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"The Bizarre Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar" is a video made by Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej, uploaded onto YouTube on August 24, 2018. It was the seventh episode of the fourth season of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime, and the seventy-third episode overall. You can find it here.

Description[]

A boy is lost... and found. Or is he?

Background[]

On Friday, August 23, 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, "get out of the way, Heavy, or I'll run you over." Bobby's response, what some newspapers report as his last words, was characteristic to his personality, retorting, "you can't do it. You ain't no bigger than me." When they returned back to camp, Lessie realized her son, Bobby, was no longer with the group and was missing.

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.

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.

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, "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."

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 "to be paid to any person or persons who will deliver to his parent's alive little Robert Clarence Dunbar. No questions asked." 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, "thank God, it is my boy" 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.

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, "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." 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, "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."

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.

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 "her mother's heart" 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, "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."

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 "sensational", 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, "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." 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, "Grandpa, do you think we'll ever know for certain what our right name is."

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, "I do not know, I am not quite sure." 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, "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."

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 Jr., 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, "no matter how a DNA test turns out, there's going to be a sense of loss. What is to be truly gained."

Exactly, when the test results came back, shockingly, the samples did not match, leaving Bobby's son Robert Dunbar Jr. himself surprised. He said of the outcome, "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." 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 Jr. 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, "I know who I am, and I know who you are, and nothing else makes a difference."

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.

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