The Bizarre Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar

The Bizarre Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar


– This week on Buzzfeed Unsolved, we take a look at the bizarre
disappearance of Bobby Dunbar; a case that’s inspired controversy unlike any case we’ve covered before. In summary, this case proves that a happy ending is only relative. – What? – Yeah. (laughing) – What are you talking about? – That’s as dark as it seems. – Okay, why is it controversial? We don’t do well with
controversial things, Ryan. – This case is bonkers. I don’t know how else
to really describe it. I don’t think I can really
oversell it, either. It’s one of the weirdest
cases I’ve ever read. – You’ve intrigued me. – Holy, okay, enthusiasm out of the gate. – Let’s get into it. – [Ryan] On Friday, August 23rd, 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar
along with his family were staying at their family cabin in Louisiana on Swayze Lake, a heavily wooded area that
was more like a swamp. The 11 party members
included Bobby’s parents Lessie and Percy Dunbar,
Bobby’s brother Alonzo, as well as several other
family and friends. On that day, Percy Dunbar, Bobby’s father, had to leave for work much
to young Bobby’s dismay, who, in a tantrum about
his father leaving, broke the strap of his straw hat. Lessie, Bobby’s mother, was
preparing for a fish fry. Bobby then expressed that he
wanted to go with Paul Mizzi, a family friend, to the
lake to shoot garfish. Paul often took Bobby horseback riding and had an affectionate
nickname for him, “Heavy”. His mother allowed it
and the rest of the boys in the party decided to join. Later, the group of boys
were called back for lunch and they started making their way back, though from here the details get fuzzy. Paul recalled putting
Bobby’s brother Alonzo on his shoulders, joking
with Bobby, quote, “Get out of the way, Heavy, or I’ll run you over,” end quote. Bobby’s response, what
some newspapers report as his last words, was
characteristic to his personality, retorting, quote, “You can’t do it. “You ain’t no bigger than me,” end quote. When they returned back to camp, Lessie realized her son, Bobby, was no longer with the
group and was missing. – Paul and the boys all
walk back to the house. – Yeah, ’cause Paul has now a
gaggle of children with him. – So he’s trying to look after everyone and somehow the one that
he seems to be closest to, has a fun nickname for,
he doesn’t see him? – Yeah, I guess he doesn’t see him, yeah. Are you looking at Paul right
now with a suspicious lens? – Yes, I am. – That makes sense. – It’s a little suspect to just suddenly, “Yeah, I don’t know where the boy went.” – I mean, if that’s where your
detective brain leads you, maybe follow the instinct. – Okay. – [Ryan] She and Paul began to
call out for Bobby in a panic and at one point Lessie
fainted into the dirt. Three men from the party
began to search north on the wagon trail behind the camp, in case Bobby had gone after his father. On their search, they ran into Percy on his way back from working, who raced to camp when he
heard of Bobby’s disappearance. By that night, with no trace of Bobby, searchers began to look for Bobby’s body. They used dynamite to
blast throughout the lake while a thick cable with massive hooks stretched across the
length to drag the depths. – Wait, what’s the idea here? It’s gonna blow all the
water out of the lake? – Yeah, I guess it
would blow the water out and for a brief, fleeting moment you could see the bottom of the lake there and I guess if Bobby was
next to the dynamite– – I guess, I don’t know. If you’re at the bottom
of the lake to begin with, maybe you’re not in great shape. – [Ryan] After the night was over, divers also went into the lake to search any coves the hooks were unable to reach or places where a body could
get trapped in the weeds. The only corpse they turned up from these efforts was that of a deer. Because Bobby’s body had not
been recovered in the lake, searchers believed he could
have been killed by an animal, with the most likely
predator being an alligator. Searchers even cut alligators
open hoping they might find his remains inside, to no avail. By Saturday, August 24th, about 500 men had come to search for Bobby. Searchers even did a
test using a straw hat with a broken strap like
the one Bobby had on to test how long it could float, finding that it could float
uninhibited for hours, leading searchers to
believe there should have at least been some
evidence of Bobby’s hat. – [Shane] So the hat
should be a dead giveaway as to his location. – [Ryan] If you drown in that lake, you would see that hat somewhere. Especially since it wasn’t like, “Oh, several hours later
they noticed he was missing.” They noticed he was missing pretty soon. The stress of Bobby’s disappearance caused his mother Lessie
to become grievously ill and most of the family had to return to their home in Opelousas, Louisiana. Paul Mizzi, who had been the
last adult to see Bobby alive, along with two other
men who had been guests at that fateful fish
fry that day would stay and continue to search for weeks more. Searchers found a solitary
set of bare footprints leading toward a railroad trestle bridge heading out of the swamp, with still no body or
even a trace of evidence to prove he had been killed by an animal. Those who continued the desperate search began to question if Bobby
could have been kidnapped. It was speculated that someone
in a small boat could have taken him through the north
end of the lake into the bayou or someone on foot could have taken him on the trail or down the train tracks. Searchers had run into stragglers
walking along the tracks and began to question if one
of them could have taken Bobby. By August 26th, the authorities had also contacted the police in New Orleans about 130 miles away to
search for Bobby there, giving those invested in
the theory of his kidnapping further hope and official validation. Percy Dunbar would also
go to New Orleans himself to distribute 700 copies
of Bobby’s picture and talked with many reporters. A detective agency made postcards with a picture and description of Bobby and mailed them to town
and county officials from East Texas to Florida. The description of Bobby that
was widely distributed read, quote, “Age four years and
four months; full size for age; “stout but not fat;
large, round blue eyes; “light hair and very fair
skin, with rosy cheeks. “Left foot had been burned when a baby “and shows a scar on the big toe, “which is somewhat smaller
than big toe on the right foot. “Wore blue rompers and a straw hat; “without shoes,” end quote. – [Shane] Ugh, it just
seems like a lotta people go missing around train tracks. – [Ryan] Yeah, I mean,
a lot of interesting characters hangin’ around
at the train tracks. – [Shane] What does that mean? – [Ryan] I mean, back
in the day, vagrants. – Oh, you made it sound like
you would have been there. – Like I’ve been on the train tracks? What if I have? – Have you? – Yeah, I’ve been on train tracks before. – You hang around the train tracks? – There was an abandoned
train track around my town and sometimes, like, people
would go there and hang out. – I’m actually a little bit jealous. – It was pretty good. – I always wished my town
had a quarry growing up. “Let’s just fuckin’ hang out at the quarry “and shoot guns at cans.” – [Ryan] The Dunbar’s whole
home town of Opelousas held out hope that Bobby was still alive and together contributed
to a $1,000 reward, which was, quote, “To be
paid to any person or persons “who will deliver to his parent’s alive “little Robert Clarence Dunbar. “No questions asked,” end quote. In 1912, this was a
relatively enormous amount, roughly equivalent to about $22,000 today. However, after over eight
months with no sign of Bobby, the unused reward money was returned to the townspeople who had donated it, but only a week after a
major lead in the case broke. In April, 1913, a wire
from the Ladies of Hub came to alert the Dunbars
that an old tinker/peddler named William Cantwell Walters was spotted in the small town of Hub
in southern Mississippi with a boy resembling Bobby, though his foot had been
too covered in grime for anyone to get a good look. Walters had given authorities
various and inconsistent answers about who the child belonged to, saying it was his own,
his sister’s, et cetera. Eventually the Ladies had witnessed Walters whipping the child, finally giving a citizens’
committee enough to temporarily detain Walters
and examine the boy, which they then firmly believed was Bobby, but asked the Dunbars to
send further photo evidence. The Dunbars remained skeptical until they in turn received photos of the boy, and at this point the Dunbars traveled to Mississippi to see him in person, still not sure if it was their Bobby. The boy they had found had
a scar on his left foot, as well as a mole on his
neck where Bobby had one. However, he refused to
answer to the name Bobby and when Lessie tried to hold him, he refused to interact with her. Lessie asked to see the
boy again the next day and in their time together
was able to give him a bath. At this point, she felt without any doubt that they had found Bobby. In a wave of emotion, she’s
recalled as shouting, quote, “Thank God, it is my boy,”
end quote, before fainting. Meanwhile, William C. Walters, the man whom the boy was taken from, was insistent that the
boy was not Bobby Dunbar, but in fact Bruce Anderson. – That’s a fake name,
that’s not a real name. – Bruce Anderson does seem
like a name you would make up if you were, like, pressed in the moment. – Bruce Anderson. – I don’t have any info
on his cadence either. Like, “What’s his name?” – “Uh, Brick Brambrose Andersmythe.” – “What was that, what
was that, what was that? “You say that again?” – “Bruce Anderson.” – There it is. – And he still can’t
get his story straight as to how he knows this boy? – He’s about to say how he knows this boy. – If you’re whipping a boy, you better know whose boy that is. – Yeah, I mean, maybe don’t
just whip a boy at all. – Don’t whip a boy, first and foremost. Don’t whip children. – Here’s his story,
Walters claimed the boy was the illegitimate son of his brother and a woman named Julia Anderson, who had cared for his elderly parents back home in Barnesville, North Carolina. Julia Anderson was a single mom who did in fact work as a field hand and a caretaker for
William Walters’s parents. Walters claimed that Julia had given him the boy willingly,
which Julia did confirm, though she disputed some of
the details of his story, telling the paper, quote, “Walters left Barnesville, North Carolina, “with my son, Charles
Bruce, in February of 1912, “saying that he only wanted
to take the child with him “for a few days on a visit
to the home of his sister. “I have not seen the child
from that day to this. “I did not give him the child, “I merely consented for him to take my son “for a few days,” end quote. Some were skeptical at
his motives to claim he was given consent to take the child, as kidnapping was a capital
offense in Louisiana and he could be just trying to
avoid the kidnapping charge. He wrote to the Dunbars explaining so much and begged them to send for her, saying, quote, “I know
by now you have decided. “You are wrong, it is very
likely I will lose my life “on account of that and
if I do the Great God will “hold you accountable,” end quote. – [Shane] He’s got a boy, boy’s not his. – [Ryan] Yes. – [Shane] Boy does allegedly belong to his brother and his brother’s mistress. And he’s saying, “Yeah, I
shouldn’t have this boy. “Belongs to my brother
and that other lady. “But it’s still our boy and
I gotta give this boy back!” – [Ryan] Yeah. – They’re saying, “No, that boy’s our boy! “That’s our little straw
hat boy, that’s Heavy. “That’s our little boy.” – Yeah. – So if they try to
take that boy from him, boy, is he up a creek without a paddle. Right? – If that boy is in fact Bobby Dunbar, he’s going to be charged with kidnapping. – Yeah. – And he will die. ‘Cause if it’s the other boy,
which is his brother’s son, he can claim that he was given
consent to have that boy. He has no grounds for
that if it’s Bobby Dunbar. – Oh, no, yeah, that’s
the other rub in it. – That’s what the main thing is. So he’s saying to the Dunbars, “If you say that’s Bobby
Dunbar, you know it’s not him, “I’m gonna be killed.” – Yeah, and he’ll also be in trouble because then where’s that other boy that he’s supposed to have? – I mean, that’s the least of his worries. He’s gonna be killed for one thing. – He’s got a lot of worries,
this guy’s got worries. – He’s only got one play here, and it’s that it’s not Bobby Dunbar, but these parents are
positive it’s Bobby Dunbar. – Even though the little boy is, I mean, and granted the boy could
be under some distress, but the boy is claiming
that he is not Bobby Dunbar. – The boy is not saying anything. – Boy is silent. – [Ryan] A newspaper in New Orleans arranged to bring Julia
Anderson to Mississippi so she could identify the boy as well and she arrived in
Opelousas on May 1st, 1913. However, stepping into
the Dunbar’s hometown, Julia Anderson was essentially
already on enemy territory, as the town had already decided that the boy was Bobby Dunbar, who had miraculously come back to them. His return was made into a huge spectacle and he rode through town and into the square on a fire
engine covered in flowers. When Julia Anderson met the boy, he did not react well to her, much like he had originally
acted with Lessie Dunbar, though he may still have been reeling from the many sudden changes in his life, including the fact that
in his beautiful new home he had just been given
a pony and a bicycle. – [Shane] What are you talking about? He got a pony and a bike? – [Ryan] Yeah. (chuckling) – [Shane] What? (chuckling) – Okay, so this is a
very, very tricky case because on one hand he did not react well to Lessie Dunbar when he first met her. A little bit of time later, now he has accepted he is Bobby Dunbar, but then we find out it’s because, not because but maybe because, he was given a pony and a bicycle, which seems kind of redundant. Why would you need a
bicycle if you have a pony? What do you even do with a pony? I guess you pet it. – A bike you can do, like,
sick jumps and stuff. Pony’s not gonna do that. – I guess you could do sick jumps. – So were they essentially bribing him? Because I can see him being like, “I don’t know this lady,
I’ve never met this lady. “This lady’s gonna give me a pony? “This is my mom.” – It may be too strong
to say they bribed him ’cause I could see that
but you could also say, “Boy, I thought my kid
was dead for eight months. “He’s now back, I’m going to
shower him with affection, “give him all the things that
I wish I could’ve gave him.” Like, in the eight months,
I’m imagining they’re like, “Oh, I wish I could’ve done
this, I could’ve said that,” and now he’s back it’s like, “Fuck it. “I’m gonna give him a pony and a bicycle. “Here’s a fire engine
covered with flowers.” – Yeah. – [Ryan] Additionally, Anderson had been missing her son for even
longer than the Dunbars. It had been 15 months
since she had allowed Walters to take Bruce and he
had never returned with him. Similar to Lessie Dunbar,
at first Anderson also had trouble identifying the boy as her son, but soon after stated that, quote, “Her mother’s heart,” end quote, knew that the boy was her son. However, unlike with Lessie Dunbar, Anderson’s initial uncertainty was not easily forgiven by the press. The press largely demonized her for having three children by two different men and it was implied she was a prostitute. Others called her illiterate and naive. They also called
attention to the fact that she had lost all of her
children within just a year. She had to give her
daughter up for adoption, she had a baby who died a sudden death that she was wrongfully blamed for, then Bruce was taken from her. An article written in the New Orleans Item wrote of Anderson, quote,
“She had not seen her son “since February of 1912,
she had forgotten him. “Animals don’t forget, but
this big, coarse country woman, “several times a mother,
she forgot,” end quote. – This writer is really quite brutal. – Yeah, Jesus Christ. – Not really some
unbiased journalism there. – Here’s the thing, also. – “This big, coarse country woman.” Why does he gotta say big? – The thing you gotta keep
in mind about this quote, which is what I was
thinking when I read it was even if this is not her son,
she still is missing a son. She’s still missing a son. She’s still missing all of her children and you have to rub it in
that it’s not her son, right? – “Let’s remark about how sad this “big, coarse country woman is.” – “It’s not your son, you
fuckin’ loser.” (chuckling) – Unbelievable. – Jesus Christ, there’s no compassion from this writer at all. – Have compassion for this poor woman. – [Ryan] A court-appointed
arbiter ruled that the boy was the Dunbar’s missing son
rather than Anderson’s, as Anderson had no lawyer, no money, and no allies in Opelousas. She left town and the
boy was uncontestedly allowed to remain Bobby Dunbar. William Walters went
through a two-week trial that was described by some as, quote, “Sensational,” end quote, at which he was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison. After just two years in jail,
William Walters’ verdict was overturned on an
appeal and he was granted a new trial on a technicality. As for the boy, he grew up
and lived as Bobby Dunbar. At 18, he fell in love with a girl named Marjorie from a nearby town. They married in 1935
and had four children. He passed away in 1966, always believing he was Bobby Dunbar, but this story doesn’t end there. Skipping forward to 1999,
Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, began looking deeper into her family’s history. Cutright had always been
especially intrigued by the family legend of her
grandfather’s kidnapping and had asked her grandmother to tell her the story many times in her childhood. It was then a story that she
told to her own children. A scrapbook with over 400
articles about the Dunbar case was given to Cutright by her father. She writes of the project, quote, “The scrapbook was like a jigsaw puzzle “without the picture on the box, “and over the next few months, “I lost myself in trying to
piece it together,” end quote. She was especially affected
by an editorial cartoon from 1913 titled “Fifty Years From Now”, in which a bearded old man sits in a chair with his grandson looking at newspapers from the Dunbar kidnapping
trial and asks, quote, “Grandpa, do you think we’ll ever know “for certain what our
right name is,” end quote. – Oh. Heavy. She’s living the cartoon
that she’s looking at. – I mean, that’s what happened. She saw the cartoon, the
cartoon was referencing– – What she was currently doing. – [Ryan] Cutright instantly
noticed discrepancies in how newspapers were
reporting the events. For example, there were
at least two different reported versions of
Lessie and Bobby’s reunion. One paper stated that Lessie
recognized Bobby immediately, while the other described
Lessie as unsure, even including a quote
from Lessie saying, quote, “I do not know, I am not
quite sure,” end quote. She also found that Percy
and Lessie had originally told the papers that the boy
didn’t look like their son, and that his eyes were too small. Some newspapers also reported Bobby didn’t recognize his father,
mother, or brother Alonzo. She also was disturbed to read the many biased accounts of Julia
Anderson from the time and to read that from
Anderson’s perspective, she had felt that the Dunbars
had kidnapped her son. Linda Tarver, the granddaughter
of Julia Anderson, says of the family perception, quote, “All of us cousins grew up, “we knew that we had
an uncle that had been “taken by the Dunbar family
in Opelousas, Louisiana. “We always said kidnapped. “We said they kidnapped him,” end quote. Cutright continued her search obsessively, researching at small
town libraries, archives, and courthouses all over the south. Eventually, the idea of testing her grandfather’s DNA came up. Cutright’s father, Bobby Dunbar Junior, agreed to give a DNA sample to compare with a sample given by
one of her great-uncles, a son of Bobby’s brother Alonzo. This was a controversial
choice and many in the family urged Dunbar to leave the past alone. Gerald Dunbar, one of Cutright’s uncles, said of the matter, quote, “No matter how a DNA test turns out, “there’s going to be a sense of loss. “What is to be truly gained,” end quote. – It seems kinda stupid to not do it. You know, this guy’s like,
“What’s to be gained?” It’s like, “Well, people are suffering, “and would like to know what the truth is. “Maybe let’s find it out,” and, you know, if it’s devastating I feel
like enough time has passed that members of both of the families could probably get together and be like, “Yeah, our ancestors were shitheads.” – Yeah, not so much shitheads but just, like, they made the wrong call. – Yes, they kidnapped a boy. – I don’t know if they kidnapped a boy. – They may have kidnapped a boy. – They may have kidnapped a boy, they may have just
misidentified their own son, which is odd. – I mean, eyes don’t get smaller. – Eyes don’t get smaller. – They’re not gonna look
at their boy and go, “His eyes look small but
that’s probably him.” – That’s one newspaper that said that. I’m just saying yeah,
I guess there’s a lot to be gained here; truth,
catharsis, you know. – Put it to bed. – Yeah, I think that’s good. – And if it is truly
Bruce, if it was Bruce– – Now, now, wait a second here. The DNA they’re testing,
Bobby Dunbar Junior is giving his DNA up to this test. They’re comparing it to a great-uncle, a son of Bobby’s brother Alonzo, to truly see if he is a Dunbar. However, they are not testing
his DNA to an Anderson to prove that they are a match too. – Okay. So we can at least rule
out based on his DNA that he is or is not a Dunbar. – Exactly, when the
test results came back, shockingly, the samples did not match, leaving Bobby’s son Robert
Dunbar Junior himself surprised. He said of the outcome, quote, “My intent was to prove
that we were Dunbars. “The results didn’t turn out that way, “and I have had to do some
readjusting of my thinking. “But I would do it again,” end quote. Still, although this test proves that the boy was not Bobby Dunbar, there does not seem to have
been a test administered to prove that the boy was
in fact Bruce Anderson. Hollis Rawls, Anderson’s
son, had expressed a willingness to submit
DNA before he passed away, but even without confirmation
of that DNA evidence, many were apt to believe that Bobby Dunbar had actually been Bruce Anderson. In terms of incorrectly
identifying himself as a Dunbar, Bobby Dunbar Junior recalled
a conversation he had with his father when he
was a teenager in which he asked his father how he
knew he was Bobby Dunbar and remembered his father
telling him, quote, “I know who I am, and I know who you are, “and nothing else makes
a difference,” end quote. – And they gave me a pony. (chuckling) – Way to ruin a beautiful sentiment. He is pretty much just saying that, “It doesn’t matter what my name is.” – Oh, okay, ’cause I was gonna
say technically he’s wrong, he does know who he is. His name is not Bobby Dunbar,
his license isn’t correct. – I mean, it’s weird that
you got that from that, but he’s pretty much saying– – “I know who I am, except I don’t. “I know who you are, except
you’re not that person. “And that’s all that counts.” – The name doesn’t matter
is what he’s saying. He’s saying, “I’m me, you’re my son, “that’s all that matters.” – And that really is the
true sentiment of it all. Like I said, even the DNA test, it’s like, “Does it really matter? “Yes, we’d like to know the truth, “doesn’t change who you are.” Your bones are your bones. – I mean, there is a certain amount of weight to put to your
name and your lineage, but at the same time, the
relationships you have with the living members
is also very important and really that’s all that matters. – And we’re all gonna be dust someday. – That’s a very nihilistic
way to look at it but sure. This settles the mystery
of the boy that was found and yet the chilling mystery surrounding the boy lost continues to persist. Many wonder what actually
happened to Bobby Dunbar that day. Some continue to believe that
he was eaten by an animal, such as an alligator or a bear, though no evidence such as clothing was ever found to suggest that. Some wonder if he was
actually kidnapped after all. In an interview in 1932, Bobby Dunbar, who was probably Bruce Anderson, recalled a memory of his
time with William Walters in which he revealed that he remembered that there was another boy with him who fell off the wagon
and died and was buried. Some wondered if the memory had
been a memory of suggestion, as there had been theories
posed by the prosecution at Walters’s trial that he could have kidnapped both Anderson and Dunbar. Psychologically, some posit
these theories could have allowed the boy to rationalize
Bruce Anderson’s death and allowed a narrative
as Bobby Dunbar to begin. Regardless, almost 100
years after the incident, one family received
closure while the other had it ripped away from them. Tragically, the mystery
behind the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar will remain unsolved. (eerie instrumental music) It’s kind of a happy ending but is it? I don’t know. – They should feel guilty
’cause they stole a boy. – No one stole anything. – They stole a boy! – They thought it was their boy. – No, they said he had small eyes. – That was one newspaper. – Okay. (eerie instrumental music)

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