John Rulloff: The Genius Killer
One for the Money, Two for the Show
A man walking to work in Binghamton, New York, early in the morning on Friday, July 6, 1870, crossed the bridge that spanned the Chenango River. He glanced upriver and saw something bobbing in the current, apparently snagged on a rock. He'd never seen it before and knew it didn't belong there. In fact, it appeared to be wearing a garment that had filled with water. This man signaled to another resident not far away and together they went to investigate.
What they'd seen was the fully-clothed body of a man, face down, in the shallow part of the river. Using a boat, they towed the body to a more accessible area and fetched the sheriff. Whoever he was, this man had drowned. Both men knew he might be connected to a recent murder about which the whole town was talking. A crowd soon gathered to see the drowned man's corpse.
Not far away, in the same river, another man spotted a lumpy object in the water. He didn't give it much thought until word spread that a body had just been pulled from the river. He went to the spot to have a closer look. Getting some assistance, he rowed toward the object, which failed to move, and discovered that he'd found yet a second body. He wasn't surprised. By then, everyone in town knew that two, perhaps three, men had broken into the Halbert brothers' dry goods store and killed the night guard. Two had been spotted going toward the river to escape. Apparently, they'd drowned. It seemed to have been an accident, but soon there'd be reason to wonder if they'd been murdered.
Townspeople gathered as the two swollen bodies were pulled from the river and laid out. The eye of one had been gouged out by a hook used to drag him in. The residents cheered at what seemed like the divine hand of justice, striking down men who had killed one of their own. Local reporters arrived to write about one of the most exciting items to come their way. The bodies were delivered to the undertaker for photographs, and then the hapless deceased were moved to the courthouse to be embalmed. Their clothing was searched for items to assist in identifying them.
The definitive book on this case is Rogue Scholar by Richard W. Bailey, an English professor who compiled articles from various newspapers, as well as books written at the time by leading reporters on the case, Edward Crapsey and Edward Hamilton Freeman, a.k.a, "Ham." Crapsey wrote for the New York Times, and a search of the historic archives produces many of his articles. Crapsey, apparently, struck a snobbish attitude toward the townspeople and the murderer, but Ham seemed more intrigued with the killer's alleged genius. In fact, he managed to get quite a few intimate interviews for his biography and even kissed the man. It's rare to find this case mentioned in any studies of serial killers or encyclopedias, perhaps because two of the murders (if not more) could not be proven.
At the moment, there was a third body to deal with. In Halberts' store, a young man, Frederick Merrick, had given his life to protect the merchandise — particularly the expensive silks. It would be some time before the story was accurately recreated, but the surviving guard, Gilbert Burrows, said there had been not two burglars who'd broken in that night but three. He told all that he knew.