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Does old story hold answer to possibility of time travel?

Researcher traces origins of popular mystery

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AKRON, Ohio — Is time travel possible?

Could evidence for it be found in the story of a man who appeared suddenly on the streets of New York City in 1950, bearing the property and identity of a man who had vanished in 1876?

Chris Aubeck loves a good mystery, so the Londoner who lives in Madrid, Spain, decided to get to the root of a tale that has received a lot of press in Europe.

This month, the Spanish magazine Enigmas will publish the yearlong odyssey of Aubeck, who doggedly traced a piece of paranormal folklore through six countries and back six decades to its source — in Akron.

Aubeck, 31, who researches modern and ancient mysteries as a hobby, said fellow researchers in Europe often use the case of Rudolph Fentz as proof of time travel.

"They had been using the story for years in articles and books and many of them accepted the Fentz story at face value," Aubeck said in an e-mail interview. "When I asked them if it had been solved, I was told it had been tried but never successfully."

To Aubeck, that sounded like a challenge he couldn't pass up.

In a world of believers and skeptics, Aubeck is a skeptic searching for something to believe in.

"I don't need any further confirmation that odd things do happen, but the amount of disinformation and error is such that much of my time is spent reinvestigating old cases to weed out the nonsense," he said.

Most phenomena are explainable in scientific terms, but a small percentage defy explanation, he said. He's looking for that "needle in the haystack" that will stand up to scrutiny.

Last year, he turned his critical focus on the Fentz case.

Few people in the United States have heard of Fentz, but in Europe, the story has been repeated in at least six books, a couple of dozen magazines and several Internet sites.

The details change slightly in each retelling, but here's the gist:

It was 11:15 p.m. on a warm June night in 1950, and the area of Times Square was buzzing with people leaving theaters.

Suddenly, in the midst of traffic appeared an odd-looking man, about 30 years old. He wore mutton-chop whiskers and quaint clothing that had gone out of style decades before.

The man gawked at his surroundings, and then tried to dash away from the cars. He was struck by a cab and killed.

Police found on the dead man antique currency, business cards in the name of Rudolph Fentz, and a letter addressed to Fentz postmarked in 1876.

Assuming the man was Fentz, police sought the next of kin. But Fentz wasn't listed in the telephone directory, and no one at the address on the business card and letter knew him.

Capt. Hubert V. Rihm eventually turned up a 1939 phone book listing a Rudolph Fentz Jr. When Rihm located the junior's widow, she told him her father-in-law had vanished in 1876 after going out for a smoke.

That knowledge in hand, Rihm dug into old police files and found the missing-person report from 1876. The address given was the same as that on the dead man's business cards.

Interest in the Fentz case was rekindled recently when a Spanish magazine published the tale in 2000. Soon afterward, Aubeck launched his probe.

He started with obvious records such as the Social Security database and old telephone directories.

He tried several name variations and found a Rudolf Fenz in Chicago, but Fenz died in 1976, not 1950. He uncovered a Herman Rihm living in Cincinnati until 1993, but he was a linotype operator, not a policeman.

Aubeck closed other doors one at a time and soon found there was no document, police report or burial plot to prove either man ever existed.

And that's when the paper chase really began.

Aubeck decided to trace the myth back to the first person who told it.

At this point, Aubeck had in hand only three Spanish publications, and none credited its sources. It took another six months of research before Aubeck found the story in a 1975 French book.

The French book had cited a 1974 Italian magazine.

The Italian magazine referred to a 1973 Norwegian article.

The Norwegians had lifted it from a Swedish periodical.

The Swedes were quoting from a journal published by the California-based Borderland Sciences Research Foundation, a group investigating UFO sightings and paranormal events.

When Aubeck received a copy of the 1972 Borderland publication, he found it credited a 1953 booklet called "A Voice from the Gallery."

The booklet was written by Ralph M. Holland.

With so much time invested in tracking Holland down, Aubeck wanted to know more about the man whose tale of time travel had been teleported across the Atlantic and into European imaginations.

Did Holland mean for his story to be taken as fact, or was he simply trying to entertain?

Holland died in 1962. His sister, Dora, died in 1995. They had no other relatives.

But Aubeck has uncovered a couple of revealing documents.

In an obituary, Dora Holland provided background on her brother. Ralph Merridette Holland was born in Youngstown on Aug. 29, 1899, and lived there until moving to Akron with his family in 1914. He worked "in the plant" at the Akron Beacon Journal for a time, received an engineering degree and went to work at B.F. Goodrich.

He spent the last 40 years of his life in Cuyahoga Falls, and had been employed by Vaughn Machinery Co. there.

Dora Holland spoke of her brother's interest in paranormal phenomena and his membership in the Borderland research group. "He was interested in our own life beyond our earthly one," and he was constantly "sorting fact from fake before he would pass the information on."

But Holland also loved science fiction. He published his own fanzine, The Science-Fiction Review, and had published a book featuring a fantasy character called "Ghu."

Holland was keenly aware that his science fiction enterprises would cast a shadow on anything he tried to present as fact.

So he adopted an alter-ego.

Aubeck learned that Holland was Rolf Telano, the author of "A Spacewoman Speaks," a book about a "real" extraterrestrial with whom he was in contact.

When a Swedish publisher sought permission to translate the book in 1964, Dora Holland gave it on the condition that her late brother's identity be kept confidential.

In a letter to the publisher, Dora Holland noted her brother had been president of the National Fantasy Fan Federation, and "this is the connection he did not deem advisable to use in connection with his book or other similar interests lest his work in that connection be discredited."

Dora Holland may have believed her brother could be true to both sides of his personality — the science fiction fan and the science fact investigator.

But Aubeck isn't buying it.

When he learned that the author of the Fentz story was a member of the Borderland research group, it all clicked.

At the time, Borderland was trying to promote the idea of a "fourth dimension" — an alleged hole in the fabric of reality that is often used to explain the Bermuda Triangle. Aubeck is confident that Holland simply created a story to try to justify that theory.

"I doubt that for Holland this was ever much more than a game," Aubeck said.