A handful of criminals throughout history have boasted startling intellect, and would most certainly have benefitted society greatly if they had used their talents virtuously. Yet we see many occasions in which the urge to do evil trumps the desire to do good.
Born around 1820, John Edward Howard Rulloff was no exception to this sad state of affairs. Not only did he assume multiple aliases such as Rulofson and Eduoard Leurio, but he also “posed” as an accomplished employee in an astounding array of diverse careers. Rulloff went about his life as a skilled teacher, photographer, carpenter, philologist, doctor, lawyer, phrenologist, and most prominently: an experienced thief and serial killer. He eventually earned the paradoxical nickname, “The Genius Killer.”
Additionally, he fluently spoke 8 languages, and speculation suggests that he possessed knowledge of up to 28! Humorously enough, his intelligence matched his physical cranium, as Rulloff’s shoulders carried around the second largest brain ever recorded at 1673 cubic centimeters (the average human brain size is around 1400 cubic centimeters).
Rulloff grew up on the outskirts of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, and launched his criminal double-life early on, receiving a two years punishment before the age of twenty for embezzlement while working for a law firm. Soon after, he moved to Dryden, New York, where he found employment as a teacher while studying botanical medicine. Across the span of numerous years, he became involved with an abundance of robberies and theft for which he periodically served short sentences.
A year subsequent to Rulloff’s fresh start in New York, he wedded a very young Harriet Schutt. Although their life of parenthood began with the birth of a girl, Priscilla, the relationship rapidly spiraled out of control during another move to Lansing, New York. Harriet was witnessed briefly kissing her cousin, Dr. Henry W. Bull, who happened to be Rulloff’s botanical medicine partner. Rulloff accused Harriet of having an affair with Bull, and endeavored to concoct a poisonous elixir.
He presented the poison to Harriet, taunting her about a host of victims fallen prey to his deadly toxin, coaxing her by dramatically declaring they would die together if they both drank it. He abruptly disposed of the vial, claiming he was simply” fooling around.” But her horror had only just begun…
During the summer of 1844, Rulloff was suspiciously seen hauling off a wagon weighed down with a handful of large sacks headed towards Lake Cayuga. After violently murdering his wife and child and leaving his home in utter shambles, he alerted the town that his family “would be taking a few weeks away.” Rulloff’s well-known reputation as an abhorrently abusive husband inevitably failed to play in his favor, and rumors and accusations were thrown around upon his return.
Despite an intensive investigation surrounding Lake Cayuga yielding little to no evidence, The Genius Killer eventually received a mere sentence of ten years and hard labor following the discovery of copper poisoning inside the system one of Rulloff’s cousins.
While residing behind bars, Rulloff acted upon an oddly strong desire for wealth and fame. He began to formulate a language theory and sought to publish a manuscript, the Method in the Formation of Language, in hopes of satisfying his craving for recognition and spark a change within the philology industry (study of spoken language). To no surprise, evidence later surfaced proving his entire research was built upon fraud and theft.
Amidst a legal fight and shouts of double jeopardy, Rulloff managed a cunning escape with the assistance of a staff worker whom he had beguiled. In his retreat west, he miraculously appealed his murder conviction and continued to survive as a robber. Eventually, his luck ran out, and in 1870, a sloppy burglary resulted in the murder of store clerk Frederick Merrick.
Evidence was abundant, and his trial the following year served as a popular event, as his final prosecution had been long-awaited. His execution on May 18, 1871, is recorded as the last public hanging in New York.
Although the world of the 19th century had not officially deemed individuals as “psychopaths” (the term had hardly even surfaced), Rulloff would unequivocally be classified as a psychopath by today’s standards. Thank goodness the majority of brilliant minds pioneering today’s society use their knowledge for the betterment of humanity.