The Mystery Of Bobby Dunbar: DNA Test 100 Years Later Tells All

Back in 1912, the story of a little boy took the United States by storm after the Dunbar family lost their four-year-old son, Bobby, while camping near a lake in Opelousas, Louisiana. Eight months later, authorities found a boy who looked like Bobby, yet another woman claimed that the boy was hers. For over one hundred years, the identity of the boy remained in question. Could it have been the real Bobby Dunbar? Now, with the help of modern technology, the question can finally be answered.

Escaping The Heat

Louisiana Swamp
Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the summer of 1912, the Dunbar was suffering from the sweltering heat and unforgivable humidity of Louisiana. Back then, jumping into a body of water was about the only thing that people could do to get some respite from the heat.

So, that summer, the family decided to take a trip to a lake. Little did they know that their innocent decision to spend time as a family and cool off in the water would change their lives forever.

The Dunbar Family Takes A Trip

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Bobby Dunbar was born in 1908 and was the first-born child of Lessie and Percy Dunbar. Later having another son, the Dunbar family had grown to four. Like any good parents, Leslie and Percy wanted the best for their two boys.

Finding the heat in the summer of 1912 to be unbearable, on August 23, 1912, they packed their bags and headed north toward Swayze Lake near the city of Opelousas.

Not A True Lake

Alligator in the water
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Although it may be called Lake Swayze, it’s not necessarily a lake most people would imagine. In actuality, it was more like a bayou that was infested with alligators, maybe not the best place to take small children.

Pitching a tent next to the “lake,” on the night of August 23, 1912, the four-year-old Bobby slipped out of his family’s tent and wandered down by the water. That was the last time anyone supposedly saw or heard for him.

Missing A Child

Banks of a swamp
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Tim Graham/Getty Images

When the Dunbar’s realized that Bobby had gone missing, they were shocked and horrified. Bobby’s grief-stricken parents then launched an eight-month, full-scale search to find their boy alive or dead.

In 1914, The Caldwell Watchmen newspaper wrote, “When he [Bobby] was missed, a search traced him to the banks of Lake Swayze…At first, it was feared that he been drowned, but the lake failed to give up the body and the little boy’s hat was found some distance from the lake a day or so later.”

A Hefty Reward

1920s silver dollars
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Authorities and sympathetic locals put in all their energy in order to find the child. Unfortunately, each clue they found led to a frustrating dead end. Percy Dunbar even offered up a $1,000 reward for anyone who had information or knew where his son was.

In 1912, that was the equivalent of $25,000, with the townspeople raising an additional $5,000. Then, eight months later, the authorities delivered the Dunbar’s news they had been waiting almost a year to hear.

A Suspect Was Apprehended

Old train from 1910
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images

On April 13, 1913, the local authorities arrested a traveling tinker named William Cantwell Walter near Columbia, Mississippi. Traveling with him was a boy who fit the description of the missing Bobby Dunbar.

He was the same age and had blonde hair and blue eyes, which was enough for the police to take the boy from the tinker put him on a train back to Opelousas. While the Dunbar parents were beyond thrilled to hopefully have their boy back, there was one small problem. They didn’t fully recognize the boy in front of them.

A Celebration Is Held

Brass band
New York Historical Society/Getty Images
New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Yet, after careful observation, and identifying the boy’s distinguishing marks, they were able to identify the boy as their Bobby. News of the boy’s return quickly spread, however, so did the rumor that the parents couldn’t at first identify their son.

Regardless, the town was thrilled, and when the Dunbar’s returned home, they were greeted with a brass band and a parade in their honor. However, once the townspeople also saw the boy, whispers that it might actually not be Bobby began to spread once more.

Back To William Walters

Jail cells
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Of course, the tinker William Walters didn’t walk away without punishment. Kidnapping in Louisiana was a capital offense, and in his defense, Walters claimed that the boy was his brother and the illegitimate son of a servant. The woman who was supposedly the mother was named Julia Anderson and had given Walter permission to take the boy.

The LA Times reported that on the accusation, Walters stated, “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.”

An Unexpected Visitor

Two different boys
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Unsurprisingly, the town and jury didn’t buy Walters’ story and he was convicted of kidnapping. Around that time, someone unexpected showed up in the town with news that nobody wanted to believe.

It was Julia Anderson, the woman who Walters claimed was the mother of the boy. She was there to defend Walters’ story. According to Anderson, Bobby was actually her son, Bruce Anderson. However, upon inspecting the boy, she too wasn’t certain if it was her child either, but later claimed it was.

Doubting The Mothers

Court trial
Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Julia Anderson’s initial doubts about the child being hers had already been printed in the newspapers. Reporters called her an illiterate woman with “loose morals,” therefore discrediting her claims.

After being tried in court, she was sent back to Mississippi and left the boy with the Dunbar’s. The Dunbars went on to raise Bobby while having a few more kids of their own, but the story of Bobby possibly not being the Dunbar’s continued to circulate.

An Old Photo Album Sparks An Investigation

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Even after the case had been settled, the later generations of the Dunbar’s and Andrew’s still had doubts about what actually happened back in 1913. Margaret Dunbar Cutright grew up hearing the story of her grandfather but felt there was something still shady about the whole situation.

However, the rest of the family still asserted that her grandfather was Bobby. Then, in 1999, Margaret’s father gave her a photo album with the clippings about her grandfather’s disappearance.

Margaret Was On A Mission

Library of Congress
Kris Connor/Getty Images for Disney
Kris Connor/Getty Images for Disney

In 2008, there was a radio show titled The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, which followed the story of Bobby as well as the investigation done by the current Dunbar’s. They stated that Margaret Dunbar “went on an obsessive quest to small-town libraries, archives, and courthouses all over the South.”

She was so involved, that for her birthday, her husband got her an access card to the Library of Congress, where she would spend weeks researching. It is there she discovered that Julia Anderson may have been telling the truth.

The Families Come Together

Old photo album
Twitter/KL Murphy
Twitter/KL Murphy

On the other hand, Linda Traver was the granddaughter of Julia Anderson. She had grown up with the story that her grandfather had been kidnapped by the Dunbar family who raised him as their missing child.

However, Traver had doubts about her family history too. Margaret eventually contacted Linda, and the two decided to combine their resources to get to the bottom of the mystery. Both women were determined and skilled researchers with a passion for finding out what happened in 1913.

Tensions Rise

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The trick was, both of the women grew up hearing two totally different stories, and they each wanted to believe their own. In the end, what it seemed like was that they were both trying to prove their family’s stories were true.

Of course, as they continued their investigation, tensions between the two began to rise, eventually turning into a feud between the two families. The women expressed their discontent with one another in a documentary made on the story.

A Necessary Confrontation

Mother and child
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When Margaret revealed that she didn’t believe that Bobby was Bruce Anderson, Linda took serious offense. Margaret recounts that Linda approached her saying:

“You need to look a lot more closely […] “You keep wanting to know all about Julia. You need to look more into Lessie and Percy and judge their characters. And that did not make me happy…in retrospect, she was absolutely right. I did need to put down what I believed and be able to look at it with fresh eyes.”

The Letter That Changed Everything

Handwritten letter
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Continuing their research, the women stumbled across a goldmine of information. They found the legal files between William Walters and his lawyer, as well as letters between Julia Anderson and other key witnesses from the Bobby Dunbar fiasco.

They also uncovered an anonymous letter sent to the Opelousas courthouse in defense of Walters and Anderson. The letter was sent by “The Christian Woman” and what she wrote had a huge effect on Margaret’s perception of the whole thing.

New Insight

Writing a letter
Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

The letter to Walters’ lawyer read: “Dear sir, in view of human justice to Julia Anderson and mothers, I am prompted to write to you. I sincerely believe the Dunbars have Bruce Anderson and not their boy. If this is their child, why are they afraid for anyone to see or interview him privately?”

The letter went to claim on that the Dunbars claiming the boy was theirs is a “farce” and that it’s suspicious a mother couldn’t recognize her child after only eight months.

This Shook Margaret

DNA test kit
K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

After reading the letter from “The Christian Woman,” she realized that it was totally possible that the whole thing could have been a “farce.” However, she wanted to know the real truth and knew she wasn’t going to get it by sifting through old documents day in and day out.

So, she went to her father, Bob Dunbar Jr., and asked him for a DNA sample. Maybe science was the only thing that could clear up this mystery.

Her Father Was Hesitant

DNA testing
Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images
Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images

Before Margaret had begun her in-depth investigation of her family history, she had approached her father about a DNA sample. However, every time she mentioned it, the answer was “absolutely not”. He didn’t think that there was any reason for it.

However, after four years of hard research, her father was ready to learn the answers too. Finally, he agreed and offered up his DNA. In 2003, Margaret shipped it off to a laboratory to be tested.

A Nail-Biting Experience

Holding DNA sample
ANGELAWEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
ANGELAWEISS/AFP/Getty Images)

They compared the DNA sample to Bobby Dunbar’s younger brother, Alanzo, to see if there would be a match. Margaret was confident that it would come back with a match since it was what her family had been telling her all her life. She had to believe it.

After a month, Margaret received a phone call from the lab. The person on the other end of the line said that it wasn’t a match, not knowing the weight of the situation. Her grandfather was not the Bobby Dunbar that went missing at Lake Swayze, but Bruce Anderson.

The Fallout

DNA on a computer
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Margaret and the rest of the Dunbar family were stunned when they heard the news. According to Margaret, “As far as the [laboratory worker] was concerned, it was a paternity test. She had no idea the impact of what she was saying to me. It was a shock to me…”

Other members of the Dunbar family were furious by the results. They had lived their whole lives whole-heartedly believing something, only for it turn out to be a lie.

Letting The News Sink In

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When Bobby Jr. learned the news that his father was not the man he was told to be, he was beside himself. He commented that “It took my breath away. You know, I hadn’t considered that. My thought was to prove that daddy was Bobby Dunbar…I just pondered, you know?”

He didn’t know where to go from there. He was having an identity crisis where he grew up believing he was someone, but his blood said something different.

Some Family Members Were Angry With Margaret

Depressed on a rock
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Margaret’s sisters were also taken aback by the news and her brother, Swin Dunbar, was not happy with her. He felt that his sister was being selfish and that she went behind the family’s back when she got the tests done after they had repeatedly asked her not to.

Swin commented that “You know, she was really going up against the entire family, including myself […] Why do this? Nobody in the family wants to know.”

Trying To Make Amends

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For some time, Margaret was at odds with a lot of her family members. After the news about her grandpa reached the media, it became a big story, exposing her family to the public, angering her family further.

Not only was her grandfather not who they thought, but it meant her parents took someone else’s child. Despite the results, the Dunbar family still considered themselves to be a complete family since that’s how it always had been.

What Happened To The Real Bobby Dunbar?

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Margaret and her father informed Linda and the rest of the Traver family. According to Linda, “I got up from where we were sitting on the couch, and I went around, and I think I hugged his neck, just knowing that, man, we were family.

We were just family.” Believe it or not, today, the descendants of Julia Anderson and the Dunbar’s are friends more or less. However, there were still some unanswered questions.

In Their Hearts, They Knew What Had Happened

Alligator submerged
Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

Although who they thought to be Bobby Dunbar turned out to be Bruce Anderson, it didn’t matter all that much to the Dunbar family as a whole. Although they learned some new information, they knew they were still a family.

Over time, the Dunbar family started to think about what happened to the actual Bobby. Remembering the hat that washed onto the shore, they assumed that he had tragically fallen into the swamp and was possibly eaten by alligators.

Leslie Had To Have Felt Guilty

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Back in 1913, even though Leslie Dunbar had won custody over who she thought was her son, she still had doubts that the child might not have been hers, even after the scandal. Margaret commented that “I think [she had to] have felt guilty on some level […] And maybe she didn’t. I don’t know. I think maybe she was in a denial her entire life.”

Margaret explained that from what she heard, she truly did believe that the boy was Bobby. However, as he grew older, it became more apparent that he might not have been.

Reporters Weren’t Done With Young “Bobby”

Men looking over a newspaper
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1932, when the supposed Bobby was 18, reporters began to approach him to ask about the scandal. When he was a child, the story had circulated around the nation, but it was coming to light once again. People wanted to hear from what they called the “stolen child of yesteryear.”

When asked, Bobby says he remembers being with William Walters when he was taken. However, he made no mention of his family’s camping trip. What he did remember, though, was being with another boy Walters was traveling with.

Things Got Even More Interesting

Two boys
Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The 18-year-old Dunbar recalled that another child was traveling with them, but had died before Walters had been arrested. The media then began to speculate if Walters was responsible for the kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson, and that it was Bobby who had died during travel.

Although it may be a possibility, it was never confirmed. As for Walters, his lawyer made an appeal and was released from prison. Yet, he never mentioned the presence of a second boy.

Questions Left Unanswered

Bobby Dunbar
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After nearly a century, the mystery of who the Dubar’s son was Bobby finally came to a close. However, it still left a mark. It’s not easy to forget that not only were two families separated, and the mystery continued to hurt people over 100 years later.

The question that remains is if the Dunbars took Bruce Anderson knowingly to fill the void of a child or if they actually never knew. That may remain a mystery.