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Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation

by Tal McTheniaMargaret Dunbar Cutright

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5859-3
Publisher: Free Press

A convoluted account of an infamous child kidnapping from 100 years ago, with a contemporary twist.

In August 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared during a family gathering near Opelousas, La. His well-to-do parents, Percy and Lessie Dunbar, worked with the police in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states in an effort to recover the child. About eight months later, police arrested an itinerant laborer, William Walters, who was traveling with a boy who appeared to be Bobby. The case became complicated, however, when Julia Anderson, an impoverished single mother, responded to the publicity surrounding the arrest by claiming the boy as her child—though Anderson’s son was named Bruce. Furthermore, Anderson said Walters was caring for Bruce temporarily, with permission. Journalists pounced on the saga, printing accounts that conflicted in almost every detail, and politicians and lawyers also got involved. Some of the Dunbar clan were sure that the boy found with Walters was Bobby. Others who knew the Dunbars felt less certain, believing that Percy and Lessie were claiming parentage of the wrong boy because of emotional imbalance. Because Anderson could muster far fewer resources during the proceedings than were available to the Dunbars, she operated from a disadvantage. Furthermore, many journalists and lookers-on portrayed Anderson as a woman of questionable virtue. Months of conflicting information finally played out in a Louisiana trial, with the jurors finding Walters guilty. Bobby grew up as the Dunbars’ son, and Bobby's descendants were taught to disbelieve anything said by Anderson and her kin. Cutright, Bobby’s granddaughter, collaborating with journalist McThenia, has sought the truth with modern DNA testing, which showed that Anderson was telling the truth.

An intriguing story diminished by the inability of the authors to screen out irrelevant or marginal details, making the saga difficult to follow.