The Mysterious 1912 Disappearance Of Bobby Dunbar

On August 23, 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar vanished while on a camping trip near Swayze Lake, Louisiana (via All That's Interesting). According to History 101, Dunbar was the son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar from Opelousas. He was born in 1908 and had a younger brother (per History by Day). The family had decided to take a trip to the lake to escape the oppressive Louisiana heat. However, as "This American Life" explains, the lake was full of alligators and has been described as swamp-like. That night, Dunbar left his parent's side and disappeared into the darkness, marking the beginning of a mystery that would last for decades.

Country Roads Magazine writes that an extensive search was launched to find the boy, to no avail. Authorities surmised that it was likely that Dunbar had drowned. That theory changed when his hat was found away from the lake (per History 101). It was then thought that the boy had been kidnapped. A large reward to anyone who had information about the missing boy. KATC reports that Bobby's father, Percy, went as far as to hire a private detective to aid in the search. Meanwhile, the boy's mother was reportedly devastated by the loss. For the next eight months, his fate would remain unknown.

A suspect was arrested

History 101 explains that William Cantwell Walters, whom "This American Life" identifies as a peddler, was found near Columbia, Mississippi with a boy who looked a lot like Bobby. Per Country Roads Magazine, Walters was promptly arrested on April 13, 1913, for Bobby's kidnapping. Like Bobby, the boy who had been found (above, in front) had blue eyes and blonde hair. He was also the same age as Bobby. Nevertheless, Walters was adamant that the boy was not Bobby Dunbar but Bruce Anderson, the son of Julia Anderson. Per All That's Interesting, Walters explained that Julia had worked for Walters' family. Bruce's father was Walters' brother.

History by Day reports that Walters had Julia's permission to take Bruce with him. In fact, Walters stated that the boy had been in his custody for more than a year (per Country Roads Magazine). Nevertheless, Percy and Lessie arrived in Mississippi to identify the boy. Some reports indicate that the boy yelled "Mother!" when he first saw Lessie. Even so, the family was unsure if the child was their son.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lessie only became fully convinced that the boy was Bobby when she saw that he had the same moles and scars as her missing child. That being said, a 1913 article from the Los Angeles Times notes that Walters was facing death by hanging if convicted of Bobby's kidnapping.

Did he or did he not come home?

According to All That's Interesting, the boy came home to Opelousas with the Dunbars. "This American Life" reports that there was much fanfare made about Bobby's return to Louisiana. This included a parade, a band, and more. Shortly after, KATC states, Julia Anderson (above, with her son Bruce) arrived at Opelousas. Like Walters, she claimed that the boy was not Bobby Dunbar but rather her son, Bruce Anderson. Per Country Roads Magazine, she was brought in to identify the boy as Bruce, but Julia was unable to confirm if the boy was her son. Additionally, the boy did not seem to recognize her. The next day, she asked to see him again. This time, Julia was certain that the boy was Bruce.

History 101 notes that this changed nothing. Instead, Julia Anderson was bashed by the public for being indecent and for not recognizing her son the first time she viewed him. She was taken to court and the Dunbars were awarded custody of the boy (via KATC). As for Walters, the Los Angeles Times explains that he was eventually convicted of kidnapping and received a life sentence, but spent only two years in prison before he was given a new trial on a technicality and released. Much to Julia's dismay, "This American Life" writes, the child in question was raised by Percy and Lessie in Opelousas. As an adult, he ran a gas station and had a family (per another article from KATC). Bobby Dunbar died in 1966 (via Country Roads Magazine).

Bobby Dunbar's granddaughter searched for answers

"This American Life" writes that years after Bobby's death, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Bobby's granddaughter, became interested in solving the mystery behind her grandfather's true identity. Despite Bobby's return, History 101 explains, the family always questioned if he was actually their missing child after all. The Andersons, per KATC, certainly believed that Bobby was in fact Bruce. The Los Angeles Times reported that Cutright's interest in her family history deepened when her brother, Robbie, died in 1999. That's when her father, Robert Dunbar, Bobby Dunbar's son, gave her a family scrapbook that had copious amounts of information and numerous newspaper clippings about her grandfather's kidnapping.

History by Day states that Julia Anderson's granddaughter, Linda Traver, had questions of her own, as her family believed that the Dunbars had taken Bruce away from them. The two decided to team up to uncover the truth. Of course, both had differing opinions and even quarreled about the matter. Traver told "This American Life," "Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along. I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along." Cutright's research and journey to learn more about her grandfather was extensive and led her to an array of places throughout the South, including libraries, archives, and more.

A DNA test provided the truth

Ultimately, Cutright stated that her search led her to empathize with Anderson via (via "This American Life"). She said, "You know, it's really awkward because Lessie and Julia are in the same position. They're both missing children." Along the way, Cutright met not only Anderson's family but Walters' family as well. Anderson also uncovered a letter written by Walters to Percy Dunbar that stated that the boy who was traveling with him was indeed Julia Anderson's son. The letter goes on to say, "So you have a lost Robert and me a lost Bruce. May God bless my darling boy. Write me, if I don't get lynched. I think you will be sad a long time, but hope not too bad."

That being said, the Los Angeles Times writes that Hollis Rawl, another one of Anderson's children, said that they would provide a DNA sample to prove once and for all the identity of the child that was raised as Bobby Dunbar. There was, however, hesitation from Dunbar's family, including Bobby's son, Gerald, who said that there was nothing to be "truly gained" from the results. According to History 101, Cutright ultimately opted for a DNA test in 2003. She went ahead and asked her father for a sample. That sample was then compared to Bobby's younger brother's son, David. In the end, the DNA did not match; Bobby Dunbar was not a Dunbar at all; he was Bruce Anderson.

What happened to Bobby Dunbar?

Per "This American Life," members from the Dunbar, Anderson, and Walters families all had varying reactions to the DNA test. Cutright, her father, and her sister were shocked. However, Cutright's family was also upset that she had decided to do a DNA test, reportedly without informing the rest of the family first (via History 101). As for the Andersons and the Walters, they were relieved; Julia Anderson was right about her son after all, and Walters was not a criminal.

Although the DNA test solved the mystery of Bobby Dunbar's true identity, it did not provide any information on what occurred to the real Bobby Dunbar who disappeared from Lake Swayze in 1912. Country Roads Magazine writes that it's unknown if he was actually kidnapped or if he drowned, as investigators originally believed. All That's Interesting points out that there's also the possibility that he fell into the swamp and was eaten by alligators. History 101 reports that Cutright herself believes it's likely that Bobby was not kidnapped but died the same night he went missing. The truth, however, remains unknown.

According to "This American Life," Percy and Lessie Dunbar divorced shortly after their son "returned" home. Cutright thinks it's likely that Lessie knew that the boy she raised was not the son she had given birth to. Nevertheless, some of the Andersons have said that they believe that Bruce had a better life as Bobby Dunbar with his newfound family than the one he would have had with them.