Mark Twain Day By Day: The Day Mark Twain Defended A Serial Killer

One of most important reference works on is the digital edition of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day. This exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens was originally published in four enormous print volumes between 2008 and 2014. It immediately became an invaluable reference for scholars who had the good fortune of access to it, but the size and expense of the books kept it primarily confined to university libraries and select private collections. That changed in 2019 when, with the permission of David Fears, CMTS created and launched a digital version of Day By Day. Twain scholars, teachers, students, hobbyists, and all variety of Twainiac can now access a fully-searchable online edition of MTDBD for free from anywhere with an internet connection.

One of the foremost goals for CMTS in 2021 is to create strategies for updating and improving the current digital edition. The ultimate goal is modernize the delivery of the database content, making it more accessible, interactive, and practical for researchers.In recognition of this goal, and as a way of promoting MTDBD, the staff at CMTS is launching #SesquicentennialSam, a project of chronicling where Sam Clemens was, and what he and Mark Twain were doing 150 years ago. We hope that you join us!

After spending a long, hard winter in Buffalo, the Clemens family was slowly getting back on their feet. Sam, Livy, and baby Langdon were in the middle of an extended visit in Elmira, safely situated in the Langdon mansion, the physical and financial center of the growing city. Livy was slowly but steadfastly recovering from typhoid fever; baby Langdon was most likely the center of the Langdon clan’s attentions; and Sam Clemens was finding time to work on his next big book.

Clemens had been feeling pressure from all sides. In early March he began the process of quitting his day job working for the Buffalo newspaper he partially owned, The Express. His daily obligations had begun to seriously interfere with the progress on his follow-up to Innocents Abroad. He characterized this new work as a “big book on California, Nevada, and the Plains.” At the same time, Clemens’ brother Orion had been harassing him to contribute regularly to his publication venture the American Publisher. To make matters worse, after the massive success of “The Heathen Chinee,” Bret Harte, Sam’s literary rival, had signed a record breaking contract with the Atlantic Monthly with a $10,000 annual salary. Bret Harte’s good fortune seemed to have been a real gut punch to Sam’s ego.

While the Clemens family reenergized in downtown Elmira, Sam’s literary career was finding new inspiration as well. During the Spring and Summer of 1871 Sam would write the majority of Roughing It and establish his tradition of working at Quarry Farm. Up on the East Hill at Quarry Farm, the home of Susan and Theodore Crane, Livy’s sister and brother in-law, Sam would realize how much work could be accomplished if we was simply left alone to write, while his wife and family were in the good care of the Langdons and Elmira friends.

In late March 1871, Joseph Goodman arrived in Elmira for a visit. He would stay several months. During the Comstock silver boom in Nevada, Goodman was the owner of the Territorial Enterprise, one of the largest newspapers in the Western half of the United States. Years earlier, Goodman had hired Clemens as a young reporter. Goodman wrote alongside Sam while in Elmira and critiqued his “California book” as Sam wrote it. Goodman gave Sam positive reinforcement just when Sam, after such a difficult year, doubted the book’s worth. Sam insisted on a long enough manuscript of the type that subscription sales demanded – folks in the boondocks thought a good stout volume was a better bargain, and Sam calculated he would need 1800 manuscript pages to produce a 600 page book.

While harassment from his brother Orion to lend the “Mark Twain” brand to the American Publisher continued, Sam was making steady progress on his new manuscript. So much so that perhaps Sam had found time to have his attention be drawn to local upstate New York news. In April 1871 a scandalous story was grabbing all the newspaper headlines and seemed to have grabbed Sam’s attention. It must have been hard to ignore since the story was almost too strange to believe. It centered around the murder trial of Edward H. Ruloff, a career criminal with the attention-grabbing epithet, “The Genius Killer.”

John Edward Howard Ruloff was born in New Brunswick, Canada. It seems that Ruloff’s “genius” moniker was well-earned; he was a doctor, lawyer, inventor, and noted philologist, along with being a burglar and serial killer. It appears Ruloff jumped into a life of crime at an early age. By the time Ruloff was twenty years old, he had an established law career and had already served two years in prison for embezzlement. After his first long experience with incarceration, he moved to Dryden in upstate New York in 1842 where he worked as a schoolteacher, studying botanical medicine under Dr. Henry W. Bull. Ruloff’s fresh start was not to last. Within a year he ran off and secretly married Bull’s cousin, Harriet Schutt.

Cover of a pamphlet showing the murder of Harriet Ruloff (Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum)

The newlyweds moved to Lansing, New York where Harriet gave birth to a baby girl. Later accounts of Ruloff’s crimes state that almost immediately Ruloff wanted to leave New York and move to Ohio to keep his new wife separated from her family. On June 22, 1844, after a heated argument, Harriet refused to leave New York. Ruloff then accused his wife of adultery with his former teacher and struck her on the head with a pestle, mortally wounding her (although other accounts say Ruloff drugged her with chloroform, opened her veins, then bled her to death). After making sure his wife was dead, he fatally poisoned his daughter.

The next day Ruloff most likely threw the bodies of his wife and daughter into Cayuga Lake. Almost immediately rumors started to circulate of foul play. Ruloff insisted that his wife had abandoned him in order to explain her sudden absence. After Harriet’s clothes and personal affects were found in their house, Ruloff fled. He was pursued by Ephraim Schutt, Harriet’s brother, who eventually apprehended Ruloff and brought him to nearby Ithaca, New York to stand trial.

Cayuga Lake was dredged in hopes of finding the bodies of Harriet and her daughter, but the corpses were never found. The grand jury was reluctant to indict Ruloff of murder since there were no actual physical bodies. After bargaining, Ruloff was accused of kidnapping his wife and was sentenced to ten years of hard labor.

While in prison, “The Genius Killer” had access to books and developed a proficiency in language. After serving his sentence, he was re-arrested for the murders of his wife and daughter. Again, a verdict of guilty was averted since again the bodies could not be found. For several years Ruloff left the Southern Tier of New York and lived in New York City, where he continued to live a life of crime, mainly burglary, going in and out of Sing Sing prison and local jails.

Ruloff continued his deep study of languages, both ancient and modern. He claimed to read proficiently Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, French, German, and to possess a smattering of both ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit. In 1869, Ruloff sent a manuscript to the American Philological Association entitled Method in the Formation of Language, under the nom de plume “Professor Euri Lorio.” The book detailed Ruloff’s “groundbreaking” theory on language evolution. The budding philologist thought that it would revolutionize the field and announced that he was auctioning the manuscript with a starting bid of $500,000. Not surprisingly, none of the members of APA made a bid.

In 1870, Ruloff’s criminal escapades and life would take an even darker turn in nearby Binghamton, New York. Herbert Wiseby, the first director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, detailed Ruloff’s criminal escapades in 1960:

Drawing of Edward Ruloff in 1871

It was after midnight in the early morning of August 17, 1870, when the shrill alarm of the fire bell broke the stillness in the small city of Binghamton. Three men hurried down to the Chenango River, but only one made his way across safely. In their haste to escape, his two companions were lost in the water and drowned. In the town a badly frightened clerk, employed by Halbert and Brothers dry goods store, was telling a horrifying tale of attempted robbery and cold-blooded murder.

Two clerks, named Gilbert S. Burrows and Frederick A. Mirick, sleeping in their quarters over the store, were awakened by three men who bored holes in the back door and entered. When discovered, the burglars fled, but one of them was captured by the two young clerks, and when he shouted for help, the other two returned, armed with pistols. Three shots were fired at Burrows who fell back, hit by flying splinters. Then the man with the gun came up behind Mirick, who was struggling with one of the robbers, and shot him in the back of the head. He died instantly.

This crime aroused Binghamton and the Southern Tier to a high pitch of excitement and gave it a subject for animated discussion for many years thereafter. Within twenty-four hours of the murder, a man identified as Edward H. Rulloff was captured by the railroad tracks leading out of town, and the bodies of the other two robbers were recovered from the Chenango River. The case that unfolded was a strange one indeed.

The Binghamton newspapers, THE BROOME REPUBLICAN, THE DEMOCRATIC LEADER, and the BINGHAMTON STANDARD devoted pages to the case, and the trial of Edward H. Rulloff for murder was held in a spirit of high excitement A reporter from the NEW YORK SUN who came up from New York for the trial, reported that public opinion was so outraged by the crime that the attorney for the defense was threatened and defense witnesses were intimidated. The trial was held in Binghamton in January 1871.

The evidence was damning. Although the surviving clerk could not identify Rulloff positively as the man who shot at him, shoes belonging to the accused man were found with burglar tools left in the store. These were easily identified because Rulloff had two toes missing, amputated after they were frozen when he escaped from jail in Ithaca several years before. His association with the two robbers, who were identified by the clerk, was traced back to New York City and found to be of long standing. When captured, he had blood on his hat and shirt.

Herbert A. Wiseby, “The Life and Death of Edward H. Ruloff” NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY, 1960.

The news of the murder trial must have been the talk of Elmira in the Spring of 1871 and it definitely reached the ears of Sam Clemens. On April 29, Sam wrote a letter to Whitelaw Reid, a journalist during the Civil War and current editor at the New York Tribune and enclosed a letter to the editor.

In his personal letter to Reid, Clemens wrote:

Friend Reid:

I have written this thing for an OBJECT—which is, to make people TALK about & look at, & presently entertain the idea of commuting Rulloff’s penalty.

The last paragraph (as magnificently absurd as it is,) is what I depend on to start the TALK at every breakfast table in the land—& then the talk will drift into all the different ramifications of this case & first thing they know, they will discover that a regret is growing up in their souls that the man is going to be hung. If the TALK gets started once, that is sufficient—they’ll ALL talk, pretty soon, & then the ACTING will come easily & naturally.

The last paragraph of the article is bully. Silly as it is, nobody can read it without a startle, or without having to stop & THINK, before deciding whether the thing is possible or not.

Now if you don’t want this or can’t print it now, I wish you would re-mail it to me, for I want to print it somewhere. Don’t comment on it, unless you’d like to back up this brave Redeemer for Science.



(MTL 4:383-5)

Enclosed with this letter was Sam’s submission to the New York Tribune:

To the Editor of The Tribune.

Sir: I believe in capital punishment. I believe that when a murder has been done it should be answered for with blood. I have all my life been taught to feel in this way, & the fetters of education are strong. The fact that the death law is rendered almost inoperative by its very severity does not alter my belief in its righteousness. The fact that in England the proportion of executions to condemnations is only one to 16, & in this country only one to 22, & in France only one to 38, does not shake my steadfast confidence in the propriety of retaining the death penalty. It is better to hang one murderer in 16, 22, or 38, than not to hang any at all.

Feeling as I do, I am not sorry that Rulloff is to be hanged, but I am sincerely sorry that he himself has made it necessary that his vast capabilities for usefulness should be lost to the world. In this, mine & the public’s is a common regret. For it is plain that in the person of Rulloff one of the most marvelous intellects that any age has produced is about to be sacrificed, & that, too, while half the mystery of its strange powers is yet a secret. Here is a man who has never entered the doors of a college or a university, & yet, by the sheer might of his innate gifts has made himself such a colossus in abstruse learning that the ablest of our scholars are but pigmies in his presence. By the evidence of Prof. Mather, Mr. Surbridge, Mr. Richmond, & other men qualified to testify, this man is as familiar with the broad domain of philology as common people are with the passing events of the day. His memory has such a limitless grasp that he is able to quote sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, & chapter after chapter, from a gnarled & knotty ancient literature that ordinary scholars are capable of achieving a little more than a bowing acquaintance with. But his memory is the least of his great endowments. By the testimony of the gentlemen above referred to, he is able to critically analyze the works of the old masters of literature, & while pointing out the beauties of the originals with a pure & discriminating taste, is as quick to detect the defects of the accepted translations; & in the latter case, if exceptions be taken to his judgment, he straightway opens up the quarries of his exhaustless knowledge & builds a very Chinese wall of evidence around his position. Every learned man who enters Rulloff’s presence leaves it amazed & confounded by his prodigious capabilities & attainments. One scholar said he did not believe that in the matters of subtle analysis, vast knowledge in his peculiar field of research, comprehensive grasp of subject & serene kingship over its limitless & bewildering details, any land or any era of modern times had given birth to Rulloff’s intellectual equal. What miracles this murderer might have wrought, & what luster he might have shed upon his country if he had not put a forfeit upon his life so foolishly! But what if the law could be satisfied, & the gifted criminal still be saved. If a life be offered up on the gallows to atone for the murder Rulloff did, will that suffice? If so, give me the proofs, for, in all earnestness & truth, I aver that in such a case I will instantly bring forward a man who, in the interests of learning & science, will TAKE RULOFF’S CRIME UPON HIMSELF, & SUBMIT TO BE HANGED IN RULLOFF’S PLACE.  I can, & will do this thing; & I propose this matter, & make this offer in good faith. You know me, & know my address.

em space———, April 29, 1871.em spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceem spaceSamuel Langhorne.

Mark Twain, COLLECTED TALES, SKETCHES, SPEECHES, & ESSAYS 1852-1890, edited by Louis J. Budd, published by The Library of America, 1992, pp. 522-3, and Notes, pp. 1054-5.

Sam Clemens’s attempts to save Ruloff’s life would be in vain. On May 18, 1871 at about 11:30 in the morning, Ruloff was hanged. Wiseby continues the gruesome scene:

Rulloff’s body was jerked up and his neck broken. A physician stood by and took his pulse. At the end of five minutes it was 92 beats per minute. After eight minutes it was 84, and after ten minutes it was down to 44. No pulse was discernable after 10 minutes and he was pronounced dead.

Herbert A. Wiseby, “The Life and Death of Edward H. Ruloff” NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY, 1960.

Ruloff, a career criminal who had an almost comic-book villain aura around him, continued to make news in upstate New York, or at least his body would. A death mask plaster was made of Ruloff’s face and his body was put on display in Binghamton. A local newspaper estimated that more than 6,000 people came to view the corpse.

Cornell University, located in Ithaca, the town of Ruloff’s first murder trial, got in on the game. Ruloff’s brain was secured by Burt Green Wilder, a biology professor, who was amassing a collection of human brains for the purpose of research and teaching. After acquiring the brain, Wilder declared that it was the largest brain ever recorded (It’s now recognized as the second largest brain on record with a volume of 1673 cubic centimeters).

Ruloff’s brain is currently on display in the Wilder Collection in Uris Hall on the Cornell University campus.