I must admit to a slightly macabre inclination in my travels. A recent visit to the Wilder Brain Collection in the department of Psychology at Cornell University brought me face-to-face with this:


This is the celebrated brain of the notorious murderer and philologist Edward Rulloff (1819-1871). Celebrated why? For weighing in at 1,770 grams, making it one of the largest such specimens ever recorded. It is, in fact, approximately 30% larger and heavier than the average male brain. This datum may be helpful for our understanding of Rulloff’s aberrant and tragic life; or, it may not. To be sure, (pseudo-)scientific theories of the late 19th century saw a connection; phrenology, for instance (a frequent subject of our blog: here and here) would have had much to say about the relative prominence of the various “organs” of Rulloff’s brain.

Edward H. Rulloff (1819-1871)

But more about Rulloff before we get carried away. He was a man of undoubted intellectual brilliance, but also (and just as undoubtedly) a serial criminal who would be judged to be insane in any court of law today. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, he found work as a law clerk and intensely studied the law, but when he was convicted of a series of robberies he spent two years in prison. Upon release, he relocated to Tompkins County, New York, finding work as a teacher. In June 1845, his wife and infant daughter disappeared, and though Rulloff was widely suspected of their murder, no bodies were ever found, and he was convicted only of the crime of abduction, for which he spent ten years in Auburn (N.Y.) State Prison.

Shortly after release in 1856, Rulloff was again tried for the crime of abduction, this time for his infant daughter. Escaping from Tompkins County Jail, he spent a few years on the run from the law. He also began to engage feverishly with his supreme intellectual fixation: the development of a universal “method” of language which, he claimed, would provide the key to its origins. (Rulloff, though he had very little formal schooling, claimed to have mastery of Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian, as well as a smattering of Hebrew and Sanskrit.)

In 1859 Rulloff was captured and brought back to Ithaca, N.Y., but his conviction was overturned and he went free. Throughout the 1860s he lived in New York City and continued to work on his supposed magnum opus, which was entitled “Method of the Formation of Language.” He supported himself with accomplices in periodic crime sprees throughout the state. Failing to get his scholarly work published (or even understood by philologists of the time), Rulloff sought to publish it himself with money acquired through his various crimes. But in 1870 he was involved in the robbery of a dry goods store in Binghamton, N.Y., in which a clerk was killed, another injured, and his two accomplices drowned in the river. Rulloff was charged with their murder and convicted. His trial and execution received sensational treatment in newspapers all over the country. Rulloff was hanged in Binghamton on May 18, 1871. His was the last hanging in New York State.

As I got reacquainted with Rulloff while standing in front of his milky-colored, car battery-sized brain swimming in a jar of formalin at Cornell, I recalled our own tie-in to his colorful story: in the Julius Hawley Seelye Papers in Archives & Special Collections, a series of letters Rulloff had sent to Seelye, dating from 1857 until just one day before his execution in 1871. Ten letters in all, plus assorted news clippings that Seelye collected at the end.

Professor Julius H. Seelye (AC 1849), professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, Amherst College, 1858-1890

Julius Hawley Seelye (1824-1895) probably first met Edward Rulloff when he was a young seminarian at Auburn Theological Seminary at the same time Rulloff was serving his prison sentence in the same town. However, the first letter we find from Rulloff to Seelye in the Seelye papers dates from somewhat later, 1857, when Seelye was then serving as a pastor of a church in Schenectady, N.Y. Rulloff, writing from Ithaca, wrote in answer to a letter that Seelye had written earlier, apparently expressing Christian solicitude and inquiring about his moral philosophy. Rulloff’s reply mainly said he would get back to him later. (It is fun to speculate that this letter may have been written around the same time he was plotting his escape from jail.)

Rulloff letter to Seelye, Feb. 14, 1857
Rulloff letter to Seelye, Feb. 14, 1857

In Rulloff’s  second letter of to Seelye, written 18 months later (PDF), he  lays out frankly his starkly atheistic conception of the universe: 

To me, so far as I can discover the agencies by which events are controled [sic], the universe around me has become a system governed by physical causes alone, operating with blind and indiscriminate constancy whether for good or for ill, as these words are commonly employed. […]

I see no signs or certainty of any great moral or intellectual purpose to be ultimately worked out by the present order of things. […]

The tendrils of affection, rudely bruised and repressed, have almost ceased to shoot and twine themselves around objects of ordinary attachment. And I live along, bearing the burden of existence, with almost passionless indifference.

As you can see from these samples, Rulloff’s writing style was grammatically precise, complex and florid — even at times poetic. But reading his philosophical disputations is like being trapped on a bus next to a slightly eccentric but charming older gentleman who  lectures to you eloquently for minutes on end until you realize that nothing he has just said made any sense to you.

In the last three months of his life, Rulloff wrote six letters to Seelye.  His murder trial was then approaching what looked to be an inevitable conclusion. In these final days, two things preoccupied Rulloff: preserving his “method” on the origins of language for generations to come, and convincing the court that his scholarly research was so valuable as to make his execution impossible to justify. Naturally, it would be necessary to win over academics like Seelye, a professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at an esteemed New England college, so that he might be moved to step forward as an impassioned advocate for clemency. It was an outlandish defense, the product of a thoroughly delusional mind.  If Rulloff ever did possess any well-developed manuscript of his “Method of the Formation of Language,” it has not survived. But in an attempt to preserve his thoughts, his last letters to Seelye mostly comprised lengthy outlines of his etymological theories, typically running to over twelve neatly handwritten pages. Here are two samples:

Rulloff to Seelye, April 7, 1871
Rulloff to Seelye, April 7, 1871
Rulloff to Seelye, April 7, 1871
Rulloff urging Seelye to preserve his method as sketched out in his letter.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t have Seelye’s side of the correspondence, to find out what he made of poor Rulloff and his philological theories. In the last letter (PDF) Seelye received, written the day before Rulloff’s execution, he lashed out at the injustice of his situation and the blindness of those who condemn him:

Rulloff to Seelye, May 17, 1871
Rulloff to Seelye, May 17, 1871

In the whole history of the human race no more instance of blind and stupid malignity can any where be shown than that which closes its eyes to the value of my discovery, and denies the time necessary to place it in available form. No more striking instance of gross and utter disregard towards one whose labors have resulted in a great and permanent blessing to the whole civilized world. 

Such is my discovery and time will show it.

Defiant to the last, Rulloff was executed the next day; and also, apparently, was his “Method on the Formation of Language.” Excepting, that is, for the abstruse scribblings preserved in his letters to Seelye, here at Amherst. And — just maybe? — also locked inside that massive brain on display in a jar at Cornell’s Wilder Brain Collection…

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