UNSOLVED: The Boy Who Disappeared and Returned as a Different Child

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Bobby Dunbar before his disappearance.

In April 1908, Bobby Dunbar was born in Opelousas, Louisiana as the first child of Lessie and Percy Dunbar. The small family of three quickly became a slightly larger family of four when his younger brother, Alonzo Dunbar, was born.

August 23, 1912, the Dunbar family packed their bags and took a trip to Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana to escape the summer’s heat. Despite its name, Swayze Lake was actually a swamp crawling with alligators. The family stayed in a flimsy tent near Swayze Lake and, unfortunately, also near the alligators.

There are two stories of August 23rd, the day 4-year-old Bobby went missing. One recount of the story claims the Dunbar family noticed their eldest son missing after they returned home from a fishing contest at Swayze Lake to eat lunch. A group of volunteers then discovered a set of small footprints believed to belong to Bobby leading away from the swamp and toward a railroad trestle. This raised concerns of a possible kidnapping, as there were mentions of a stranger wandering around in the same area as Bobby was seen. Other sources said that Bobby wandered away from the family’s tent during the night and towards Swayze Lake.

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The picture shown of Bobby Dunbar when he went missing.

In 1914, a Louisiana newspaper, The Caldwell Watchman, published a story on Bobby’s disappearance. “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 discovery of Bobby’s disappearance prompted an eight-month search for the boy. Percy Dunbar paid a detective agency to print postcards of Bobby’s picture and send the pictures to every county official from Texas to Florida. Percy also offered a $1,000 reward (equal to $25,000 today) for the return of Bobby, with “no questions asked.” The town even offered an additional $5,000 (equal to over $125,000 today). A manhunt was run across the southern states as people became more and more desperate to find any sign of Bobby.

The eight-month long search finally came to an end when authorities from Hub, Mississippi contacted the Dunbars, reporting that they might have found Bobby traveling with a man near Columbia, Mississippi. The boy found was covered in dirt and mud, but authorities could see that he had Bobby’s blonde hair and blue eyes, and that he was the same age as the missing boy. 

Walters was found wandering through Mississippi with a boy who looked to be Bobby Dunbar. This was the picture taken of him at his trial

On April 13, 1913, authorities arrested the man traveling with the boy. The man was William Cantwell Walters, a handyman specializing in pianos and organs. Walters claimed the child was his brother and a servant’s illegitimate son. He said that he had permission from the boy’s mother, a woman named Julia Anderson, to travel with him through Mississippi. He also maintained that the boy’s name was Bruce Anderson and not Bobby Dunbar.

However, Walters’ story was not convincing enough for authorities. The authorities were sure that the child was really a kidnapped Bobby Dunbar, and the boy was put on the next train to Opelousas.

When the boy arrived to town, there was a huge celebration. A brass band played when the Dunbar family was reunited, and a parade was held in their honor. There are even stories that Lessie and Percy Dunbar were giving the boy extravagant presents, such as a horse and bicycle. Some suspect this was the Dunbars’ way of bribing the boy into staying with them as Bobby Dunbar, whether he really was or wasn’t.

A brass band played in celebration when Bobby Dunbar was brought back home.

According to some newspapers, Lessie, Percy, and the younger son Alonzo all recognized the boy as Bobby Dunbar immediately. Other sources claim there was not an immediate recognition and that it wasn’t until Lessie was giving the boy a bath that she recognized him as her son. In one article, Lessie Dunbar was initially unsure if the boy was really her son, pointing out that the boy’s eyes were smaller than Bobby’s eyes. In the end, though, the Dunbars claimed the child was their own, using a distinct scar on his toe from a burn and a mole on his neck as identifying marks.

Julia and Bruce Anderson.

However, while this was taking place, Julia Anderson finally made an appearance. She supported Walters’ story that the boy was in fact her child, but she argued that she had only given Walters permission to take her son for two days and had never given him full custody of the boy. It had also been thirteen months since Julia Anderson had seen her child, and she was not able to positively recognize him as Bruce immediately. She eventually did claim that she recognized him as Bruce Anderson, her son.

Because the stories of Anderson and Walters contradicted each other in certain parts, the authorities were inclined to believe the Dunbars over them. There was also bias in the newspapers against Julia Anderson because she was an unmarried woman with multiple children. The newspapers called her an illiterate woman of “loose morals,” discrediting her with insults. Additionally, it seemed suspicious to the judge that she had noticed her child missing for thirteen months but had taken no action to get him back.

Eventually, the Dunbars were given custody of the boy. Some newspapers wrote that as the boy left the courthouse with the Dunbars he called out, “Mother!” to Julia Anderson. However, Julia Anderson did not have enough money to pursue a court case to prove the child belonged to her, so the case ended there.

Walters was found guilty of kidnapping, a capital offense in Louisiana. He spent two years in jail before being released. LA Times reported that Walters tried to maintain his innocence, saying, “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.”

Julia Anderson maintained for the rest of her life that the boy was her son and had been taken from her by the Dunbars. According to her children, she often told them about Bruce and how the Dunbars had kidnapped him.

Bobby Dunbar celebrating his sixth birthday with childhood friends after returning home.

The boy was raised in the Dunbar household as Bobby Dunbar, and he soon barely remembered his life with Julia Anderson and Walters. It was in the town of Opelousas that the boy made the childhood friends he would remember as an adult. He even named one of his four children Bobby Dunbar Jr. For the rest of his lifetime, no one ever tried to claim he was Bruce and not Bobby, although there are stories of him visiting the Anderson family as an adult.

He died in 1966 as Bobby Dunbar and was buried with the rest of the Dunbar family. That could have been the end of the story if it were not for his granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright. After receiving scrap books containing newspaper clippings about the case of Bobby Dunbar, she started to notice some inconsistencies.

Margaret Dunbar Cutwright.

After doing some research, Margaret proposed to her family the idea of trying a DNA test to see if she was really a Dunbar. Some of her family argued with her and begged her not to drag up the past. However, Margaret was determined to find out the truth, so she and her father, the supposed son of Bobby Dunbar, took a DNA test. The results revealed that they were not Dunbars. They were actually Andersons. All this time, the boy raised as Bobby Dunbar really was Bruce Anderson.

The question that is left unanswered is what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar. Most likely, Bobby fell into the swamp and was eaten by an alligator. However, his hat was found a distance from the swamp and multiple alligators were cut open only to find there were no human remains inside of them. Chances are, we’ll never find out what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar, but at least both the Andersons and the Dunbars know the truth about Bruce Anderson.