Mulberry Street, New York City 1900

Fact or Fiction? The Enduring History of a New York City Urban Legend

There are far weirder stories to come out of Times Square than that of the Naked Cowboy, stories like this one: In the summer of 1950, at around 11:15pm, a young man appeared in the middle of Manhattan’s busiest intersection dressed like an extra in a Victorian period film. As the story goes, no one saw him drive up or walk to that spot. He just sort of…appeared. He staggered a bit as he looked up at the steel buildings towering around him. Some reported that he crouched and covered his head as if fearing the buildings’ collapse. Sadly, before anyone could help him, a speeding taxi struck the man, killing him instantly.

The story gets stranger. Later that evening, a police captain sorted through the dead man’s pockets searching for anything that might identify him. Among the contents the captain found a wad of bank notes dated to the 1870s and a personal letter dated from 1876 addressed to a Rudolph Fentz. The money looked freshly minted and the letter newly penned. The dead man, now known as “Fentz,” had no fingerprints on record, and his name wasn’t listed in the phonebook.  The captain followed the only lead he had—a 5th Avenue address on the back of a business card also found in Fentz’s pocket. When the captain arrived at the address, he found a small shop owned by a man who had never heard of Fentz. The captain checked the missing person files, but they contained no one matching Fentz’s description. On a lark, the captain checked the missing person files of 1876, and sure enough, he found a report that matched Fentz’s name and appearance exactly. Unsure of what to make of this finding, and fearing for his professional reputation, the captain decided not to officially document the results of his investigation. Purportedly, he never told another soul about Fentz or the weird circumstances of his case.

But he must have told someone, right? Because the story persisted long after the 1950s. In 1972, the Journal of Borderland Research—the organ of a supernatural investigation society called Borderland Sciences Research Foundation—reported the story, arguing that an invisible “time portal” had opened between Fentz’s nineteenth-century New York and the New York of 1950. An unwitting Fentz, the article continues, must have just walked right through. Shortly thereafter the tale of the Times Square Time Traveler appeared in the books of Victor Farkas, a Czechoslovakian science-fiction novelist. In the early 2000s, it went viral for a short time on the Internet as a strange-but-true New York City happening. Magazines and newspapers around the world, including those in Spain, Sweden, and Norway, picked it up and printed it as fact.

As it turns out, the police captain actually hadn’t told anyone about the details of his investigation, because he never existed. Whereas many urban legends—especially those that take root in the public consciousness and grow for decades—have origins in truth and become embellished over time, this particular legend began as a short work of fiction. We can thank a researcher named Chris Aubeck for tracing its origin.

Sometime around the year 2000, the Spanish magazine Mas Alla picked up the Times Square Time Traveler story and ran it as fact. The story caught the eye of Aubeck, a London expat living in Spain who researches supernatural phenomenon. Aubeck quickly discovered that little evidence to support the story existed outside the Internet, an indication that the story was entirely fictitious (urban legends grounded in real-life events usually stem in the very least from an actual police report, morgue record, or other official document.) In 2001, Aubeck published his research in the Akron Beacon Journal. The legend, he wrote, dates to a 1953 short story by Ralph M. Holland called “A Voice from the Gallery.”

Very close, but not quite.

Holland saw the article and called Aubeck with a correction: his work was actually based on a story by Jack Finney called “I’m Scared,” published in a 1951 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Aubeck checked the reference, and sure enough, he found his origin point. Finney’s short story is told from the perspective of a Captain Hubert V. Rihm of the New York Police Department who’s called in to investigate the death of a man named Fentz, a man who appeared out of nowhere in the middle of Times Square, dressed as if on his way to a costume party.

The legend of the Times Square Time Traveler is fascinating for more reasons than one. Aubeck’s research into the tale unveils the tricky and tangled way that urban legends get passed on and transformed. In the age of the Internet, that transformation can happen quickly and on a global scale, opening urban legends up to multiple cultural interpretations as well as temporal ones (Aubeck’s research, which can be found here, parses the different versions of the legend that formed like onion skins as the story passed into the 21st century and then into Western Europe).

Interesting, too, is that the legend began as a short story published in one of the most popular magazines of the mid-20th century. Collier’s, we must remember, was a well-regarded magazine in the 1950s on par reputation-wise with the Saturday Evening Post. Also like the Post, it printed well-reported essays and short fiction that were clearly delineated. In other words, this was not a magazine likely to purposefully ignite a hoax, and its smart readership was not likely to fall for one anyway.

So, what happened? How did a short work of popular science fiction get misconstrued as fact by so many people around the world?

The study of the causes and effects of urban legends isn’t exactly a science, but we might be able to infer some answers by turning to one of the legend’s most notorious predecessors – Orson Welles’s reading of The War of the Worlds (WotW). On Halloween night in 1938, Orson Welles read H.G. Wells’s novel of alien invasion during a CBS broadcast. The broadcast became famous for allegedly causing a mass panic (it’s important to note that many historians dispute the extent of the alarm because the broadcast had so few listeners.) News outlets the following day expressed outrage at Welles and CBS. They argued that the news-bulletin format of the show had been deceptive, and soon calls were being made to the Federal Communications Commission to take punitive action on Welles and his accomplices.

To be clear, the WotW and the Times Square Time Traveler legend differ significantly in that by 2001 no one was still printing articles positing that the WotW story might be true. But the two stories are similar in that they convinced at least some percentage of their respective audiences that there’s more to the universe than we can see, let alone understand.   

Perhaps one reason for the Times Square Time Traveler legend’s endurance is that, like the WotW, it makes people ask big questions: What, exactly, is time and space? Is it possible for humanity to master such mysterious and invisible dimensions? What is humanity anyway? For avid readers of science fiction, these aren’t new questions. The best science fiction provokes us to think bigger and wonder at the mystery of our universe, and it does so through the unfolding of fast-paced, sometimes creepy, often terrifying, but always exciting narratives.

Perhaps the lasting impact of the tale of the Times Square Time Traveler reveals, in essence, the power of good storytelling and a desire on our part to know more about the inner-workings of ourselves and our world. Of course, in the wake of the recent success of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and Ridley Scott’s subsequent film, it’s clear that we as a society are as susceptible as ever to confusing fact with fiction. Time Magazine and other sources report that many people believe that The Martian, which depicts the life of a man stranded on Mars for over a year, is based on a true story. So maybe the real lesson here is this: read widely and enjoy, but pay close attention in science class, too.