“In the prison in Binghamton there is a man awaiting death who is too curious an intellectual… to be wasted on the gallows.” ~Horace Greely, publisher of the New York Tribune.
“If [any] life be offered up to the gallows to atone for the murder… will that suffice? If so… I will bring forward a [dullard] who, in the interest of learning and science, will take [the] crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in [the accused’s] place.” ~Mark Twain.
The man whom Greely felt was too valuable to kill – the man whom the sarcastic Twain felt was a total fraud – was one Edward Rulloff, a noted inventor of his day. But he was also known as James Nelson, E.C. Howard, James Dalton, Edward Lieurio, &c., and claimed at various times in his life to be an attorney, a physician, a schoolmaster, a daguerreotypist, a carpet designer, an artist, a philologist fluent in six modern and two ancient languages, and a phrenologist.
You see, Rulloff enjoyed writing. Whether he actually had expertise in the stated fields is debatable, but it is know that he financed his passion for writing with criminal activities, and did a lot of his composition while in prison.
Before the age of 20, he had successfully clerked for a local law firm – and had been incarcerated twice for theft.
In 1844 his wife disappeared. Charged with her murder, Rulloff acted as attorney pro se and beat the rap, though he was convicted of a lesser charge of abduction and spent almost ten years in the penitentiary in Auburn. More scholarly articles followed from his cell, since he had a lot of time on his hands.
In 1870, again a free man, he was working on what was to be his opus, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field of linguistics.
That same year, while taking study breaks, he was running with a gang of petty thieves under a number of aliases, and broke into a dry good store in Binghamton. In the process, the night watchman was shot and killed.
Rulloff’s trial for the murder of that watchman was a national sensation, and this time, again as attorney pro se, the charge stuck. He was sentenced to death.
Appeals and debate followed – should a man so academically prolific be lost to civilization’s benefit, especially when he said that he was on the verge of a great intellectual breakthrough?
As time ran out, Rulloff confessed to having killed his wife by smashing her skull with a pestle he used to grind medicine.
He asked to be buried in a vault to prevent post-mortem desecration. The request was denied.
Edward Rulloff was hanged on 18 May 1871.
His body was put on public display, then given to Dr George Burr of the Geneva Medical College, who kept the head and buried the torso. The torso was later stolen by medical students. The head – now just the brain – resides to this day in the Wilder Anatomic Collection of Cornell University.
And his purportedly promising breakthrough in linguistics? The manuscript was never finished.
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