Saturday, September 8, 2012

Whatever Happened to Bobby Dunbar?

While I was driving to work today, I heard over This American Life of the story of Bobby Dunbar, the 4 year old boy whose disappearance in 1912 was widely reported and very much talked and wondered about.

Lessie and Percy Dunbar of Opelousas, Louisana's first son was named Bobby Dunbar. On August 23, 1912, while on a camping trip with his family in Louisiana, Bobby disappeared. After an 8 month long search, a young boy was discovered in Mississippi in the company of William Cantwell Walters, a traveling handyman who went front town to town on a wagon, tuning organs and pianos. He claimed the boy was actually Bruce Anderson, the son of a woman who worked for his family, and that he had been willingly given by his mother to Walters to accompany him on his travels. Despite Walters' story, he was arrested, and the little boy detained. Authorities believed they had, at last, found Bobby Dunbar, and word was sent to the Dunbar's to come identify this boy, if they could.

This is where the story gets difficult. Different papers claim both child and alleged parents had different responses upon being reunited, ranging from the blisteringly positive (little boy cries "mommy!" and is enveloped in a hug from his biological mother) to the benign, wherein the boy shows no recognition of the Dunbar's, and the Dunbars claim the little boy does not have the same phyiscal attributes as the boy they lost. A night passes, however, and Lessie is allowed to bathe the boy. By the morning, she claims the child is indeed her son, that he was the right moles and scars to be Bobby Dunbar.

At about this point in the story, Julia Anderson arrives from North Carolina to claim the child as her missing boy. She claims that, while Walters was at the house she worked at in NC, Bruce took a strong liking to him and followed him around everywhere. According to Anderson, she did give Waters permission to take on her boy, but not for the amount of time he had been missing, and that William Cantwell Walters kidnapped Bobby Dunbar. When Julia is allowed to see the child, there is once again no recognition between child and alleged mother. Julia, as an unwed domestic who was three times a mother but had already given up one child for adoption and had to suffer the death of another, was not looked upon kindly by the court, and the ruling was in favor of the Dunbars. Julia Anderson left town, and the recovered boy lived out his life as Bobby Dunbar.

There are a lot of details I've left out here, and I will be including several links to some information in case you want to investigate this case further, but in 2004 Bobby Dunbar's granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, began to look deeper into this family legend and what she found was quite astonishing. She wrote a book called "A Case for Solomon", about the trials and the families that were involved. The end of this story is both mysterious and heartbreaking, perhaps making one question how much one knows about their own identity, despite what we learn along the way. What makes us ourselves, and part of our family? What constitutes a family? Definitely take a listen to the radio broadcast or read the transcript and stop in the store to check out Margaret's book. This is a case of true American mystery from the past, and well worth reading up on.

This American Life: The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

Wikipedia: Bobby Dunbar

The Oddment Emporium: Bobby Dunbar

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