4-year-old Bobby Dunbar (Robert Clarence Dunbar) disappeared while on a fishing trip with his younger brother, Alonzo, and their parents Percy (Purcy) and Lessie Dunbar at Swayze Lake, Louisiana about 40 kilometres from their home in Opelousas. This was August 1912.
Booby apparently strayed from the cabin where his parents and brother were having lunch. The authorities searched the area extensively but were unsuccessful. The only clues they found were a set of bare footprints leading out of the swamps towards a railroad trestle and reports of a man lurking in the area. They concluded Bobby Dunbar must have been abducted.
The citizens of Opelousas pledged $1,000 to add to the reward offered for Bobby’s return, “no questions asked.” In 1913 the popilation of Opelousas was approximately 4,600.
It wasn’t till eight months later in April 1913 that authorities made a break-through. They located a man named William Walters travelling through Mississippi with a boy who fitted the description of Bobby Dunbar.
Walters insisted the child he was with was not Bobby Dunbar but Charles Bruce Anderson the daughter of a Julia Anderson who worked for his family. He also said Charles was normally referred to by his middle name, Bruce, and his mother had given consent for her son to travel with him to visit his sister. It was later alleged that Bruce was the illegitimate child of Julia Anderson and William Walters’s brother. The authorities did not believe him and Walters was arrested.
The Dunbars arrived in Mississippi to identify Bobby Dunbar and subsequently take him home to Opelousas, Louisanna. Early reports stated the boy did not recognise Lessie Dunbar and refused to acknowledge when addressed as Bobby or Robert. It was also reported that Mr and Mrs Dunbar was also unsure if the boy was their son. Similarly, the boy did not show signs he recognised Bobby Dunbar’s brother, Alonzo.
The next day, after bathing the boy, Lessie Dunbar said she positively identified his moles and scars and was then certain that he was her son.
Intriguingly, other reports claimed the boy shouted “Mother” as soon as he saw Lessie Dunbar then embraced her. The reports also stated the boy immediately recognised Alonzo, called him by name and kissed him.
Julia Anderson arrived and supported Walters’s claim that the boy was her son Bruce and not Bobby Dunbar. It was also reported, and also intriguingly, Anderson was not able to indentify the boy from five boys presented to her.
The next day, however, Anderson positively identified the boy as her son, but the earlier reports combined with the fact the media questioned her morality – reporting she had had three children out of wedlock two of which had died by that time, led the court arbiter to rule against her and declare the boy was Bobby Dunbar.
The Dunbars were given custody of the boy now ruled as being Bobby Dunbar, and they returned to Opelousas. William Walters was charged with kidnapping.
The William Walters’s kidnapping trial was held in Louisiana in May of that year and Julia Anderson attended in support of Walters and also in the hope reclaiming her son. A number of residents from Poplarville, Mississippi also attended the trial in support of Walters who spent a lot of the time in the town during his work travels. The residents of Poplarville had got to know Williams and the boy well and many asserted they had known the child before the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar. Regardless, the court ruled against Walters and he was convicted for the kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of it being upgraded to the death penalty.
Walters spent two years in gaol before his attorney successfully appealed his conviction and Walters was granted the right to a new trial. The prosecutors declined to try him again because of the excessive costs.
For the rest of his life William Walters maintained his innocence. He died possibly in the late 1930s.
As for Julia Anderson, she befriended the residents of Poplarville during the Bobby Dunbar kidnapping trial and moved to the little town. She married and had seven more children. She also became a devout Christian, helped found a church and served as nurse and midwife to the small community.
Anderson’s children have indicated that their mother was happy in Poplarville, but she often talked about her lost son, Bruce, and their family regarded Bruce Anderson was kidnapped by the Dunbars, rather than Bobby Dunbar having been kidnapped by William Walters.
The boy in the centre of this ordeal was raised as Bobby Dunbar. He married, had four children and died in 1966. During a 2008 broadcast on “This American Life”, a radio program, one of Julia Anderson’s sons, Hollis Rawls, told the audience Bobby Dunbar had visited him in 1944. Jewel (Jules) Rawls Tarver, Anderson’s daughter also recalls a visit from a man she believes was Bobby Dunbar who spoke with her for quite some time at her workplace.
Bobby Dunbar’s son, Gerald, also recalls his father meeting with the “Andersons”. The family was returning home from a trip and passed through Poplarville when Bobby Dunbar said “Those are the people they came to pick me up from.” The family then stopped for a short while and Dunbar visited the store. They left Poplarville 30 minutes later.
After Bobby Dunbar’s death, one of his granddaughters, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, set out to prove her grandfather was indeed a Dunbar. During her investigations her direction changed.
In 2004 Bobby Dunbar’s son, Bob Dunbar Jr, Cutright’s father, consented to having a DNA test to finally put the issue to rest. The result was compared to the DNA of his cousin, the son of Alonzo Dunbar. It was conclusive; the two men were not blood related.
During the 2008 “American Life” documentary, Margaret Dunbar Cutright revealed that the results of her investigation had brought joy to Julia Anderson’s family as vindication of her claims that Bobby Dunbar was actually her son Bruce Anderson, as well as to William Walters’s family as an exoneration of the kidnapping accusation against him. However, she said that they had sown division within her own family, as the majority of her grandfather’s children and grandchildren considered themselves to be members of the Dunbar family, cherished their existing familial relationships, and were resentful of Cutright, both for having delved into the matter at all, and additionally, for bringing the topic to public attention.
Bob Dunbar Jr visited the surviving Andersons and Walters, and later the Walters family invited him to give the blessing at a reunion in North Carolina. A letter that William Walters wrote while sitting in prison was read. Apparently Walters was at the time sitting in a Mississippi jail awaiting to hear whether he would be extradited as kidnapping was a capital offence at the time. In part the letter read:
It seems that I must suffer now for an imaginary sin or crime that has never been committed.
Dying, I can look up through the ethereal blue of Heaven, thank God, and say my conscience is clear: The heart strings of weeping mothers bind not my withering limbs, and the crime of kidnapping stains not my humble threshold door.
It’s now more than a hundred years since the real Bobby Dunbar went missing. It is now conclusive the man who died in 1966 was not Bobby Dunbar but Bruce Anderson. With respect, the man who was raised as Booby Dunbar may have questioned his beginnings from time to time, but he appeared to not question his present or his children’s future. Bob Dunbar Jr once asked his father, “Well, how do you know that you’re Bobby Dunbar?”
According to Bob Jr, his father replied, “I know who I am, and I know who you are and nothing else matters.”
Julia Anderson was harshly criticised for the fact she had not initially recognised her son, Bruce. Even though she had not seen him for 13 months as he travelled around with William Walters, it seems inconceivable she would not have recognised her own child. What we do know now is the boy was definitely not Bobby Dunbar and the only alternative offered was he was Bruce Anderson the son of Julia Anderson. So why did she not recognise him? Perhaps even, this “non-recognition” did not actually occur but was misinformation offered to the press who responded:
When Julia Anderson arrived for William Walters’s trial in May, she was already on the back foot with the public. Her attempt to clear Walters and regain custody of her son was over before it started.
As for Lessie Dunbar, she too was unable to immediately identify the boy as her son. She had not seen him for eight months, and like Anderson it would seem inconceivable she would not have recognised her own child; but unlike Anderson, she was not crucified for it. Also there was Percy Dunbar. Why did he too not immediately recognise his son?
Modern science has told us why. The boy was not Bobby Dunbar. He was not their child.
The next question is how did the authorities get this so wrong? And what part did the people, if any, who collected the reward play?
Finally, what did happen to the real Bobby Dunbar?
In the “American Life” program, Margaret Dunbar Cutright expressed her own opinion that the real Bobby Dunbar most likely fell into Swayze Lake during the fishing trip and was taken by an alligator. Of course this is a real possibility, but for now Bobby Dunbar is again classified as missing though the case is no longer being investigated.
(Sources: The Wilmington Star, The Washington Times, Wikipedia, This American Life)
The radio documentary, “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” was aired by the This American Life program in 2008. The program links can be found here:
Robert Clarence Dunbar
Classification: Endangered Missing
Date of Birth: April 1908
Age: 4 years old
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian male. Blond hair, blue eyes. Robert’s hair was darkening at the time of his disappearance and may have become brown as he grew older. He has a mole on his neck and a burn scar on his big toe. His nicknames are Bobby and Robbie.
Clothing/Jewellery Description: A straw hat, blue rompers and no shoes.