How An NYC Urban Legend Convinced the World Time Travel is Real

Most know that urban legends are fake. But for decades people around the world believed a story about a Times Square Time Traveler. Here’s why.

NYC Skyline from Pixabay

There are weirder stories to come out of Times Square than that of the Naked Cowboy. Take 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 weirder. Later that evening, a police captain sorted through the dead man’s pockets searching for anything that might identify him. Among the contents found were 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 phone book. The captain followed the only lead he had — a 5th Avenue address on the back of a business card also found in the dead man’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 the stranger’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, and fearing for his professional reputation, the captain decided not to officially document the results of his investigation. As the story goes, 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 after that publication, the tale of the Times Square Time Traveler appeared in the books of Victor Farkas, a Czechoslovakian science-fiction novelist. Then, in the early 2000s, the story 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 the story as fact.

But as it turns out, the police captain hadn’t actually told anyone about the details of his investigation…because he never existed. Here’s the weird story behind how that urban legend became mistaken for the truth.

Sometime around the year 2000, the Spanish magazine Mas Alla ran the Times Square Time Traveler story as fact. It caught the eye of Chris Aubeck(not an affiliate link), a London expat living in Spain who researches supernatural phenomena. Aubeck quickly discovered that little evidence to support the story existed outside the Internet, an indication that it was fictitious (urban legends grounded in reality usually stem from a police report, morgue record, or other official document.) In 2001, Aubeck published his research in the Akron Beacon Journal. The legend, he concluded, dates to a 1953 short story by Ralph M. Holland called “A Voice from the Gallery.”

He was close, but that’s not the whole story.

Holland saw the article and called Aubeck with a correction: his work was actually based on a different story by Jack Finney called “I’m Scared,” which was published in a 1951 issue of Collier’s Magazine. I tracked down that story and can say with certainty that it’s the urban legend’s point of origin, right down to the characters’ names. The story is told from the perspective of an NYPD Captain named Hubert V. Rihm who’s called in to investigate the death of a man named Fentz, a stranger who appeared out of nowhere in the middle of Times Square, dressed as if on his way to a costume party.

For me, the most fascinating part of this urban legend isn’t that it involves time travel. It’s that it unveils the tricky and tangled way that urban legends get passed on and transformed over the course of generations. In the age of the Internet, that transformation can happen quickly and on a global scale, opening urban legends up to multiple cultural interpretations.

What’s also interesting 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. It printed deeply reported essays, and its pages dedicated to short fiction were clearly marked as such. 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.

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 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 understand.

The Times Square Time Traveler legend endures, because like the WotW, it makes people ask big questions: What, exactly, are time and space? Is it possible for humanity to master such mysterious and invisible dimensions? And what even is humanity? For avid readers of science fiction, such questions aren’t new. The best of the genre encourages us to think bigger than ourselves and wonder with awe at the mystery of our universe. But the story behind the tale of the Times Square Time Traveler also reveals just how eager we are to confuse fact with fiction.