Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Criminal Career

As a young man, Rulloff had served as a clerk in a dry-goods store, but there were apparent thefts on the record and several fires.  When Rulloff appeared in a new suit, he ended up with his first jail sentence.  Upon release, he adopted an alias and went out into the world again.  He'd not learned his lesson.  Instead, he became craftier.  After traveling around, he came to the home of Will Schutt in Dryden, New York, and in 1943 married Will's sister, Harriet.  

But Rulloff was a jealous man and was immediately suspicious that his wife preferred another man with whom she'd been acquainted.  On occasion, Rulloff was seen to beat Harriett, but she did not complain.  They had a daughter, Priscilla, in 1845, but that did not help the situation.  Rulloff proved a hard man to get along with.

In May, Will's wife, Amelia, and his infant daughter grew ill.  Since he knew that Rulloff had some rudimentary knowledge of medicine and herbs, he asked for assistance.  Rulloff attended to both.  They remained ill and in June, the baby finally expired, followed soon after by her mother.  Since Rulloff had spoken darkly of his grudge against Will, some people believe that he poisoned both of the deceased in retaliation.  Will was heartbroken over his loss but did not suspect that the demise of his family was anything more than the common maladies that struck many women and infants during and after giving birth.  These two just hadn't been strong enough for the brutal winter in upper New York State.

That same month, however, only about two weeks after the grim double funeral, Rulloff's own wife and daughter disappeared.  The last sighting of Harriet was on June 23, when she borrowed soap from a neighbor.  She had said nothing at that time about going away.  Also, a young girl was in the home with Harriet and Priscilla later that day, and she, too, reported that there'd been no hint of an impending journey.

Rulloff killes his wife, Harriet
Rulloff killes his wife, Harriet

During the evening, there was activity in the Rulloff home.  Apparently, Rulloff and Harriet had an argument over their future plans, with Rulloff wanting to go west to seek a better job opportunity and Harriett desiring to remain close to her family.  Rulloff's own version, given to Ham Freeman years later, was that they argued over the baby and in the heat of the moment, Rulloff grabbed a pestle that he used to crush medicines and struck her in the head.  He apparently cracked her skull and she fell to the floor.  He tried to revive her, he claimed, and dress the wound, but she remained senseless and expired some time during the night.  Rulloff never told anyone what had happened to his daughter, aside from giving her a narcotic to stop her from crying.  Both simply vanished and he gave out various stories about Harriett leaving on her own.

Although Rulloff claims he then contemplated killing himself, he apparently thought better of it.  Instead, he borrowed a neighbor's horse and cart, and placed the bodies in a large chest.  (He only alluded to Harriet's body in his tale, but the baby had vanished as well, so it's probable that he had killed the child and placed her with her dead mother. By another account, an acquaintance of Rulloff's said that Rulloff had admitted strangling Harriet and smothering Priscilla, but by then Rulloff was a celebrity prisoner and anyone could have made up an account in order to claim some celebrity-by-proxy.)  With assistance from others, Rulloff placed the chest on the cart and left.  He came back the following day, returned the horse and said nothing.  He then set out, with his books and manuscript, for what he called an extended trip.

A month later, curious parties decided to enter the home, and they found evidence of an unprepared departure, uncharacteristic of Harriet.  The skirt she'd worn on the last day anyone had seen her lay on the floor.  Still, it was another month before an investigation was launched.  No one knew where Rulloff was, and by that time, he was somewhere — and someone — else.