Previous | Contents | Next
The Lineaments of Guilt
On an August night in 1870, a Binghampton, New York dry-goods clerk named Frederick Merrick was shot to death during a bungled burglary. Although another clerk survived the attack, he had not recognized the three assailants. Local authorities, searching for strangers in the community, discovered Edward Ruloff "skulking in the neighborhood" and brought him in for questioning. Two days later the bodies of Ruloff's accomplices, who drowned while making their escape, were taken from the Chenango river. "It was important that the bodies of the two drowned men should be identified. No one who saw them, recognized either one. They had lain in the water two days.... unless their present appearance could be preserved, in a few hours all hopes of recognition would be gone. A photograph picture was therefore taken of the bodies, which, by means of a stereoscopic instrument, enabled acquaintances subsequently to recognize in them the persons of Jarvis and Dexter." The photograph of Jarvis and Dexter was used to identify them as both participants in the burglary and associates of Ruloff, tightening the web of circumstantial evidence tying Ruloff to the crime.
|The Ruloff case and the legal issue regarding the admissibility of photographs in evidence is briefly summarized in George E. Harris's "Chapter V. Photographs," § 159 from A Treatise on the Law of Identification: A Separate Branch of the Law of Evidence. (Albany, 1892). See also Francis Wharton's A Treatise on the Law of Homicide in the United States, § 708.|
As well might we deny the use of the compass to the surveyor or the mariner; the mirror to the truthful reflection of images; or spectacles to aid the failing sight, as to deny, in this day of advanced science, the correctness in greater or less degree depending upon the perfection of the machine and the skillful admission of light to the photographic instrument, its power to produce likenesses..." SOURCEAfter failing to win a reversal before the New York Supreme Court, Ruloff's case was taken to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest tribunal in the state, which upheld the decisions of the lower courts, although endorsing the disputed photographic evidence with far less enthusiasm than Justice Potter had demonstrated. Acknowledging that "they were not artistic pictures, nor in all respects the most perfect likenesses that could be taken," the Court observed that "this was fully explained by the artist, and the reasons why they were not more perfect, stated." The photographs, said the Court, had been submitted simply "as aids" to enable the jury to determine identity, and "by themselves, they would have been of but little value." SOURCE Having exhausted all appeals, Edward Ruloff was executed.
The legal significance of the case was not lost on one contemporary newspaper writer, who noted that the case had settled several important legal points, including the admissibility of photographic evidence. "These questions were all fully presented both on the trial and on appeal, and were decided against Rulloff, but they were previously mooted questions which are now settled by the highest legal tribunal of the State." Yet had Ruloff's guilt been less certain, he allowed, "then technicalities might have availed, and the Court might then have granted a new trial; but they were not going to let this old offender off on a quibble."
Other sources were far less certain of the evidentiary value of photographs and far more concerned that such evidence did not constitute mere technical quibbling. An article taken from The Law Times of London noted an English case in which a photograph was used to identify a prisoner in court. The article deplored the court's acceptance of photographs as primary evidence, warning that such usage would "lead to serious and untoward consequences. [The photograph] is certainly a new class of evidence, and one, the admission of which deserves very mature consideration." SOURCE Rather than challenging the photograph's ability to duplicate nature unerringly, the writer broached the question of appearance and identity, noting that the one was no sure indicator of the other:
the photograph was said to be like the prisoner, but that only proved, even if shown to have been taken correctly, that it was like the person who was intended to be represented by it, but it in no way proved that the prisoner was that person, unless, it was to be assumed that there are not two persons alike.... To say that a man is the guilty party, merely because he is like a person who may have committed the offence, is giving no evidence upon which a jury can be justified upon acting. SOURCE
A photograph could be introduced to refresh the memory of a witness, concluded the writer, but it could never be admitted as primary evidence of identity or to prove the existence of a disputed fact (the same objections raised by Ruloff's attorney to the admission of the Dexter and Jarvis stereograph). Wharton and Stilles' Medical Jurisprudence recounted at length an odd English tale of misidentification by photographs, an 1868 incident in which the body of an unidentified man was found "in a cupboard of a house in Hackney England." As a result of the publicity surrounding this discovery, "a crowd of persons, most of them bringing photographs, visited the dead-house to see if the features corresponded with those of missing friends." The matter was resolved to no one's satisfactionalthough tentatively identified as an escaped lunatic named Heasman, photographs bearing an uncanny resemblance to the deceased created misgivings. "The interest felt in the case..." noted the London Spectator, "reveals a curious doubt which is always latent in the public mind... a doubt whether appearances is conclusive, or even strong evidence of identity." The photographic image in and of itself could not alone prove identity, for most people were "either from nature or habit, incapable of appreciating form, and form alone is the unerring proof of personal identity.... hence the uncertainty of all human testimony on questions of personal identity." SOURCE
The Ruloff case created a popular sensation, but not for the novel introduction of photographic evidence as the first link in a damning chain of circumstantial proof. The case fascinated the public because it exposed a far more substantive question of identity, for Edward Ruloff belonged to that most intriguing category of criminalsthe educated monster, the "learned ruffian." "The man of two lives" defied those nineteenth-century criminologists who insisted on a correlation between character and appearance, for how was one to separate the essential man from the mask?
Ruloff had achieved public notoriety twenty-five years earlier, when he was believed to have murdered his wife and child, who had disappeared in 1845. Convicted of the abduction of his wife, he had served ten years in the Auburn Prison and upon his release was again tried and convicted for the murder of his infant daughter. "But for the interposition of a legal technicality," Ruloff would have hung. Absent a corpse his conviction was overturned.
Ruloff came from a poor family and possessed but a limited public school education; however, relying on audacity and a quick mind, he had been a botanical physician, jackleg lawyer, schoolmaster, itinerant lecturer, phrenologist, photographer, mechanical inventor and, in his final incarnation, philologistall borderline professions that had traditionally served as an avenue to public respectability for gifted, ambitious, or unprincipled men of little means. (The photographic profession had enabled Ruloff's older brother, William H. Rulofson, to find prestige and a modicum of financial security with the San Francisco firm of Bradley and Rulofson.) The mid-1800s were hard times for autodidacts. Established practitioners sought to legitimize and regulate a variety of disciplines through formal training and licensing, including the law, medicine, education, engineering, and photography. Ruloff would come to signify all that was wrong with the unschooled and unregulated practice of the intellectual trades.
Jarvis, Dexter and Ruloff formed a peculiar partnership. Jarvis and Dexter's burglaries supported Ruloff's philological studies, which, it was understood, when revealed to the world would make them all rich, an ambition that experienced a profound setback when the American Philological Convention showed no interest in his preliminary results. The burglary of the Binghampton dry-goods store, claimed one source, had been carried out to "contribute to the philological publication fund." Versed in Latin, Greek, and a half dozen modern languages, Ruloff was a letter scrambler, a systems maker, whose unpublished "Method in the Formation of Languages" promised to divulge the holy grail of crackpot philology, the ancient system that had created the modern languages. Ruloff believed languages were inventions, the products of an "intellectual priesthood... devoted to supplying the various nations of the earth with languages formed upon this plan." Though patently absurd, his anagrammology, which purported to have discovered the key to language formation through the analysis of five thousand examples, was not terribly different in scope or intent than the project of legal formalism, whose intellectual priesthood hoped to discover the principles of evidence through the scientific classification of thousands of individual cases.
Popular accounts portrayed Ruloff as a species of intellectualism run amuck, a tacit indictment of the effort to professionalize nineteenth-century America, and compared Ruloff to Dr. John Webster, the Harvard Medical School professor who in 1849 murdered a colleague and attempted to conceal the body in the campus furnace. Ruloff's "philological researches nobody cares a rush for, except maybe a few book worms, whose life is in the dreamy speculations of the past; but practical men, who seek the safety of life and property," were happy to see an end to the man. On their part, professionals just as quickly regarded Ruloff as a symptom of unregulated practice. "Never being subjected to the mental discipline only obtained by the rigid experience of a college course," Edward Ruloff was "a medical quack, a legal quack, a mechanical quack... a photographic quack, a burglarious quack, [and] a philological quack."
It was left to professionals to delve into the physical manifestations of his divided character. To that end Ruloff was interviewed by the New York Commission of Lunacy and subjected to phrenological examinations while in prison awaiting trial. After his execution his head was removed, a plaster cast made of it to facilitate further study, and his brain weighed, mapped, and eventually labeled and stored at Cornell University. "I only desire to place on record the anatomical and other peculiarities of the extraordinary man whose case we have been considering, as a contribution to the general fund of scientific knowledge," remarked George Burr, who reported his findings before the Medico-Legal Society of New York City.
People believed outward appearances could reveal the inner character of the subject. To that end were Ruloff's parts weighted and measured in an attempt to decipher the formula determining human behavior, the holy grail of nineteenth-century physiology. The photographic profession, as well, held that a skillfully rendered portrait "looked through surfaces to depths, treated the exterior surface of persons as signs or expressions of inner truths, of interior reality." Indeed, wrote Marcus Aurelius Root in 1864, photography's ability to capture true character made it "a valuable security to social order,"
insuring, as it does, that men shall ultimately be known for what they are. In vain do the profligate, the base, the wicked, and the selfish mimic those outward indications which pertain naturally to the pure, the good, and the generous. The inward unworthiness, despite all effort, will glare through the fleshly mask.
The revelatory nature of the photograph was a commonly employed device in popular novels. "While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it," said Holgrave, Hawthorne's daguerreotypist in The House of Seven Gables, describing the camera's ability to reveal hidden character. "Here we have the man, sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice. Look at that eye! Would you like to be at its mercy? At that mouth! Could it ever smile? And yet, if you could only see the benign smile of the original!" SOURCE Ruloff himself was described in terms similar to Hawthorne's Colonel Pynchen: "There was no man in all the audience whose garb more closely adhered to the established standard of respectability. But the man's face, his singular eye, his usual expression, no time or art had changed since the long years ago when he was tried for his life in Tioga County."
Some members of the legal establishment were so convinced of the camera's ability to detect truth that it was suggested that suspects be photographed during questioning to "preserve the lineaments of guilt or innocence as presented when the nature of the charge was communicated to the prisoner, and his protestations of innocence were uttered." SOURCE During court proceedings, photographs of witnesses "taken at various stages of the testimony, in their tranquil moods, and in their moments of excitement when under a searching cross-examination" could be referred to on appeal or to accompany the depositions of absent witnesses to aid in the detection of falsehood. SOURCE
Previous | Contents | Next