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Rogue Scholar: the Sinister Life and Clebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff
By Richard W. Bailey
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2003 Richard W. Bailey
All right reserved.
1 Another Line of Work
In the fall of 1857, a stranger dressed as a farmer knocked on the door of Almon Benson Richmond--"A. B." his friends called him-- lawyer, inventor, and occasional physician in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The man was of middle height with a thick neck and a broad, flat face. There was nothing very remarkable about his appearance. He said his name was James Nelson, and, after a few words of explanation, A. B. took a shine to him and invited him in.
A. B. took Nelson into his laboratory to inspect drawings for a machine he had invented while working as assistant director of machinery at the Crystal Palace fair in New York City. "I saw from the tone of his voice that he was evidently a gentleman of culture and education," Richmond later reported. They entered A. B.'s museum and looked at the shells in his cabinet of curiosities, and Nelson noticed some confusion in the exhibit cases.
He immediately stopped and called my attention to the fact, saying, "Mr. Richmond, that is certainly not correct. The shell is not correctly labeled. That shell is surely not Spondylus Spinosus, but is the Argonauto Argo."
. . . Of course I was very much astonished to find that he should know anything about them, but I found, upon further conversation, that he was perfectly familiar with the science of Concology, and also equally well acquainted with the science of mineralogy. My astonishment increased when, a little further along, he picked up the skull of an Indian that had been found on a Western battlefield, and remarked, "Ah! that man received a terrible blow upon the right parietal bone. See it has fractured the temporal bone and the zygomatic process": and remarked further, "he must have been a man of considerable age, as the lambdoidal suture is almost obliterated."
Every word they exchanged increased A. B.'s sense of wonder; Nelson seemed to know everything about the objects on display.
He passed around the collection and repeated a quotation in Latin, with which, by mere chance, I happened to be familiar, and I continued the conversation as though he had spoken to me in English.
Then he repeated a sentence in Greek. I discovered that he was evidently trying to exhibit his best phases intellectually, and remarked to him that it was something unusual to find a visitor so well acquainted with the sciences and languages.
He then took from his pocket a certificate from the late Rev. Dr. Barker, President of Allegheny College. The certificate stated that he had examined Mr. James Nelson in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German, and that he took pleasure in stating "that he found him one of the best linguists it was ever his pleasure to meet."
Nelson said that he had obtained the certificate, as he desired to obtain the situation of principal in some school or academy.
We then passed into the laboratory, where we found on a shelf some apparatus that I had used in the stomach of Daniel Brewster, who had been poisoned by arsenic. I found him perfectly familiar with all the tests for detecting poisons, and apparently as much so with my galvanic, electrical, magnetic and chemical apparatus as I was myself, or even more so.A. B. Richmond thought he was in the company of an unusually learned man, as measured against the scale of his own erudition. A. B. was, of course, celebrating himself as one "well acquainted with the sciences and languages," and, further, as the sole proprietor of a law practice, a laboratory, and a museum. By the time he wrote up this account in the winter of 1870, A. B. had become even more successful, and in the twentieth century a local historian in Meadville would declare that A. B. had been as famous as Clarence Darrow for his clever defense of hopeless cases.
To secure a patent on his machine, A. B. needed to submit a model to the Patent Office, and he invited Nelson to build it. Several weeks passed as Nelson worked on the model, mostly at night for, he said, his eyesight was bad and the sunlight hurt him. A. B. was delighted with Nelson's progress.
In going into the laboratory one day, he asked me if I had an emery wheel, for polishing. I showed him one, which he said was not rightly constructed, and described to me a method of constructing one which I had heard was used in the Auburn Penitentiary, in the State of New York.
I remarked to him jocularly, "Mr. Nelson, this is the way they polish cutlery in the Penitentiary. Were you ever there?"
He turned suddenly upon me, and his eyes fairly blazed with fire, with a look like a tiger ready to spring upon its victim, as he said, "What do you mean?" and a more fiendish expression on a human countenance, I think I never saw. But he perceived from my look, that it was only in joke. He said that he had seen that one in use in polishing cutlery when there on a visit.But Nelson had not been there on a visit. He had spent a decade there as a prisoner. He was, then, Edward Howard Rulloff, who had escaped very recently from the Ithaca jail and had fled westward to Meadville. He worked at night not because his eyes hurt him but because daylight might reveal his identity to those who could earn a generous reward by capturing him.
A. B. Richmond, like so many others, found his encounter with Rulloff memorable. He did not forget him. Like nearly everyone else, A. B. wondered how this learned monster grew up to be a murderer.
In creating their lives of Rulloff, journalists Ham Freeman and Ed Crapsey had very different ideas, but they quoted A. B. Richmond's narrative in full. Ed Crapsey saw Rulloff as a prodigy of egotism.
The immeasurable vanity of the man had been displayed before his accomplishments were paraded to the astonishment of Mr. Richmond, and to as little practical purpose, except its own gratification.In Crapsey's view, Rulloff had played a trick on the "estimable" president of Allegheny College, the Reverend Dr. John Barker, and he had imposed himself on the most intelligent part of Meadville's population. He was "a mountebank murderer." Meadville, in his view, had had a narrow escape: Rulloff might have been taken at face value without his evil becoming apparent until too late. Crapsey saw Rulloff as an impostor and titled his book The Man of Two Lives--one life virtuous and the other vile. Rulloff was a dissembler, a demon in disguise.
For Ham, the story spoke for itself: Rulloff was something approaching a genius with practical skills (for instance, model making) and theoretical knowledge (for example, of the geography of the human skull). Ham concluded by noting the barest of facts: "Mr. Richmond learned shortly after that his James Nelson was no other than the notorious Rulloff, who it was supposed had murdered his wife and child at Ithaca, N.Y." Ham put journalistic distance between his report and the facts; Ed Crapsey would have no such evasions. Rulloff was not supposed to have murdered his wife; he had unquestionably done so in a spasm of violence.
Ham Freeman called his book The Only True and Authentic History of Edward H. Rulloff. At the last minute, having seen what Crapsey had written, he added a surtitle: The Veil of Secrecy Removed. Ham's Rulloff was far more complex than the figure held up to scorn by his competitor. Searching beyond what he saw as Ed's simplistic judgments, Ham hoped to come at his truth of the real Rulloff. In the end, he was convinced that he had not entirely solved the mystery. He declared that
though he was undoubtedly a great scholar, possessed of various literary attainments, still there was a species of insanity or monomania which affected all his intellectual faculties, prevaded [sic] his whole soul and irresistably [sic] controlled all his actions, and that such being the truth, he was not morally or legally accountable for his deeds.(Monomania, in the psychology of the day, was lunacy brought on by a fixation with one thing. In 1851, Melville had given monomania an enduring fictional life in Ahab's quest for the white whale; in 1859, Dickens displayed monomania in A Tale of Two Cities in Dr. Manette's constant treadling at his spinning wheel. It was a form of madness especially congenial to the nineteenth-century imagination.)
Ed Crapsey had no truck with such nonsense. Rulloff was not a great scholar, and his knowledge of languages, he asserted, was both superficial and acquired in prison when he was an adult. He had had no more than a fleeting common school education in his youth. He had not been a child prodigy and was a grown-up fraud.
With his school certificate in hand, in Ham's version, Rulloff was thrown upon the world. An uncle might have supported him for further study, Ham said, but he was adamant that any education that he paid for be commercial (and hence worthy) rather than liberal (with little likelihood of economic value). They quarreled and Rulloff's conventional education ended. Perhaps the argument with his uncle was early evidence for his lifelong warfare against commerce.
Ham reported that Rulloff had read law with Duncan Robertson and acquired not only a taste for it but also an expertise in its practice. Crapsey thought that he had been merely a copyist of legal papers. Whatever the truth, in later life Rulloff had no compunction about representing himself as a lawyer, and his performances had as much plausibility as his display of genius in A. B. Richmond's museum. As a lawyer, he produced results: he could get crooks acquitted.
Ham wanted his readers to know that he had affecting stories to tell, though tact required him to keep silent in order to protect delicate feelings.
While in the office of Mr. [Duncan] Robertson, Edward got himself into trouble by trying to assist another, a friend of his, who was in distress, out of trouble. What the precise nature of that trouble was we do not know, as the matter was kept private, but we are assured by those who ought to and do know that it was no misdemeanor, that it was nothing disgraceful to Edward, but on the contrary it was highly creditable to him, inasmuch as he sacrificed himself and his own interests and happiness to honorably save another.This is unreliable nonsense. Ham had no independent corroboration of any honorable self-sacrifice. He had only Rulloff's word to go on, and he trusted it even though (he would later admit in the preface to his book) Rulloff never trusted him.
Ed Crapsey, poking into Rulloff's youth, came up with a different story. Rulloff had been a clerk for Keater and Thorne dry goods. Although the studious and conscientious clerk had impressed his employers with his diligence, things began to go wrong. Twice fires broke out in the store, and circumstances led them to suspect an arsonist. The virtuous Rulloff--an active, willing, and obliging young man in the view of his employers--had been above suspicion.
Borrowing against their good name, Keater and Thorne managed to resume business after the two fires, latterly in the same building occupied by lawyer Duncan Robertson on Prince William Street. But then there were thefts, most memorably of some suiting goods. The merchants hired a detective to help, and he soon traced the stolen goods to a less than scrupulous merchant on Water Street.
Shortly after that theft, Rulloff appeared in an elegant suit made of the very material that had been stolen. Thorne saw at once what the source of that suit had been, and he tried to reason with his clerk. But Rulloff declared himself outraged at being accused. Other members of his family rose to his defense and circulated unpleasant rumors about Mr. Thorne. Since Rulloff would not come clean, Thorne notified the authorities.
The source of the suit having been ascertained at trial, Rulloff was sentenced to two years in the St. John Penitentiary. In the fall of 1841, he was released. He was twenty, and, with the remarkable talent for renaming himself when occasion arose, he styled himself Edward Howard Rulloff. He had also learned how to serve time.
In 1841, St. John was a thriving city of some thirteen thousand inhabitants, twelve churches, two public libraries, and a chamber of commerce. Rulloff had not been forgotten during the two years he had been imprisoned, and, despite his very respectable family, the likelihood of his future employment there was slim. So he walked out of the penitentiary and down to the docks, where he found a boat to the nearest American town--Calais, Maine, at the mouth of the St. Croix River. In the forest just above Calais his younger brother Rulof had settled and was learning the lumber business. The two brothers must have affirmed their kinship, and much later, Rulof would provide Edward with invaluable assistance. Calais was not far enough from St. John and the penitentiary so, after a short visit, Rulloff went on to New York City.
There in 1842, Rulloff said, he enrolled in a commercial school conducted by a Mr. Gourand, where he learned bookkeeping and other useful skills. In Ham Freeman's sentimental account of Rulloff's life, he "went out into a strange world, poor, inexperienced, without powerful influence, with nothing to recommend him but his learning, and the great ability with which he was by many supposed to be endowed."
Seldom grateful to anyone and always wanting people to believe that he had gained skills by unaided study, Rulloff said later that Gourand had promised to set him up in some business but only took his money. He called him "a humbug and a fraud." But why had he enrolled in Gourand's school in the first place? Perhaps two years in the penitentiary had made a commercial education seem less repellent than it had before. Whatever his state of mind, Rulloff became skilled as a penman in the many hands that were expected in the commercial world of the day--and his distinctive handwriting would be recognized by others until the end of his life.
Though Rulloff hardly ever left any town without having drawn the attention of the police, he left New York City unnoticed, taking a boat to Albany and then traveling by canal westward. Arriving at Syracuse in May 1842, he met the proprietor of a passenger boat, William H. Schutt, then twenty-four years old. Rulloff told Schutt that he was out of money and hoped to find a place where he could set up a school. Schutt agreed to let him earn his passage and then made a fatal mistake: he invited Rulloff home.
There was nothing in their early friendship to arouse Will Schutt's suspicions. Rulloff was an eager worker, helping out along the towpaths, assisting in operating locks, and even jumping into the canal to remove snags impeding the boat's progress.
At the end of the journey, Will took him home to the town of Dryden, between Ithaca and Cortland in the Finger Lakes region. The more he came to know him, the more he marveled at Rulloff's accomplishments.
In 1842, this part of New York State was still emerging from the wilderness. Named in 1815, Dryden was originally built on the lumber business (it had fifty-one sawmills in 1835). By the time Rulloff settled there, there were still good farms and a community of industrious people. There were Germans, not only the Schutt family but Snyders, Krums, and others whose handsome tombstones still ornament the beautiful cemetery on a knoll west of Dryden village. Education was valued, and the octagonal schoolhouse built in 1827 was a landmark.
As a guest of the Schutt family, Rulloff began his career as a schoolmaster, not at the "common school," which any child might attend, but at a "select school," where fee-paying parents thought they were getting something better. Among the pupils were Landon D. Krum, a cousin of the Schutts, and two of Will's bright and attractive sisters, Jane and Harriet Schutt. Rulloff taught them in the fall of 1842 and the winter of 1843.
Harriet Schutt was much attached to her family, but before long the schoolmaster was paying court to her, and she responded enthusiastically to his attentions. Later Ephraim Schutt, Will's older brother known as "Eph," said that they were suspicious of the outsider, but the family "was not much opposed to the marriage." In the summer of 1843, Rulloff abandoned schoolteaching to go to Ithaca, six or seven miles away from the Schutt farm, in order to become a physician, but continued his attentions to Harriet.
On December 31, 1843, Rulloff and Harriet were married. The next day, Will Schutt married too, and a crowd of family members celebrated: Harriet's brothers Eph, James, Henry, Aaron, Francis, and John; her younger sisters Mary, Hanna, and Ellen; and her oldest sister Jane. Rulloff had no relations or friends to stand beside him.
There were omens, even as the Rulloffs were married. At the end of the ceremonies, the minister had kissed both brides. Rulloff was enraged. If he were a woman, he said, he "would murder a minister before he would permit him to kiss her." A few days later, some of the family and the Rulloffs went to a shilling party where card games and merriment would have been expected. Again the minister kissed Harriet and again Rulloff was very angry. He said he would never take Harriet anywhere again. She refused to eat for two days, punishing herself for her new husband's violence.
The marriage was not off to a good start.
Rulloff was restless. He resumed his schoolteaching for a while and continued to learn more and more about medicine from Dr. William Stone, who called himself a "botanical physician," though others thought of him as a root doctor. In his practice, Dr. Stone continued the age-old methods of treating disease with herbs and other organic medicines. Soon Rulloff bought a copy of Hooper's Lexicon-Medicum and found listed in it the "materia medica" of healing as practiced by his teacher. There were two lists of medications. One described medications such as ipecacuanha, squill, and mustard; these had been used by physicians since the Middle Ages. The other named medications such as Anthemis nobilis, Sulphas zinci, and Hydro-sulphuretum ammoniae, which look forward to modern chemistry.
Excerpted from Rogue Scholar: the Sinister Life and Clebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff by Richard W. Bailey Copyright © 2003 by Richard W. Bailey. Excerpted by permission.
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