Rufus Edmonds Shapley was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on August 4, 1840, the son of Rufus and Susan Shapley and the older brother of William Wallace Shapley. He was educated locally and entered Dickinson College in Carlisle with the class of 1860. While attending he became an active member of the Union Philosophical Society and later on its hundredth anniversary in 1889 returned to give the keynote speech for the occasion. Following his graduation with his class he studied law in the office of William Penrose in Cumberland County. He very briefly served as a private in Company I of the militia's First Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers but this emergency unit was in being for only two short weeks in September 1862 before being broken up.
He was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1866 and became a successful corporate attorney in that city. The case that made his career there was Brady versus American Steamship Company in 1874. The locally built and owned vessel Pennsylvania, only three years old, had almost foundered in a storm, losing its top officers washed overboard. A passenger with experience at sea named Brady took command, brought the ship home, and, with Shapley’s help, won the only salvage claim awarded a passenger up to that time. The Company's defense was that the Fourth Officer was capable and that Brady had usurped him. Shapley demolished this under skillful cross-examination, especially since that officer's log showed that his estimation of latitude and longitude for the ship's position called for the Pennsylvania to be sailing somewhere in the hills of upstate New York. Shapley went on to become a wealthy corporation and tax lawyer, well connected with the Republican Party then controlling the city. He was counsel for the Police Department, represented the streetcar company, and was often called upon to represent Republican Party interests in Pennsylvania. In 1882, he built a mansion - "Hildawold" – in Wallingford, Pennsylvania and had a summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Shapley was also an author. He published several books on tax law upon which he became an expert. But he was best known more widely for his political humor, notably his Solid For Mulhooly: A Political Satire on Boss Rule published in 1881 and again in 1889. The book was very well known at the time; one Philadelphia reviewer went so far as to say that it did for municipal corruption what Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for slavery. Shapley’s own Philadelphia career did not intrude into the satire, which was largely an anti immigrant commentary on Democratic Party methods of urban “boss” control. He also published five volumes edited in collaboration with the Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford called A Library of Wit and Humor in 1884. He married Anne McCord of Pittsburgh in 1877 and had a daughter. Rufus Shapley died at his Philadelphia town home on February 11, 1906. He was sixty five years old.