Welcome to this month’s Time Travel Nexus Investigates! (TTNI for short—because it’s quicker and sounds cooler.)
At TTNI, we’re playing detective, hunting the TTTs (time-travelling tourists), and attempting to solve some much-talked-about cases of real-life time travel.
So… did a TTT pop up in Times Square in 1950?
Origin of the claim
Online sources state that the story of alleged TTT Rudolph Fentz is among the more significant urban legends of the 1970s. It gained traction again in the 1990s with the rise of the internet. In the 2000s, it was exhaustively investigated by folklore researcher Chris Aubeck, who believed he had found the original source. But in 2007, a researcher for the Berlin News Archive turned up a new twist.
Nature of the claim
One night in June 1950, at about 11.15 P.M., a man was seen by witnesses standing in the middle of an intersection in Times Square, New York. He looked about 30 years old, had old-fashioned mutton-chop sideburns, wore Victorian-era clothes, and was gawking at the cars and road signs as if he’d never seen such things before. When the traffic lights changed, he made a run for the kerb. A taxi ran him over and killed him instantly.
His body was searched and the following items were found in his pockets:
- About 70 dollars in old banknotes
- A copper token for a beer worth 5 cents and bearing the name of a saloon
- A bill from a livery stable on Lexington Avenue for the care of a horse and the washing of a carriage
- Business cards bearing the name Rudolph Fentz and an address on Fifth Avenue
- A letter sent to the Fifth Avenue address, postmarked June 1876
None of the items showed any sign of age. Captain Hubert V. Rihm of the Missing Persons Department of the NYPD investigated. The saloon was unknown even to older residents of the area. The Lexington Avenue stable was not listed in any address book. ‘Rudolph Fentz’ didn’t appear in any directory and fingerprint checks brought up nothing. And the Fifth Avenue address was a store, not a residence, and no one there had ever heard of Rudolph Fentz.
Captain Rihm continued his search and eventually found a ‘Rudolph Fentz Jr’ in a 1939 telephone book. He spoke to the residents of the apartment building where Rudolph Fentz Jr had lived and the residents there remembered him. They described him as a 60-year-old man who worked nearby before moving away to an unknown location following his retirement.
Rihm contacted the bank and found out that Fentz Jr had died five years ago but left a widow who was still alive. At last a solid lead. Rihm made contact with her and learned that her husband’s father, Rudolph Fentz, disappeared without trace in 1876 when he was 29 years old. He left the house for an evening walk and never returned.
Rihm then checked missing persons records for 1876 and found a description of Rudolph Fentz that closely matched the appearance of the unidentified dead man from Times Square.
So… was Rudolph Fentz an involuntary TTT? The unwitting victim of a temporal accident or experiment that caused him to slip forwards in time from 1876 to 1950?
This is a bit different to the last TTNI case I investigated, the Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller. In that case, there was a piece of real, physical evidence: a video clip. It was all to do with how that physical evidence could be interpreted.
In the case of Rudolph Fentz’s little jaunt to the future, there’s no physical or testimonial evidence. There is, however, documentary evidence. This case rests on the strength of that.
Thank you, Chris Aubeck, for doing most of my job for me. In the early 2000s, after reading about the Rudolph Fentz legend in a Spanish magazine, Aubeck undertook a thorough investigation. He started by searching for names. He scoured official records, databases and telephone directories and made enquiries with the New York police, but turned up nothing on ‘Rudolph Fentz’ or ‘Captain Hubert V. Rihm’.
Ralph M. Holland
Eventually Aubeck traced the story back to a report in the 1972 May/June issue of the Journal of Borderland Research. This was published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation, a society that attempted to explain UFO sightings and other paranormal phenomena. The report itself referred to an earlier article cited as A Voice from the Gallery, No. 4, 1953, originally published in popular American magazine Collier’s. A Voice from the Gallery told the story of Rudolph Fentz and Captain Hubert V. Rihm and Borderland Sciences proceeded to try and rationalise the incident.
The author of A Voice from the Gallery was Ralph M. Holland. After digging up details about Holland’s background, Aubeck discovered him to be both a science fiction enthusiast and a firm believer in UFOs, aliens, subterranean monsters and all kinds of paranormal mumbo jumbo. One of his books, he claimed, was a text given to him by an alien—part of a race that first came to Earth thousands of years ago and created the human race. In essence, Holland was a fantasist.
Aubeck concluded that the Rudolph Fentz legend originated with Holland, and that it was just another of his fantasies.
A Twist in the Tale
After publishing his findings, Aubeck was contacted by a Reverend George Murphy, who said he’d heard the Fentz story before, but hadn’t read A Voice from the Gallery or heard of Ralph Holland. Then he remembered where he’d read it. Collier’s again. But this time it was part of a fictional short story called I’m Scared, written by Jack Finney in September 1951, the author most famous for The Body Snatchers.
I’m Scared was, in fact, a compilation of fictional anecdotes about people who’d experienced spontaneous time travel. Rudolph Fentz was the last of these ‘cases’ and, as expected, Captain Hubert V. Rihm was the police officer charged with investigating it. The unnamed fictional narrator offered a theory as to why the events were happening: humanity’s obsession with trying to escape from the here and now was “disturbing the clock of time”, and all these incidents were the result of time breaking down.
I’ve read I’m Scared and the way it’s written, it could be mistaken for a factual account if you didn’t already know it was a fictional short story written by a prolific sci-fi author. That’s obviously what Holland did, as well as all those who repeated the tale after him.
You can read it yourself by clicking the image above. I’m Scared starts on page 24 of the magazine and continues on pages 78 to 81.
Twist No. 2
Most people accepted that Aubeck had discovered Rudolph Fentz’s origins as a fictional character in a short story. However, many sites that describe the story talk about a further twist in 2007. A researcher for the Berlin News Archive managed to get hold of a newspaper article published in April 1951, describing the Rudolph Fentz story in detail.
This is 6 months before I’m Scared was published. Now lots of people believe that Jack Finney had taken the Rudolph Fentz story from this article, and that it was factual after all.
Somebody commented on one of the Rudolph Fentz articles I found, asking why a copy of the article found by the researcher for the Berlin News Archive had not been included. Good point. The article’s author responded saying he’d been unable to find a royalty-free copy of the article. On another site, a commenter gave a link to the Berlin State Library, but I for one couldn’t find any trace of this alleged article by clicking the link. Feel free to have a gander yourself and let me know if you find anything! Here’s the link.
It’s pretty clear to me that the 2007 twist is entirely fabricated and this article from the Berlin News Archive doesn’t exist. Why has nobody named this mysterious researcher who found it? And why has nobody printed the article itself? Not being able to find a royalty-free copy is not an excuse. If it’s something you really want to prove, you pay the fees. The reason nobody has is plainly because it doesn’t exist.
Still, the whole story’s super-intriguing. I wrote my own fictional take on it in my short story Who is Rudolph Fentz? It was published initially by a short fiction print magazine called Scribble and later republished online by a magazine called Storgy. You can read it here. It’s part of a series of short stories linked to the time travel novel I’m currently submitting to literary agents, Million Eyes.
Comments, thoughts, insights welcome!
Case: CLOSED (unless someone can show me this article from the Berlin News Archive)
Next month: John Titor – a time traveller for the government?
And in case you missed the last installment of TTNI…
The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller