On August 23, 1912, Percy and Lessie Dunbar loaded up their two young sons and left their Opelousas home for a camping trip at nearby Swayze Lake. That night, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar wandered away from the family’s tent and disappeared.
A search party soon tracked Bobby to the lakeside, and authorities concluded that he had fallen into the water and drowned. However, a day or so later, Bobby’s hat was discovered some distance away from the lake, and people began to wonder if he might have been kidnapped.
When an intensive search failed to recover Bobby’s body, Percy Dunbar and Opelousas officials concluded that he had been kidnapped and offered a $6,000 reward (about $160,000 today) for information about the missing boy.
On April 13, 1913, police arrested William Cantwell Walters near Columbia, Mississippi, in connection with the disappearance. Walters was an itinerant peddler who was accompanied by a young boy the same age and general appearance as Bobby Dunbar.
Walters claimed the boy was Bruce Anderson, the illegitimate son of Julia Anderson, a single woman who cared for Walters’ parents in North Carolina. According to Walters, Anderson had allowed Bruce to travel with him.
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Anderson later confirmed that she had given permission for her son to accompany Walters, but that it was just for a couple of days while Walters visited his sister. Strangely, Anderson never reported her son missing even though Walters claimed that Bruce had been with him for over a year.
The whole story was suspicious, so Percy and Lessie Dunbar traveled by train to Mississippi to see if they could identify the boy. Lessie examined the child while he was asleep, but what happened next is disputed.
One account claims the boy awoke, cried out, “Mother!” and reached out for Lessie, and Lessie fainted. Another source states that the boy woke up as Lessie stood over him and began to cry. Lessie gasped, stepped back, and said, “I do not know. I am not quite sure.”
Newspapers also disagreed as to whether the boy recognized any of the Dunbar family members, and Percy was said to have stated that the boy’s eyes were smaller than Bobby’s.
Lessie finally recognized some familiar moles and scars and declared that the boy was, indeed, her son, Bobby. A judge agreed, and the family took him home, where they were greeted with a parade and brass band.
Not everyone was convinced, however. Many people around Opelousas were troubled by the fact that Bobby had only been missing for eight months, but the only way his mother could identify him was through moles and scars.
Afterwards, a newspaper paid to bring Julia Anderson to Opelousas to see if she could identify the child. Bobby and four other boys of the same age were brought in one at a time to meet Anderson, but she didn’t recognize any of them, and none of the boys recognized her.
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Anderson asked for a second meeting the next day and declared that the boy in question was her son, Bruce, after undressing him and recognizing some moles.
By that time, public opinion was decidedly against Anderson because of her failure to report her son missing and her supposed loose morals (one newspaper even claimed she was a prostitute). Authorities didn’t believe the boy was Bruce, and Anderson returned to North Carolina alone.
William Cantwell Walters was convicted of kidnapping in 1914 despite people in Mississippi swearing that he had been traveling with the boy long before Bobby Dunbar disappeared. Walters won a new trial on appeal but because of the expense involved, authorities declined to try him again. He was released from jail after serving two years.
Bobby remained with the Dunbars, married and had a family, and passed away in 1966.
Many years later, Margaret Dunbar Cutright and Linda Traver, the respective granddaughters of Bobby Dunbar and Julia Anderson, set out to solve the Bobby Dunbar mystery. After much investigation, Margaret finally convinced her father, Robert Dunbar Jr., to submit to a DNA test.
The result showed that he was not related to the Dunbars at all; Bobby Dunbar, was in fact, Julia Anderson’s son, Bruce. Cutright and other family members suspect that Walters was Bruce’s father or uncle and that he had taken the boy in because his mother could not care for him.
No one knows what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar. Whether he tragically drowned in 1912 during a Swayze Lake camping trip or was kidnapped remains a mystery.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. For an autographed copy of “Louisiana Pastimes,” a collection of the author’s stories, send $25 to Louisiana Pastimes, P.O Box 1581, West Monroe, LA 71294.