When Lessie and Percy Dunbar of Opelousas, Louisiana, set out with their sons Bobby and Alonzo on a trip to Swayze Lake on a sunny day in August 1912, they had no idea what lay in store for them. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have left home that day. But how could they know that the events of that day would have repercussions reaching as far into the future as 2004?
Exactly what happened is impossible to reconstruct with certainty, but one thing is clear: on that day, four-year-old Bobby disappeared suddenly without a trace. The area and the lake were thoroughly searched, but it appeared that the young boy had vanished into thin air. Every parent’s worst nightmare had become reality for the Dunbars.
If you understand Spanish, you can watch this short documentary to learn more about the strange case of Bobby Dunbar:
Eight months later the police showed up at the Dunbar home. The officers had surprisingly good news: Bobby had been found alive and in perfect health.
A travelling salesman from Mississippi by the name of William Cantwell Walters had been apprehended in the company of a young boy who fit Bobby’s description. But Walters insisted that the boy was Bruce Anderson, the son of Julia Anderson, a friend who had asked him to look after the child.
The Dunbars rushed to Mississippi to pick up their son. But people who witnessed the supposed reunion have different versions of what happened. Some remember the boy crying out “Mommy!” and others claim that when he saw the Dunbars, he simply cried.
Then things got even stranger — the couple wasn’t sure that the boy was really their son. Lessie could see that his eyes were much smaller than Bobby’s, but while giving him a bath she also noticed a birthmark that looked identical to her son’s. In the end, they decided to take the boy home and everyone in their hometown celebrated Bobby’s return.
But it wasn’t a simple happy ending. Julia Anderson, the tradesman’s friend, swore that the boy was her son. She was a field worker and single mother to three children. She had already given one daughter up for adoption and another baby had died at birth. At that time, women in Julia’s position were unfortunately not considered credible or “respectable.” The newspapers wrote horrible things about her, calling her uneducated and dumb, and even accusing her of being a prostitute.
But Julia insisted that the boy the Dunbars had taken home was her son. Eventually the authorities gave in and performed a lineup with five boys of the same age, including the boy in question. Yet, when asked to identify which one was her son, Julia had the same problem that the Dunbars had: she wasn’t sure.
How is it possible that parents couldn’t recognize their own children? Was it because of the stress, confusion, and enormous pressure of the situation? The one thing that remains clear was that the Dunbars were much better off than Julia. The single mother couldn’t afford a lawyer to represent her, which led to her losing the custody case. The court dismissed her claims and the boy went back home with the Dunbars.
Julia never saw Bobby — or “Bruce” as she called him — ever again. She started a new life and had seven more children. They all remember their mother talking about her son Bruce, who had been stolen by the Dunbars.
Bobby grew up and had four children of his own before he died in 1966. Years after his death, Bobby’s granddaughter Margaret Dunbar Cutright began doing some research. She scoured through old newspapers and interviewed Julia Anderson’s children. Her goal had been simply to prove that her grandfather really was Bobby Dunbar, but the deeper she dug, the more uncertain she became.
In 2004, Bobby Dunbar’s son, Bob Dunbar Jr., finally agreed to a genetic test to remove the doubt once and for all. When the results came back, everyone was shocked: Bob Dunbar Jr. wasn’t related to Alonzo Dunbar, his father’s “brother.” After all those years, it was finally clear: the boy that the police had found and given to the Dunbars so many years ago wasn’t Bobby.
Today it is still not clear what happened on that fateful August day on Swayze Lake. Did Bobby really disappear? Did his parents cover up an accident to protect themselves from suspicion of wrongdoing? Was he kidnapped and were his parents so desperate to have him back that they really believed the boy the police found was Bobby?
Whatever the reason, the Dunbars ended up raising a child that wasn’t theirs simply because society refused to give the boy’s mother any credibility. Bobby may have had a good life, but it was a life brought about by the unfair treatment of his real mother. And even after the genetic test answered a decades-old question, there is still one very big one that hasn’t been answered: if the boy the Dunbars raised wasn’t their son Bobby, what happened to him?