A cry in the middle of the desert

Arizona desert, hatbox baby, DNA, Mystery, ancestry

When Sharon Elliott discovered she was adopted, her adoptive mother told her the story about the day she was found. It was Christmas Eve 1931 and newlyweds Ed and Julia Stewart were driving down a desert highway when their car broke down; a flat tire. They pulled over and took a look at the car.

It wasn’t anything Ed couldn’t fix and quickly went to work. Julia waited patiently and looked out into the desert landscape. Sometime during the repairs, Julia heard something out of place in the middle of the desert. It was familiar, like a sort of wailing. The Stewarts decided to investigate.

They found a baby in a hatbox

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

After a few minutes of searching, they found the source. The Stewarts were shocked to discover something out of place in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was a hatbox, and the wailing came from inside. The Stewarts were in disbelief to find a child wrapped in a blue blanket with a tuft of red hair peeking through the folds.

Astounded to find a baby in the middle of the desert, the Stewarts decided to take the newborn to the nearest hospital. Two months later, the little girl would be adopted by Faith Morrow and Henry Stieg, and was named Sharon; but the story doesn’t end there.

Elliott felt out of place

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Faith Morrow
Faith Morrow pictured in her late 20s (azcentral.com)

Faith Morrow and Henry Stieg’s marriage didn’t last and ended with divorce. However, Elliott’s adoptive mother, Faith, remarried to Arthur Morrow in 1939 and became Elliott’s father figure throughout her life. Building a life together, Elliott grew up as a relatively happy child. However, as an adult, everything changed. Elliott was fifty-five when her mother told her she was adopted. 

At that moment Elliott felt like the world no longer tethered her to the ground and felt completely uprooted. It was in that instant that Elliott felt a void enter her life. Her family lore and history no longer applied to her, and she was left wondering about the circumstances of her birth and wondered who here biological parents really were. That’s when she decided to investigate. 

Elliott decided it was time to find out who she really was

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza
Sharon Elliott and her adoptive mother, Faith Morrow (azcentral.com)

Although it was a shock to hear that she was adopted, Elliott was determined to find out who her biological family really were. Before her mother passed away, she left Elliott an envelope of clues consisting of old newspapers and certificates correlating with her adoption. Wanting to know more about her past, Elliott started asking questions by calling her local newspaper.

That’s where John D’Anna—who was a 28-year-old in 1988 and an assistant city editor for a small suburban newspaper called the Mesa Tribunecomes in. It was during his time as an editor that he received a call from Elliott about her story of being the famous “Hatbox Baby.” 

D’Anna wanted to be the first to solve the mystery

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna

When asked what drew Mr. D’Anna to the case, his answer was forthright: “To be honest, I wanted to be the guy who solved it,” he began. However, over time and after getting to know Elliott on a personal level, his perspective on the story shifted and became a mission to help a woman find her roots.

D’Anna said, “It got to the point where I cared less about wanting to be the guy who solved it and cared more about wanting to be the guy who solved it for her because she had this void in her life.” With his heart and mind in the right place, D’Anna set out to find Elliott’s biological parents. Unfortunately, there were some challenges (to read John D’Anna’s original story, click here).

The investigation met with constant dead-ends

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna
iStock/Fabian Gysel

As much as D’Anna was invested in helping Elliott, his investigations came with difficult challenges—one of which was obtaining closed adoption records, which D’Anna had to appear in court to gain access to, even though it was in Elliott’s best interest. “I actually had to wind up going to court myself, and I actually represented myself in front of a judge,” D’Anna said reflectively.

You can still hear some disbelief as he recalled the memory. Another obstacle D’Anna faced was the lack of technology, specifically for DNA. Unlike today, where finding out about our ancestry is as simple as spitting in a tube, back in 1988, the concept was underdeveloped and restricted.

D’Anna’s luck changed during a storytelling event

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

As the years pushed forward, the case seemed to be getting nowhere. There were a couple of leads, however, they ended with disappointing results. D’Anna would continue to investigate, but it wasn’t until 2017, when D’Anna attended a storytelling platform, that he met DNA genealogist, Bonnie Belza.

She was in the audience the day D’Anna was telling Elliot’s story. D’Anna told his story about the “Hatbox Baby” and how he still hadn’t found Elliott’s birth parents despite her unique circumstances. Touched by Elliot’s story, Belza offered D’Anna her services. D’Anna couldn’t believe his luck, and couldn’t wait to tell Elliott of his good fortune. But he feared time was running out.

They did a DNA swab

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

The DNA testing wasn’t new to either D’Anna or Elliott, but as times changed, so did technology. With a bit of encouragement, D’Anna had Elliott’s DNA analyzed, and gave Belza access to Elliott’s DNA account. As time passed, Elliott couldn’t help but be excited about the possible results. Would she find her biological parents?

Thanks to the popularity of at-home DNA kits, finding a possible DNA match with close or distant relatives was more accessible. When the results came in, they were both good and bad. The good news? Elliot had blood-related relatives! Mostly around Davenport, Iowa. However, there was one small problem: There were too many entangled family trees.

The test came back with a match, but there was a problem

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

Sharon Elliott discovered she had third and fourth cousins in Iowa. This was good news! However, since her cousins were from such a focused area, there was an issue of intermarriage, or what Belza called in genealogical terms, endogamy, where family trees become tangled with each other.

When family trees intertwine, it’s almost impossible to track down the primary source, and as Elliott grew older, time was something she couldn’t spend freely. Understanding the time sensitivity, Belza was able to narrow down the gene pool and uncovered that Elliott had German ancestors. With the ancestry came two names: Freda and Walter Roth. Could they be Sharon Elliott’s parents?

They couldn’t confirm the parentage with certainty

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

We wish it was easy to say that D’Anna and Belza were able to track down the elderly couple to verify if they were the parents of the “Hatbox Baby,” but it simply wasn’t the case. Instead, the couple was deceased. Another obstacle in D’Anna’s path, but that didn’t stop him from doing his homework.

It turns out that the Roths were married on August 1, 1931, about five months before Elliott was born. Digging deeper into their family history, there was a record of a second child born two years later in 1933. If Belza’s hunch was correct, not only would the Roths be Elliott’s biological parents, but she would have a long-lost brother. There may be some hope after all.

D’Anna discovered Elliott had a biological brother

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza
Sharon Elliot’s possible biological brother, James (left) and possible biological father, Walter (right) (azcentral.com).

Of course, with new information, the game had changed. Belza was confident she found the right couple and the right sibling that would match Elliott’s DNA profile. So, like any good reporter, D’Anna investigated and made a few phone calls. Although he definitely had a great lead, he didn’t want to tell Elliott what he’d discovered until he knew for sure what he had was real.

It’s understandable that D’Anna didn’t want to continue disappointing her after all these years. However, the disappointment was inevitable. When D’Anna reached out to the sibling in question, it turned out he had recently passed away. Man, what dumb luck!

Her immediate family wanted nothing to do with the “Hatbox Baby” mystery

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox

Even though the possible sibling was deceased, he did leave behind children and grandchildren. D’Anna thought there was still time to uncover the truth. In the end, it was just another dead-end. The family in question wanted nothing to do with the “Hatbox Baby,” or D’Anna’s investigation. Can you blame them?

It’s a sensitive subject, a subject that—if left exposed—could ruin a family’s heritage. Out of respect for James Roth’s family, D’Anna quietly stepped away. Gathering the information he already had at hand, D’Anna thought it was time to show Elliott his findings. But how certain was D’Anna that Freda and Walter Roth were her biological parents?

D’Anna was completely certain that he had the right family

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox,Emily Dodds Farro, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza

Although it was unlikely to know for certain that Freda and Walter Roth were Sharon Elliott’s biological parents, D’Anna found crucial evidence that solidified with complete certainty that the Roth family was the family he was looking for. That confidence came from a young woman named Emily Dodds Farro, who turned out to be Elliott’s biological great-grandniece.

D’Anna discovered Dodd’s ancestry by following up a lead where the couple in question lived, in Iowa. While there, he knocked on the door of a woman who knew the couple personally. Luck had graced D’Anna: The woman who answered was a relative of Freda and Walter Roth, and with her, DNA pieced together another part of the puzzle.

Farro solidified the certainty of Elliot’s family background

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox

When he knocked on the door of a relative connected to the Roth family, D’Anna was able to distinguish Emily Dodds Farro as Elliott’s great-grandniece. She was also adopted. That’s right, Dodds—like Elliott—was also looking for her birth parents. Dodds was over the moon to discover Elliott was her great-aunt.

It was with her genetic collaboration that D’Anna could confidently say that he found what Elliott was looking for. “When Emily’s profile came into the database, she was connected to Walter and Freda in such a way that it could have only been Walter and Freda,” said D’Anna. That wasn’t all he had to say.

Dodds was related to Walter and Freda in a way that confirms Sharon Elliott’s parentage

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

D’Anna was 100% certain that he had found Elliott’s parents. He was convinced solely on Dodd’s connection to the Roths. Thanks to Dodds’ help, he was able to find the answers Elliott needed. “The way we know this is because Freda and Walter were related to somebody who is not related to anybody else by blood,” D’Anna said.

“They were related by marriage, somebody in Walter and Freda’s family was only related to them by marriage and not to anybody else. And Emily has some of that DNA…” D’Anna was reluctant to give any hints as to who exactly that relative is, however, it was enough evidence to cement his findings: “We were 100% certain, and that’s when we let Sharon know.”

Elliott’s reaction was somber

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth
Newborn Sharon Elliott with midwife Helen Dana, the woman who took care of Elliott before her adoption by Faith Morrow and first husband Henry Stieg (azcentral.com)

You would think that finding your biological parents after thirty years of investigation would be an emotional ordeal. You finally know where you came from, who you look like, and the history you were denied since infancy. However, this wasn’t the case for Elliott. Although she had been waiting for a long time to hear the news, it was a bittersweet experience for both D’Anna and Elliott.

After presenting her all the facts and newspaper clippings, Elliott had a quiet and somber reaction. When D’Anna asked her why she wasn’t excited, she couldn’t understand it herself. When D’Anna suggested it was because she understood that they were the people who abandoned her, her answer was simply, “Yeah, that could be.”

Elliott expected heartache

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

When interviewing Elliott, D’Anna relayed how intense the investigation would be, but the intensity was not measured by time—rather, it was measured by emotion. Elliott knew what she was getting into when she asked D’Anna to investigate. Elliott had to be prepared for the potential rejection, or possibly never finding her birth parents.

Luckily, Elliott found not just her birth parents, but a great-grandniece to boot. However, throughout her journey, she faced a lot of closed doors from her biological parents’ family. And though genetically they were family, it didn’t mean they treated her as such. It was the kind of mystery involving secrets that—respectfully—wanted to be left unearthed. However, knowing was enough for Elliott.

Why did Elliott’s biological parents abandon her in the middle of the Arizona desert?

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

Although we may never know the personal reason behind why Freda and Walter Roth abandoned Sharon Elliott all those years ago on Christmas Eve in 1931, there was historic reasoning that may have encouraged it. The 1930s were not the most celebrated and most revered decade in American history. It will always be remembered as a decade of struggle and poverty.

It wasn’t uncommon for newlyweds or couples to abandon their children during the time. In fact, child abandonment alarmingly increased during the 1930s, labeling abandoned children as “doorstep” babies.  According to D’Anna’s article, the term was defined when children were left at the front door of churches, hospitals, a neighbor’s home, or fields.

Can history soften the blow of child abandonment?

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

Although history has not been kind to American families during the Great Depression, many would like to believe that no child is unloved by their parents. For Elliott, it must have been devastating to come to terms with her past. Though we can’t speak for Freda or Walter, D’Anna had some speculation as to why Elliott was abandoned, and one of the reasons was having a child out of wedlock.

Freda and Walter were married four months before Elliott was born, no doubt trying to legitimize their union, however, despite their marriage, Elliott was left to fend for herself in the Arizona desert. The next question that left D’Anna scratching his head was how Elliott ended up in Arizona if Freda and Walter were from Iowa?

Freda and Walter took an extended trip west

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

In D’Anna’s investigation, he found a column about Freda and Walter’s marriage in 1931. In the article, it was written that the couple was traveling westward for an extended period of time before moving back to Davenport. Perhaps Freda and Walter were periodic visitors to the state of Arizona? If that was possible, then how did the people who found Elliott that night discover her?

Unfortunately, this is also determined by speculation alone. One theory proposed is that Ed and Julia Stewart, the couple who found Elliott, fabricated the story. In his own words, D’Anna suggested that perhaps Ed and Julia knew Elliott’s adoptive mother, Faith, wanted a child and might have known Freda and Walter’s mysterious predicament. However, that all seems too far-fetched.

Sharon Elliott died knowing where she came from, but not how she was found

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

Time stops for no one, not even for Sharon Elliott, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 86. Although she never figured out how she ended up in a hatbox in the middle of the desert, she died knowing that she had a history somewhere. Although it wasn’t what she expected, she knew that she wasn’t alone.

Elliott had a past and she lived a life that gave her love regardless. She had her own family and was able to pass on a bit of her family history to them, along with the principles and characteristics her own adoptive mother was able to pass down. However, there is still another glimmer of hope.

The investigation is ongoing

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth
John D’Anna sits with Sharon Elliott (azcentral.com)

Although his client passed away, D’Anna is still currently trying to find further information about Elliott’s ancestry. To D’Anna, this was more than just solving a case others had yet to solve, it was more than being the first person to solve it—it was a matter of principle, keeping his word to not just Elliott, but to himself.

After he “accomplished” his assignment, D’Anna took away two things from his journey: the first was the impact that he made, “a story like this may seem like just a feature story about an old mystery case, but the impact it made on the lives of two people particularly, Sharon and Emily, it sort of shows the power of what we do and the power of storytelling.”

What D’Anna took away from his investigation

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

The second thing D’Anna took away from doing his duty as a storyteller was realizing that his story reminds us where we come from. A true journalist and storyteller, he takes his responsibilities seriously and honorably. D’Anna said in our interview, “Something else that I think is important as journalists, we’re always told to you should never become a part of this story…I did become a part of this story…

I’m not saying we should be involved in every story, but I think that, if we ever stop responding to our sources and our readers and the subjects we write about, if we ever stopped responding to them as human beings, then we might as well hang it up.”

Emily Dodds Farro wasn’t as lucky as Elliott

hatbox baby, hatbox baby mystery, Sharon Elliott, DNA, hatbox, John D'Anna, Bonnie Belza, Freda and Walter Roth

And whatever happened to Elliott’s great-grandniece? Before Sharon Elliott died, Farro was able to find her birth parents, but it didn’t go as she planned. She tried to contact her biological family to no avail, and sent letters in hopes that they would write back, but instead, her letters were returned to sender.

Dodds understood that her birth parents wanted to keep their lives separate from hers and in the end, sent them a certificate to thank them for giving her a second chance at life. It was the only thing she could do despite the circumstances of her birth.

Other mysteries left unsolved

Bobby Dunbar mystery, DNA, Bobby Dunbar, child kidnapped, 1912

Sharon Elliott’s story is not the only story that was solved by DNA analysis. Other stories that were thought to be unsolved have resurfaced, solving age-old investigations, one of which was the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, a young boy who was kidnapped one night in 1912 and was infamously rumored to have been replaced by another missing child.

Reporter Tal Mcthenia from “This American Life” followed the investigation only to find that the child who had claimed to be the missing Dunbar child was not, in fact, the same child who disappeared in 1912. After DNA analysis was performed on Dunbar’s descendants, they realized they were not who they thought they were. So, what really happened to Bobby Dunbar? Like Sharon Elliott, the details are blurry, but it’s assumed he passed away shortly after his disappearance.

NEXT: Bobby Dunbar mystery solved? DNA test puts 100-year-old mystery to rest

Bobby Dunbar mystery solved? DNA test puts 100-year-old mystery to rest

newspaper images of missing Bobby Dunbar
Library of Congress

Parents make mistakes. However, some parenting blunders make people cringe more than others. Falling into that category: Not being able to identify your own offspring. In 1912 a scandal spread across America. The Dunbar family lost their four-year-old son, Bobby Dunbar, while camping near a lake in Opelousas, Louisiana.

Eight months later, authorities found a boy they thought resembled little Bobby. But when another woman showed up claiming the boy was in fact her son, things got weird. For almost a hundred years, doubts lingered over the identity of the boy: Was he really Bobby Dunbar? Thanks to modern science, the answer to that question would finally be answered.

Swamp heat

swampy marshlands
(Pixabay/ Thomas B./ Didgeman)

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.

Family vacation

family portrait of parents and children
(Flickr/Tiffany Terry)

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.

Gator nation

Alligator with its mouth opened
(Pixabay/James DeMers)

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.

Tragedy strikes

dark forested area

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.

The search for Bobby Dunbar

wads of cash

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.

He’s been found! Or has he?

photo of a young edwardian boy

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.

A town celebrates

brass band

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.

The arrest

Prison cell
(Flickr/Jobs For Felons Hub)

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.”

An unexpected visitor

newspaper images of missing Bobby Dunbar
(Library of Congress)

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.

A mother’s credibility

Mississippi courthouse
(Flickr/Tony Webster)

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.

A long legacy

image of vintage camera and vintage album
(Pexels/ Skitterphoto)

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.

A hunt for the truth

Bobby Dunbar and family in car
(Wikimedia Commons/thisamericanlife.org)

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.

An unlikely alliance

vintage photo album
(Pixabay/Igor Ovsyannykov)

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.

Different conclusions about the fate of Bobby Dunbar

Two families fight over the case of Bobby Dunbar
(Wikimedia Commons/ english.emory.edu)

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!

The reset button

Image of an edwardian boy posing
(Flickr/Tony Alter)

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.

The letter

image of a handwritten vintage letter
(Pixabay/Monika Robak)

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.

Piercing words

a vintage handwritten letter
(Getty Images)

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?” 

Taking action

DNA test needed to solve the Bobby Dunbar case
(Pexels/Chokniti Khongchum)

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.

The burden of proof

DNA test needed to solve the Bobby Dunbar case
(Wikimedia Commons/ Maggie Bartlett)

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.

Holding their breath

DNA test reveals Bobby Dunbar's identity
(Flickr/Tony Webster)

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.

The aftermath

DNA Test results
(Getty Images)

Margaret and the rest of the Dunbar family were 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. They didn’t want to know.

Processing the news

DNA sequence shows color
Graphic representation of the DNA sequence

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.

Coming to terms with the truth about Bobby Dunbar

Person with their head down

Margaret’s siblings also felt blindsided 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.”

Reconciliation in the Dunbar family

Black and white photos of ancestors
(Getty Images)

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.

Then where is Bobby Dunbar?

green bayou wear Bobby Dunbar disappeared

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 identity 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?


Alligator peering at the viewer

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. It was agreed. Bobby Dunbar must have perished that night in the swamp. A child that small in alligator infested waters would have led to the boy’s death. 

Hidden guilt

Vintage filtered on silhouette of depressed girl sitting on the window
(Getty Images)

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 a reason to believe that he too knew he was not a Dunbar.

Starting over

Professional reporter at work
(Getty Images)

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 remembers 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.

The tale of two boys

Grave angel over looking a grave
(Getty Images)

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.

Moving on

man looks down tunnel, mysterious
(Pixabay/Andrew Poynton)

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.