Ithaca, N.Y. — The most notorious mask in Ithaca history wasn’t making the rounds this Halloween.
Micah: Why I shop in downtown Ithaca
It was stored safely away at the History Center on State Street, awaiting its next appearance marking the memory of the infamous man from whose face it was cast soon after he died one-hundred-forty-three years ago.
There will be another appearance someday, no doubt. For the legend of John Edward Howard Rulofson, or Rolofson, or, as he was known in these parts, Edward Rulloff, haunts Ithaca still — and that’s just what he vowed would happen not long before he was executed. But it’s not exactly what he wanted.
The basic facts of his life have been oft told. His bio shows up on sites like “Crime Library” and “Murderpedia.” Born in Canada, he began a dual existence at a young age — educating himself to an astonishing extent, and also thieving, sometimes getting caught, jailed, breaking free or doing time, then starting the cycle over.
He probably murdered his wife and child, but their bodies were never found and he was convicted only of abduction in those crimes. He may have poisoned two other relatives. He was finally convicted of killing a store clerk in Binghamton during a burglary in which his two accomplices drowned in the river trying to get away.
His trial was a spectacle covered by New York City newspapers. Mark Twain came winkingly to his defense in a letter to the editor. His execution in May, 1871 was the last public hanging in New York state. All that has been well chronicled.
But The Voice wanted to know more.
Rulloff had fancied himself a genius, equated himself with the greatest minds of all time. (He has been dubbed “the learned murderer” or “gentleman, scholar and murderer” or “the genius killer.”) He claimed to have mastered dozens of languages and dialects. He claimed to have written the definitive work in the then-popular field of philology, a book that he hoped would bring him fame and fortune and change the world.
As Katherine Ramsland explains in her essay on him in “Crime Library”: Rulloff “spent long hours putting together what he believed would be the most important book for humankind, Method in the Formation of Language. He taught himself a number of different languages, with varying degrees of facility, in order to get to the origin of all thinking and communication, because he believed that knowledge of the way language had begun offered primal information about who and what human beings fundamentally were…”
So what happened to the book? Did it change the world, or at least change the way scholars viewed language formation? Did it have any impact at all on the modern study of linguistics?
The Voice turned to John Whitman, Professor of Linguistics at Cornell. Whitman did a little digging. He found a record of correspondence between Rulloff and an Amherst College professor. (This is the link: http://consecratedeminence.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/murder-and-method-the-curious-correspondence-of-julius-seelye-and-edward-rulloff/ )
Whitman emphasized that his opinions were preliminary and based only on these fragments. “I would like to read the full letter before making a judgment about how much he knew.”
Still, he was able to get some sense of the man’s work.
“From the fragments viewable at the link, it appears that one of Rulloff’s letters may have laid out the general shape of his theory,” Whitman said. And from what Whitman was able to review, he was not impressed.
“It is hard to make out from the two pages reproduced at the link,” he said, “but the theory appears to be a classic (and that doesn’t mean good) explanation-by-etymology theory: the original shape of words has a relation to the way the world is. The etymologizing shows that Rulloff was aware of the field of comparative philology, very much in the popular imagination in the 19th century, but he doesn’t know how to do it. The etymologies he proposes are almost all fantasies.”
And it gets worse for Rulloff:
“As his work was never published, he had no impact on 19th century linguistics, and if it had been, on the basis of what little I can see, it would have been ignored.”
Ignored. There! Take that, smart bad man!
So the study of language and language formation owes no debt to Rulloff.
He may not have been as smart and original a thinker as he thought, but he sure was brainy. A Cornell professor, Burt Wilder, obtained Rulloff’s brain and measured it and declared it the largest brain on record at that time. At 1,770 grams, it is about 30% larger than the average-sized brain.
It is still on display in the Psychology Department at Cornell, on the second floor of Uris Hall. A book displayed with it, “Brains: The Mind as Matter,” describes the brain as “perhaps the most infamous in US history.” It notes that Twain had written the satirical letter to a New York paper suggesting another man be hanged in Rulloff’s place to “spare his astonishing intellectual gifts.” (Twain said he was trying to stoke a debate about the death penalty).
Even today — in the History Center, in the Psych Department, in the history of Collegetown and in the lore of the community — Rulloff remains.
Just as he predicted.
“You cannot kill an unquiet spirit,” he told the Ithaca Daily Leader the week before his death; “and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of 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 at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.’”
Remembered, yes; but not read or revered. And that would surely haunt him.