Edward H. Rulloff was one of the most famous American criminals of the 19th century, believed responsible for multiple murders and sundry other crimes, and eventually being publicly hanged in Binghamton, New York. He was also a brilliant savant, obsessively seeking respectability and the approval of what he deemed “good society.”
And if not for this obsession, his crime spree would have without a doubt included the National Union Bank in Monticello, the County Seat of Sullivan County.
Edward Howard Rulloff was born in Canada in 1819 or 1820, no one seems quite sure. While awaiting his execution in Binghamton in 1871, he told E.H. Freeman, an editor of the Binghamton Leader newspaper who later published the book, Edward H. Rulloff: The Veil of Secrecy Removed, that his parents were of Dutch ancestry, but other sources have recorded that they were German immigrants. Rulloff told Freeman that his father was “a well to do farmer, a Justice of the Peace in the town where he resided, and a most reputable and highly respected citizen,” and that his mother was “a Christian woman of remarkable force of character, and considerable education.”
Edward was one of four children, and two of his brothers went on to become quite wealthy, one as a lumber dealer in Pennsylvania, and the other as a photographer of some renown in San Francisco. Edward was apparently quite spoiled as a child, and exhibited a penchant for learning quickly the most complicated subjects. Some sources say he was sent to jail for embezzlement after stealing from his very first employer, but in his jailhouse interview with Freeman, Edward denied this, and Freeman wrote that he was unable to find any record of the arrest or conviction.
Rulloff arrived in Ithaca, NY sometime around 1841, taking a job as a schoolteacher in Dryden, and eventually marrying one of his students. Shortly after the wedding, he moved the family to nearby Lansing and although he had no formal medical training, became the town doctor. By 1845 he was suspected of killing his wife and young child as well as his sister-in-law and niece. A lack of evidence prevented him from being charged with the murders, but he was imprisoned for abducting his wife, whose disappearance had aroused the suspicions of her family. While in prison, he made the acquaintance of the jailer’s son, who not only helped him escape, but thereafter became his lifelong accomplice.
After robbing a bank in New Hampshire and hiding out in New York City, Rulloff made his way to Monticello in 1868. There, it was suggested by criminal friends, there were men of property and a bank that might make an easy target.
“I went up on the Erie Railroad and got off at a little station and rode over to Monticello in the stage,” Rulloff is quoted in Richard W. Bailey’s 2003 book, Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff. “It is a rough country and this was rather a dreary ride, but the free air of these mountains was pleasant and exhilarating to me. I stopped at the hotel for awhile, then at a private boarding house, and then went back to the hotel. I placed what money I had, about $400, in the bank at Monticello, and became acquainted with the bank officers, and learned all about the bank and the habits of its officers.”
Using the name James Nelson, Rulloff had registered at the Monticello House on Main Street, but upon learning that George Bennett, one of the National Union tellers, was looking for a tenant, he took a room in his house, and made every effort to meet all of the important people in town.
“I gave an oyster supper to which I invited the Sheriff and Judge [Timothy F.] Bush, and many other of the nobility of that little town,” Bailey quotes Rulloff as recalling. “They all accepted. They seemed to enjoy my hospitality; they eat (sic) and drank everything I sat before them. I saw afterwards that I was suspected by the bank officers. I could read the countenances of some, especially Sheriff [Benjamin W.] Winner, who is an ignoramus, followed me around a great deal and made himself officious.”
Although Rulloff had sent for his accomplices and they arrived in town ready to rob the National Union Bank, the break-in never occurred. Rulloff later said he could not bring himself to commit the crime.
“I had been received in good society there and had been well treated by decent men for the first time in years, and I did not wish to abandon their confidence,” he said.
James Nelson—or Rulloff– disappeared from Monticello as quickly as he had arrived, and after stops in New York City and elsewhere, he made his way to Binghamton. There, he and two accomplices botched an attempt to steal a shipment of fine silks from a large store, killing one of the store’s clerks in the process. Both of his cohorts drowned in making their escape, but Rulloff survived, only to be captured, tried, and hanged in a sensational series of events that are still part of the city’s lore.
A macabre twist to the tale is that following his execution in May of 1871, Rulloff’s brain was removed for examination, and was highly publicized as the largest ever measured up until that time. It remains on display at Cornell University, and to this day is generally regarded as the second largest brain ever recorded. Although there is no actual association with him, a popular college bar in Ithaca still bears the name “Rulloff’s.”
Illustration: The last known portrait of Edward H. Rulloff.