The Legend of Rudolph Fentz

Have you ever heard about the time traveler who showed up in the middle of Times Square? It’s been told and retold with slight variations, but most versions of the tale go something like this:

In the middle of June 1950, at 11:15 in the morning, people going about their business in Times Square, New York City, noticed a young man, 20 years old or so, who appeared to be lost. His clothes were strange, old fashioned as if they were not just out of style… But from a different time. Many accounts described him as looking like someone out of the late 1800s.

No one had noticed which direction the man came from… Or how he had even come to be wandering the streets in strange clothing at all. Before anyone could help him out of the road, the young stranger was suddenly hit and killed by a taxi. There was nothing anyone could have done.

The dead man’s body was taken to the morgue at the local hospital. The attendant made an inventory of the man’s clothes and personal items, attempting to look for identification so the deceased person’s family could be notified of his passing. The man’s belongings consisted of:

  • Business cards, bearing the name Rudolph Fentz and listing an address on Fifth Avenue
  • A letter, written to that Fifth Avenue address, sent from Philadelphia and dated 1876
  • A copper saloon token good for one beer
  • $70 in outdated currency
  • A bill from a livery stable for the care and washing of a horse-drawn carriage
  • A third-place medal for a 3-legged race

Why would a man in 1951 have all these strange things? What was he doing? Is it possible he arrived in Times Square through accidental time travel?

Although often reported as an urban legend in books and on the internet, the story of Rudolph Fentz isn’t an urban legend at all. Many claims like these can’t be traced to one single source, but this one can. It started out as an entirely fictional short story, written by Jack Finney and published in Collier’s Magazine in its September 15, 1951 issue.

Jack Finney

John Finney, later known as Walter Braden Finney and Jack Finney, was an American science fiction and thriller author born in 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After getting married and having two children, Finney took a job with an advertising agency in New York City, where he had the chance to become familiar with Times Square. From the 1950s on, he and his family lived in California, where Finney passed away in 1995.

During World War II, Jack Finney wrote pamphlets for his advertising agency that encouraged everyday Americans to do their part to help America win the war. From articles, he moved on to writing short stories, publishing a short mystery story in 1946. He later began writing novels, one of which was adapted to film in 1955.

One of Finney’s two most famous novels was Time and Again, which he published in 1970. In it, a man very much like Finney himself who works for an advertising agency is recruited by the government into a time travel program. Agents in the novel travel in time not with their physical bodies, but by hypnotizing themselves. The government uses these agents to get information about events in the past. Shortly before he died in 1995, Finney wrote a sequel called From Time to Time.

His other famous novel, The Body Snatchers, started out as a short story published in Collier’s Magazine in 1954. He developed it into a full novel that was published in 1955. The movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on Finney’s book, came out in 1956. Three remakes followed, with the most recent one in 2007 starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. If you’ve heard of Jack Finney in the 2020s, it’s probably because you or your parents have seen a version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“I’m Scared”

Finney’s short story “I’m Scared” appeared in Collier’s Magazine and was reprinted in a short story anthology called Tomorrow, the Stars in 1952. The 1950s were a golden age for science fiction writers, with millions of eager readers ready to buy story collections like Tomorrow, the Stars, edited by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein, together with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, are considered some of the fathers of American science fiction.

The short story “I’m Scared” is narrated by a character named Hubert V. Rihm. Captain Rihm works for the New York Police Department’s Missing Persons Department. He’s been called to help find information about the mysterious dead body. Rihm finds the name Rudolph Fentz Jr. in a phonebook from 1939. Although Fentz Jr. has died, Captain Rihm talks to his widow, a retired elderly woman who lives in Florida.

Mrs. Fentz then tells Captain Rihm the story of her father-in-law Rudolph Sr. She never met him because he disappeared when her husband was a small child in 1876. Rudolph Sr. went out one evening for a walk and never returned. No trace of him had ever been found… Until 1951.

The Story Becomes an Urban Legend

If we know who wrote “I’m Scared,” and when it was written, how did it split off from itself and become an urban legend?

In short: It was stolen.

Stories that mention the Fentz case as if it were a true story go back to at least 1972 when that exact claim appeared in a book by Viktor Farkas. Viktor was the author of books on paranormal subjects and was born in Vienna, Austria. Stories like this surfaced on the internet, where everything is true. In the year 2000, it was published as factual in the Spanish magazine <i>Más Allá</I> (<i>Beyond</I>).

That 2000 publication caught the attention of British folklore researcher Chris Aubeck, who was curious to learn where these “facts” originated. He traced the story back to a magazine called <i>Journal of Borderland Research</I>, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation in 1972. That article, in turn, cited a story of Ralph M. Holland called “A Voice from the Gallery” as the source of the legend.

Ralph M. Holland, it seems, picked up either a copy of Collier’s Magazine or Tomorrow, the Stars and copied Jack Finney’s short story “I’m Scared.” A simple case of plagiarism propelled Finney’s short story out of the world of one-time magazine fiction and into the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation.

The prospect of a time traveler being discovered in New York City in the 1950s is an intriguing one, but none of the “facts” of the story are true. We here at the Time Travel Institute think it’s interesting to see how urban legends move through popular culture. Stories that no one would possibly believe suddenly take on life and emerge as “Hey, this weird thing happened to a friend of a friend…”