Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Rulloff's Trial

Rulloff's wealthy brother hired George Becker to take up his defense, and Becker teamed up with Charles L. Beale.  The strategy was to first question whether Rulloff had even been in town during the incident, and second, to indicate that any shooting he might have done was to save Jarvis from Merrick's vicious attack.  To fund his defense, Rulloff proposed to write an autobiography, believing it would be a bestseller, but his brother offered to pay.

The trial began on January 4, 1871, and was covered fully by the New York Times, as well as the area's local papers.  Reporters noted each day that there were far too many people in the room than should be: some 2,000 in a space built for half that many.  Clearly, the Rulloff legend had spread far and wide.

Rulloff, known also by "Seurio" (Times) or "Leurio" (Bailey) was charged with burglary and first-degree murder.  The press made much of his suspicious demeanor and crafty eyes.  By this time, sensational trials drew reporters from out of town, and even from overseas.  Because of Rulloff's apparent intelligence — even genius — he defied the criminal stereotype and thus engendered a great deal of curiosity.  Besides news, the case spawned many commentaries as well, even after it was settled.  Many people conjectured that a genius could not also be a murderer.

The case was this: Dexter, Jarvis, and Rulloff had entered the store, and one of them had shot Merrick, killing him.  Jarvis and Dexter then drowned while trying to escape.  Hopkins claimed to have definitive proof that Rulloff was there, and he offered Rulloff's shoe as evidence.  In addition, he had a clipped newspaper found in a bag cast aside during the escape that exactly matched a newsprint clipping found in Rulloff's rooms.

Gilbert Burrows recounted his experience during the incident before the court, and Rulloff asked questions to try to shake his confidence in his identification of the third burglar.  Burrows insisted he got a good look and Rulloff was the man.  He had no trouble remembering.

Rulloff's signature
Rulloff's signature

Next was a handwriting analysis, to connect Rulloff to one of the two dead burglars, via a note found in the drowned man's pocket.  His massive hand-written tome came into evidence and Rulloff insisted that the work he'd put into it proved he was not spending his time in petty robbery.  No one listened.  Instead, they continued with the identifications of the two drowned men and their association with Rulloff.  Despite his attorney's attempt to say that evidence could have been planted in Rulloff's room, Rulloff had little advantage.  The judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence of complicity among the three men to accept that Rulloff had been part of the fatal incident.  Now it remained to be proven that he was the shooter.

Rulloff's defense was that he had informed Merrick that they would not hurt him, but the young clerk had attacked so ferociously that he'd had to do something.   In fact, Merrick, he said, had tried to shoot him at close range.  Merrick then grabbed Jarvis and would not release him.  The shooting was a matter of self-defense and defending a friend; Rulloff also said that it was actually Jarvis who'd shot Merrick, but given the position he was in, that seemed highly unlikely to anyone listening. 

The night had then ended with the burglars fleeing the store and drowning in the river.  (Rulloff would later say that Jarvis had assured them the river was shallow and they could cross it.  They had entered, but the water was soon deep, and Jarvis, who was injured, and Dexter, who could not swim, were carried away.  Many would doubt this tale, believing that Rulloff had persuaded them to enter the water so as to be rid of them as witnesses to the shooting.)

Rulloff called no character or alibi witnesses on his own behalf, and both sides summarized their cases, with the defense giving a largely emotional appeal.  The jury was out only four and a half hours, taking several votes before the members made their decision.  Upon returning to the courtroom, the jury's foreman pronounced Rulloff guilty of first-degree murder.  The judge asked Rulloff if there was any reason not to pronounce a sentence of death, and Rulloff said he'd rather not speak at present.  He was thus sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.  But that was far from the end of this case.

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