Transcript

352:

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar
Transcript

Originally aired 03.14.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/352

Prologue.

Ira Glass

WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

[MUSIC - "MYSTERY OF THE DUNBAR'S CHILD" BY RICHARD "RABBIT" BROWN]

It used to be something was big news it got turned into a song. This one is about a famous kidnapping that happened in 1912, the kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar, a four-year-old boy. For two years the details of his disappearance, and search for him, and how he was found, and the trial of his kidnappers, all front page news, reported breathlessly all across the country.

But some of the biggest mysteries of the case were never solved until long after nearly everybody involved was dead, almost a century after it happened, the mysteries finally got solved when one of Bobby Dunbar's descendants started poking around the old stories, looking for answers she wasn't really expecting to find.

Today we devote our entire show to the legend of Bobby Dunbar and to what his granddaughter discovered, the messy, real story of what actually happened. Which, as you'll hear, turns out to be a lot more interesting than the legend. Tal McThenia is our reporter.

Act One. Part One.

Tal Mcthenia

Everybody in the family knew it, the legend of Bobby Dunbar, the lost boy who was found.

?] Well the legend was that back in the early 1900s, my grandfather became missing.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

My grandfather had gone on a camping trip with his parents. It was on a lake.

Man 1

Swayze Lake, it's actually a swamp in Louisiana. And he disappeared.

Tal Mcthenia

Bobby was just four years old at the time. And Swayze Lake was teeming with alligators surrounded by dark, thick woods. There was a massive search that started in the swamp and spread across the country, but nothing for eight months until--

Man 2

They found him in Mississippi in the hands of a Mr. Walters.

Man 1

The peddler in Columbia, Mississippi.

Man 2

They brought him home, rode in on a fire truck.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

There was a tremendous parade with a fire truck. And the whole town came out. And there was a band and everybody celebrated. And he was found.

Tal Mcthenia

But Bobby Dunbar wasn't out of danger yet. Someone else tried to claim him, another mother. She'd lost her child too, and said that the boy they found in Mississippi was hers. There was a big trial that proved her wrong. And Bobby stayed with his parents, Percy and Lessie Dunbar, in Opelousas, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

It was just a story, a tale you would tell your grandchildren.

Tal Mcthenia

Which she would know. She was one of them. Margaret Dunbar Cutright, out of everyone in the family, was the most captivated by the legend of her grandfather's kidnapping. As a girl, she would beg her grandmother to tell the story over and over. When she had children of her own, Margaret told them the legend too.

Then in 1999, her younger brother Robbie died in a plane crash. A month later, she was sitting in the den with her father and he gave her a scrapbook that had been her great grandmother's overstuffed with photographs, and letters, and newspaper clippings from the early 1900s all about her grandfather's kidnapping.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

It was about 400 articles not in chronological order. Dad said, this would be a great project for you, Margaret. He had no idea what would come of that.

Tal Mcthenia

Without realizing it, Bob had set his daughter on a path that would really tear their family apart. But in the beginning, all Margaret knew was that the scrapbook felt like the thing she'd been waiting for. In 1999, her kids were growing up and in the house less and less. Her husband, Wayne, was working in a different state and only home on weekends. And Margaret was in mourning for her brother. She had long, empty days, and the scrapbook could fill them.

But the more she dug in, the more she began to realize this was not the breezy adventure tale she'd grown up imagining. Even the simplest moments in the story, like when her great grandparents are finally united with their son after and eight-month long national search, reporters from several papers were following the couple, Lessie and Percy Dunbar, on the train to Mississippi. Throngs of people were surrounding the house where the boy was being kept. Lessie and Percy went inside, but reports diverge on what happened next.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

This article that says that the mother faints. The headline reads, "Mother Faints, Sight of Kidnapped Child." When the mother reached the house where the boy was being kept, he was asleep. Mrs. Dunbar made a careful examination of the lad without awakening him, and was standing over the bed a few hours later when the child opened his eyes. The boy recognized his mother instantly. Mother, he cried, as he reached up and stretched out his arms to her. The mother convulsively embraced the boy and then fainted.

And the second article, the headline was, "Mrs. Dunbar Not Positive Lad is Her Missing Boy." When they reached the home, the child was asleep at the time. When awakened it began to cry. Mrs. Dunbar looked in the dim light of a smoky oil lamp and then fell back with a gasp. I do not know. I am not quite sure, faltered Mrs. Dunbar.

Tal Mcthenia

In fact, Percy and Lessie both told the papers that the boy didn't look like their son. His eyes were too small. But then the next day, they came back and Lessie gave the boy a bath and identified the moles and scars on his skin and declared he was hers. And according to some newspapers, Bobby didn't recognize his father or mother either, or his brother, Alonzo.

One paper said, "Bobby at first meeting turns upon Alonzo with a scowl of anger. There appeared no recognition of his little brother." And then another paper said, "The instant they met, Robert said, there's my bubba, Alonzo, and reached over and kissed him."

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

It was a frequent occurrence in the newspapers to contradict one another. It's very difficult to know for certain what really happened.

Tal Mcthenia

So to sort out what happened, to try to get to the truth of the story, Margaret went on an obsessive quest to small town libraries, and archives, and courthouses all over the South. For her birthday, her husband gave her a card for the Library of Congress, and she spent weeks in the reading rooms there.

And as she dug into the historical record, certain figures from the family legend started to seem like real people for the first time. Take the mother who came forward and claimed that Bobby Dunbar was actually her child. Margaret had never given her much thought. She had just been the woman trying to steal her grandfather. But in the newspapers, this woman has a name, Julia Anderson. She's a single mom working in North Carolina as a field hand and a caretaker for the parents of William C. Walters, the kidnapper.

Walters claimed that Julia gave him the boy willingly, that his name wasn't Bobby Dunbar but Bruce Anderson, and that they'd been traveling together for over a year. When Julia first shows up in the papers, she confirms this story. Although she contests some of his details.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

The first article that even brought her into light in a way, there was an affidavit printed. William C. 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.

Walters had been at the home of his father, Mr. J.P. Walters near Barnesville still since November of 1911. And while he was there, he and the child were together a great deal and seemed very fond of each other. The boy would go anywhere with Walters. I would know my son if I were to see him. And I am sure he would know me. I have no picture of the child, but have a lock of his hair.

Tal Mcthenia

What was your reaction to that?

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Her statement struck me as a very truthful statement. This woman was telling truth. She did have a son. And my heart hurts for Julia at this point, believing that this boy is her son. You know, it's really awkward because Lessie and Julia are in the same position. They're both missing children.

Tal Mcthenia

From May of 1913 on, Julia was all over the headlines. A New Orleans paper paid for her trip to Opelousas to see if she really could identify the boy as hers. The story, as it played out in the front pages, was this. Julia arrived weary from an overnight train ride and was taken into an Opelousas home. Five boys around Bruce's age, including the child the Dunbars had claimed as Bobby were brought in at different times. And Julia had to choose.

When Bobby came in, he was in tears, and so was Julia. He showed no signs of recognition, even when she offered him an orange. But Julia asked the lawyers in the room if this was the child who was recovered. They refused to answer.

Finally she said she just didn't know and the test was declared a failure. Julia begged for a second chance. And the next day she was allowed to see the boy again and undress him. This time she felt more certain that it was her son. But her failure the night before was already national news. Julia had no lawyer, and no money, and very few allies in Opelousas. So she left town and began the long trip back to North Carolina. And from that point on, the boy was Bobby Dunbar.

The more Margaret learned about Julia Anderson's life, the more tragic the story seemed. Julia had three children by two different men, neither her husband. And she had lost all her children in just a single year, a daughter she gave up for adoption, a baby whose sudden death she was wrongfully blamed for, and now Bruce. But the newspapers weren't very sympathetic. They implied she was a prostitute, called her illiterate and naive.

Take this article in the New Orleans Item titled, "Julia Has Forgotten."

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Julia has Forgotten by Jerome G. Beatty. "Her long journey had been in vain. She had not seen her son since February of 1912, and she had forgotten him. Animals don't forget. But this big, coarse countrywoman, several times a mother, she forgot. She cared little for her young. Children were only regrettable incidents in her life."

See, I hate this article. "She hopes her son isn't dead just as she hopes that the cotton crop will be good this year. Of true mother love, she has none." See? How judgmental.

Tal Mcthenia

Then one day, Margaret founder a Julia Anderson listed on an online genealogy site with this biographical note. "Julia had a son from her first marriage named Bruce who was kidnapped from North Carolina when he was six years old and taken to Louisiana. She tried to get him back. But the people who kidnapped him won him in court and changed his name to Bobby Dunbar."

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Well, that was not what my grandmother told me. That was not right.

Tal Mcthenia

It was like an upside down world opened up to Margaret with a family who believed exactly the opposite of what her family believed. And in 2000, Margaret did what nobody else in her family, to her knowledge, had ever done before. She went to meet and visit with the descendants of Julia Anderson, her two living children, Hollis Rawls and Jewel Tarver, and Jewel's daughter, Linda.

Linda Tarver

My name is Linda Tarver. And I'm the daughter of Jewel Rawls Tarver, who is the daughter of Julia Anderson. And Julia Anderson would be my grandmother.

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.

Tal Mcthenia

From the Andersons, Margaret learned what happened to Julia after the controversy over Bobby Dunbar. Julia moved to Poplarville, Mississippi, 200 miles east of Opelousas, got married and had seven children. Jewel and Hollis are the youngest, now in their 80s.

Talking to Jewel, and Hollis, and Linda, a very different picture of Julia emerges than the one in the newspapers of a barely literate woman of loose morals. Here's Linda.

Linda Tarver

Grandmother loved to read. And she used to read Zane Grey books. And then she would sit them around at night and she would tell them the stories that she had read that day. But then when she became a Christian, she decided reading Zane Grey was the wrong thing to do. So they never got anymore Zane Grey stories. But they had to listen to the bible then.

Jewel Tarver

We went to church, I'm telling you.

Hollis Rawls

And you behaved too in church.

Tal Mcthenia

This is Jewel and Hollis, Julia's children.

Jewel Tarver

And we'd walk through these woods, crawl, so no [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] across the creek and go to church. And it'd be dinnertime before we'd leave. And we'd starve to death before we got home.

Tal Mcthenia

Hollis and Jewel revere their mother. Julia didn't just go to church, they say, she founded the church. She was a nurse and a midwife for the entire community. During the depression, she sewed all her children's clothes out of fertilizer bags. And they were always well fed. There was only one thing missing.

Jewel Tarver

She always talked about Bruce. But she called him Bobby. She was always looking for him.

Hollis Rawls

She never forgot it, never ever forgot the boy. She'd always once in while bring it up, what the boy looked like. And she'd take a while to tell it, about he did so and so, this, that, and the other, you know? And if it had been possible for her to have got the child legally back or anything, she would have done it if possible, she would have. She loved the child. She loved Bruce. She sure did.

Tal Mcthenia

So growing up, you knew that Bruce was out there?

Hollis Rawls

We knew.

Jewel Tarver

We knew we had a brother.

Hollis Rawls

We knew we had a brother.

Jewel Tarver

We knew we did.

Hollis Rawls

We knew that.

Jewel Tarver

We kept thinking, well, one day we'll get to go to this town and we'll find him. But we never did go.

Tal Mcthenia

Even though Opelousas is just 200 miles from Poplarville, they didn't have a lot of money back then. And that kind of travel was expensive. They told me that when Julia went back up to North Carolina for her mother's funeral, they had to sell the family mule to pay for the trip. But it wasn't just the cost, Hollis says.

Hollis Rawls

Sort of, I reckon you'd be afraid if you want to know the real word. I knew, according to signs and things that they had in Opelousas, that the Dunbar's were well-off people.

Tal Mcthenia

Dunbars everywhere.

Hollis Rawls

Everywhere you look, there's a Dunbar sign on the building. There's something. And people that have those signs up, I was always told that you didn't mess with them.

Jewel Tarver

We figured if they took mama's son, what kind of people were then to begin with?

Hollis Rawls

And if people can do that through the laws and get away with it, who are we to try to do or interfere with something like that?

Tal Mcthenia

For all the new things Margaret learned about Julia Anderson's family, one of the most surprising revelations Jewel and Hollis offered was about Margaret's grandfather. As much as the Anderson's wondered about Bobby, it seemed he'd been wondering about them as well.

Hollis remembers a day in 1944, maybe, when he was in his late 20s. He was working at an ice plant in Poplarville. And a man he'd never seen before came in and started making small talk. Finally he introduced himself. He was Bobby Dunbar from Opelousas, Louisiana.

Hollis was startled. But before he could process it, a customer came in and Hollis had to rush off to work. When he came back, Bobby was still there. More small talk, and now, a lot of looking each other over. But Hollis' work got in the way again. And eventually Bobby left.

Hollis Rawls

About 30 minutes after he left it dawned on me what I had done. Here was a man that I'd been looking for almost 20-something years anyhow. And mother had been telling me about him. And here he is looking me straight in the eye and I didn't do nothing about trying to find out more about the situation. But I didn't. I just didn't. And I regret that.

Tal Mcthenia

Hollis' sister Jewel had a similar story. She was working at a service station that she and her husband ran at a crossroads outside Poplarville. A man came in and talked to for maybe an hour, she says, just sat and drank coffee, looking only at her, and asking all kinds of questions. But he didn't identify himself.

Jewel Tarver

After he left then, and I got to thinking about it, I said, that is who I believe he was, Bobby

Tal Mcthenia

When Margaret heard this story during her first visit with Hollis and Jewel back in 2000, she had her doubts. But later, Margaret was visiting with her uncle and aunt, her father's siblings. And while they were in the car, Margaret was telling them about her research and the mysterious encounters that Hollis and Jewel remembered.

In the rearview mirror, she saw her uncle and aunt exchange a charged look. Then they told her this story. Here's Margaret's uncle Gerald, Bobby Dunbar's youngest son.

Gerald Dunbar

It would have been 1963. So I would have been 13 years old. We were coming back from a trip, my brother's wedding in a Ohio, in Cincinnati. And on the way back, we went through Mississippi. And I remember my dad pointing and says, those are the people that they came to pick me up front. And he asked, he says, should I stop? And my mother sort of responded, if you think you should. And so they did. We stopped. Then he went in to the store. And so we stayed there for maybe 30 minutes or so. And he came back and we left.

Tal Mcthenia

Margaret, the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, and Linda, the granddaughter of Julia Anderson, interpreted this eerie coincidence differently. They'd been discussing Margaret's research on the phone and online since they first met. On the one hand, they were ideal research partners since they both were singularly fascinated with the story. But on the other hand, it was an uneasy alliance. Here's Linda.

Linda Tarver

Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along. I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along. We understood that we were both coming from different angles.

Tal Mcthenia

Again, Margaret.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

But what was there to do but butt heads? And yet, we tried to do it very civilly for months.

Good morning to everyone. And we are certainly glad to have all of you with us.

Tal Mcthenia

Agreeing to disagree gets old fast. The differences between Margaret and Linda came to a head in Columbia, Mississippi when Margaret was invited to share her research at the historical society in town. The sound you're hearing is from a video of the event. In the front of the room were Julia Anderson's children, Hollis and Jewel.

Several times during her presentation, Margaret used phrases like this.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

The illegitimate child of a domestic, Julia Anderson.

Tal Mcthenia

The illegitimate child of a domestic, Julia Anderson. Jewel and Hollis bristled. That was their mom she was talking about. Margaret went on to describe Julia like a character in the story, working in the fields with coarse hands and bare, dirty feet. And she made it clear that she didn't really believe the Anderson family's version of what happened, that Bobby was Bruce, but her own family's, that Bobby was Bobby, son of her great grandparents Percy and Lessie Dunbar.

When Jewel and Hollis got home and told Linda what happened, she got mad.

Linda Tarver

I truly don't believe that when she spoke and the way she spoke, I don't believe that she meant to say it to be as derogatory as we took it either, if you want to know the truth. She had spoken the truth of Julia Anderson had children out of wedlock. So she was a loose woman, which if you have to accept that, you have to accept it. But I wanted her to see it from my point of view. I felt like she looked at it from her point long enough. It was my turn. And I don't remember if it was a written letter or email, but I told her the very woman that you maligned at that meeting today could very well turn out to be your great grandmother.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

She said to me--

Tal Mcthenia

Again Margaret.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

--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. It sort of angered me to have her say that. But 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.

Ira Glass

Coming up, what Margaret discovers plus the kidnappers speaks. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Part Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our story unraveling the century old mystery of what happened to Bobby Dunbar continues. Again, here's Tal McThenia.

Tal Mcthenia

By 2003, Margaret and been researching for four years. She'd taken all the articles from the scrapbook and all the articles from all the libraries and typed them, over 1,200 total. Margaret had maps, and photo albums, and tape recordings, and books on her shelf like Social History of the American Alligator. That year she started looking for descendants of William Walters, the wandering handyman, the man who'd kidnapped her grandfather.

In 1914, Walters was convicted of kidnapping Bobby Dunbar. His lawyers appealed and the state supreme court ordered a retrial. But incredibly, because the first trial cost the town so much money, prosecutors decided to drop the case instead. Walters was released. In 2003, Margaret opened up something called the Walters family genealogy book. She poured over the names in the book and started making phone calls.

Jean Cooper

I'm Jean Cooper and I'm the great niece of William Cantwell Walters. We always called him Uncle Cant. I never knew we had William Cantwell until all this came out. He was always Uncle Cant.

Tal Mcthenia

We met with Jean and her sister Barbara in Savannah, Georgia. Just like Hollis, and Jewel, and Margaret, they'd grown up hearing the Bobby Dunbar story too. Only their version was a little racier.

Jean Cooper

Well the story we heard was that this Ms. Julia Anderson was a fine young lady. But you know, mostly fine young ladies get entrapped. And I tell you what, there's many a handsome young sweet talking man come around and entrapped them. So that's what happened to Ms. Julia as the story went.

Now I know it was rumored that Uncle Cant was the father and one of his brothers was the father. It could have been Uncle Bunt. He was a rounder. He was a real rounder. But they all denied it. They said it was another feller.

Tal Mcthenia

Jean and Barbara grew up on a farm in Georgia with their ailing grandfather Rad, William Walters' brother. After getting released from jail, William Walters had gone back to his life as a tinker, a traveling handyman, tuning pianos in people's parlors and fixing organs in country churches. And at least once or twice a year, his travels would bring him around to his brother's house for a visit.

Jean Cooper

Seeing Uncle Cant come with his wagon a-trinkling and a-bouncing, the pots and pans bouncing against each other, you couldn't help but know it was Uncle Cant. But Grandpa would lighten up. Oh he would just brighten up. There's Cant. There's Cant. Put some more wood on the fire. Go see what's in the kitchen. Fix him some supper. He'd always come about dark. Every time I remember him coming it was about dark. Wasn't it Barbie?

Barbara Cooper

Yeah, night.

Jean Cooper

And it didn't matter if we'd already had supper and the fire had gone out in the stove. We had to light up the fire and fix Uncle Cant from some supper so he could sit with Grandpa until midnight.

But each and every time he'd come, and he would come several times a year and stay a month at the time or two to four weeks, they sat and talked over the case of the kidnapping and how innocent he was. It was like it had just happened.

Tal Mcthenia

During one visit, Jean and Barbara's grandfather asked William Walters what he was doing traveling around the country with somebody else's boy in the first place. Walters explained that Julia was in dire straits and she couldn't take care of Bruce. And he was planning on bringing the boy back when she got on our feet. And also, there was the business element.

Jean Cooper

Uncle Cant told Grandpa that with that little boy with him people were a lot nicer when he stopped to spend the night. Because he would stop along the road at farm houses and around in his travels and ask for a night's lodging and hay for the horses. And then he would do things for them, tune the pianos, organs, or whatever. And he said with that little boy, the mothers just couldn't wait to get their hands on the little boy and feed him, and cuddle him, and bathe him.

In fact, the woman told me one time she had a neighbor-- if I'm getting off the beaten path, but it will kind of explain it-- that was ugly as homemade sin. And she was all the time wanting to take her little grandchild with her everywhere, shopping, and to the grocery store, and walking. And I said, well, why does she want to carry him along with her all the time? Well she is so ugly it makes her look better to have a child along with her. That could have been Uncle Cant having that little child, especially the ladies in the house were a lot nicer.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

This is the defense file. These are photo copies.

Tal Mcthenia

Margaret had also tracked down the granddaughter of William Walters' lawyer, who had saved in a closet the complete defense file from the kidnapping case. When Margaret heard that, she dropped everything, bought a portable scanner, and showed up at the woman's doorstep. She spent a week scanning the entire thing, and then four months back at home typing and deciphering it.

The defense file was a gold mine. It had correspondents from the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana, handwritten letters from Julia Anderson, and dozens of sworn affidavits from Mississippi residents saying that the child was Bruce Anderson and that they'd seen him in the area with Walters months before Bobby Dunbar went missing. And then there is this letter, written by William Walters himself just days after he was arrested and thrown in jail, addressed directly to Percy Dunbar who had just taken the boy home with him.

"I see that you got Bruce. But you have heaped up trouble for yourselves. I had no chance to prove up. But 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. That boy's mother is Julia Anderson. You ask him and he will tell you. I did not teach him to beg or bum, but in as much as you have him, take good care him. So you have a lost Robert and me a lost Bruce. May God bless my darling boy. Write me if I don't get lynched. I think you'll be sad a long time but I hope not too bad."

The defense filed was 400 pages of evidence that directly challenged Margaret's family legend. And pretty soon Margaret reached a breaking point.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Toward the very end of me typing the defense file which was not in chronological order, I came across a letter. It was my epiphany. It was a letter written by a Christian woman. I don't even know her name. She just signed it a Christian woman. And it was written to the attorneys of William Walters. And it says, "Kindly pardon me. I am ill in bed. But this matter has just worried me. Dear Sir, in view of human justice to Julia Anderson and mothers, I am prompted to write to you. I sincerely believe the Dunbar's have Bruce Anderson and not their boy. If this is their child, why are they afraid for anyone to see or interview him privately? I would see nothing to fear. And this seems strange."

Tal Mcthenia

The letter goes on for six pages laying out a point by point common sense argument that the Dunbar's have the wrong child. Why haven't pictures of Bobby and Bruce been printed side by side so the world could see whether they look alike or not? Why is Julia judged more harshly for wavering than Lessie, when neither of them recognized the child at first, which gets a Christian woman to her biggest point, a look back at that fateful night in Mississippi when the Dunbar's first saw the boy and didn't recognize him until Lessie gave him a bath and saw his moles and scars.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

"If this had been their own child and he had been gone eight months, do you think his features would be so changed that they would not know him only by moles and scars? This is a farce. If the Dunbars do not know their child who has only been gone eight months by his features, why, they don't know him at all."

Reason by reason by reason, she apparently followed this very closely in the newspapers. And it just simply dawned on me oh my god, she's right. What a farce. What a farce this is.

Tal Mcthenia

The idea for a DNA test had been floating around for years. But Margaret hadn't wanted to do it unless all her uncles and aunts, Bobby Dunbar's children agreed to it. And then four years into research, a reporter from the Associated Press, Allen Breed, got wind of this story. Margaret remembers being in the room when Allen asked her father if he would consent to a DNA test. She was startled at his answer. Yes, he said, he wanted to do it now. He'd waited long enough.

Margaret's father, Bob Dunbar Jr. was Bobby Dunbar's oldest son. He'd heard the legend, of course. But he'd never heard it from his father.

Bob Dunbar Jr

It was not something that we discussed at home. The stuff was in the attic, newspaper articles, some pictures, it was stuff that my mother gathered. And at home we never discussed it.

Tal Mcthenia

But Bob had been watching Margaret's research with interest. Remember he'd given her the scrapbook that got this whole thing started. Bob had just spent weeks in the hospital with congestive heart failure and explained his decision this way in a letter to his family. Daddy did not have the science of DNA to confirm the decision of the court in his youth. I feel it is my responsibility to achieve that before I go.

The easiest way to do the test would be to compare the DNA of two different lines of Dunbars, someone from Bobby's line since his identity was in doubt, and someone from his brother Alonzo's line since there was no question he was a Dunbar.

Bob and Margaret spoke with Alonzo's son David, and he agreed to do the test. The plan was to keep the results sealed until all of Bob's siblings agreed to open them. A month passed.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

I called to check with the laboratory and the laboratory assistant ended up learning to me the results over the phone. The DNA did not match. As far as she 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, not really the conclusion, but to hear it.

Tal Mcthenia

Margaret got off the phone and drove ten hours that day to tell her father in person. He was still in the hospital.

Bob Dunbar Jr

It took my breath away. I hadn't considered that. My thought was to prove that Daddy was Bobby Dunbar. Well I had a lot of time. I was in the hospital a while. I just pondered it. If my past is wrong, Bobby Dunbar, all the legends, all the stories, and then all of a sudden you find out well, that's not who your blood says you are. Where does that leave me? If my grandpa isn't my grandpa, who am I?

Tal Mcthenia

Bob's siblings had no idea he'd taken the test and that an AP reporter was preparing to read an article for the National Wire. Bob had to tell them. And when he did, they were all stunned and really mad, mad at Bob, but especially mad at Margaret, who they blamed for orchestrating the whole thing and making it national news. Margaret's younger brother [? Swinn ?] explained what it was like.

?] She was really going up against the entire family, including myself. In fact I'm not sure of anything family member that was for it except for her and possibly my dad. And in retrospect, was doing what she felt was right. But I felt like she is alienating everybody else in doing so.

The other thing about all that is some of us in the family, and probably even me at one time probably felt like she was being a little bit selfish. Why do this? Why do you need to do this? Nobody in the family wants to know.

Tal Mcthenia

After the story ran in 2004, a thick silence descended between Margaret and her relatives. And that schism has persisted to this day. When she told them I'd called her about doing this radio story, the relatives were furious. They told Margaret that yet again she'd proven that she couldn't be trusted. They said she was disrespecting their heritage and destroying family relationships. They told her that they were Dunbars and that's all they wanted to be.

But the other two families involved took it a little better. For Jean and Barbara Cooper, the great nieces of William Walters, it meant their ancestor wasn't a kidnapper, which was nice to hear.

Jean Cooper

You don't like to think of your people being guilty of something like that. I don't think we had many people, did we, that was falsely accused.

Barbara Cooper

The ones that were accused were usually guilty.

Jean Cooper

And proven so.

Tal Mcthenia

And for the Andersons, it was literally the answer to a lifetime of prayers. Margaret's father Bob and his wife Imelda went down to Mississippi to deliver the news in person to Linda, Jewel, and Hollis.

Hollis Rawls

We didn't know what was up. They said be there. We have something.

Jewel Tarver

No, they wouldn't tell us.

Hollis Rawls

They wouldn't tell us until we got to the meeting. And he told us that the DNA had been and that he was not a Dunbar. I got up from where we were setting on the couch. I went around and I think I hugged his neck just knowing that man, we were family. We were just family.

Linda Tarver

When Bobby Jr. and Ms. Imelda came and they told us about the DNA testing, that's the day Bobby came home. And he came in the form of his son. And we're proud for Julia. The one thing she wanted most in her life was her child back. And she got him.

Jewel Tarver

I told him that day. I said now we're not expecting nothing from them but friendship. That's all that we ever wanted.

Hollis Rawls

We have no hard feelings against nobody of what has happened. Because back in those days I am sure they thought they were doing the right thing. And if I'd have been back in those days, I might have felt the same way in a way about some things like that. I don't know. But now we're just happy aout the situation, but not happy they're unhappy if you know what I'm talking about, We're just happy because we know the truth now.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Let's see we're coming up. We're getting closer to where my grandmother lived and my grandfather. Oh my gosh, it was this house right here.

Tal Mcthenia

Margaret is taking me on a driving tour of Opelousas. She grew up spending summer vacations here at her grandmother's with her whole family. It's a mix of personal history and history she's read about in her research. We go by the public school where she used to spend afternoons swimming and hanging out and also the old jail site where William Walters played a homemade harp to the crowds outside his cell window.

We drive into a subdivision that her great uncle Alonzo developed, sprawling ranches, big lawns, strange street names.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Yeah, and he named some of these streets. Like this one was named after himself. He named one called Anna Lee after his wife. And there's one called Dunbar Street, which here we are at Dunbar Street.

Tal Mcthenia

There are still Dunbars in Opelousas, relatives that Margaret knows and loves. But she doesn't feel comfortable bringing me in for a visit. We're tiptoeing around. Margaret's cigarette breaks are happening more and more frequently. The contrast between the tension in Opelousas and the welcome she'd received two days ago from the Anderson's in Poplarville is hard to miss.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Julia Anderson's children have done nothing but welcome and embrace me into their lives. And they think that I'm brave and smart. And William Walters' family thinks that I'm a whiz. I think for my family when I started this project, I thought that this would sort of keep us bonded. And it didn't. It divided. So in a way, I feel like a failure. There are people upset by it. And there are some people who still don't accept the truth. It's like they don't believe me. They don't believe me.

Tal Mcthenia

The disappearance of Bobby Dunbar blew apart the lives of three different families. But the people you'd think would be hurt the worst by it actually come out the best, like Julia Anderson. Before Bobby's disappearance, she was a field hand in North Carolina on our own not making enough money to feed her own child. The people she worked for mistreated her. The man she married shot her in the foot the night after her wedding. But William Walters' kidnapping trial got her out of there to a better place, Poplarville, Mississippi.

Back in 1912 and 1913 William Walters and Julia's son Bruce had been well-known fixtures in the Poplarville area. He and Bruce stayed in people's homes for weeks at a time while he tuned pianos and repaired the church organ. And when William Walters went to trial, these very people, at least 20 of them, came forward to testify to his innocence. And that's where they met Julia, the mother of the child they'd known and cared for who was also there to testify for Walters.

After the trial, Julia had no money and no place to go. The people from Mississippi took her in.

Linda Tarver

It was almost like she was adopted just like Bruce was taken in to be Bobby. And both of them were given a new life. Everything bad could be said about somebody was said about Julia at this trial. Everything that could be said was said. But these people saw something in her or they wouldn't have taken her in their home, the people hear in Poplarville out at Ford's Creek. They could have left her in Opelousas. They could have left her in New Orleans. But they brought her home with them.

She lost everything. She had a baby that died just before she came down here. And now she's lost Bruce. What did she have to live for? Suicide was not unheard of. I'm sure if they didn't promise her. They just said come home with us. Come home with us until you get on your feet. Come home with us until you can get up and do for yourself.

So I can't regret it. I cannot regret for one minute that she came down here. I'm sad that she did not have that child. And I don't believe that she would have ever made, given the opportunity of saying, OK, we'll give you a new life if you give us this child, she would have never given that child up. I don't believe that.

But if you hate that it happened, then you hate that you are, if that makes any sense. And I don't hate that I am. I rejoice in that I am. I rejoice in the family that we've got. And I feel like grandmother felt the same way.

Tal Mcthenia

As for the consequences for Bobby, even Julia Anderson's children, Hollis and Jewel, figure he was probably better off with the Dunbars.

Hollis Rawls

I don't want to put him down or my mother down either. You know what I mean. She did the best she could with what probably she had to do with. But here's some people that he got off the wagon to get in a car.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Enclosed are the divorce papers I promised you. I know that these are official copies because the notary seals are raised.

Tal Mcthenia

The divorce papers of Percy and Lessie Dunbar are brief. But even the bare facts are enough to imagine what life in the Dunbar family was like for Bobby after the trial. Lessie and Percy separated in 1920, meaning five years after the court affirmed that Bobby was hers Lessie left him, her husband, and her other son Alonzo behind and moved to New Orleans. Bobby was 12 and Alonzo was 10.

Also in 1920, Percy beat and stabbed a man while on a trip to Florida on the eighth anniversary of the day of Bobby's disappearance. His court record for this assault is included in the divorce papers. Lessie makes accusations of repeated and ongoing infidelity. But Percy denies the charges. Elsewhere there's another court record that corroborates Lessie's claim. It's an arrest record for Percy on charges of adultery and cohabitation.

But perhaps the most compelling detail is a handwritten note that accompanies the packet. Its from Lessie herself to Elizabeth, her granddaughter, who care of her in her old age.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

This says, "For Elizabeth Dunbar to read after my death so she may know why I stayed in my shell of grief."

Tal Mcthenia

She stayed in her shell of grief?

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

I think she had to have on some level known. And maybe she didn't. I don't know. I think maybe she was in a denial her entire life. From everything I've heard, she truly believed that this was her son, Bobby. But I can't help but wonder that maybe underneath where you go and can't talk about, she must have known that this was not her son that she birthed.

Tal Mcthenia

And this is probably at the heart of the Dunbar family's unhappiness with this story, what it suggests about their ancestors and their ancestors' motives and characters.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

It's likely to me that Percy must have known somewhere inside of him that this little boy he took from Mississippi was not his son. And I don't say that lightly. It took me a long time to come to that conclusion.

After reading all of the articles, and court records, these divorce papers, I realized that if he was capable of doing these things, if Percy was capable, if he could stab a man, if he could be with another woman while he was married, he lies in these papers. Could he lie about this child? Did he lie about this child? He had a motive to save his wife's sanity. Could he do that? I think he could. I think he did.

Tal Mcthenia

It's hard to look square in the face of this. And doing so has put Margaret and her father Bob at odds with the rest of their family. But Bob says only by looking at it squarely can you see the redemption in their family story. When Bobby Dunbar was 18, he fell in love with a girl from a nearby town. It took him nine years to get her to marry him. But once she did, they raised four children who all remember a very happy upbringing full of love. And Bobby Dunbar gave rise to this family despite all that he'd been though, whisked away from his mother at three, living in a wagon with an old man, huddling by fires in the woods at night, a two-year long gauntlet of undressing, and berating, and sobbing, and staring.

And when that was all over, his new family fractured and fell apart. And once again he was abandoned. To come out of that, to create a family after that, to Bob, is a story of triumph.

Bob Dunbar Jr

I feel like my daddy could have had all the excuses in the world to be a drunk, and a child abuser, or anything, a rascal. He had a terrible, traumatic young life. But he chose my mother. And he chose to be a family man. And that was his world. That was his life. And I truly believe that those experiences, for him and for mother who lost her father before she even knew him, were forces that gravitated them towards one another and towards a common feeling that they would be family.

I realize it. I grew up in a charmed environment. Everybody can't say that. And Daddy couldn't say that. But he made that environment for us.

Tal Mcthenia

At Swayze Lake, there are now houses where fishing shacks used to be. Margaret's standing on the concrete bridge that replaced the railroad trestle looking out on the embankment where they found a four-year-old's footprints in 1912. After considering what Bobby Dunbar's disappearance did to everyone in three families for 100 years, there's only one person who's not accounted for. If Bobby was really Bruce, what happened to Bobby?

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

I think he fell off this bridge and was eaten by an alligator and died. That's the most likely scenario.

Tal Mcthenia

When you think about the boy that died here, does that feel like your grandfather?

Margaret Dunbar Cutright

It's like my grandfather became two people. He was really Bruce Anderson. That's who he was born. That's where his blood came from. But he lived Bobby Dunbar's life.

Tal Mcthenia

In 1932 when Bobby Dunbar was 24, he was asked to look back on his kidnapping. The Lindbergh baby had been stolen, and some reporters came around for a word with the famous kidnapped child of yesteryear.

"A lot of people still believe I was eaten by an alligator", Bobby said in the interview. "I can assure you I was not." He went on to recount a memory of being with William Walters on the wagon on the road before the arrest before he was recovered by the Dunbars. In the memory, there was another boy with him who fell off the wagon and died and was buried.

There was a theory put forth by the prosecution at the trial that William Walters might have been traveling with two boys, Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson. This would explain why two boys had been lost but only one was found. It would answer the question what happened to Bruce.

19 years later in 1932, Bobby had taken that theory and made it into a memory, a memory which might have served another purpose altogether. If Bobby Dunbar is to fully become Bobby Dunbar, then Bruce Anderson needs to be dead. Maybe it was by settling on this memory, the other boy on the wagon, that he created the legend he needed to begin his new life, his own legend of Bobby Dunbar.

Ira Glass

Tal McThenia.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our show is produced today by Alex Blumberg. Julie Snyder is our senior producer.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for a show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says we young people have it so easy. He remembers what it was like back in the day to come to the radio station every morning when he was a boy.

Jewel Tarver

Through these woods crawl so no [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] across the creek.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "MYSTERY OF THE DUNBAR'S CHILD" BY RICHARD "RABBIT" BROWN]

Narrator

PRI, Public Radio International