Can you remember every freckle on your child’s arm? Most parents would probably guarantee that they could pick their child out of a lineup, but what if another parent swore with the same level of certainty that your child was actually theirs? Could you convince the world that your word is the one to be believed?
Over 92 years, two families claimed the other stole a child. The justice system took sides, and all along, the truth was determined by one parent’s word over another. But then descendants decided it was time to use cold-hard science to find the truth about the identity of the mysterious child.
When a child goes missing, natural protective instincts kick in. Most parents would sacrifice anything, exhaust all avenues, to be reunited with their kids. Percy and Lessie Dunbar were no exception.
The Dunbar’s welcomed their firstborn son, Bobby, in 1908. Soon after, they added another son to their growing little family. But it was on an outing with their children four years later that truly turned their lives upside down.
The Dunbars were looking for a reprieve from the sweltering Louisiana summer. What better way than cooling off in the shady moss-covered banks of the Bayou? They packed up their boys for a weekend retreat at Swayze Lake.
Beaches and lifeguards didn’t greet them. Instead, the family pitched their tent in the midst of swamplands crawling with alligators. It certainly wasn’t Disneyland. Still, the Dunbars were unprepared for the events that unfolded not long into their trip.
On August 23rd, 1912, the Dunbars, worn out from a full day of fresh air, fell fast asleep. Their dreams were accompanied by a chorus of crickets and bullfrogs. So no one noticed as four-year-old Bobby quietly woke up and crawled out of his blankets.
What actually took place that night is a truth only Bobby Dunbar could ever confirm. He left the tent and appeared to have wandered in the direction of Swayze Lake. By daylight the next morning, he’d vanished.
Police and volunteers swarmed the swamp immediately, hoping to locate Bobby. The clues looked grim. Given the setting of his disappearance, authorities suspected a drowning or animal interference. But one piece of evidence kept the Dunbars unconvinced.
Local newspaper, The Caldwell Watchman, reported, “At first, it was feared that he’s been drowned, but the lake failed to give up the body and the little boy’s hat was found some distance from the lake a day or so later.”
Though the public and the police combed through every lead during an eight-month search, and their hearts broke for the Dunbar’s, Bobby’s trail went cold. Percy Dunbar, though, refused to give up hope. He offered a $1,000 reward for the return of his son.
Converted to today’s values, that reward was the equivalent of around $25k. The town contributed another $6,000 to the bounty, stretching the total to over $158,000 in 2019 equivalents. Still, the phones remained silent.
Their terror was broken on April 13, 1913, when police informed the Dunbars they’d arrested a suspect in Bobby’s disappearance. In Mississippi, they’d booked and charged one William Cantwell Walters.
Better yet, police delivered staggering news — they believed they’d rescued Bobby. Walters garnered suspicion by traveling with a blonde blue-eyed boy who bore an uncanny resemblance to the image of Bobby plastered on “missing persons” posters. They only needed the Dunbars to confirm his identity.
For eight agonizing months, the Dunbars had prayed for Bobby’s safe return, but when they flung open the door to welcome him home, Percy and Lessie hesitated. They didn’t immediately recognize the child standing in front of them.
Surely, Bobby’s features couldn’t have changed so drastically in less than a year. Nevertheless, this peculiar uncertainty was short lived. After examining the boy for identifying marks, the Dunbars agreed their boy was finally home.
News that Bobby was safe at home spread fast. The town saw fit to celebrate. A parade, including a brass band, marched through the town, commemorating the Dunbar’s miracle. Before they could cut the welcome home cake, though, the case got hairy.
William Cantwell Walters maintained his innocence from behind iron bars. He claimed the boy was his nephew Charles “Bruce” Anderson. Crying out for some semblance of justice, he pleaded that the police contact Bruce’s biological father, his brother, or the boy’s mother, Julia Anderson.
To avoid the death penalty, William pleaded to the press: “I know by now you have decided. You are wrong,” he said. “It is very likely I will lose my life. On account of that, and if I do, the Great God will hold you accountable.”
As the trial geared up, William was sent a savior in the form of Julia Anderson. She arrived in Louisiana and fully corroborated that Bruce was indeed her son. It became obvious rather quickly that her words meant little.
Julia faced criticism for allowing her son to travel with his uncle, though she’d only agreed to a two-day trip. Her unmarried status, that she was a field hand for the Walters family, and her confirmation that her “son” Bruce was illegitimate, didn’t win over the conservative public — nor the jury.
Apart from her reputation, Julia herself had a tough time picking Bruce out of a lineup. She, too, was allowed to examine the boy for identifying marks, then felt firm he was hers. It came down to a tug of war between two protective mothers over one timid five-year-old boy.
NYT / David Alan Harvey
Financially and emotionally exhausted, Julia’s pleading to take her son home was totally ignored. She was forced to give up and left for Mississippi childless. Even if the boy wasn’t Bobby Dunbar, that’s the life he was about to live.
In the 90 plus years that followed, generations of Dunbars staunchly towed the family beliefs. The lore and legend surrounding Bobby’s identity made for hot after-dinner gossip, but eventually, it was the boy’s future granddaughter that broke the case wide open.
In 1999, Margaret Dunbar Cutwright first thumbed through old press clippings of her grandfather’s unusual kidnapping. Her fascination with the case grew to a full-fledged investigation, which was covered in a 2008 episode of the This American Life titled ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.”
Journalist Tal McThenia reported, “Margaret went on an obsessive quest to small-town libraries, archives, and courthouses all over the South.” She’d received a membership to the Library of Congress for her birthday. The more Margaret learned the more she doubted.
It was time for the two opposing sides to compare notes. Margaret tracked down the granddaughter of Julia Anderson, Linda Traver, to find out what the Bruce Anderson camp had to say.
Unlike the Dunbars, Linda learned early on that her uncle Bruce was stolen in bizarre a slippery slope stamped with the word justice. “Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along,” Linda said. “I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along.”
This American Life
Eventually, Margaret agreed her point of view could be skewed. The two descendants of the boy in question poured over the case files from William Walters’ trial. Not to mention the treasure trove of letters from Julia Anderson pleading for the return of her son Bruce.
In their deep dive, they found many more curious statements that had been hushed up. One letter, in particular, penned under the elusive title “The Christian Woman,” struck a chord with Margaret and left her questioning the family version of events.
It read, “Dear sir, in view of human justice to Julia Anderson and mothers, I am prompted to write you. I sincerely believe the Dunbars have Bruce Anderson and not their boy. If this is their child, why are they afraid for anyone to see or interview him privately?”
Almost like a flip of a switch, Margaret fully realized the ramifications of the possibility that the Dunbars were mistaken about little Bobby/Bruce. She knew the only way to resolve the mystery and heal both their families was with hard scientific facts.
Margaret had pressed her father before about his taking a DNA test, and every time, he absolutely refused. In the light of her alliance with Linda, however, Bobby Junior finally agreed to provide a sample.
Now there was no turning back. Using a sample from her great Uncle Alonzo, the laboratory compared it to Bobby Junior’s DNA to finally settle this identity debacle. Margaret braced for the phone call, but it took a month before they called with the results.
When the phone rang, Margaret wasn’t ready for the indifferent delivery of the tech on the other line. They simply told her that her entire family history was all a lie.
The truth of the news resulted in mixed reactions among the rest of the Dunbar family. Most of them were on the verge of a full existential crisis. They’d been loyal to their family, but all along, the boy was actually Bruce Anderson.
After nine decades, Margaret swallowed her pride on behalf of her frustrated family. When she delivered the news to Linda Travers, the long-awaited response she received was an emotional hug.