Four-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing in a Louisiana swamp in 1912. He had wandered away unnoticed and no trace could be found of him. Searchers found a set of solitary bare footprints in the mud nearby and came to the conclusion that young Bobby Dunbar had been taken. The citizens of Opelousas pledged a $1,000 reward for Bobby's return, "no questions asked."
Bobby was the oldest son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar and had "large round blue eyes, hair light, but turning dark, complexion very fair with rosy cheeks, well developed, stout but not very fat". Percy, a well-respected real estate and insurance man, had a detective agency print up postcards with a picture and description of Bobby, and mail them to town and county officials from east Texas to Florida. The card also mentioned that Bobby's "big toe on left foot badly scarred from burn when a baby".
In April 1913, a wire arrived from the little town of Hub, Mississippi. A drifter named William Cantwell Walters had been taken into custody there. He had a boy with him who matched Bobby's description. The Dunbars rushed to Mississippi, but they were not immediately sure this was their boy. The youth had a scar on his left foot. He had a mole on his neck where Bobby had one. But he refused to answer to the name Bobby, and when the mother tried to hold him, he would have nothing to do with her. Mrs. Dunbar asked to see the boy again the next day. After stripping and bathing him, her uncertainty left her.
Kidnapping was a capital offense in Louisiana, and Walters knew his life hung in the balance. In a letter to the Dunbars from his jail cell in Columbia, Mississippi, Walters insisted the boy was actually Bruce Anderson, the son of a woman who had cared for his aged parents back home in Barnesville, North Carolina. He scrawled a letter to the Dunbars from his jail cell.
"I know by now you have Decided you are wrong it is vary likely I will Loose my Life on account of that and if I do the Great God will hold you accountable"A New Orleans paper offered to bring Julia Anderson to Mississippi but the Dunbars and the people of Opelousas made up their minds. Julia Anderson arrived in Opelousas on May 1. It had been more than 15 months since she had given Walters permission to take Bruce. She, like Mrs. Dunbar, had trouble identifying him as her son, and the boy -- who suddenly found himself in a nice home with a pony and a bicycle -- wanted nothing to do with her. After her initial wavering, Anderson declared that "her mother's heart" told her the boy found with the tinker was indeed her son. But her uncertainty was not easily forgiven.
Walters was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison. Walters spent two years behind bars before being granted a new trial on a technicality. But the town of Opelousas decided that Bobby was where he belonged, and enough had been spent on the case. Walters was released and soon faded into obscurity, but Bobby would never know such peace. Whenever there was a sensational kidnapping, such of the 1932 disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, reporters would return to the home of "that little lost boy."
Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Margaret Cutright heard the stories of her grandfather's disappearance and sensational recovery. She had never had any reason to question them -- until the family lost another boy. When her brother Robbie died in a plane crash in 1999, Cutright's father gave her a family scrapbook chronicling the kidnapping case. Leafing through the crumbling, yellowed clippings, she came across an editorial cartoon from 1913. In the drawing, titled "Fifty Years From Now?", a bearded old man sits in a chair, his right hand cupped behind his ear as a boy, kneeling on the floor over a newspaper from the kidnapping trial, looks up and asks: "Grandpa, do you think we'll ever know for certain what our right name is?"
Cutright's search has taken her from the cypress swamps of Louisiana to the woods of Mississippi and finally to the hardscrabble Carolina pinelands where Bruce Anderson was born. Her wanderings eventually led her to the house where Walters' defense attorney once lived. To her shock, the man's granddaughter still lived there and, from a closet, she produced the original 900-page defense file. She spent months scanning and transcribing the telegrams, letters and depositions. Witnesses had placed Walters and the boy he called Bruce miles away from Opelousas the day Bobby went missing.
Cutright's findings have given the hope of closure to a family she has only recently discovered. Julia Anderson settled in Mississippi after the trial, married and raised eight children. Those children grew up believing they had a half brother who had been stolen from them. Cutright, who is working on a book about the case, has tracked down Bruce's two surviving siblings and shown them her evidence. One of them, 80-year-old Hollis Rawls, has expressed a willingness to submit a DNA sample to help prove whether Cutright's grandfather was really Bruce Anderson.
Cutright's father, over the objections of his siblings, agreed to give a DNA sample earlier this year. It was compared to a sample given by a son of Bobby Dunbar's brother, Alonzo. The samples didn't match. The DNA test proved that Bobby Dunbar was not Bobby Dunbar and that William Walters was innocent of kidnapping. Cutright opines that Bobby Dunbar probably fell into Swayze Lake, the swamp his parents were fishing at, and was eaten by an alligator. However the fate of the real Bobby Dunbar is unknown.
"Bobby Dunbar", left, with unidentified people shortly after his return to Louisiana.