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The novel based on the shocking true story of Edward Rulloff: the 19th century physician, linguist fluent in 27 languages—and serial killer. 

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Albert Jarvis is an unusually bright boy—a tragic temperament for the jailor’s son in a gritty 1840s town at the edge of the American frontier.

 

Desperate to belong, he fails repeatedly to prove himself worth his salt, until a captivating stranger offers an enchanting vision—a world where the path to heroism lies in words. The place is New York City. The stranger: Edward Rulloff, an accomplished physician, lawyer, professor, inventor, linguist fluent in 27 languages—and serial killer.

Soon caught up in an epic test of loyalty and betrayal, Albert must wrestle with the meaning of justice, and decide for himself whether Rulloff is a genius or a madman—all while trying to survive his thrilling, shameful, and dangerous adventures. 

Based on the shocking, true story of the Educated Murderer that riveted 19th-century America and England, drove editorials by Mark Twain, and may have inspired Sherlock Holmes’ most notorious nemesis, The Prisoner’s Apprentice has all the makings of a classic. In a compelling twist on most detective fiction and true crime drama, we learn whodunit at the start. The genuine mystery teased out through this unforgettable psychological thriller is why.

A must-read for anyone who adored Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Lindsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, or Robert McCammon’s The Queen of Bedlam.

Praise for The Prisoner's Apprentice

 

The Prisoner’s Apprentice grabbed me on page one and swept me up into a rich tapestried world of mystery and intrigue that kept me turning page after page well into the night. Cheyenne Richards writes with such clarity and beauty that this novel cartwheels along, raising questions, and opening up a world that is sure to delight book clubs.”

Lolly Winston, New York Times bestselling author of Good Grief, Happiness Sold Separately, and Me For You

 


 

“This novel marks the debut of a gifted new writer. In The Prisoner’s Apprentice, Cheyenne Richards tells the astonishing story of a young boy who befriends a brilliant murderer in 1846. She writes with a fresh voice that is both energetic and engaging. The story is part thriller, part psychological study — and completely riveting storytelling.”

Ellen Sussman, New York Times bestselling author of A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This

About the Author

Cheyenne Richards is a writer, sailor, and founder of Your BETTEREST who loves everything on the planet except Swiss cheese.

A tomboy who loves polka dots, a Palo Alto native drawn to the past as much as the future, Cheyenne is an outdoors-loving bookworm who’s most at home under a cozy blanket with a good book. 

She's lived in California, Australia, Singapore, and most recently Mexico, with her boyfriend, aboard a small sailboat named Pristine.

Cheyenne is also the great-great-grand-niece of Edward Rulloff.

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Edward Rulloff

 

It Takes a Villain to Make a Writer

I didn’t start to write a book about a serial killer—never consciously chose the darkest corners of the soul as a neat place to spend several years of my life. I’ve never been a noir kind of girl. In fact, I tend to be that relentlessly cheerful person that most people claim to admire but secretly hope falls down a manhole.

Truth be told, I’m terrified of terror. After years of Exorcist-inspired nightmares, I called it quits on horror stories. I never expected to find one living inside me.

I’d finished writing my first novel only to realize it was a fiasco that belonged under the bed forever, and was casting about for the next project. Intrigued by the bits and pieces I’d heard about an ancestor in Gold Rush San Francisco—hint of a new story?—one night after work I sat down with my laptop to see what I could discover.

It wasn’t much. I chased link after link until the living room was lit only by the blueish glow of the screen, and I’d built up a satisfying pride in my forefathers’ achievements: I was the great great granddaughter of a California pioneer—a founding member of the Bohemia Club who won international prizes for his photography and ran with the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Edweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford. Yay, me.

I was about ready to call it quits when I ran across an obscure reference to the photographer’s brother, the notorious serial killer.

The WHAT?

This wasn’t part of any family story I’d ever heard. Who the hell was Edward Rulloff? The creepy serial killer fan pages were surprisingly well informed, listing my newfound ancestor right between Jack the Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer for deadliness.

There are goosebumps, there are shivers and then there's that unnamed thing that occasionally grabs your soul by the throat and shakes it like a pitbull with a bunny rabbit.

Family pride was instantly erased as I tried to recall everything I’d ever learned about heredity and psychopaths. Until that moment, I’d considered myself a pretty kind person, but suddenly every cruel thought got re-evaluated through a murderous lens.

Was there a darker side lurking in my genes? A pathology in my psychology? What did having the blood of a serial killer mean exactly? Could I be capable of something abhorrent and not know it yet?

I slammed the laptop shut like it had caught on fire. THAT, at least, was one story I was never in a zillion years going to write.

Yeah. You know how well that turned out.

Edward Rulloff

 

Getting to Truth, Through Fiction

Once a seed like your great-great-grand-uncle murdered a bunch of people gets planted, no matter how much you want to ignore it, you're powerless against the enormity of the questions that roil inside you. So I gave in and swung to the other side of the pendulum, reading everything I could on psychopaths, sociopaths, and the genetics and epigenetics of violence.

Long story short, it appears that the heritability of antisocial behavior can be as much as 50%, by way of both genetics and shared environment. Following that logic, if the brothers shared equal tendencies and I am the fourth descendant, by my math I’m down to 6% evil. Manageable, maybe, but move over, Pollyanna. I’m way more noir than I thought.

Friends, consider yourselves warned.

As for Edward Rulloff, no obituary, census or biography I read could do more than lay out the facts of his life as they were known, providing a stack of answers to questions like who, what, when, where and how, but only deepening the mystery of why. Turns out if you wanted to bury the deepest secrets of your soul forever, all of human history prior to Facebook was a pretty good time to do it in.

He was an intellectual by day but a thief by night. Why? He let nothing get in the way of his maniacal ambition yet risked his life repeatedly for his greatest friend. Why? He’d been a physician, lawyer, inventor, professor, and linguist who impressed some of the greatest minds of the day, yet killed four members of his own family. Why?

Something motivated Rulloff to become what he became, to commit such intense acts of generosity and depravity. Human nature lets us pass judgment effortlessly, but understanding is remarkably harder.

Marcel Proust famously said “The only true voyage of discovery... would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hun- dred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”

What had the world looked like through Rulloff’s eyes? That question haunted me from the moment I learned that his story was linked to mine. Eventually, I realized there was only one way I’d ever be able to stop obsessing over him, and that was by tackling the thorny question of why through fiction.

Why didn't I write a biography instead? 

Non-fiction can tell us much about the world, delivering information straight to the front door of our consciousness where we can organize and interpret facts and concepts. Fiction has a different power. It acts more like a cat burglar who sneaks in through a back window in the middle of the night and plants ideas in us while we are sleeping. Fiction lets us live the life of another, to feel his most secret vulnerabilities and desires. A neat, factual, non-fiction answer to the haunting question of why Rulloff behaved as he did was never going to satisfy either writer or reader the way a fictional experience could.

Little did I know, that novel I was never in a zillion years going to write turned into a multi-year odyssey into the dark and admittedly-fascinating landscape of human tragedy.

Edward Rulloff

 

Whose Eyes See the Soul?

Once I’d finally accepted that the only way to get Rulloff out of my head was to write a novel about him, I assumed the best way forward was the direct path, to write the story from his viewpoint and let him explain himself. In my braver moments—in coffee shops full of Sunday morning chatter, never alone at night—I picked up the terrifying mask of Rulloff and held it to my face, writing a page, or two, or five from his perspective.

While many writers have crafted brilliant novels through the killer’s eyes, the results of my attempts simply felt wrong—both too full-frontal and too opaque at the same time. Rulloff’s head wasn’t just an excruciating place to hang out as a writer, after many failed experiments, I realized that his true-self in life as well as his shadow-self in fiction were simply too invested in burying his past to be aware of his own motivations, much less communicate them to me.

I needed an outsider’s perspective, but not just any third party. Reading the two major non-fiction accounts of Rulloff written in his day, clarified the pitfalls of an adult protagonist. Biographer Edward Crapsey decided Rulloff was evil and wrote his biography accordingly, whereas Ham Freeman believed Rulloff was a genius, and wrote a book from the opposite stance. To read them back to back led me to imagine two entirely different people. Adults simply had too many biases to view Rulloff objectively.

I needed a narrator whose mind was not made up on day one, but could remain pliable throughout the course of the story to take in all Rulloff’s incongruities, then sift and organize them on their own merits, rather than attaching them to a pre-existing, black or white frame.

I needed a child.

The true story provided me with a stunningly perfect candidate for this role, in the person of Albert Jarvis, the jailor’s son, who went on to become Rulloff's closest friend and protégé. No one on earth spent more time in Rulloff’s presence than Albert, and importantly, Rulloff’s dedication to Albert—even at the risk of capture and death—revealed tender, vulnerable aspects of Rulloff the man that stood in fascinating contrast to images of Rulloff the monster.

Considering Albert’s story, I suddenly found myself with new questions—the kind that tickle a novelist’s curiosity and propel her forward. What conflict of loyalties must have taken place for this boy? What motivations and desires, fears and regrets led him to make the choices he did? Had he seen something deeper in Rulloff that others—caught up in outrage over his deeds—were blind to, or was he the one blinded?

Once I began writing from Albert’s point of view, I was able to learn about Rulloff as Albert did, through the process of exploration—a far more enlightening and pleasurable experience than the bewilderment offered by Rulloff's biographies. Finally, I began to make forward progress.