The Bizarre Case Of Rudolph Fentz: Missing Person, Time Traveler, Or Hoaxer?

Main photo: Wikimedia Commons

And we thought that guy in the grubby Elmo costume was a strange sight for Times Square.

Late one summer evening in 1950, a young man dressed in Victorian clothing and sporting a gnarly set of mutton chops materialized in Times Square. Witnesses contend the man was bewildered as he struggled through the crowd, seemingly terrified by the bright neon lights and booming city noise. The stranger pushed his way to the sidewalk’s edge, then tumbled into the street. Seconds later, he was struck dead by a speeding taxi.

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Morgue officials collected the man’s body and cataloged his belongings. The following items were found in his coat pocket:

• A copper token for a beer worth 5 cents, emblazoned with the name of a saloon no one could remember
• A bill for the boarding of a horse and washing of a carriage, issued by a livery stable on Lexington Avenue
• Around 70 dollars in very old bank notes
• A business card with the name Rudolph Fentz and an address on Fifth Avenue
• An unopened letter sent to the address listed on the card, postmarked June 1876

None of the objects showed signs of aging, despite their antique condition.

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Captain Hubert V. Rihm, a superbly named officer of the Missing Persons Department, took on the case. He visited the Fifth Avenue address and found a working establishment. The current owner had never heard of Rudolph Fentz. A search through that year’s city phonebook turned up nothing; the man’s fingerprints matched no records, and no one had recently filed a missing person’s report.

Undeterred, Captain Rihm continued his investigation. He found a listing for Rudolph Fentz Jr. in a telephone book from 1939. Rihm spoke to the residents of the corresponding apartment building; they remembered the man and described him as about 60 years old. He worked in the neighborhood, they told Rihm, but took off when he retired. Rihm followed the lead to a bank account, where bank officials explained that Rudolph had died in Florida four years ago, where his wife still lived. The Captain tracked down the widow’s phone number; he gave her a call. She informed him that her late husband’s father had disappeared in 1876, at the age of 29. He simply left the house one evening, and never returned.

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Captain Rihm searched the missing persons archive for Rudolph Fentz. Sure enough, he found a report from 1876. The man’s appearance and clothing matched precisely the description of the dead man from Times Square. The case remained open. Fearing the department would declare him mentally insane, Rihm kept his discovery a secret and refused to update the file.

So, is this an actual case of time travel?

For some time the strange tale of Rudolph Fentz circulated as fact. It appeared in numerous books and periodicals throughout the 1970s, including the Journal of Borderland Research and in the works of Austrian paranormal expert Victor Farkas. The Fentz story gained new life in the internet age, where it spread like wildfire across message boards and chat rooms dedicated to the paranormal.

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In 2000, all this caught the attention of folklore researcher Chris Aubeck. After some significant digging, Aubeck found what he believed to be the source of the tale: a short piece published in a science fiction fanzine from 1953 by Robert M. Holland. Soon after the folklorist’s findings went public, Ohio Pastor George Murphy contacted Aubeck to inform him that the story in question went back further still. Holland had either copied the Fentz tale from a 1952 anthology published by Robert Heinlein (Tomorrow the Stars), or from an issue of Collier’s magazine published in 1951.

The actual author was famed science fiction scribe Jack Finney, creator of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise. His short story, “I’m Scared,” details the bizarre case of a bewildered Rudolph Fentz who meets the same mysterious end as described in the urban legend. A cop by the name of Captain Hubert V. Rihm narrates the tale, which, clearly, is just too good to be true.

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This story original appeared on The Lineup.

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Main photo: Wikimedia Commons

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