1. Swamp heat
Louisiana summers are an unforgivable force to behold. If the sun doesn’t kill you, the humidity will. In the summer of 1912, the Dunbar family was enduring the brunt of the sweltering late summer as the air, filled heavily with thick moisture, clung to their skin and under their clothes.
Before there was air-conditioning or ice-dispensers, the only way to keep cool during the broiling summer months was to take a dip at the local watering hole or find refuge under a shady tree. The Dunbars had enough of the heat and decided to get out of town and head on a vacation.
2. Family vacation
Born in 1908, Bobby Dunbar was the first-born child of Lessie and Percy Dunbar. With two young sons, the Dunbar family was a growing family of four. Like most parents, they cherished their children and wanted the world for them.
With the heat becoming unbearable, they decided to head into the Bayou to cool off and enjoy some family time together. On August 23, 1912, the Dunbars packed up their bags and made their way north over the city of Opelousas toward Swayze Lake. They didn’t know it at the time, but the trip would change their family for generations to come.
3. Gator nation
Despite its name, Swayze Lake is only a lake by name. In reality, the “lake” is really a swamp crawling with alligators. Honey, I don’t want to go on just any boring camping trip, let’s spice it up and sleep in a flimsy tent next to a nest of man-eating monsters left from the Cretaceous period! Kids, pack your bags!
Brilliant! Perhaps the Dunbars should have reconsidered their destination, but, alas, hindsight is 20/20. On the night of August 23, 1912, four-year-old Bobby snuck away from his family’s tent and wandered toward Swayze Lake. That night was the last time anyone saw or heard from him. Or was it? That question would haunt two families for generations.
4. Tragedy strikes
When the Dunbar parents realized their son was missing, they were horrified. They launched an eight-month search to find little Bobby. Mrs. Dunbar in particular was grief stricken beyond words. A Louisiana newspaper called The Caldwell Watchman wrote a story in 1914 regarding the incident.
“When he [Bobby] was missed, a search traced him to the banks of Lake Swayze…At first it was feared that he been 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.” The town deeply empathized with Mrs. Dunbar’s tragedy.
5. The search
Authorities and locals searched tirelessly for the Dunbar child. Each lead and clue was followed up on, but hit a dead end. Many began to lose hope. Percy Dunbar went as far as offering up a reward to whoever could find his son. He ponied up a generous $1,000.
In 1912 that was the equivalent of $25,000 dollars. The town even pitched in and additional $5,000 dollars — over $125,000 today. As time went on, the family was beginning to lose hope. Then one day, the authorities came to the Dunbars with the news they had been hoping to hear.
6. He’s been found! Or has he?
On April 13, 1913, authorities arrested a suspect in the case. It was a traveling tinker by the name of William Cantwell Walters near Columbia, Mississippi. He was traveling with a boy matching Bobby Dunbar’s description. The same age, blonde hair, and blue eyes — it was enough to take the boy from Walters and put him on the next train to Opelousas.
When the boy arrived, the parents should have been thrilled. But there was one small — okay, maybe not so small — problem. The Dunbars didn’t recognize their so-called son when the authorities brought him home. And so began the curious case of Bobby Dunbar.
7. A town celebrates
However, after carefully inspecting the boy for identifying marks, the Dunbars were able to positively identify the child as their little Bobby. News spread around the town that Bobby had been returned to his family — but so did the news that the Dunbars weren’t quite sure initially if the boy was theirs.
Still, the whole town was thrilled that the family had been reunited. When the completed Dunbar family returned home, a brass band awaited them and a parade was held in their honor. The end. No, not really. Whispers around the town began to swirl about whether or not Bobby was really Bobby.
8. The arrest
We haven’t heard the last of the suspected kidnapper, William Walters. Kidnapping in the state of Louisiana was a capital offense. Upon his arrest, Walters claimed the child was his brother and a servant’s illegitimate son. The mother of the boy in question, according to Walters, was Julia Anderson. He said she had given him permission to take the boy with him on his travels.
LA Times reported that Walters tried to clear his name, stating: “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.”
9. An unexpected visitor
The town, and more importantly, the jury at his trial, didn’t buy it. Walters was convicted of kidnapping. Then, an unexpected visitor came to town with a story people didn’t want to hear. Julia Anderson — the woman Walters claimed was the true mother of Bobby — substantiated Walters’s story.
According to Anderson, “Bobby” was actually her son, Bruce Anderson, just as Walters had claimed. However, when she was asked to identify the boy, she too was uncertain that the boy was hers. However, upon closer inspection, she said with confidence that the boy was hers. Two mothers — both claiming the same boy as their own.
10. A mother’s credibility
Reporters had already printed stories about Ms. Anderson’s initial uncertainty when seeing the boy. They called her an illiterate and a woman of “loose morals,” discrediting her claims. After being tried in the court of public opinion, Julia Anderson returned to Mississippi, leaving the boy with the Dunbars.
The Dunbars raised Bobby and had a few more kids to boot. Though it was all said and done, the story of Bobby Dunbar circulated around the country and raised doubts about whether or not he was really a Dunbar. Was the boy found by Louisiana authorities really Bobby? It would be nine long decades before anyone would know for sure.
11. A long legacy
Even after the case was put to rest, both the Dunbars and Andersons had questions and doubts about what really happened back in 1913. Margaret Dunbar Cutright grew up knowing the story of her grandfather and this grey area in the family’s lineage. The story as the Dunbar family told it was that the boy — Margaret’s grandfather — was indeed Bobby.
One day in 1999, Margaret Dunbar’s father, Bob Dunbar Jr., gave Margaret a photo album containing newspaper clippings about her grandfather’s disappearance. What began as an organization project led to an obsessive investigation of her family’s history. She began to question the narrative that had been handed down through generations.
12. A hunt for the truth
A 2008 radio show documentary entitled The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar followed the story of not just Bobby Dunbar, but the investigation lead by the Dunbar family descendants. The show, led by Tal Mcthenia, reported the following on Margaret Dunbar’s investigation: “Margaret went on an obsessive quest to small-town libraries, archives, and courthouses all over the South.”
For her birthday, Margaret’s husband gave her a card to the Library of Congress and she spent weeks in the reading rooms there. She discovered that Julia Anderson could have possibly been telling the truth — despite what her family told her. Margaret decided to reach out to the Anderson family.
13. An unlikely alliance
Linda Traver is the granddaughter of Julia Anderson. All her life, she had been told that her uncle was “kidnapped” by the Dunbar family who had raised him as the son that went missing on that fateful camping trip. However, no matter what Traver was told, she still had unanswered questions and lingering doubts.
When Margaret Dunbar came into the picture, they decided to form an alliance and figure out what really happened way back in 1913. It wasn’t easy. But both women were diligent researches and equally committed to discovering the truth about their family histories, even if it contradicted what they thought they knew.
14. Different conclusions
Linda Traver, the granddaughter of Julia Anderson, and Margaret Dunbar, the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, both believed the boy who had been traveling with Walters was a part of their families. And to some extent, both were setting out to prove that their family’s version of events was true.
As their investigation progressed, tensions between the two women rose. As time went on, a full-on feud erupted between the two families. “Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along,” Linda Traver said in the documentary. “I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along.” Capulet meets Montague; a plague on both their houses!
15. The reset button
When it came to surface that Margaret didn’t believe Bobby Dunbar was really Bruce Anderson, Travers was “bristled” at the assumption that her family history was no more than a fictional story. Travers then confronted Margaret. “You need to look a lot more closely,” recounted Margaret.
“You keep wanting to know all about Julia. You need to look more into Lessie and Percy and judge their characters. And 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.” With a new perspective, Margaret began to see things that shook her entire family’s foundation.
16. The letter
As they continued their research, the two women discovered a gold mine of information. They reviewed the legal files generated between William Walters and his lawyer in 1913. They discovered letters from Julia Anderson and other key witnesses of the Bobby Dunbar mystery.
Dunbar and Travers uncovered an anonymous letter sent to the Opelousas courthouse in the defense of the accused William Walters and the defeated Julia Anderson. The letter was sent by someone who referred to herself as “The Christian Woman.” What she wrote really struck a chord with Margaret, and changed her perspective about the entire case of Bobby Dunbar.
17. Piercing words
The letter received by Walters’s lawyer 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?”
“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? This is a farce. If the Dunbars do not know their child who has only been gone eight months by his features, why, they don’t know him at all?”
18. Taking action
Margaret had an epiphany. Reading the “Christian Woman’s” letter made things extremely clear for Margaret’s take on her grandfather’s case. “It just simply dawned on me, oh, my god, she’s right. What a farce. What a farce this is.” It was time to settle this mystery, once and for all.
After realizing that the Christian Woman had a point, she went to her father, Bob Dunbar Jr., and asked him for something. It was the piece of the puzzle that could finally answer the decades old question and forever reshape the Dunbar family history. She asked him for a DNA sample.
19. The burden of proof
Margaret had asked her father for a DNA test before her in-depth investigation on the Bobby Dunbar case, but each time she approached her father, she always got the same answer: A hard no. For her father, there was never a need to do so.
The story of Bobby Dunbar was exactly what it was — a story. However, after four years of digging and investigating her family’s history, Bob Dunbar was ready to find out the truth about his father too. This time, he obliged his daughter’s request. In 2003, Margaret sent a sample of her father’s DNA to a laboratory.
20. Holding their breath
They compared the DNA sample to Bobby Dunbar’s younger brother Alonzo. Margaret pursued the test certain that the results would match her assumptions. After all, all her life, she grew up believing what her grandmother and other relatives had believed. A month went by.
When Margaret’s phone rang, she didn’t expect the test results to come so quickly. Upon answering, the lab assistant relayed to her, in an anti-climactic manner, that the DNA samples did not match. Her grandfather was not the same Bobby Dunbar who had gone missing in the swamp. He was in fact Julia Anderson’s missing son, Bruce Anderson.
21. The aftermath
Margaret and the rest of the Dunbar family was stunned by the news. “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.”
Other members of the Dunbar family were furious with the results. Some of the Dunbars were unaware that Margaret ordered the test. To have their long held beliefs about their own family history had been decisively refuted. They were surprised, hurt, and confused all at the same time.
22. Processing the news
When the son of Bobby Dunbar received the news that his father was not who the Dunbars claimed he was, he was shocked. “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?”
“All right, if my past is wrong — Bobby Dunbar, all the legends, all the stories — and then all of the 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?” He wasn’t the only Dunbar who didn’t take the results well.
23. Coming to terms
Margaret’s siblings also felt blind-sighted by the unwelcome and surprising news. Margaret’s brother, Swin Dunbar thought his sister was being selfish by pursuing the test behind the family’s back after they had told her no many times before. “You know, she was really going up against the entire family, including myself” Swin later recounted.
“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.”
To this day, Margaret has yet to be fully forgiven by her family…at least not every member of it. After the news of her grandfather caught traction in the media, her relatives felt as though she had disrespected her family’s history and heritage, and to add insult to injury, in a very public way.
Regardless of the results, Margaret’s family saw themselves purely as Dunbar, and no matter what the results proved, they would always be Dunbars. There was one last thing Margaret could do. She and her father reached out to Linda Traver and delivered the news about the DNA results. Traver’s reaction was completely unexpected.
25. Then where is Bobby?
Margaret and her father delivered the news to Linda Travers and her family. “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.”
To this day, the descendants of Julia Anderson regard the Dunbars as friends and expect nothing more or less. And while the identiy of the boy who had been traveling with Walters had been officially confirmed, there were still unanswered questions. The main one was, of course, what did happen to the real Bobby Dunbar?
Despite knowing that Bobby Dunbar was, in fact, Bruce Anderson, Margaret’s family remained firm and committed to their family as they had known it. It didn’t matter to them which family they belonged to; what mattered was that they were accepted in the life and family they knew.
As time went on, Margaret began to seriously consider the possibility that the real Bobby had fallen into the swamp during that fateful family camping trip. She recalled the hat that had washed up on the swamp’s banks. While researching, Margaret found a letter belonging to Lessie Dunbar addressed to her granddaughter and caretaker.
27. Hidden guilt
Though Lessie Dunbar had won custody of what she thought was her son, she still had doubts that the child she took home after the scandal was really Bobby. Lessie Dunbar felt guilt. “I think she had to have, on some level, known,” began Margaret. “And maybe she didn’t. I don’t know. I think maybe she was in a denial her entire life.
“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.” As the new “Bobby” grew older, there was reason to believe that he too knew he was not a Dunbar.
28. Starting over
In 1932, when Bobby Dunbar 2.0 was 18 years old, a few reporters approached him for comment on his kidnapping. At the time, the story of the Lindbergh kidnapping swept the nation, making the case relevant once more. Reporters wanted a comment from the “stolen child of yesteryear.”
When asked about his memories of the kidnapping, Bobby Dunbar’s comments on the incident supported the truth. He said he remember being with William Walters when he was arrested, but made no mention of the family camping trip. He also recalled that he was not the only child Walters was traveling with. The plot thickens.
29. The tale of two boys
The young Dunbar recalled that another child traveled with them, but had died during shortly before Walter’s arrest. The media began to speculate that Walters was responsible for the kidnapping of both Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson, and it was Bruce Dunbar who had died.
Bobby Dunbar (Bruce Anderson) had accepted this theory and adopted it as his life story. That Walters had kidnapped both boys remains a possibility, but can’t be confirmed. After all, he was very young when this all transpired. As for Walters — his lawyer won an appeal, and he was released from prison. He never made mention of the second boy.
30. Moving on
After nearly a century of mystery, the identity of the boy who had been raised as Bobby Dunbar had finally been settled. However, is this enough? Can we pardon a mistake that not only separated two families, but also caused a mother a lifetime of grief and regret?
What compelled the Dunbars to accept a child that they knew wasn’t really theirs? Did they want to fill the void of grief and guilt of knowing that they lost a child, or was it something more? Though many questions were answered in the identity of Bobby Dunbar, there are some questions that remain unanswered.