DNA Solves the Century-Old Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:39:29 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Unknown/Wikipedia

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Schwoaze/Pixabay

Louisiana summers, in particular, are absolutely terrible the whole time. The sun is blinding, and the humidity levels are extremely high. In the summer of 1912, the Dunbar family decided to beat the heat by taking a summer vacation at a lake.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Louisiana Digital Library/Wikimedia

In the summer of 1912, the family decided they needed a break from the heat, so they packed their bags and left on vacation. They drove north near the city of Opelousas and made their way to Swayze lake. At the time, the family was expecting nothing but fun from the trip, but this fateful summer vacation ended up changing their family forever.


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.

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Photo Courtesy: JamesDeMers/Pixabay

So, yeah, not the greatest parenting choice. On August 23, little Bobby Dunbar slipped out of the tent and wandered toward the lake. He never came back. The events that followed troubled the lives of two families for the next hundred years.


Missing Boy

Lessie and Percy soon realized that Bobby was missing. They launched a giant search and put all their efforts into finding their missing son.

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Photo Courtesy: Free-Photos/Pixabay

A local newspaper, The Caldwell Watchman, wrote about the case of the missing boy: "When he [Bobby] was missed, a search traced him to the banks of Lake Swayze… At first, it was feared that he had 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."

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.)

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Photo Courtesy: Ehimetalor Unuabona/Unsplash

The town even raised money and added another $5,000 to the reward money offered. That made the total reward offered about $125,000 in modern money.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: The Day Book/Wikipedia

But when the boy arrived, Lessie and Percy didn't recognize him as their son. Was it simply because the passing of time at such a young age led to a lot of physical changes? That was when the mystery truly began. Who was this boy?


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.

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Photo Courtesy: scan5353/Pixabay

Regardless of the doubt, the town celebrated the reunited family. Upon returning home, they were even greeted by a brass band at their house, and a parade was held in their honor. Despite all that, rumors continued to circulate around town about the questionable identity of the boy. What should have been the end turned out to just be the beginning.


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."

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Photo Courtesy: Ichigo121212/Pixabay

When William Walters was arrested, he claimed the child was his brother’s illegitimate son with a servant named Julia Anderson. His claims weren’t the only ones made about the boy’s identity.


Another Mom?

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.

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Photo Courtesy: 12019/Pixabay

But when she saw him — just like Lessie and Percy Dunbar — Anderson was unable to identify him at first. After further inspection, she claimed the boy as her son. That brought the count to two mothers who were claiming the same boy was their son — neither of whom had recognized him at first.


Discrediting 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.

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Photo Courtesy: maxmann/Pixabay

Life moved on for the Dunbar family. Lessie and Percy had a few more kids, but the rumors still circulated about Bobby's identity. The whole country was debating who the boy really was, but the mystery remained unsolved for almost 100 years.


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.

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Photo Courtesy: jarmoluk/Pixabay

One day in 1999, Margaret's father, Bob Dunbar Jr., gave her a photo album that contained newspaper articles from when her grandfather went missing. Although the story in the Dunbar family was that Bobby was really Bobby, Margaret instinctively doubted their story. She started to investigate, determined to find the answers to questions that had been asked so 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."

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As a birthday gift, Margaret's husband got her a card that granted her access to the Library of Congress. After weeks of studying information, Margaret discovered that it was possible that Julia Anderson had told the truth. Margaret decided to extend a hand to the Anderson family.


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.

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When Margaret reached out to Linda and her family, the women decided to form an alliance to find out the truth. Both were doubting the stories they were told as kids, and both were equally determined to find real answers. Their doubts haunted them, and they wanted to know the truth.


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.

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Tensions rose as the investigation progressed. On The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar radio show, Linda said, "Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along. I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along." The feud was full-blown at that point. Both women were investigating the case with bias toward their own interests.


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.

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Linda said to Margaret, "You keep wanting to know all about Julia. You need to look more into Lessie and Percy and judge their characters." In response, Margaret recalls thinking "that did not make me happy…in retrospect, she was absolutely right. I did need to put down what I believed and be able to look at it with fresh eyes."


New Information

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.

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The most crucial piece of evidence was in a letter written anonymously by someone who referred to herself as "The Christian Woman." The letter was written in defense of both William Walters and Julia Anderson. The information in the letter pushed Margaret to question her family's story.


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?"

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"I would see nothing to fear, and this seems strange. The Dunbars claim that if this had been their own child and he had been gone eight months, do you think his features would be so changed that they would not know him only by moles and scars?"


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."

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At that point, Margaret had a revelation. "It just simply dawned on me. Oh, my God, she’s right. What a farce. What a farce this is." She then asked her father for a DNA sample. It was the piece of evidence that could end the investigation once and for all.


Proof Relinquished

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.

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Four years had gone by since Margaret began investigating, and Bob Dunbar Jr. felt ready to find out the truth about his father. It was 2003 and long past time for the truth to be revealed. Margaret sent a sample of her father's DNA to the lab.


DNA Results

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.

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Photo Courtesy: ernestoeslava/Pixabay

Margaret's phone rang one day, and it was a technician from the lab. She told Margaret point-blank that the DNA did not match. It was confirmed that the man believed to be Bobby Dunbar was actually Bruce Anderson.


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."

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Everyone else in the Dunbar family was terribly upset. Some of them didn't even know that a DNA test was being performed. Everything they once thought they knew about their family's history was shattered forever. There was no fighting the truth any longer. Bobby was not Bobby.


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?"

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"All right, if my past is wrong — Bobby Dunbar, all the legends, all the stories — and then all of a sudden you find out, well, that’s not who your blood says you are. Where does that leave me? If my grandpa isn’t my grandpa, who am I?"


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."

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"In fact, I’m not sure of any family member that was for it…the other thing about all that is some of us in the family, and probably even me at one time, probably felt like she was being a little bit selfish, you know? Why do this? Nobody in the family wants to know."


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.

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But there was still one person who needed to be told about the results. Margaret and her father went to see Linda to tell her that she was right about the case. They expected Linda's response to be hostile, but that wasn't the case.


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.

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But even though the mystery of the boy who was found was closed, one great original mystery was still unsolved. What happened to the real Bobby Dunbar who disappeared that summer night at the lake?


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.

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As for the mystery of the boy who disappeared in the swamp, they came to the logical conclusion that he was probably the victim of an alligator attack. Margaret remembered the boy's hat was found washed up on shore and concluded that he must have fallen into the swamp accidentally. A boy that small stood no chance against a giant maneater.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay

"From everything I’ve heard, she truly believed that this was her son, Bobby. But I can’t help but wonder that maybe, underneath, where you go and can’t talk about, she must have known that this was not her son that she birthed."

Another Possibility

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.

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Photo Courtesy: TeroVesalainen/Pixabay

In his statement, he recalled nothing about the family vacation trip. The only thing he remembered was traveling with Walters — but there was a part of the story that no one had heard before, and it led to a lot more questions. He said he wasn’t the only child who was traveling with Walters on that train.

Mystery Child

"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.

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Although the theory is possible, we may never know for sure. "Bobby Dunbar" was only 4 years old when all this happened. Walters, with the help of his attorney, managed to win his appeal and was released from jail. He never mentioned anything about another boy.

Questions Remain

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?

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Photo Courtesy: TeroVesalainen/Pixabay

Even though there were so many doubts from the moment the boy was found, what made them ignore their gut and call the boy their own? Was it the only way to fill the void in their hearts left by their missing child? This case's prime mystery may be resolved, but there are pieces of the puzzle that may never be complete.