Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Priscilla's Avengers

While Rulloff had been in prison, Bailey recounts, the authorities had been busy gathering whatever evidence they could.  This included tracking his movements as much as possible after he'd left the home he'd shared with his wife and daughter.  The trunks he'd been seen to take with him had ended up in Chicago, and the people who had kept them against a debt Rulloff owed provided the contents.  This included clothing for a baby. 

In addition, there was psychological evidence, although few people realized at the time that this was what they were utilizing.  Rulloff's lies, evasions, conflicting stories, aliases and strange behavior all counted against him.  However, the fact that he'd returned to town as if nothing was amiss was in his favor.  Still, he'd been unable to prove that his wife and child were alive and living where he claimed they were living.  Nor was there any other evidence from the past decade that they were alive.  (In an age of no credit cards, this "evidence of absence" was more difficult to prove.)

The case went to trial before a jury of people who had long heard the stories of the wife killer.  The judge cautioned them that a person's disappearance was not sufficient evidence to believe he or she had been murdered.  Possibly, they had packed up and left Rulloff themselves, offering no means of finding them.  Indeed, Rulloff's attorney used this fine point of law to defend his client.  But it was a weak defense, so it was no surprise when Rulloff was convicted.  But he knew well enough that the case was sufficiently complex on certain legal issues that he could appeal, and he did.

The panel of judges looked into the matter of whether someone could be convicted of murder when there was no body — a legal stickler even these days.  Daniel Dickenson, the prosecutor, argued that circumstantial evidence was convincing even without a body.  While the judges debated this, Rulloff went back to prison.  There, he learned that the legal minds had decided in favor of the guilty verdict: Rulloff should remain in prison to await sentencing.

During this time, he made the acquaintance of the boy who would become a significant player in his future: Albert Jarvis, the son of the undersheriff.  Jarvis was sixteen years old and his parents saw no problem with having this prisoner tutor their boy in the ancient languages of Latin and Greek.  Rulloff was, after all, a scholar, even if he was also a murderer.  The murders had been situation-specific, not likely to influence his behavior with their son.  They clearly underestimated the wiles of a psychopathic predator.

If the law was not on his side, Rulloff had other ways to get what he wanted, and he spent many hours with the impressionable boy who would come to regard him as a father figure.  He'd also found a means to flatter the father (writing his biography) and to gain the mother's sympathy; she could not bring herself to believe that such a nice man had murdered anyone, and there was talk that she fell in love with him. When Rulloff escaped in the spring of 1857, it seemed fairly clear from the difficulty of such a feat — getting past eight locks and a chain around his ankle — that he'd had inside help.