Bobby Dunbar
Bobby Dunbar was a 4-year old child whose disappearance and apparent recovery was widely reported in newspapers across the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 in 1912 and 1913. After an eight-month nationwide search, investigators believed that they had found the child in the hands of William Cantwell Walters of Mississippi
Mississippi is a U.S. state located in the Southern United States. Jackson is the state capital and largest city. The name of the state derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary, whose name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi...

. Dunbar's parents claimed the boy as their missing son, however, both Walters and a woman named Julia Anderson steadfastly insisted that the boy with him was Anderson's son. The court system eventually sided with the Dunbars and they retained custody of the boy, who proceeded to live out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.

In 2004, DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...

 tests taken by Dunbar's son conclusively established that he was not a blood relative of the Dunbar family.


Bobby Dunbar was the first son born to Lessie and Percy Dunbar of Opelousas, Louisiana
Opelousas, Louisiana
Opelousas is a city in and the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, United States. It lies at the junction of Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190. The population was 22,860 at the 2000 census. Although the 2006 population estimate was 23,222, a 2004 annexation should put the city's...

. In August 1912, the Dunbars took a fishing trip to nearby Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana
St. Landry Parish, Louisiana
St. Landry Parish is a parish located in the U.S. state of Louisiana. It is at the heart of Acadian/Cajun culture and heritage in Louisiana. The parish seat is Opelousas. According to the 2010 census, the population of St. Landry Parish is 83,384.St...

. On August 23, while on that trip, Bobby Dunbar disappeared.

After an eight-month search, authorities located William Cantwell Walters, who worked as a peripatetic handyman, specializing in the tuning and repair of pianos and organs, and traveling through Mississippi with a boy who appeared to match the description of Bobby Dunbar. Walters claimed that the boy was actually Charles Bruce Anderson, generally referred to as Bruce, the son of a woman who worked for his family. He said that the boy's mother was named Julia Anderson, and that she had willingly granted him custody. Nonetheless, Walters was arrested and authorities sent for the Dunbars to come to Mississippi and attempt to identify the boy.

Newspaper accounts differ with regard to the initial reaction between the boy and Lessie Dunbar. While one account indicated that the boy immediately shouted "Mother" upon seeing her and the two then embraced, another said only that the boy cried and quoted Lessie Dunbar as saying she was unsure whether he was her son. Other newspaper accounts quote both the Dunbars as initially stating doubts as to the boy's identity. There were similar contradictions in newspaper accounts of the boy's first sighting of the Dunbars' younger son, Alonzo, with one newspaper claiming that the boy showed no sign of recognizing Alonzo, while another saying the boy recognized him instantly, called him by name and kissed him. 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. The boy returned to Opelousas with the Dunbars to a parade and much fanfare celebrating the "homecoming".

Shortly thereafter, Julia Anderson of North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

 arrived to support Walters's contention that the boy was, in fact, her son, Bruce. Anderson was unmarried and worked as a field hand for Walters's family. She said that she had allowed Walters to take her son for what she said was supposed to be a two day trip to visit one of Walters' relatives and that she had not consented for him to take her son for more than a few days.

According to newspaper accounts, Anderson was presented with five different boys who were of the same approximate age as her son, including the boy who had been claimed by the Dunbars. When the boy in question was presented, he gave no indication that he recognized her. She asked whether he was the boy recovered, but was not given an answer and finally declared that she was unsure.

Upon seeing the boy again the next day, including undressing him, she indicated a stronger certainty that the boy was indeed her son Bruce. However, word had already spread about her failure to positively identify him on the first try. This, combined with the fact that newspapers questioned her moral character in having had three children (the other two deceased, by that point) out of wedlock, led to Anderson's claims being dismissed.

With no money to sustain a long court battle, Anderson returned home to North Carolina. She later returned to Louisiana for Walters's kidnapping trial to attest to his innocence and push for the court to determine that the boy was her son. At the trial, she became acquainted with the residents of the town of Poplarville, Mississippi
Poplarville, Mississippi
Poplarville is a city in Pearl River County, Mississippi, United States. As of the 2000 census, the city population was 2,601. It is the county seat of Pearl River County. It hosts an annual Blueberry Jubilee, which includes rides, craft vendors, and rodeos....

, many of whom had also come to proclaim Walters's innocence. William Walters and the boy had spent quite a bit of time in Poplarville during their travels and the community there had come to know them well, with a number of them asserting that they had seen Walters with the boy prior to the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar. Despite their testimony, however, the court reached the determination that the boy was in fact Bobby Dunbar. Walters was convicted of kidnapping, while the boy remained in the custody of the Dunbar family and lived out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.


After the trial, the people of Poplarville welcomed Anderson into their fold and she began a new life there, eventually marrying and having seven children. According to her descendants, she became a devout Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

, helped found a church and served as nurse and midwife
Midwifery is a health care profession in which providers offer care to childbearing women during pregnancy, labour and birth, and during the postpartum period. They also help care for the newborn and assist the mother with breastfeeding....

 to the small community. Although her children indicated that her life was a happy one after settling in Poplarville, they said that she nonetheless spoke often of her lost son, Bruce, and that their family always regarded him as having been kidnapped by the Dunbars.

In 2008 one of Anderson's sons, Hollis, recounted a story for the radio program This American Life
This American Life
This American Life is a weekly hour-long radio program produced by WBEZ and hosted by Ira Glass. It is distributed by Public Radio International on PRI affiliate stations and is also available as a free weekly podcast. Primarily a journalistic non-fiction program, it has also featured essays,...

that in 1944 Bobby Dunbar/Bruce Anderson visited him at his place of business where they talked. Hollis' sister Jules recounts a similar experience where a man, who she believes to be Dunbar came to the service station where she worked and talked to her for an extended period. The Dunbar family also has a similar story, recounted by Bobby Dunbar's son Gerald. 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 as Dunbar visited with the Andersons.

After Walters had served two years of his prison term for kidnapping, his attorney was successful in appeal
An appeal is a petition for review of a case that has been decided by a court of law. The petition is made to a higher court for the purpose of overturning the lower court's decision....

ing the conviction and Walters was granted the right to a new trial. Citing the excessive costs of the first trial, prosecutors in Opelousas declined to try him again and instead released him. After his release from custody, Walters continued to move around often; sources indicate he died sometime in the 1930s but the exact date and place of death is unknown. The grandchildren of Walters's brother reported that during their childhood, he typically visited their grandfather a few times per year and that when he did, they often spoke of the kidnapping charge, with Walters always maintaining his innocence.

Later investigation

The boy raised as Bobby Dunbar eventually married, had four children of his own, and died in 1966. Years after his death, one of his granddaughters, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, started to conduct her own investigation of the decades-old mystery. Her research included poring through newspaper accounts, interviewing the children of Julia Anderson and a thorough examination of all of the evidence presented by Walters's defense attorney in his kidnapping trial and appeal. Although Cutright had initially hoped to conclusively prove that her grandfather was a Dunbar, the things she uncovered ultimately led her to question her conviction in that regard.

In 2004, after an Associated Press
Associated Press
The Associated Press is an American news agency. The AP is a cooperative owned by its contributing newspapers, radio and television stations in the United States, which both contribute stories to the AP and use material written by its staff journalists...

 reporter approached the family about the story, Bob Dunbar, Jr. consented to undergoing DNA tests
Genetic fingerprinting
DNA profiling is a technique employed by forensic scientists to assist in the identification of individuals by their respective DNA profiles. DNA profiles are encrypted sets of numbers that reflect a person's DNA makeup, which can also be used as the person's identifier...

 to resolve the issue. The tests showed that Dunbar, Jr. was not related by blood to his supposed cousin, the son of Alonzo Dunbar, the younger brother of Bobby Dunbar, Sr.

The fate of the original Bobby Dunbar, lost at Swayze Lake in 1912, remains unknown.

2008 radio documentary

In March 2008, Public Radio International
Public Radio International
Public Radio International is a Minneapolis-based American public radio organization, with locations in Boston, New York, London and Beijing. PRI's tagline is "Hear a different voice." PRI is a major public media content creator and also distributes programs from many sources...

's This American Life
This American Life
This American Life is a weekly hour-long radio program produced by WBEZ and hosted by Ira Glass. It is distributed by Public Radio International on PRI affiliate stations and is also available as a free weekly podcast. Primarily a journalistic non-fiction program, it has also featured essays,...

featured The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, a radio documentary about the investigation of the case by Margaret Dunbar Cutright. She expressed her own opinion that the real Bobby Dunbar most likely fell into Swayze Lake during the fishing trip and was eaten by an alligator
An alligator is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. There are two extant alligator species: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator ....

. She revealed that the results of her investigation had brought joy to Julia Anderson's family as vindication of her claims, 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 having allowed it to become nationally reported news.

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar timeline

  • February 1912: Three-year-old Bruce Anderson leaves with William Cantwell Walters to "visit" Walters' sister.
  • August 23, 1912: Four-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappears from the banks of Swayze Lake in Louisiana
    Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

  • April 1913 (13 months after Anderson last saw Bruce; 8 months after Bobby disappeared): Boy found with William Cantwell Walters in Columbia, Mississippi
    Columbia, Mississippi
    Columbia is a city in Marion County, Mississippi, United States, which was formed six years before Mississippi was admitted to statehood. Columbia was named for Columbia, South Carolina, from which many of the early settlers had migrated. The population was 6,603 as of the 2000 census. It is the...

  • April 1913: The Dunbars come to Mississippi to claim "Bobby". There are contradictory accounts whether or not they recognized each other right away.
  • April 25, 1913: "Bobby" is welcomed home in Opelousas with a parade
  • May 1, 1913: Julia Anderson comes to Mississippi to claim Bruce. Julia cannot definitely identify Bruce in a line-up but lawyers say the "found" boy, now identified as Bobby Dunbar, is really Bruce
  • 1913: Court-appointed arbitrator gives the boy to the Dunbars
  • 1914: William Cantwell Walters is convicted of kidnapping Bobby Dunbar. Walters spent two years of a life sentence in jail and he appealed. Because county didn't want to pay for a retrial, the case was dropped. He was later released.
  • 1920s: Lessie and Percy Dunbar, Bobby Dunbar's parents, get divorced.
  • 1932: Lindbergh baby kidnapped
    Lindbergh kidnapping
    The kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., was the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The toddler, 18 months old at the time, was abducted from his family home in East Amwell, New Jersey, near the town of Hopewell, New Jersey, on the evening of...

    , rekindling interest in Dunbar case. In an interview , "Bobby" recounts his memory of "the other boy on the wagon."
  • 1944: Hollis Anderson says that Bobby Dunbar visited him at his job.
  • 1966: "Bobby Dunbar" dies and is survived by his wife and four children
  • 2004: Bob Dunbar, Jr., submits to a DNA test to establish whether or not he (and his father) is related to the Dunbars.

External links

  • "The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar," This American Life, Episode 352, March 14, 2008.
  • "Tinker May Be Hanged," Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1913. Excerpt: "Child picked up with wandering tinker
    A tinker was originally an itinerant tinsmith, who mended household utensils. The term "tinker" became used in British society to refer to marginalized persons...

    in Mississippi thought to be lad kidnapped from Louisiana."
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