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Bobby Dunbar (behind car door) with unknown persons

What if you started to research your family history and discovered the mother of all skeletons in the family closet — that you weren’t who you really thought you were? That’s what happened to the descendants of Bobby Dunbar.

Bobby Dunbar went missing at the age of four during a family trip to Swayze Lake in Louisiana in 1912. After an eight-month search, little Bobby was found with tinker William Cantwell Walters in Mississippi. The only problem was that Bobby’s mother wasn’t certain he was her missing boy, and another woman claimed he was her son Bruce Anderson. A court found in favor of the Dunbars, who raised Bobby. DNA tests done on family members in recent years have proven that he was actually Bruce Anderson. You have to listen to last week’s episode of This American Life (NPR):

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You can download the program (and learn more about it) at TAL: “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.”

This story made me think of a similar story in my own family (albeit without a kidnapping). At one point during the program, when Margaret Dunbar Cutright is recounting her feelings upon all that Julia Anderson, Bobby’s real mother, lost, I admit I teared up. It’s an amazing story that only listening to the podcast can truly bring justice to.

Photo of Bobby Dunbar with unknown persons, via This American Life.

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36 Responses to “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar”

  1. Kate M Smith says:

    but in the end, a DNA test was only done on Margarets’ father. There wasn’t a DNA done on the Anderson side to prove conclusively that he really was little Bruce.

    • Jennifer Gregory says:

      Actually DNA was done on a actual Dunbar… The brother of the said Bobby (Bruce) Alonzo was Percy’s older son. Both Alonzo & Bobby are dead, but Alonzo’s son was tested and shown to be a true Dunbar, the descendant of the “Bobby Dunbar” was shown to NOT be a Dunbar.

  2. Barbara Spear says:

    I listened to the podcast of “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” just last night and was blown away. My heart goes out to Margaret Dunbar Cutright. My own personal experience with my identity has lead to such similar reactions by my siblings as Margaret has had with her family. Thankfully though for me, my family has come together stronger. It gave new meaning to “The truth shall set you Free” and it certainly has! I pray the Dunbar, Anderson and Walters family will find that to be the case for them as well.

  3. Lauren says:

    Wow,thank you for sharing. Great story.

  4. Susan says:

    I just cannot imagine how absolutely heart wrenching it must have been for Julia Anderson to have her child kidnapped by the courts and ‘awarded’ to a strangers family. To know, the remainder of her life, that HER child was raised by another family without her authority. Shame, shame on the Dunbar family members shunning the seemingly only moral member of their family that brought the truth to light, at last.

  5. ashlee webster says:

    I got to listen to the story today on public radio and arrived home 30 minutes before it was over and sat in my car and listened to the end and i was in tears. I agree that history unvieled can make hurtful things surface but more interesting is that its just the uncertainity of those decendants and thier place in the world – no one likes change.. not any one human but that is what history is since the first man stepped on the earth… it should give more purpose to those who choose to embrass his true identity and thiers in this world so that it gives a chance to heal and rejoice for some… My great grandmother was in a covered wagon with her parents in the land rush of oklahoma when her parents were killed leaving her there to be an orphan at the covered wagon- we will never know as to what lineage we belong due to this mishap in history but it doesnt change who i am as a person nor my character as such either. I would love to know the next branch on the family tree on her side but we will never know… and i will know someday in heaven… Bless Margaret for living out her hearts desire to see who she is, she owed it to herself mostly and look at the blessings that she revealed. Her aunts and uncles should be greatful of her doing so that is thier heritage and blood line.. and nothing will seperate you from so, not people, nor money, nor fame nothing at all… they should be happy in finding out who daddy really was not be mad and harbor anger which sounds to me to be so unlike Bobby Dunbar Sr. (truely Bruce Anderson). Anyone can adopt and become family, we all are through God and Adam “hince the saying – I dont know him from Adam” well anyone can be a mom to anyone or anything but the search for the real seed of your life is resting to oneself… Bless you Margeret.

  6. Todd Teague says:

    I admire your “sleuthing” or “sciencing” techniques that you pursued in your search for TRUTH. To those who are angry at your quest, time and space have a way of ‘healing’. So, lets hope that the truth can eventually speak kind to them. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Regina says:

    This is one of the most interesting and emotionally charged true stories I have ever heard. Margaret is a curious and persistant person. Getting to the truth and setting the record straight was the right thing to do. I will never forget this story.

  8. Ken Young says:

    Excellent work. I was glued to the radio hearing of this tragic story.
    When does the book come out?

  9. Ken Young says:

    Yes I am looking for any publication on this event. Do you know of any? a_vespers@yahoo.com

  10. C. Zweigoron says:

    As I listened to this story, I began to have a feeling that Percy Dunbar was in some way responsible for his son’s death…not deliberately but, because his son was in his care when he disappeared (probably drowned), his wife felt that it was his fault.

    It occurs to me that he used his influence to “replace” the child so that his wife could no longer blame him or hold him up in public as being responsible for their son’s disappearance. One has to remember that this was a time in history when men often ruled their family with an iron hand. He was obviously a man who felt that he was entitled to do whatever he felt like doing.

    Percy also seems to have had a great deal of influence in the community. Enough to have someone brought to trial for his son’s disappearance and obtain a conviction; then, for that person to be released and never punished(how oddly convenient).

    The Dunbar’s eventual divorce may have been, I feel, because she could no longer live with his abusive, controlling ways and the lie he forced her to live… not only the loss of her own son whom she could not publicly grieve but also the responsibility of taking another woman’s child away and creating the same type of grief for someone else.

    • Dana Huff says:

      I would hesitate to come to any conclusions, as it’s just been too long ago and the major players have all passed on. I think it is sad for the family that so much of their story will probably always be a mystery.

  11. Joan says:

    I just heard the podcast. What a great story! Too bad th Dunbar family would prefer to hide their heads in the sand instead of finding the same grace and acceptance as Julia’s family.

    • JENNIFER GREGORY says:

      I am sorry but I take offense to this, I am engaged to a Dunbar. We are NOT burying our heads in the sand, we are just as shocked as the next person! My fiance is JUST learning about all of this he is 30yrs old! His own father stepped up and offered to do DNA testing to help these people find the truth!!! His father is the son of Alonzo Dunbar the oldest son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar the brother of Bobby Dunbar. He was the closest relative that was a direct descendant of Percy to be able to be tested! Alonzo died young in his early 50s so My fiance’s father was only 8yrs old! Of course he was never told anything about this because how does one explain that to such a small child??? Please don’t say ugly things when you obviously know NOTHING about what the family has done to help find the truth!!!!!!

      • Dana Huff says:

        Jennifer, the commenter to whom you are replying based information on the podcast. I cannot speak for that person, but I don’t think the commenter was intentionally trying to say anything offensive. She made an observation based on the information she had in the podcast. Obviously, as a family member to be, you would know more. I need to ask you to tone down the anger. This post may be commentary about an issue that touches your family, but it’s also commentary about a podcast produced by This American Life and appears on my website, and comments that do not fall within the realm of civil discourse will not be published.

  12. Peter(Lock City) says:

    I happened purely by chance to hear on CMU Public Radio, Midland ,Michigan, this story last year. At that time I gathered that members of one family were not yet ready to submit their DNA.
    Again and just this evening, I tuned in at random and heard the final story. That of the matching DNA proving the little lad was an Anderson. I got the graphic description that I maybe missed before. The little fellow being dragged around in a wagon by his uncle. Two years of roughing it. He being in neglected condition and with many scabs on him.
    Then the injustice to the uncle by imprisonment. It is easy to judge but to visualise that era, one can only pity him and the boy. Sure he could be villified for neglect, but what resource did he have? In turn that poor woman- a field hand. No money and no family photographs. Perhaps even a photograph would not have sufficed in those days.
    A beautifully told account and well done by the producers.

    Maybe society has come a long way since then.

  13. Deshard says:

    I’ve emailed a link to the broadcast to all my Southern friends simply because in addition to the fascinating real-life drama, it’s also a great example of Southern storytelling.

    …she was uglier than homemade sin…

    Margaret Dunbar Cutright should be proud. She did the right thing and it would be interesting to know if any progress has been made with the members of the Dunbar clan that shunned her for pursuing the truth.

  14. Suzanne says:

    I’m a genealogist/family historian w/ 35 years experience, and have taught many classes and provided individual assistance for scores of beginners. And the very first thing I teach a budding researcher is: you must forgive your ancestors. Neither they nor we ourselves have lived perfect lives. Some lives are more complicated and painful than others because of choices people made. We can’t change the past but we can be charitable to those gone before (and hope our descendants do the same for us).

    Margaret Dunbar uncovered a painful truth, but truth is always better than lies. In the interest of what is most important–family–her own family must forgive her AND forgive the previous generations for this terrible mistake. What happened is done with, but the current generation can show gratitude to Bobby/Bruce by being quality people. They would do well to follow the example of the Anderson & Walters families.

  15. Haddayr says:

    I’m heartbroken for Margaret Dunbar Cutright for the way her family is refusing to handle the truth and blaming her for what her great-grandparents did. It makes me so sad. Denial is just a horrible force of destruction to families.

  16. Linda von Merveldt says:

    I was moved to tears by this story, which resonated with me personally, not only because I am deeply connected to the south and its culture, but especially as I learned in mid-life that I was not my father’s biological child, but in fact the unintended product of a pregnancy my young mother and a beau created less than two months before my mother left her home (and boyfriend) in Mississippi and married my father. My mother decided, on learning of her pregnancy, to conceal it from her beau, and accepted the marriage proposal of my father, (whom she’d met years earlier while he was stationed in the army in her home state) eloping with him and moving from her home state of Mississippi to his home in California, where she began a new life. My father raised me, and my half-sister (his child) and I was never treated any differently by him, or by his family, than his biological child. Still, even though I was loved and secure within my family, my sister and I always suspected I had a different father. When I was able to confirm these suspicions, in my 50s, and then went on to discover I had a half sister and relatives back in Mississippi (who were happy to discover me and vice-versa), it was a shock to us all: my newly found half-sister, my half sister who I was raised with, and, on both sides, my aunts, uncles, cousins, daughter, nieces and nephews. The discovery was unsettling at first for me, my half sister and my parents, and provoked especially a storm of tears by my daughter, but ultimately, we were ALL freed by this truth, especially my poor father, who felt he needed to protect me from the truth of my actual birth circumstances. Looking back on this, from the perspective of the nearly 10 years that have passed since my discovery, I feel extremely fortunate that my family accepted me from the beginning, and was able to withstand the fears and emotions that my discovery, once made, provoked in us all. Ultimately, it caused us all, especially me, to recognize that what makes a family is love, and shared experiences, not simply blood ties. I, like many “adoptees”, have had to confront the strange emotions that come with this type of revelation; the discomfort, the fear, the confusion that it can cause. I, and we, worked though these emotions, and arrived at the level of peace and acceptance that comes with time. I hope the same happens for Margaret’s relatives; that they can get beyond their feelings of fear, discomfort, embarrassment, and realize that strong families can withstand the hurricane of emotions that can be unleashed by this type of revelation, by recognizing that ultimately, the biological heritage of a family member is ultimately rather trivial in the face of so many other things that make a family.

  17. Suzette Hardee Spencer says:

    Julia Anderson was my great-grandmother. Her daughter – my beloved grandmother – the late Bernice Hardee of Lumberton, NC, made sure our family knew the story of the missing little boy. Until her death in 2001, she remained steadfast in her belief that the child whom Louisiana courts declared Bobby Dunbar was her brother Bruce. Every time I read anything about this case, I cry. Everyone lost something, but it is my family – Julia Anderson’s family – who suffered the most. My grandmother grieved her entire life for her lost little brother. Julia Anderson left her in the care of another Robeson County, NC family (the Graves) while she traveled to LA to try and bring Bruce home. We all know how that story ends. Julia stayed in MS, married and raised another family – the Rawls, my much-loved “Mississippi family” – while my grandmother remained in NC and was eventually adopted by the Graves. So she lost not only her brother, but also her mother with this tragedy. My grandmother was one of the kindest women I’ve ever known. She was never bitter towards the Dunbar’s, and was so glad to know that Bruce/Bobby was well-cared for and loved by the Dunbar’s, even though he was greatly missed by her and her siblings.

    • Dana Huff says:

      Suzette, thanks for your comment. The story is a tragic and fascinating story.

      • jennifer gregory says:

        Thank you for posting this Suzette! I have been so upset seeing all the ugly posts towards the Dunbar’s as i am engaged to the very last true Dunbar of this family tree! The family that is left was more than eager to help bring forward truth to volunteer to do DNA testing! It was a shock to my 30yr old fiance, as well as news to us all!

  18. TRACY HOLLOWAY says:

    IT SEEMS THAT A LIE IS WHAT STARTED ALL OF THIS PAIN, FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. TRAGIC AND FASCINATING DEFINITELY DOES DESCRIBE THIS DANA. TRAGIC BECAUSE THERE WAS A TIME WHEN A WOMAN’S OR CHILD’S FEELINGS AND SELFWORTH WERE OF NO IMPORTANCE, OR DETERMINED BY MEN. AND DEPENDING ON THE CHARACTER OF SAID MEN WHAT YOUR FATE WOULD BE. FASCINATING BECAUSE OF THE MYSTERY OF THE REST OF THE TRUTH. MY HEART BREAKS TO THINK OF WHAT PAIN INNOCENT PEOPLE HAVE HAD TO ENDURE. BUT MY MIND RACES TO PICTURE HOW ALL OF THIS MAY HAVE STARTED TO BEGIN WITH. I CAN PICTURE A SWAMP IN LOUISIANA, AND A SMALL CHILD THAT SEE-
    MED TO HAVE BEEN FORGOTTEN AND REPLACED, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE MOTHER AND THE LADY WHO FINALLY SOUGHT AFTER THE TRUTH. I CAN SEE A MAN JUST WORKING AND TRYING TO SURVIVE THE BEST WAY HE KNEW HOW, AND TREATED AS IF BEING POOR COULD CONVICT YOU OF BEING A KIDNAPPER. I CAN’T NOR DO I WANT TO IMAGINE WHAT BRUCE’S MOTHER AND SISTER WENT THROUGH. I HAVE OFTEN THOUGHT I WISH I DID NOT HAVE TO BE SO VOCAL AND WHY DO I ALWAYS HAVE TO SAY WHAT I FEEL. BUT AFTER READING THIS STORY I AM GLAD NOW.

  19. LaWanda Reider says:

    I also heard this story and have listened to the podcast many times. It is so touching. When I went to Lafayette, LA, I tried to find the place where the child went missing put it appears to be on private property now. I especially felt that it was sad that the uncle, the mother, and some of the brothers and sisters did not live to find out the real truth and to know that the uncle’s name had been cleared. I just loved Margaret. You could tell she is a very compassionate person.

  20. Charmed says:

    Wonderful story. I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a movie of this story. I would go see it.

  21. Nancy Case says:

    I am curious to know if testing has been done to see whether or not the DNA of Bobby Dunbar, Jr., matches that of the descendants of Julia Anderson.

    • Suzette Hardee Spencer says:

      Hi Nancy. If you read “A Case for Solomon”, the book written by Margaret Dunbar Cutright & Tal McThenia, there were numerous witnesses who positively identified the child as Bruce Anderson, son of Julia. There was never any indication that the child could have been anyone other than Bobby or Bruce, and since we know that he was not a Bobby, there’s really only one logically conclusion. My grandmother never doubted it for one second, and neither have her relatives.

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