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Sat, 12.03.1842

Ellis Ruley, Artist born

Ellis Ruley

*Ellis Ruley was born on this date in 1882.  He was a Black folk artist and laborer.

Ellis Walter Ruley was born in Norwich, Connecticut, to Joshua Ruley and Eudora Robinson. Joshua Ruley and Robinson had four sons and two daughters, of which Ellis Ruley was the oldest. One account describes the elder Ruley as a runaway slave born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1847 before escaping North at the end of the American Civil War. Laiscell disagrees, saying, “What Joshua did and how he arrived in Norwich, we will never know.

There is very little information about Joshua’s life.” Ruley also married Eudora Robinson of Kingston, Rhode Island. Robinson was born in 1851 and was of mixed African American and Native American descent. According to Diane Laiscell, his great-granddaughter, he did not spend much time in school as he had to start working early to help support his family.

Ruley worked in construction, and the remains of stone walls he built can still be found on his old homestead. Ruley also was married twice. His first marriage was to Ida Bee, who died shortly after their daughter Marion was born in 1912. Ruley married a second time in 1933 to Wilhelmina Fox. The marriage was unusual, as Wilhelmina was white and married Ruley's brother, Amos Ruley.

He began painting in the 1930s at his home in Norwich, Connecticut, using house paint on cardboard and Masonite. In 1933, using part of the $8,500 he received in compensation for a work-related truck accident, Ruley purchased 20 Hammond Avenue (now 28 Hammond Avenue) and began repairing the existing hundred-year-old house. Ruley renovated the property and installed gardens where he raised his food. Diane Laiscell remembers him painting the animals and the forest surrounding his home.

During his lifetime, Ruley sold his paintings locally and only achieved distinction posthumously in the 1990s. Ruley worked almost his entire adult life in the construction trades and had one daughter from his first marriage. By the 1950s, Ruley was retired from construction work. During that time, he endured racially hostile neighbors whom Laiscell remembers harassing their family. When Ruley died on January 16, 1959, "there was a strong feeling in the black community of Norwich that he had met with foul play."

Ellis Ruley was found dead on the morning of January 17, 1959, on Hammond Avenue, "about 200 feet from his house". His body was partly frozen. The Town Medical Examiner believed that Ruley "died from exposure, although he lost considerable blood from a gash on the head." The Coroner believed Ruley's death was an accident. According to the investigation that followed Ruley's death, the gash on his head resulted from falling and hitting his head on a stone wall.

He was thought to be walking to or from his house. A local paper at the time reported that "Ruley, judging from the trail of blood extending for a distance of nearly 100 feet attempted to regain his feet but lost all sense of direction. Stones in the wall were spattered with blood, and it appeared that Ruley then staggered or stumbled in a circle and down a grade, back onto the Hammond road extension where he collapsed."  

Members of Ruley's family were very suspicious and believed that Ruley may have been murdered, possibly by a neighbor who wanted his property or due to racial animosity. Supporting their suspicions was the earlier death of Douglas Harris, Ellis Ruley’s son-in-law, in 1948. He was found headfirst down a well on the property, and an unexplained fire destroyed Ruley’s home after his death. Harris's death was found to be an accident by authorities at the time. An autopsy in 2014 by Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist, discovered that Harris's hyoid bone had been broken, indicating that he had been strangled before his death.

After performing an autopsy on Ruley, Baden determined that Ruley could have collapsed due to "some cardiac abnormality or from his brain disease" but also stated that he could have been pushed by someone else, possibly the result of a robbery or altercation. He concluded that we cannot determine how Ruley fell on the night of his death. Because the circumstances surrounding Ruley's death are uncertain, Baden concluded that Ruley's death "cannot be categorized as a homicide." Baden also noted that Ruley's empty wallet had been found on Hammond Avenue about 20 feet from his body.

In 2019, Samuel Browning, a local attorney, presented his findings on Ruley's death, concluding, "There are troubling unanswered questions concerning the facts surrounding his demise ... but I do not have enough evidence to prove he was murdered."  In Browning's opinion, the main problem with considering Ruley's death an accident is that the cab driver who brought Ruley home "claimed he had dropped him off at the top of the hill and watched him approach the door of the home ... in winter a cab driver would not likely have braved the steep gravel driveway and was more likely to have dropped him off on the road." Browning thought the cab driver, a friend of Harry E. Ruley Jr, had lied about where he had dropped Ruley off, perhaps because of embarrassment after Ruley was later found dead.

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