Opelousas, LA

DNA Testing Clears up 90-Year-Old Mystery Behind the Disappearance of a Young Boy

Joe Donan

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Left: Bobbie Dunbar before his disappearance. Right The boy found in Mississippi — Source: Wikimedia Commons

On August 23rd, 1912, Percy and Lessie Dunbar took their oldest child, Robert Clarence Dunbar — affectionately known as Bobby — on a fishing trip to Swayze Lake, near Opelousas, Louisiana. Little did they know this excursion would have permanent consequences for their lineage as, in a fateful twist of events, Bobby disappeared without a trace just before lunchtime.

A desperate search across the U.S.

Convinced that their firstborn had been kidnapped, the Dunbars started a frantic nationwide search for their missing son, offering a $6,000 reward for his return, no questions asked. They had postcards of Bobby and his physical description printed up and distributed far and wide:Large round blue eyes, hair light, but turning dark, complexion very fair with rosy cheeks, well developed, stout but not very fat. Big toe on left foot badly scarred from burn when a baby,” it read.

Eight months into the massive rescue operation, word of a young boy matching Bobby’s description reached the authorities: he had been found in Mississippi, safe and sound.

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Left: the boy found in Mississippi. Right: Bobby Dunbar, before his disappearance. — Source: Twitter

The boy in question was traveling with William Cantwell Walters, a laborer specializing in piano and organ tuning and repairing. Walters explained to the police that his companion was Charles Bruce Anderson, the illegitimate son of his brother and Julia Anderson, a longtime maid of his family. According to Walters, Anderson had granted him custody of her child for a few days while on his trip to visit his relatives in Mississippi.

Despite his claims of innocence, Walters was arrested on the grounds of kidnapping — a capital offense in Louisiana — and taken to Opelousas to stand trial. The authorities then alerted the Dunbars, who promptly traveled to Mississippi to identify the boy. After eight long months, “Bobby” would finally be returned to his parents.

Two reunions overshadowed by uncertainty

According to several press accounts, the Dunbars were initially unsure the boy they were presented with was their son Bobby. Upon gazing at him, Lessie herself is quoted as saying “I don’t know. I’m not sure.” The boy, in return, reportedly started crying, seemingly afraid of the Dunbars. Later on, when he met his younger “brother” Alonzo Dunbar, press accounts reported there was no reaction from the kids upon seeing each other.

The following day, Lessie had the chance to bathe the boy. Upon seemingly recognizing his moles and scars — yet overlooking the missing burn on his foot — she claimed absolute certainty the child was her son. And with that, on April 25th, 1913, the Dunbars took the boy back to Opelousas, where there were a parade, brass bands, and a big party for all well-wishers on the courthouse square to celebrate “Bobby’s” return.

After arrangements were made by a New Orleans newspaper, Julia Anderson arrived in Louisiana on May 1st to attest to Walters’s innocence and back up his version of the story. Just like the Dunbars, she had trouble identifying the child as her son Bruce. The boy, on the other hand, who suddenly found himself in a spacious house filled with toys and a pony, appeared distant and detached from Anderson.

The following day, after much insistence, Julia Anderson was permitted to undress the boy as Lessie Dunbar had before her. Upon closer examination, Julia expressed certainty that he was her son Bruce, and attempted to leave with him.

By this time, however, word had already spread that she had failed to recognize the boy the day before, so her claims were deemed invalid. On top of that, newspapers were questioning her moral character, as she was an unmarried mother — a status most people frowned upon in the early 20th Century.

The legal battle over the boy’s custody

Unable to pay for a lawyer to legally fight for the boy in court, a defeated Julia returned to North Carolina, but soon came back to Louisiana in a second attempt to get Walters out of custody and reclaim the boy as her son.

This time, she was accompanied by other residents of Poplarville, Mississippi, who declared to know Walters well and to have seen the boy in Poplarville before Bobby’s disappearance, ruling out any possibility that he was the Dunbars’ son.

Despite these witnesses’ accounts, the court ruled in favor of Lessie and Percy Dunbar. From that moment on, the boy found in Mississippi was legally recognized — and lived the rest of his life — as Robert Clarence Dunbar.

William Walters’s fate

Following a widely-reported, two-week trial, Walters was found guilty of the kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar but was spared from the gallows, receiving a life sentence instead. After serving two years in prison, his attorney managed to appeal his conviction, giving Walters the right to a new trial, resulting in his release in 1915.

Living in public disgrace for the rest of his life, he maintained his innocence until the day of his death, as he succumbed to blood poisoning on April 7th, 1945.

Julia Anderson’s fate

Julia returned to North Carolina, where she settled, married, mothered seven children, and became a Christian. According to her descendants, she often talked about Bruce and referred to the Dunbars as the shameless kidnappers of her son.

Her only solace was knowing the boy she adamantly claimed to be her child had been received into a wealthy family. There he would enjoy a better life than she could ever have dreamed of offering him. She never saw that boy again.

“Bobby Dunbar’s” fate

Not much is known about the details of “Bobby’s” life after the court’s resolution, except that he grew to manhood, married a lady named Marjorie Byars, fathered four children, and had a comfortable life.

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The boy believed to be Bobby Dunbar, 1913 — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The generational search for the truth

Doubtful about her ancestry, “Bobby Dunbar’s” granddaughter Margaret Dunbar Cutright started an intensive four-year investigation to finally clear up the mystery surrounding her origins. She partnered up with Linda Travers, one of the seven children of Julia Anderson, and together, they found an anonymous letter from a lady identifying herself as “The Christian Woman.”

This letter was originally sent to the Opelousas courthouse in defense of Walters and Anderson. What Margaret and Linda read fueled their intentions to reach the truth about what actually happened back in 1913:

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.”

These words convinced Margaret there was a strong possibility that the child found in Mississippi was indeed Bruce Anderson and not Bobby Dunbar after all. And she knew there was only one way to find out.

In 2003, Margaret requested a DNA sample from her father, Bob Dunbar, Jr, and sent it to a laboratory, where it was examined against another DNA sample, provided by the son of Bobby Dunbar’s brother, Alonzo. Given the Y chromosome is passed almost unchanged from father to son, the test was guaranteed to determine whether the two men were first-degree cousins or not.

The result was conclusive: no match.

Beyond any doubt, the boy found in Mississippi in 1913 was not related to the Dunbar family at all. Most likely, he was Charles Bruce Anderson, the son of Julia Anderson. DNA testing was also conducted to determine if this was true, but the results turned out inconclusive. The real identity of the boy might never be confirmed.

The aftermath

The test results shocked the entire Dunbar family. Some didn’t even know Margaret was spearheading an investigation to solve Bobby’s case, and the sudden realization that their lineage was based on a huge mistake was a hard pill to swallow for every single one of them.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright speculated in 2008 that the real Bobby Dunbar most likely fell into Swayze Lake, drowned, and had his remains devoured by alligators. Some other journalists theorized that the Dunbars, either accidentally or deliberately, might have been responsible for their son’s disappearance, and used the Mississippi boy to cover their crime.

Whichever the case, one more mystery remains unsolved: Did the boy know the truth? Was he old enough to realize he had landed in a completely different household? Was he aware that the people who took him there were complete strangers? Did he recognize Julia Anderson or was that the first time he’d ever seen her? Did he ever have reservations about his identity?

Bob Dunbar, Jr recalls a conversation he had with his father, the man known as Robert “Bobby” Dunbar, in 1954, in which he asked him how he knew he really was Bobby and not someone else. His father looked at him and gave him a rather cryptic answer:

I know who I am, and I know who you are. And nothing else makes a difference.”

It seemed he was more concerned about the content of his character than he was of his ancestry. Or maybe he was tired of pondering the same matter every day of his life, a mystery he knew he would never be able to clear up.

“Robert Clarence Dunbar” died of heart disease at a Houston hospital on March 8th, 1966, aged 57. His mortal remains lie next to his wife’s in Bellevue Memorial Cemetery, Opelousas, Louisiana.

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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