Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Who Was Rulloff?

Rulloff writing
Rulloff writing

John Edward Howard Rulloff had long sought to be famous, but not for the deeds that eventually propelled him to it.  Born into a family in which his brothers had both gone off to find their fortunes, he wallowed in poverty as he spent long hours putting together what he believed would be the most important book for humankind, Method in the Formation of Language.  He taught himself a number of different languages, with varying degrees of facility, in order to get to the origin of all thinking and communication, because he believed that knowledge of the way language had begun offered primal information about who and what human beings fundamentally were.  That he was a scholar, no one had any doubt, given his long hours immersed in books.  That he was as fully learned as he presented himself would become controversial.  But that would only become a concern toward the end of the case.  Let's return to its beginning.

Rulof Rulofson, the family patriarch, had settled in a German community in New Jersey, then had gone to Nova Scotia.  He was the grandfather of John Edward Howard Rulofson, who would use many different names over the course of his life.  Born in 1821, Rulloff was the eldest of three brothers, and by manhood sported a full beard.  He had a way of charming people with a gentle manner and most who met him were impressed with his apparent intelligence.  Whenever he used his real name, he preferred Edward, but he changed the last name to Rulloff.

He endeavored to train himself in many subjects, practicing (badly) as a physician, an investor, and a teacher.  He even tried his hand at the primitive form of psychology, used during the early nineteenth century, known as phrenology.  Little did he know it would one day be turned on him as an exemplar of a certain type.

Phrenology Chart
Phrenology Chart

With the rise of modern science and the emphasis on natural law and material substance, the appraisal of human character from external appearances had become a fashion by the mid-nineteenth century.  Phrenology involved examining the bumps or depressions on a person's skull to determine how the different areas of the brain were functioning.  The brain was considered dividable into thirty-five different organs, each associated with such traits as "cautiousness" and "adhesiveness," and the larger the organ, the more pronounced the trait was believed to be.  Theorists believed a child could overcome a disposition toward delinquency and later criminal conduct by strengthening those brain organs that controlled the desirable traits.

More importantly, Rulloff styled himself as a philologist, a new discipline during his day, in which learned men studied the structure and organization of language, particularly word origins and their commonalities across different languages.  He pushed himself day and night to learn Latin and Greek, looking for codes that would reveal just what language means.  He compiled Method in the Formation of Language and offered it for sale for half a million dollars, believing it would make him one of the most famous and brilliant men of all time.  That was the measure of his arrogance and false sense of self-worth.  In fact, he liked to present himself as a person to whom these things came naturally and used every opportunity to let loose a phrase or literary name that would impress a new acquaintance.  But there were no offers on his book.

Why financial success eluded Ruloff seemed, to him, a mystery.  Perhaps it was because he saddled himself with a family, which not only became a burden but also caused the incident that would attach to his name more surely than his facility with language...not to mention that he also became a petty thief.

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