On Wednesday 14 June 1950, around a quarter past eleven at night, the Broadway theatres and cinemas are slowly emptying, sending waves of spectators onto the sidewalks, when cries are heard. A man around thirty years old, who had unthinkingly stepped onto the road, has just been hit by a car. He is now lying in the middle of a pool of blood which is reflecting the lights of Times Square.
The people who crowd around the body then notice that the unknown man is dressed in a very old-fashioned way. He is wearing a grey jacket with a row of buttons at the back, tight black and white checked pants, with no crease nor turned-up cuffs, and high-mounting shoes with buckles. Not far from him, his top hat has rolled onto the asphalt…
At the morgue, a police officer empties this strange person’s pockets. What he finds there rather surprises him. There are:
– an obsolete bronze coin,
– a bill from a stable in Lexington Avenue with the mention:
“For the feed and stabling of one horse and for the storing of one carriage: 3 dollars”,
– seventy dollars in old money,
– a few visiting cards engraved with the name of Rudolf Fentz, and an address: 372 Fifth Avenue,
– a letter addressed to Mr R. Fentz bearing the postal stamp of June 1876.
The public servant transmits these objects to his superior who remains perplexed.
“And you say that he was wearing a jacket, checked pants, ankle boots and a top hat. He was therefore in fancy dress. But, when you put on fancy dress, you don’t go as far as having money corresponding to the period on you… There is something funny here.”
“You don’t bother making fake papers either,”
says the other policeman, pointing to the bill and the letter, both perfectly new-looking with barely marked creases, which prove that they are of recent date.
“Do you think that it’s one of those crazy people who refuse our modern civilization and imagine that they are living in another age?”
“Unless he’s just an actor in a play where the action takes place in 1876 and has on him the money and the different documents of this time for use in the play…”
“He would have gone out into the street in costume?”
“With actors, anything’s possible!…”
This last hypothesis, by far the most plausible, is finally retained and the police officer sends two inspectors into the Broadway theatres with a photo of the victim, while a third goes to the address indicated on the visiting cards, the telephone directories are consulted, and the fingerprints of the mysterious person are sent to the records kept in New York and Washington.
That evening, the policemen come back with nothing. No actor recognized the man in Times Square, the name of Rudolf Fentz is totally unknown at 372 Fifth Avenue, the telephone directories list no Fentz and the records do not contain the dead man’s fingerprints…
The affair is then handed over to Captain Hubert V. Rihm who is in charge of Missing Persons. This officer immediately declares:
“We have to know where this person was coming from when he so stupidly got himself run over. Was he leaving a shop, a show, a restaurant? Publish a drawing of him in his extravagant outfit in the Press. Perhaps the public will give us a clue.”
The portrait appears the following day in the New York Press and a few people who were in the crowd at Times Square on 14 June, at a quarter past eleven at night, present themselves at Captain Rihm’s office. Alas, their testimonies, far from shedding any light on the case, cloud it even more.
A certain Mrs Kinners declares:
“I was coming out of the cinema with some friends. There were a lot of people on the sidewalk. Suddenly, this man appeared amongst us I remember saying to myself: ‘Where did he come from?’ Then, I thought that it might be someone doing some publicity for a show. I thought that he was going to distribute some flyers. But he was looking at all the signs in lights with a frightened air which struck me. He asked me: ‘What’s happening? Is there a fire?” And without waiting for my reply, he pushed into the crowd towards the road…”
Another witness, Mr Barnett, a friend of Mrs Kinners, came to say:
“We were coming out of the cinema and I was going to take a step towards the friend in front of me when, suddenly, this person was in between us. How did he get there? I don’t know. All that I can say, is that he wasn’t there the second before. I would have seen him because of his outfit and his big cigar. The funniest thing was his expression. He seemed astonished when he looked at me, as if I was a phenomenon. Then he turned his head in all directions and seemed panicked to find himself in this crowd. Finally, he looked up at the skyscrapers and murmured: ‘My God!’ After which, he said something about a fire and, suddenly, went towards the road, as if he wanted to flee…”
Other witnesses came to testify to Captain Rihm. Most of them repeated almost word for word what Mr Barnett and Mrs Kinners had said about the person’s sudden apparition. But one of them, who was at the edge of the sidewalk at the moment of the accident, brought a supplementary detail:
“When the individual arrived near the road, I noticed that he was looking at the traffic lights with a frightened air, as if he had never seen any before. Then he seemed to discover the traffic, turned to me and said, pointing to the cars that were passing by: ‘But what’s that?’ …He looked terrified. Suddenly, he rushed towards the street. I called out to him: ‘Watch out!’ But he mustn’t have heard me. The car had already hit him…”
So who is this strange person dressed like an 1870s dandy, who appears not to know of the existence of skyscrapers, luminous signs, traffic lights and cars?
Captain Rihm pursues his investigations and finally discovers, in a telephone directory of 1939, a Rudolf Fentz Junior living at 112 East 21st Street. He goes there and learns that this Fentz, at the time that he was living in the building, was a man around sixty who worked in a bank nearby. One of the lodgers gives the precision:
“In 1940, he retired and left the neighbourhood. Since then, we’ve never had any news of him.”
The policeman enquires at the bank where he is told that Rudolf Fentz died in 1945, but that his widow was still alive and living in California.
Rihm takes an aeroplane and goes to question her. Mrs Fentz’ answers can be resumed like this:
“No, she didn’t have a son, or a nephew, or even a cousin bearing the name of Rudolf Fentz. No, her husband had not been married before marrying her. No, no-one in her family had a taste for fancy dress. No, she had never lived in Fifth Avenue, but her husband, yes, when he was a child. He had even often shown her the building in which his parents had lived. No, she didn’t recognize the visiting cards that the Captain was showing her, but the address could well be that of her father-in-law. 1876? Yes, that year reminds her of something: it was the year of her husband’s birth. Yes, she has a family photo album…”
And she shows it to him.
The Captain wants to know if there is, among Rudolf Fentz Junior’s relatives, someone who resembles his mysterious person.
After having turned several pages, he stops suddenly, as if petrified, before a photograph representing a man dressed in a jacket and black and white checked pants, with buckled ankle boots, wearing a top hat…
Underneath this old-fashioned hat, a face is smiling, and although the document has yellowed, Captain Rihm immediately recognizes it: it is the unknown man from Times Square.
“Who is this?”
“My father-in-law; and the baby he is holding in his arms is my husband… I mean, my future husband…”
“Have you any other portraits of your father-in-law?”
“No, that’s the only one that I have. The unfortunate man mysteriously disappeared shortly after the photo was taken.”
“Yes. His wife couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco. So he had the habit of going for a little walk after dinner to smoke a cigar. And one evening, he didn’t come home. His family had a search made for him by the Police, but it was never known what happened to him…”
“Do you know the date of this disappearance?”
“My mother-in-law often told me about it: my husband was three months old. He was born in March. My father-in-law therefore disappeared in June 1876…”
Very impressed, Captain Rihm returns to New York where he finds in the Police archives the list of Missing Persons in 1876. On 14 June, the name of Rudolf Fentz, aged twenty-nine, is listed “wearing a gray jacket, black and white checked trousers, high shoes with buckles and a top hat”…
To be continued.