the end of a hangman’s rope on May 18, 1871.

Dubbed “the Genius Killer” by a 19th-century press that breathlessly followed his career in crime, Rulloff has remained a figure of fascination—the subject of multiple books, innumerable media stories, and even a true-crime podcast.

The exterior of the former Rulloff's Restaurant at night.
Rulloff’s was a beloved College Avenue eatery for generations—but its building was demolished in 2020. (Cornell University)

“‘Rogue scholar’ is a good description of him,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14, citing the title of a Rulloff biography published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003.

“The fact that he had this academic sense about him but also killed people added to his lore. He certainly considered himself an academic and wanted to be remembered for his research and writings—that’s what makes him more intriguing than if he’d just been a murderer, and also what makes him appealing at an academic institution like Cornell.”

While Rulloff had no connection to the University during his lifetime—and his residency in Tompkins County predated Cornell’s founding—he has long been part of Big Red lore.

Rulloff has remained a figure of fascination—the subject of multiple books, innumerable media stories, and even a true-crime podcast.

Most prominently, the eponymous Collegetown eatery and watering hole was a popular gathering spot for some four decades, keeping the Rulloff legend alive for generations of students until its closure in 2020.

The University Archives include a number of Rulloff-related artifacts, including an engraved invitation to his execution and the papers of Francis Finch, the attorney who represented him during a key legal battle and later joined the law faculty.

And of course, Rulloff’s brain—an uncommonly large specimen—is the most famous entry in Uris Hall’s Wilder Brain Collection.

“He was a colorful character; he broke the norms,” says Carol Kammen, an authority on Tompkins County history and a former lecturer on the Hill. “He was a larger-than-life person who broke the rules, who engaged the public’s imagination because the press built him up; he made for good copy.”

Rulloff went by various aliases over the years, but he was born John Edward Howard Rulofson near Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1821 (according to Rogue Scholar; other sources put his birth one or two years earlier).

His father died in 1827, leaving his mother to raise three sons. The family’s financial straits derailed Rulloff’s dreams of higher education, and after leaving school around age 16 he went to work as a clerk in a dry goods store.

And there, apparently, his life of crime began: a series of fires were suspected to be arson aimed at covering up inventory thefts. When Rulloff was observed sporting a suit that was among the stolen goods, he was convicted of embezzlement and served two years in prison.

A proclamation titled STOP THE MURDERER! $1,250 REWARD!
A "wanted" poster from May 1857.

After his release, he emigrated to the U.S. and eventually found work on the Erie Canal; there, he impressed a Tompkins County man named Will Schutt, who invited him to his home. That decision would prove fatal to several of Schutt’s relatives—including his younger sister, Harriet, who’d become Rulloff’s wife and most famous victim.

The Edward Rulloff who arrived at the Schutt farm in Dryden in mid-1842 was an outwardly impressive figure; he spoke multiple languages including Greek, Latin, and German, and he soon found work as a schoolmaster.

His students included a teenaged Harriet, who fell hard for the erudite older man, and their courtship continued after Rulloff began training in Ithaca as a doctor of herbal medicine.

Accounts vary as to when Rulloff’s true colors began to emerge—whether his unpredictable temper and propensity for violence had shown themselves prior to the marriage—but the two were wed on the final day of 1843.

The Rulloff who arrived in mid-1842 was an outwardly impressive figure; he spoke multiple languages including Greek, Latin, and German.

The couple’s daughter—Priscilla, named after Rulloff’s mother—was born in April 1845. Two months later, mother and baby vanished.

The Rulloffs were by then living in a small house in Lansing, and he explained his family’s absence by claiming that mother and daughter were traveling (though their alleged location changed repeatedly).

In fact—as he’d confess decades later—he’d murdered Harriet in a fit of rage; while he never admitted to killing the baby, he said he “gave it a narcotic to stop its crying.”

After putting the bodies in a chest, he borrowed a wagon and team and drove along the lakeshore. He then took a boat, rowed out to deep water, and dropped the weighted bodies overboard.

An illustration of Rulloff attacking his wife and child.
A 19th-century book illustration imagines the scene of Rulloff attacking his wife and baby.

And as awful as that crime was, Harriet and Priscilla may not have been the only people he killed that month. Just weeks earlier, Will Schutt had asked Rulloff to use his skills as an herbalist to treat Will’s sick wife and infant daughter. Both died within days.

“In later years,” observed Rogue Scholar, “most people would believe that Rulloff had murdered them both.”

After the disappearance of his own wife and child, Rulloff first feigned innocence and then went on the run. He was soon apprehended and tried in Ithaca for his wife’s abduction; since the bodies hadn’t been found, he wasn’t indicted for murder.

He was convicted and spent 10 years in Auburn Penitentiary. On the day of his release, the Tompkins County sheriff arrested him again—this time for Harriet’s murder.

When Rulloff and his lawyers argued that this constituted double jeopardy, the district attorney dropped that charge—and replaced it with one for Priscilla’s murder. After a trial in nearby Owego—an impartial jury being impossible to find in Ithaca—he was again convicted.

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His legal team appealed, arguing that murder couldn’t be proved in the absence of a body. And here the story gets even more dramatic: as the case worked its way through the courts, Rulloff escaped from the Ithaca jail—most likely with the help of Al Jarvis, the jailer’s teenage son, whom Rulloff had tutored in languages.

He was eventually recaptured but, thanks to Finch’s brilliant lawyering, won his appeal.

Not only was he set free, but the “Rulloff Rule”—the principle that the “mere absence” of a person was not enough to prove their death, but that additional evidence was needed to convict someone of their murder—became enshrined in New York law for decades.

The “Rulloff Rule”— that a person’s absence was not enough to prove their death—became enshrined in New York law for decades.

Rulloff then devoted himself to two pursuits: writing his magnum opus in the field of philology (the study of the structure and development of languages) and committing crimes to fund his lifestyle.

“He was a student by instinct,” the New York Times would write a few months before his death, “and evidently became a scoundrel from choice.”

In 1861, one of his many thefts landed him in Ossining (“Sing Sing”) Prison, where he served more than two years and met Billy Dexter, who—along with Jarvis—would round out Rulloff’s small gang of thieves and fraudsters.

Based in NYC, the trio was particularly fond of stealing luxury fabrics, which weren’t easily traceable.

Rulloff's brain in a jar.
Rulloff's brain is arguably the most famous in the Uris Hall collection. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

The gang’s final heist, the burglary of the Halbert Brothers dry goods store in Binghamton, would prove their undoing—and provide further evidence that while Rulloff may have been a criminal and a genius, he was no criminal genius.

In August 1870, Rulloff, Jarvis, and Dexter broke into Halbert’s and were confronted by two clerks who slept in the store as a sort of overnight watch; one of them, Fred Merrick, was killed in the struggle.

He was a student by instinct, and evidently became a scoundrel from choice.

The New York Times, 1871

The burglars fled; Jarvis and Dexter were later found drowned in a nearby river, but Rulloff was apprehended on his way out of town.

He nearly talked his way out of it—but in a macabre twist on the Cinderella fable, his left foot (missing a big toe long ago lost to frostbite) was a perfect match to a shoe he’d removed to avoid making noise during the break-in and had failed to retrieve in the ensuing chaos.

The Halbert’s case became a cause célèbre—especially once it came out that Rulloff had previously escaped justice for a double homicide.

In one of the era’s “trials of the century,” he was convicted of Merrick’s murder and sentenced to death.

He tried to argue his way out of his fate on the grounds that he was simply too brilliant to kill: his philology treatise, he promised, would offer groundbreaking insights into the relationship between language and human behavior.

But all arguments in favor of sparing him failed.

An illustration of the store robbery that led to Rulloff's exectution.
Rulloff’s final crime: a burglary that turned deadly.

As a bloodthirsty crowd of thousands celebrated outside the jail, he died before 150 invited witnesses in New York State’s last public hanging.

A century and a half later, the total number of Rulloff’s victims remains a mystery; some even believe he drowned Jarvis and Dexter. But a persistent legend holds that Rulloff was innocent of his most heinous crime: the murder of his baby daughter.

As it happens, Rulloff had a niece—his younger brother’s only child—who was born the same year as the missing girl and was also named Priscilla. Could some accomplice have spirited her away to his brother’s home (then in Maine), to be passed off as his own?

A vintage newspaper clip about Rulloff, calling him "obdurate and sullen to the last."
Newspapers avidly covered Rulloff’s crimes—and his death in what would be the state’s last public hanging.

No witnesses ever surfaced.

Nevertheless, as the Times wrote in 1871: “Her age, the fact that there are no other children in the family, and the circumstances of the disappearance of Rulloff’s child have given rise to the belief ... that she is the missing child.”

Following Rulloff’s death, a journalist who’d conducted extensive jailhouse interviews with him published The Veil of Secrecy Removed.

Billed as “the only true and authentic history” of Rulloff and his crimes, it included a detailed confession about Harriet’s death and the disposal of her body.

The Rulloff legend that endures to this day was cemented by one particularly spooky statement he reportedly uttered while awaiting execution, in which he pledged to haunt Ithaca for all eternity:

“You cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of the 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 away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.”

While those phrases may not have escaped Rulloff’s lips, he almost certainly did not utter his most well-known quotation.

And it’s rather a shame—since, in the pantheon of famous last words, it would have ranked up there with Oscar Wilde pledging that either the wallpaper had to go, or he would.

“Hurry it up!” Rulloff allegedly told the hangman. “I want to be in hell in time for dinner!”

Top: Photo illustration by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All images provided, unless indicated.

Published October 19, 2023


  1. William Jadkowski, Class of 1979


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