Bobby Dunbar was the name of a 4-year old child whose disappearance and apparent recovery was widely reported in newspapers across the United States in 1912 and 1913. After an eight-month nationwide search, investigators believed that they had found the child in the hands of William Cantwell Walters of Mississippi. Dunbar's parents claimed the boy as their missing son, however, both Walters and a woman named Julia Anderson steadfastly insisted that the boy with him was Anderson's son. The court system eventually sided with the Dunbars and they retained custody of the boy, who proceeded to live out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.
In 2004, DNA tests taken by Dunbar's son conclusively established that he was not a blood relative of the Dunbar family.
Bobby Dunbar was the first son born to Lessie and Percy Dunbar of Opelousas, Louisiana. In August 1912, the Dunbars took a fishing trip to nearby Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. On August 23, while on that trip, Bobby Dunbar disappeared.
After an eight-month search, authorities located William Cantwell Walters, who worked as a peripatetic handyman, specializing in the tuning and repair of pianos and organs, and traveling through Mississippi with a boy who appeared to match the description of Bobby Dunbar. Walters claimed that the boy was actually Charles Bruce Anderson, generally referred to as Bruce, the son of a woman who worked for his family. He said that the boy's mother was named Julia Anderson, and that she had willingly granted him custody. Nonetheless, Walters was arrested and authorities sent for the Dunbars to come to Mississippi and attempt to identify the boy.
Newspaper accounts differ with regard to the initial reaction between the boy and Lessie Dunbar. While one account indicated that the boy immediately shouted "Mother" upon seeing her and the two then embraced, another said only that the boy cried and quoted Lessie Dunbar as saying she was unsure whether he was her son. Other newspaper accounts quote both the Dunbars as initially stating doubts as to the boy's identity. There were similar contradictions in newspaper accounts of the boy's first sighting of the Dunbars' younger son, Alonzo, with one newspaper claiming that the boy showed no sign of recognizing Alonzo, while another saying the boy recognized him instantly, called him by name and kissed him. The next day, after bathing the boy, Lessie Dunbar said she positively identified his moles and scars and was then certain that he was her son. The boy returned to Opelousas with Dunbars to a parade and much fanfare celebrating the homecoming.
Shortly thereafter, Julia Anderson of North Carolina arrived to support Walters's contention that the boy was, in fact, her son, Bruce. Anderson was unmarried and worked as a field hand for Walters's family. She confirmed Walters's claim that she had allowed him to take her son in February of the preceding year, though she disputed his claim that Walters's custody was to last for an indefinite period of time because of Anderson's destitute financial situation. She asserted that she had expected the two to be gone only for a few days.
According to newspaper accounts, Anderson was presented with five different boys who were of the same approximate age as her son, including the boy who had been claimed by the Dunbars. When the boy in question was presented, he gave no indication that he recognized her. She asked whether he was the boy recovered, but was not given an answer and finally declared that she was unsure.
Upon seeing the boy again the next day, including undressing him, she indicated a stronger certainty that the boy was indeed her son Bruce. However, word had already spread about her failure to positively identify him on the first try. This, combined with the fact that newspapers questioned her moral character in having had three children (the other two deceased, by that point) out of wedlock, led to Anderson's claims being dismissed.
With no money to sustain a long court battle, Anderson returned home to North Carolina. She later returned to Louisiana for Walters's kidnapping trial to attest to his innocence and push for the court to determine that the boy was her son. At the trial, she became acquainted with the residents of the town of Poplarville, Mississippi, many of whom had also come to proclaim Walters's innocence. William Walters and the boy had spent quite a bit of time in Poplarville during their travels and the community there had come to know them well, with a number of them asserting that they had seen Walters with the boy prior to the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar. Despite their testimony, however, the court reached the determination that the boy was in fact Bobby Dunbar. Walters was convicted of kidnapping, while the boy remained in the custody of the Dunbar family and lived out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.
After the trial, the people of Poplarville welcomed Anderson into their fold and she began a new life there, eventually marrying and having seven children. According to her descendants, she became a devout Christian, helped found a church and served as nurse and midwife to the small community. Although her children indicated that her life was a happy one after settling in Poplarville, they said that she nonetheless spoke often of her lost son, Bruce, and that their family always regarded him as having been kidnapped by the Dunbars.
After Walters had served two years of his prison term for kidnapping, his attorney was successful in appealing the conviction and Walters was granted the right to a new trial. Citing the excessive costs of the first trial, prosecutors in Opelousas declined to try him again and instead released him. After his release from custody, Walters continued to move around often; sources indicate he died sometime in the 1930s but the exact date and place of death is unknown. The grandchildren of Walters's brother reported that during their childhood, he typically visited their grandfather a few times per year and that when he did, they often spoke of the kidnapping charge, with Walters always maintaining his innocence.
The boy raised as Bobby Dunbar eventually married, had four children of his own, and died in 1966. Years after his death, one of his granddaughters, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, started to conduct her own investigation of the decades-old mystery. Her research included poring through newspaper accounts, interviewing the children of Julia Anderson and a thorough examination of all of the evidence presented by Walters's defense attorney in his kidnapping trial and appeal. Although Cutright had initially hoped to conclusively prove that her grandfather was a Dunbar, the things she uncovered ultimately led her to question her conviction in that regard.
In 2004, after an Associated Press reporter approached the family about the story, Bob Dunbar, Jr. consented to undergoing DNA tests to resolve the issue. The tests showed that Dunbar, Jr. was not related by blood to his supposed cousin, the son of Alonzo Dunbar, the younger brother of Bobby Dunbar, Sr.
The fate of the original Bobby Dunbar, lost at Swayze Lake in 1912, remains unknown.
In March 2008, Public Radio International's This American Life featured The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, a radio documentary about the investigation of the case by Margaret Dunbar Cutright. She expressed her own opinion that the real Bobby Dunbar most likely fell into Swayze Lake during the fishing trip and was eaten by an alligator. She revealed that the results of her investigation had brought joy to Julia Anderson's family as vindication of her claims, as well as to William Walters's family as an exoneration of the kidnapping accusation against him. However, she said that they had sown division within her own family, as the majority of her grandfather's children and grandchildren considered themselves to be members of the Dunbar family, cherished their existing familial relationships, and were resentful of Cutright, both for having delved into the matter at all, and additionally, for having allowed it to become nationally reported news.