DNA Solves the Century-Old Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar
Imagine the trauma if your son was missing for eight months. If a boy showed up claiming to be him, you would certainly want to believe him, even if aging made it impossible to tell. What if the plot thickened and another mother showed up claiming the boy was her son?
Sound absolutely impossible? Well, that’s exactly what happened to the parents of Bobby Dunbar in 1912 when their son went missing during a family vacation. Thanks to modern DNA technology, the mystery has finally been solved — mostly.
A Hot Louisiana Summer
Back before air conditioning was a thing, the only way to find relief on a hot, humid day was to sit under a nice shade tree, preferably with a natural body of water nearby for swimming. Depending on where you live, summertime typically has at least a few really hot days, and it reaches sweltering temperatures every day in some parts of the country.
Family Lake Trip
In 1908, Bobby Dunbar was the first child born to Lessie and Percy Dunbar. Later, they had another son, making it a family of four. Both Lessie and Percy adored their children.
Lake? More Like Swamp
Swayze Lake may be called a lake, but it’s really more of a swamp. Filled with man-eating alligators, it's also not really a place to swim. It wasn’t the best place to take two young children, but the Dunbars planned to do some fishing.
Lessie and Percy soon realized that Bobby was missing. They launched a giant search and put all their efforts into finding their missing son.
A Lengthy Search
Both local volunteers and authorities launched a 24/7 manhunt for the missing boy, but every clue turned out to be a dead end. The Dunbar family even provided a huge reward to anyone who helped them find their son. The amount of $1,000 was a fortune at the time. (It would amount to $25,000 today.)
A Boy Who Could Be Bobby
On April 13, 1913, near Columbia, Mississippi, police arrested a man named William Cantwell Walters, who was found traveling by train with a boy who matched the description given to police. Like Bobby, the boy had blonde hair and blue eyes, and he was the same age as Bobby. It was enough to warrant an arrest and to send the boy back to Opelousas.
A Happy Ending — Kind Of
After further examination by Lessie and Percy, the boy was deemed to be Bobby. The news that Bobby had been found spread all around town. News outlets, however, questioned whether or not the boy was actually Bobby.
The William Walters Arrest
At the time, a conviction for kidnapping in the state of Louisiana was a capital offense. If he was found guilty, Walters was in serious trouble. He was quoted in the LA Times as saying, "I know by now you have decided. You are wrong… it is very likely I will lose my life. On account of that, and if I do, the Great God will hold you accountable."
No one in the town believed Walters' story, so it was no surprise when the jury rendered a guilty verdict for kidnapping. It looked grim for Walters, but then Julia Anderson showed up in town and corroborated Walters’ version of events. Anderson said the boy was her son, Bruce Anderson.
Reporters wrote about Anderson's uncertainty when she saw the boy. The articles called her an illiterate woman with "loose morals." As a result, she was discredited in the eyes of the entire town. After being tried in the court of public opinion, she left the boy with the Dunbars and left town.
A New Generation with Questions
Even though the case was technically solved, both families still wondered about their questionable past. Margaret Dunbar Cutright, the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, had heard the story of her grandfather's strange disappearance many times.
A Continuing Investigation
In 2008, a radio documentary show was created to follow the continuing investigation. Called The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, it was hosted by Tal McThenia. According to McThenia, "Margaret went on an obsessive quest to small-town libraries, archives and courthouses all over the South."
An Alliance for the Truth
While Margaret was told that Bobby was truly a Dunbar, the granddaughter of Julia Anderson, Linda Traver, was told the opposite story. According to her family, her uncle, Bruce Anderson, was kidnapped by the Dunbar family. But Linda wasn't confident about the story she had been told.
Battle to Be Right
Although both Margaret and Linda were looking for the truth, each was hoping to prove their own family's story was true, of course. They worked together, but they both wanted to prove the boy on the train was their family member.
Letting Go of Biased Feelings
When the two women realized they were trying to find different answers to the same mystery, Linda was upset. She couldn't believe that Margaret was being so stubborn about the story she was told.
During their investigation, the women went over the legal files that were passed between Walters and his lawyer. They read and re-read everything, making sure to account for all the evidence. They also found testimonial letters from witnesses like Julia Anderson and others.
The Letter from “The Christian Woman”
The anonymous letter read: "Dear sir, in view of human justice to Julia Anderson and mothers, I am prompted to write to 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?"
Margaret Realizes Her Mistake
The end of the woman’s letter read: "This is a farce. If the Dunbars do not know their child, who has only been gone eight months, by his features...they don’t know him at all."
In the past, Margaret had asked her father for a DNA sample, but he always turned her down. He believed the story he was told, and he didn't want to be told otherwise. He was content being a Dunbar, and he didn't want to question his identity.
The lab compared the DNA to the DNA of a son of Bobby Dunbar’s brother. The assumption was that the DNA would prove that the Dunbars were right, and the DNA would be a familial match. After the lab received the DNA, it took a whole month to get the results.
State of Shock
When she was talking to the technician, Margaret remembers thinking, "You know, as far as she was concerned, it was a paternity test. She had no idea the impact of what she was saying to me. It was a shock to me…not really the conclusion, but to hear it."
Confusion Sets In
When Bobby Dunbar Jr. found out that his father wasn't Bobby Dunbar, he was understandably shocked. He said, "It took my breath away. You know, I hadn’t considered that. My thought was to prove that daddy was Bobby Dunbar…I just pondered, you know?"
An Upset Family
Other members of the family who were upset by the test included Margaret's brother, Swin Dunbar. He thought his sister was being selfish. He said, "You know, she was really going up against the entire family, including myself."
Forgive and Forget
Not everybody in the family has forgiven Margaret, but the Dunbar family has kept their bond. The results didn't matter — they were still the Dunbar family. Nonetheless, many members of their family felt that Margaret disrespected the family by investigating the case in such a public way.
Still a Missing Boy
After Linda was told the news about the DNA test results, she recalls, "I got up from where we were sitting on the couch, and I went around, and I think I hugged his neck, just knowing that, man, we were family. We were just family." From then on, the Dunbars and Julia Anderson's family became friends.
An Alligator Attack?
Bob Dunbar Jr. retained his identity as a Dunbar. DNA wasn't going to change the Dunbar's attitude toward him or who he called his family. He was still one of them.
A Mother's Doubts
It seemed that Lessie Dunbar always had some doubt about the boy's identity, even after she brought him home. Margaret said, "I think she had to have, on some level, known, and maybe she didn’t. I don’t know. I think maybe she was in a denial her entire life."
Besides the obvious gator as the culprit, another possibility exists for what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar. When Bobby [actually Bruce Anderson] was 18, some reporters asked him for a statement, as his case was still famous across the nation.
"Bobby" remembered that there was another child traveling with him and Walters on the train, but he explained the other child died before Walters was arrested. The media then began to run a story implying that Walters had actually kidnapped both boys.
The identity of the known boy traveling with Walters was resolved, but questions still remain about the case. Was there actually a second boy who could have been the real missing boy?