The Strange and Abnormal: The Bizarre Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar

Ava Ferrigno, Features Editor

On August 23, 1912, the Dunbar family decided to go on a fishing trip to Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Though it was more of an alligator-infested swamp, Lessie and Percy Dunbar took their four-year-old son, Bobby, along with them. Naturally, he disappeared, resulting in an extensive search almost countrywide.

Eight months into the effort, a tinkerer named William Cantwell Walters from Mississippi was identified with a young boy who matched Bobby’s description. Immediately, the press, the authorities, and the Dunbars swarmed him. Walters claimed that the boy was Bruce Anderson, who was given to him by his mother Julia Anderson since she could not afford to take care of him. Anderson confirmed this along with others from the area who stated that they saw the boy with Walters before the Dunbar child had even disappeared.

There are mixed reports from the newspapers regarding the initial meetings of the boy and the Dunbars. Some state that there was an immediate recognition on behalf of both parties, but others state that Lessie Anderson harbored doubts, and then later determined the boy to be her son after again meeting him.

Regardless, Walters was taken to trial by the Dunbars and convicted of kidnapping. Although the case was later dropped after he appealed, he spent two years in jail and lost custody of the boy. Bobby Dunbar lived a long and happy life, having children of his own before dying in 1966.

So why is this article titled “The Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar” when he was clearly found? Well, that is because the boy that was originally with Walters really wasn’t a Dunbar. The affidavits offered by local residents confirm this as mentioned previously. But in addition to that, isn’t it strange that Lessie Dunbar couldn’t immediately recognize her son only eight months after his disappearance? She even had pictures of him prior to the incident, so his facial features would not have looked different. My theory is that deep down, Lessie knew that this boy was not her son, but that she later convinced herself that this stranger was for her own sanity.

To confirm this, a DNA test was conducted in 2004 on surviving relatives, proving that “Bobby Dunbar” was not Bobby Dunbar.

I have a harder time rationalizing why, then, a child would willingly leave the only two people he knew, one of which was his mother, to live with complete strangers. Originally, I thought that since the Dunbars were more well off and had a stable life, that they would be more appealing. But then I remembered that he was a small boy, so he would have no real concept of the value of money. Thus, perhaps he was afraid, under the pressure of the spotlight, and willing to do anything to finally have some security in his life. He believed what the adults and authorities told him, just as a young child is raised to do.

It is fact that the real Bobby Dunbar never returned home, so what happened to the boy brought on a fishing trip with his family? Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Bobby Dunbar’s grandchild, stated in This American Life that “he [most likely] fell off [a] bridge [that crossed the swamp] and was eaten by an alligator and died.” I agree with her as there is no way a four-year-old would have been able to escape a swamp and the thick forest that surrounded it by himself. And since the area was swarming with alligators, they probably saw him as easy prey and took advantage of his small frame.

Thanks to DNA analysis, the families of Julia Anderson and William Cantwell Walters can rest easy, knowing their relatives were not liars or criminals, and the descendants of the Dunbars finally know the truth of their family history. However, there are still so many questions that remain unanswered for certain.