Bobby Dunbar, 4, traveled with his parents and younger brother from their home in Opelousas, La., to Swayze Lake for a fishing excursion on Aug. 23, 1912.
One day into the vacation, Bobby vanished. He had been playing by the swampy lake, but by the time the fish was fried for lunch, he was nowhere to be seen. All anyone could find was a short trail of a baby’s footprints that ended abruptly in the mud near the lake.
It was the start of a mystery that would still be unraveling a century later, wrote Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright in their 2012 book “A Case for Solomon.”
Searchers dragged and dynamited the lake, but they found no trace of a body. They considered the horrifying but likely possibility was that alligators got Bobby. But when hunters shot and sliced open several of the enormous reptiles to look into their bellies, they found no human remains. The boy was just gone.
As August came to a close, Percy and Lessie Dunbar, Bobby’s parents, were convinced their eldest son had been kidnapped and was still alive.
A $6,000 reward (roughly $160,000 today) prompted a flurry of sightings of blond, blue-eyed boys in the company of people who did not look like blood relatives.
The William Burns Detective Agency and a psychic joined the hunt. Newspapers picked up the story, spreading the word across the country.
Eight months passed before there was a credible lead. People in Mississippi spotted a boy fitting Bobby’s description with William Cantwell Walters, a traveling handyman and piano tuner. Police took Walters into custody.
Percy and Lessie Dunbar rushed to Mississippi to see if the child was their lost son. According to some press accounts, Lessie gazed into his sleeping face and said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
The boy’s reaction was also unexpected. He woke up, took one look at the people around him, and started to scream. Some newspapers reported that the boy didn’t recognize his mother.
Within days, though, the Dunbars were certain that Bobby had been returned to them. “Thank God,” Lessie cried after giving him a bath. “it is my boy.” The child started tentatively identifying the couple as his ma and pa.
In making the identification, the Dunbars had to overlook some details. A scar on Bobby’s foot, for example, was not clearly visible on this child. But months had passed since they had last seen him, and they rationalized that the scar might have faded.
Their hometown of Opelousas declared a holiday, with brass bands, parades, and parties for hundreds of well-wishers from all over the region, when the Dunbars brought Bobby home on April 25, 1913.
Walters, arrested for kidnapping, told police that the boy was really Bruce Anderson, the illegitimate son of his brother and, Julia Anderson, a girl who had worked for the family. “I could not see the girl and my brother disgraced, so I took the little one away,” he told a reporter.
Julia Anderson came forth and declared that the child was hers, even though she couldn’t identify him on first sight either. “In my heart,” she said the next day, “I know it’s Bruce.” She said the baby was the result of a moment of weakness with a traveling salesman, who gave her five dollars and disappeared.
“Is Bobby Bobby or Bruce?—Two Women Claim Boy to be Her Own,” noted the Caldwell Watchman, a Louisiana newspaper, on the eve of Walters’ trial, which started in April 1914.
Anderson testified that she was the child’s mother, but no one believed her. She was poor, coarse, and had given birth to two other out-of-wedlock babies, who both died, so it was easy to question her credibility.
Walters was found guilty of kidnapping, a crime that could have sent him to the gallows. Instead, the judge sentenced him to prison for life. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality and Walters went free in 1915. He died of blood poisoning in the late 1930s.
Anderson married, settled down in Mississippi, and raised eight children.
Bobby grew up, married, and carved out a pleasant, successful life. He and his wife raised three children. He died in 1966 of heart disease.
But the story never died, generally popping up when there were other high-profile crimes involving missing children. In 1932, reporters covering the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby interviewed Bobby. “A lot of people still believe I was eaten by an alligator. I can assure you, I was not,” he quipped.
But no one was ever really sure.
One of Bobby’s grandchildren, Margaret Cutright, grew up hearing various versions of the story of the abduction. In the late 1990s, she began a quest to discover the truth, turning to the tools of modern forensic science.
In 2004, DNA testing revealed that Bobby was not a Dunbar and was related to the Andersons. After 92 years, and long after his death, Walters was finally exonerated.