Stranger Than Fiction
By Dean Jobb
Just in time for Halloween—a roundup of recent books that delve into fiendish true tales of murder and madness.
Let’s start with a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edward Rulloff was a German-born scholar who dreamed of publishing his groundbreaking theories on the origins of language. At least that’s who and what he pretended to be after he turned up in upstate New York in the 1840s, looking for work. In reality, he was a self-taught Canadian-born farm boy, a serial liar, and a convicted thief. And he was about to become a burglar, a jail-breaker, an academic fraud, and a violent psychopath who murdered at least five people.
Author, podcaster, and academic Kate Winkler Dawson tells the chilling story of Rulloff’s crimes and his repeated escapes from justice in All That Is Wicked: A Gilded-Age Story of Murder and the Race to Decode the Criminal Mind (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). The main title is apt, because the manipulative killer is viewed through the lens of the sensation-seeking journalists, academics, and pioneering forensic experts who struggled to understand how someone who seemed so learned and clever could be so cruel and callous. A quote from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel leads off each chapter, underscoring this Gilded Age effort to explain the evil Hyde lurking within this charming, intelligent Jekyll.
Rulloff ingratiated himself with the Schutt family, who lived in the Ithaca area, married the teenaged Harriet Schutt, and became a menacing and volatile presence in the clan’s lives. He undoubtedly poisoned his brother-in-law’s wife and infant child but was never prosecuted. Then he killed Harriet and their infant daughter. Their remains were never found (he eventually confessed to disposing of their bodies in a lake) and the best the authorities could do was convict him of kidnapping his missing wife. The crafty Rulloff beat or evaded attempts to prosecute him for their murders and was ultimately brought to justice in 1871, when he was convicted of murdering a shopkeeper during a botched robbery and sentenced to hang.
Then the nineteenth-century “mindhunters,” as Dawson calls them, swept in to interview this “complex villain—part scholar, part devil” to find out why he killed and whether the life of such an intelligent man should be spared despite his horrific crimes. Among them were newspapermen, an alienist, a phrenologist, and a Greek scholar, and their assessments offer keen insights into early forensic methods and theories.
“As Rulloff sat shackled to the floor of a dismal jail cell, awaiting execution, he watched more than a dozen men in suits and hats come in turn to meet him,” Dawson writes. “They were each convinced that Rulloff’s mind—in all its twisty, enigmatic glory—was the key to unlocking the mysteries of psychology and the human brain.” Even Mark Twain weighed in, arguing that Rulloff’s death sentence should be commuted to a prison term to spare the life of “one of the most marvelous intellects any age has produced.”
Rulloff would be classed as a high-functioning psychopath today, and Dawson enlists present-day experts to identify and explain his abundant serial-killer traits. The result is a thoughtful, engrossing, time-traveling study of a forgotten killer, filled with insights into psychopathic behavior and how a brilliant mind can become an evil one. She was even able to examine her subject’s oversized brain at close quarters—it’s preserved in a jar of formaldehyde at Cornell University like some ghoulish Halloween prop.
Looking for a setting that’s in sync with the spooky season? There’s none better than Salem, Massachusetts, infamous for the witch hysteria and trials of the 1690s that condemned fourteen women and five men to the gallows on allegations of practicing witchcraft. By the 1830s, almost 140 years later, Salem had shed its Puritan piety and fervor and was a rough and boisterous commercial seaport struggling to compete with Boston and New York for overseas trade. Among the town’s wealthiest merchants was a nasty piece of work named Joseph White, who made some of his fortune by transporting enslaved people and whose murder shocked nineteenth-century America.
In Deliberate Evil: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, and the 1830 Murder of a Salem Slave Trader (Chicago Review Press), New England author and historian Edward Renehan, Jr. uncovers the story of a cold-blooded murder that inspired Hawthorne, the famous Salem novelist, and burnished the reputation of legendary lawyer and statesman Webster. On a spring night in 1830, someone broke into White’s mansion, bashed in his skull, and stabbed him more than a dozen times. It was not a robbery—a chest containing gold coins and cash was still under his bed—and the only thing missing was a copy of White’s will. There seemed to be no motive for what one newspaper termed “an assassination of almost unexampled atrocity.” The long list of people who might have wanted him dead, however, would have taxed Hercule Poirot’s little gray cells. White was “a contrary character—quick to argue, take offense, even scores, and go to war in both personal and professional life,” Renehan notes. “He made enemies easily.”
Among them were younger members of two other prominent seafaring families in Salem—the Crowninshields and the Knapps. Dick and George Crowninshield, skeletons unleashed from their family’s closet, were fixtures in Salem’s seedy underworld. Dick was the proprietor of the Reading Room, a cover name for a combination tavern and gambling den, while George was in charge of the brothel next door. Their customers included Frank and Joseph Knapp, who had good reason to want White dead. He had just driven their father into bankruptcy and had rewritten his missing will to disinherit his grandniece, Mary, for marrying Joseph Knapp against his wishes.
This web of greed and hatred exploded into public view when Joseph Knapp’s guilty conscience—and urge to save his own skin—prompted him to confess. The four men had plotted to murder White, he admitted, and Dick Crowninshield had been offered $1,000 to do the killing.
Deliberate Evil is packed with so much detail and trivia that sometimes the narrative grinds to a crawl. There are too many intriguing but unnecessary anecdotes, too many names—eye-glazing genealogies of generation after generation of the key families—and too many diversions into Salem’s history. Readers will be more interested in how the murder suspects were caught, and whether they were brought to justice, than in discovering the name of the man who brought the first elephant to the United States (Jeopardy! fans take note—Jacob Crowninshield, an uncle of ne’er-do-wells Dick and George, transported one to New York City from India in 1796).
Renehan’s research and insights into the case itself resurrect a forgotten tale of Gothic horror, and the story gains steam and speed once the murder plot is revealed. Webster was parachuted in on short notice to take charge of the prosecution and delivered a closing argument considered one of his most powerful and famous speeches. Hawthorne, transfixed by the dark tale unfolding before him, found inspiration for ruminations about guilt and evil that appear in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Edgar Allan Poe is also thought to have drawn on the case in 1843 when he crafted the guilt-ridden protagonist of his story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” White’s murder seemed tailor-made for such adaptations. “If such events had been set forth in a work of fiction,” noted one judge involved in the case, “they would have been considered as too absurd and unnatural for public endurance.”
A real-life Halloween monster who rivaled Freddy Krueger terrorized Cleveland in the 1930s, murdering, mutilating, and dismembering at least a dozen people—beheading some while they were still alive—before scattering body parts around the city or dumping them in Lake Erie. Award-winning New York Times best-selling author Daniel Stashower recreates the hunt for a fiend the press dubbed the “Mad Butcher” and the “Torso Killer” in American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper (Minotaur Books), a haunting journey through the gritty heart of Depression-era America and into the murky depths of a deranged and murderous mind.
The killer’s first victim appears to have been a woman whose torso washed up on a beach in 1934. She was never identified, and the sensation-hungry press of the day—a source of the lively commentary and vivid descriptions that Stashower fully exploits to bring the story to life—began calling her The Lady of the Lake. The following year the decapitated corpses of two men were found in a shantytown-filled ravine known as Kingsbury Run. The discovery in 1936 of two more headless victims, a man and a woman, confirmed that a serial murderer was on the loose—“a crazed killer,” as one detective put it, “with a flair for butchery.”
Every great crime story needs a dogged detective, and Stashower finds his in one of the most famous lawmen of the twentieth century, the renowned gangbuster Eliot Ness. Fresh from his celebrated role as the leader of the Untouchables and helping to put Chicago mobster Al Capone behind bars, Ness was named Cleveland’s director of public safety in 1935 and set loose on the city’s corrupt police force. Ness, just thirty-two, came to town with a flair for publicity, boundless ambition, and a zealot’s commitment to battle corruption. He was also saddled with an action-hero reputation that had been hyped and inflated by the press. To street-wise cops, Stashower notes, he came across as “Bertie Wooster with a badge and a .38.” But no one questioned his courage—soon after his arrival, he defied armed mobsters as he led a police raid on an illegal gambling club.
Can the man credited with nailing Capone outwit a murderous psychopath? As Ness tackled his mission to root out the bad apples on the police force, he seemed oblivious to the monster stalking Cleveland. Stashower is halfway through this gripping tale before the celebrity sleuth finally confronts Cleveland’s demon. And as the dismembered bodies piled up, he faced relentless pressure to prove his skills in battling corruption could be repurposed to hunt down a madman.
“I want to see this psycho caught,” Ness declared as he took over the investigation. It was a daunting task. The killer preyed on transients or petty crooks no one was likely to report missing, and some victims were never identified. Some of the bodies were dismembered with almost surgical precision while others were hacked apart. Investigators had more questions than answers. Did the killer act alone? Were they seeking a single killer, or was there more than one madman on the loose? Was the weapon used a knife, a cleaver, or a hatchet? Some of the male victims had been castrated—were they looking for a pervert?
Stashower grew up in Cleveland and his knowledge of the city and its history are on display as he sets the stage for this Catch Me If You Can-style effort to bring a ruthless villain to justice (during his research, the author discovered his grandfather, who ran an advertising agency, knew or at least had met Ness). He offers vivid portraits of the detectives and politicians working with—and often against—Ness. He weighs the conflicting evidence with authority as he leads readers through a thicket of theories and suspects.
No one was ever convicted of the crimes. Ness finally zeroed in on a suspect—a mentally unstable doctor whose political connections may have made him “untouchable”—but could not find the evidence needed to prosecute. Did Chicago’s famous gangbuster solve this grisly cold case, even though he failed to bring the Cleveland killer to justice? Stashower’s thorough, even-handed account lets readers be the judge.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), won the inaugural CrimeCon Clue Award for True Crime Book of the Year and was longlisted for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Find him at www.deanjobb.com