Bobby Dunbar

Imagine…

It’s 1999 and you’ve just lost your older brother, Robert Clarence Dunbar III.  Your father hands you a binder full of news clippings about your grandfather.  As you’re flipping through, you see an editorial cartoon dated 1913.  It is the image of a small boy and his grandfather.  The boy is labeled “Bobby III.” 

They are talking about your brother… in 1913? 

In the cartoon, the little boys says, “Grandpa, do you ever think we’ll know for certain what our right name it?”  What does that mean?  What if your grandfather isn’t who he says he is?  Does that mean you aren’t who you think you are…

And one day… you will find out that you aren’t…

This is the story told in the forward of the book A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright.  (The book can be purchased here)

 

Let’s go back to August 23, 1912, Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana…

Bobby-Dunbar-Swayze-Lake

Map of Swayze Lake, where Bobby Dunbar went missing

Percy and Lessie Dunbar and their two sons, Bobby and Alonzo, are on a fishing trip from Opelousas, Louisiana where the family is well-known and prosperous.  The family leaves the lake to have lunch and Bobby wanders off.  The police are notified and a search is commenced.

Bobby-Dunbar-Lessie

Photo of Lessie Dunbar and her son, Bobby, before his disappearance

According to a Los Angeles Time article [1], “Hundreds of volunteers slogged through the murky waters around Swayze Lake looking for some trace of the barefoot, blue-eyed, 4-year-old.  Searchers sliced open the bellies of alligators and dynamited the lake, thinking that the blasts might dislodge the child’s corpse.” 

Nothing.  

Footprints were found, leading to a railroad track, and people reported an unknown man in the area. 

Had Bobby died or been kidnapped? 

His description went out:  4 year old, Caucasian male, blond, blue eyes with a mole on his neck and a burn scar on his big toe.  His nicknames are Bobby and Robbie.  He was wearing a straw hat, blue rompers and no shoes. [2]

For eight long months, the story was headline news and the search continued.  A $1,000 reward (the equivalent of $25,000 now [3]) was offered for the boy’s return.  Then, in April of 1913, they found a boy matching Bobby’s description in Mississippi with a man named William Cantwell Walters.  Walters, a piano repairman, adamantly denied that the boy with him was Bobby and said that the child was his nephew,  Charles Bruce Anderson (called Bruce).  He tells police that Bruce’s mother worked for his family (as a caretaker for his parents) and that she had given him permission to take the child.  Walters was arrested.

Bobby-Dunbar-William-Walters

William Walters, the man accused of taking Bobby Dunbar

The Dunbars were contacted and came to Mississippi to identify the boy.  What happened next depends on which paper you were reading.  Some said that the boy called Lessie “Mother,” while others said that he did not know her and wouldn’t answer to Bobby.  The same goes for the child’s interactions with Bobby’s brother, Alonzo.  Some stories read that Alonzo recognized the boy as Bobby immediately and others recounted that it was only after his mother recognized a mole on the child’s neck when giving him a bath that Alonzo accepted this boy to be Bobby.

The Dunbars took the child home to Opelousas where the city threw a parade for the return of young Bobby.

 

At the same time, Julia Anderson, the woman that Walters claimed was the child’s true mother, arrived from Barnesville, North Carolina to claim the child as hers.  Walters had requested that she be sent for and the arrangements were made with the help of a New Orleans newspaper [4].  She said that she had given Walter’s custody of the boy for a two-day trip, but hadn’t seen him in the thirteen months that he had actually been gone.  In Mississippi, she was shown five boys from which to choose her son.  She did point out the boy that the Dunbars claimed as their own, but he didn’t seem to recognize her.  (There is speculation that this was a ploy by the child to stay with his new, more well-to-do family).  Anderson hesitated to say that the boy in Mississippi was Bruce at first, but eventually stated that he was, in fact, her son.  She had no pictures of her child, but did have a lock of his hair.  Anderson was a mother of three children; one given up for adoption, one whose death, in infancy, was blamed on her, and Bruce.  She was currently working as a field hand, although some papers reported that she was a prostitute.  She had mothered all of her children out of wedlock and had not reported Bruce missing.  Her claims to the child were dismissed.  The boy was declared Bobby Dunbar and remanded to the custody of Percy and Lessie.  Anderson returned to North Carolina.

Bobby-Dunbar-Bruce-Anderson

A side by side comparison of known photos of Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson

Walters was tried for kidnapping.  He had traveled the country with Bruce, staying with people they met along the way in exchange for doing small chores and tuning their piano or the church organ.  Many of the people they had met along the way came to his defense, stating that they had seen him with the boy before Bobby went missing.  Anderson testified in his defense, as well. 

Despite this, Walters was found guilty.  He was incarcerated for two years before his attorney could obtain an appeal.  A retrial was ordered by the state supreme court, but the case was dropped because it was deemed too expensive. 

Bobby-Dunbar

A photo of “Bobby” shortly after his “return” to the Dunbar family

In the meantime, Anderson had settled in Poplarville, Mississippi (having eight other children, each of whom she told regularly that Bruce had been stolen from her.  She also founded a church and became a nurse).

 

 The child was living as Bobby with the Dunbar family.  They refused to allow him to be interviewed and would not allow any new pictures of him to be published.  In 1920, the Dunbars divorced.  Percy was left to raise both boys on his own when Lessie left him and moved to New Orleans.  Their divorce papers stated that Percy was adulterous and had stabbed a man in Florida.

Bobby would grow up, marry and have four children.  Some sources stated that he questioned whether he was really a Dunbar for the rest of his life, despite an interview he gave as an adult saying that he remembered the kidnapping [2].  In the same interview, he told the story of another boy that was with him and Walters that fell from a wagon and was killed. 

One of Anderson’s sons claimed that Bobby came to visit him at work in 1944 and one of Anderson’s daughters reported a visit from someone she believed to be Bobby, as well.  One of these stories seems to be corroborated by Bobby’s children.

 

In 1999, Bobby’s granddaughter, Margaret, began researching the case. 

 

In 2004, DNA test results proved that the child returned to the Dunbars was, in fact, not Bobby.

 

Bobby Dunbar is again considered a missing person, but the case is not being actively investigated due to its age.

 

If this case or the research into it interests you, I highly recommend listening to Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Tal McThenia and the Dunbar and Anderson families on This American Life.  A link to that recording can be found here.

 

A link to a video summary of this story can be found here: https://youtu.be/VTiVnDTo48k

 

Sources:

http://www.the-line-up.com/bobby-dunbar-disappearance/

http://www.charleyproject.org/cases/d/dunbar_robert.html [2]

https://www.historicmysteries.com/what-happened-to-bobby-dunbar/

https://historichorrors.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/missing-boy-found-or-was-he/ [4]

http://www.davemanuel.com/inflation-calculator.php [3]

http://articles.latimes.com/2004/feb/01/news/adna-bobby1 [1]

https://www.amazon.com/Case-Solomon-Dunbar-Kidnapping-Haunted/dp/1439158592

https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Case_for_Solomon.html?id=EJuUjrgmHf0C

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/352/transcript

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/352/the-ghost-of-bobby-dunbar

 

Photo Credits:

Swayze Lake-http://www.mytopo.com/locations/index.cfm?fid=1628315

Lessie and Bobby-Associated Press

William Walters-Associated Press

Bobby and Boy Found-https://the-line-up.com/bobby-dunbar-disappearance

Bobby with Car-https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/352/the-ghost-of-bobby-dunbar

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s