A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation

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Overview

A CASE FOR SOLOMON: BOBBY DUNBAR AND THE KIDNAPPING THAT HAUNTED A NATION chronicles one of the most celebrated—and most misunderstood—kidnapping cases in American history. In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar, the son of an upper-middle-class Louisiana family, went missing in the swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable, in the pinewoods of southern Mississippi. A wandering piano tuner who had been shuttling ...

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A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation

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Overview

A CASE FOR SOLOMON: BOBBY DUNBAR AND THE KIDNAPPING THAT HAUNTED A NATION chronicles one of the most celebrated—and most misunderstood—kidnapping cases in American history. In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar, the son of an upper-middle-class Louisiana family, went missing in the swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable, in the pinewoods of southern Mississippi. A wandering piano tuner who had been shuttling the child throughout the region by wagon for months was arrested and charged with kidnapping—a crime that was punishable by death at the time. But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South.

Amid an ever-thickening tangle of suspicion and doubt, two mothers and a father struggled to assert their rightful parenthood over the child, both to the public and to themselves. For two years, lawyers dissected and newspapers sensationalized every aspect of the story. Psychiatrists, physicians, criminologists, and private detectives debated the piano tuner’s guilt and the boy’s identity. And all the while the boy himself remained peculiarly guarded on the question of who he was. It took nearly a century, a curiosity that had been passed down through generations, and the science of DNA to discover the truth.

A Case for Solomon is a gripping historical mystery, distilled from a trove of personal and archival research. The story of Bobby Dunbar, fought over by competing New Orleans tabloids, the courts, and the citizenry of two states, offers a case study in yellow journalism, emergent forensic science, and criminal justice in the turn-of-the-century American South. It is a drama of raw poverty and power and an exposé of how that era defined and defended motherhood, childhood, and community. First told in a stunning episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic struggle to determine one child’s identity, along the way probing unsettling questions about the formation of memory, family, and self.

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Editorial Reviews

Vanity Fair - Elissa Schappel
“Rarely do nonfiction books engage me so deeply and satisfyingly as . . . A Case for Solomon has. Exhaustively researched . . . [the book] reads like fiction.”
Publishers Weekly
First reported by McThenia on This American Life and expanded with Dunbar’s granddaughter, this thorough examination of the fight over a boy claimed by two grieving mothers is a thoughtful look at the elusiveness of truth and the fluidity of identity. In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared from a Louisiana swamp, sparking a massive search. But the drama intensified when, eight months later, a boy matching Bobby’s description was reported seen with an itinerant piano tuner. When tramp William Walters was found with a boy in neighboring Mississippi, Bobby’s father, Percy, couldn’t immediately identify the boy as Bobby. But soon the Dunbars’ minds were made up and a media frenzy set in. Walters insisted he’d been traveling with the boy, Bruce Anderson, since before Bobby Dunbar vanished. But the Dunbars’ high social status and media sway prevailed over the claims of Julia Anderson, a destitute woman and mother who claimed the boy with Walters was her own lost son, Bruce. Walters was eventually convicted of kidnapping. Decades later, Cutright arranged for a DNA test to determine Bobby Dunbar’s true identity. It’s difficult not to empathize with both sides of this case, as everyone loses something—particularly the child caught in the middle. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“A thoughtful look at the elusiveness of truth and the fluidity of identity… It’s difficult not to empathize with both sides of this case, as everyone loses something—particularly the child caught in the middle.” —Publisher's Weekly

"A Case For Solomon is a fascinating tale of an American changeling — a little boy lost to the Louisiana swamps, only to be conjured back by headlines and a mother's agony. Within the life of Bobby Dunbar, a man who was a mystery even to himself, Tal McThenia and Margaret Cutright have uncovered a dramatic case of families caught between grief, injustice, and the desperate will to believe." —Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century

"A Case for Solomon is haunting and unforgettable. It swept me up like no other book I've read in a long time. It is a mystery story finally solved after a hundred years, but it's also a profound and heartbreaking examination of identity and loss told by writers whose hard-won research and narrative gifts are plain on every page. The exotic settings, the characters whose love redeems as well as destroys, a plot that is downright biblical...and in the end a little boy with arms outstretched and this question on his lips: Who am I?" — John Ed Bradley, author of Tupelo Nights and It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium

A Case for Solomon can easily be read as a kidnapping mystery or a legal thriller or a saga of class privilege or a lively indictment of the deadly shenanigans when the media circus comes to town. To me, it’s a tragic accounting of the abuses inherent in our confidence about what's in the best interests of a child. And all of it is evidence of the power of nonfiction—fact after astonishing fact.” —Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx

"a solid read that provides plenty of food for thought." —Library Journal

A Case For Solomon is a thoroughly researched and detailed work of history that lets its mystery unfold with the restraint and craft of a detective story. Though as suspenseful and dark as any good thriller... it wonders, through the telling of the shocking tale, at greater questions - about the nature of identity, and family, and to what lengths people might go to avoid knowing a terrible truth." —The Times-Picayune

"A Case for Solomon... which reads like fiction, revisits the sensational 1912 kidnapping of four-year-old Bobby Dunbar from the swamps of Louisiana. The discovery of a boy matching Bobby’s description in rural Mississippi and the shocking emergence of an indigent woman from North Carolina claiming to be his mother were red meat to newsmen ravenous for scandal. The nation was rapt for months, although the mystery wouldn’t be solved for a century." —Vanity Fair

"The saga related in the book is so mind-bending that some readers might need to digest certain passages about family connections more than once, as I felt compelled to do. It is worth the effort." — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A fascinating narrative about an ostensible kidnapping and a 90-year case of mistaken identity, fully steeped in the flavor of the era. [A Case for Solomon] is a narrative about the fierceness of parental love, the flaws of the legal system, and ultimately about how we derive our own sense of who we are." —The Boston Globe

Library Journal
The kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar will never be as famous as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, but his story is compelling in its own right. Coauthored by Cutright, Dunbar's supposed granddaughter, and McThenia, who reported on the story for This American Life, the book begins in 1912 when four-year-old Bobby was kidnapped in Louisiana during a camping trip and miraculously discovered months later in Mississippi. It concludes shortly after 2004, when DNA test results confirmed that the child claimed as Bobby Dunbar was in actuality the son of single mother Judith Anderson. The book also covers the trial of the accused kidnapper, William Walters, as well as the fate of the real Bobby Dunbar. Cutright's firsthand knowledge not only of the personalities involved but also of the repercussions these events had on two families is a great benefit. VERDICT Much of this book retells the story of how a small boy could be taken from his mother and placed with another family despite his own recollections. A solid read that provides plenty of food for thought, especially for those interested in children's rights.—Reba Kennedy, San Antonio
Kirkus Reviews
A convoluted account of an infamous child kidnapping from 100 years ago, with a contemporary twist. In August 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared during a family gathering near Opelousas, La. His well-to-do parents, Percy and Lessie Dunbar, worked with the police in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states in an effort to recover the child. About eight months later, police arrested an itinerant laborer, William Walters, who was traveling with a boy who appeared to be Bobby. The case became complicated, however, when Julia Anderson, an impoverished single mother, responded to the publicity surrounding the arrest by claiming the boy as her child--though Anderson's son was named Bruce. Furthermore, Anderson said Walters was caring for Bruce temporarily, with permission. Journalists pounced on the saga, printing accounts that conflicted in almost every detail, and politicians and lawyers also got involved. Some of the Dunbar clan were sure that the boy found with Walters was Bobby. Others who knew the Dunbars felt less certain, believing that Percy and Lessie were claiming parentage of the wrong boy because of emotional imbalance. Because Anderson could muster far fewer resources during the proceedings than were available to the Dunbars, she operated from a disadvantage. Furthermore, many journalists and lookers-on portrayed Anderson as a woman of questionable virtue. Months of conflicting information finally played out in a Louisiana trial, with the jurors finding Walters guilty. Bobby grew up as the Dunbars' son, and Bobby's descendants were taught to disbelieve anything said by Anderson and her kin. Cutright, Bobby's granddaughter, collaborating with journalist McThenia, has sought the truth with modern DNA testing, which showed that Anderson was telling the truth. An intriguing story diminished by the inability of the authors to screen out irrelevant or marginal details, making the saga difficult to follow.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439158609
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 528,460
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

Tal McThenia

Tal McThenia is a freelance writer who reported and wrote The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, a one-hour radio documentary for the acclaimed public radio series This American Life. He has received residencies at the ShenanArt’s Playwrights’ Workshop and the MacDowell Colony. He lives in New York.

Margaret Dunbar Cutright is the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, the victim of the kidnapping in A Case for Solomon. She has researched the case for more than a decade, gathering and analyzing legal documents, family correspondence, and newspapers, and has had extensive and ongoing contact with descendants of all three of the families involved in the story. She lives in North Carolina.

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Read an Excerpt

A Case for Solomon

A. R. Waud, Cypress swamp on the Opelousas Railroad, Louisiana, Harper’s Weekly, December 8, 1866

August 23, 1912

LESSIE DUNBAR TUCKED her son’s little toes into one sandal, then another, and fastened the straps. She harbored no illusion that they’d stay on for long. She lifted his hand and coaxed his baby ring into her palm. If this came off, it would never be found, not out here.

All the while, she felt him studying her eyes. Deep blue like his own, this morning Lessie’s were swollen and bloodshot. It was hay fever season, after all, and on top of that, they’d spent last night in a silt-encrusted cabin. But being only four, Bobby might wonder if she was crying or hurt.

Lessie had no time to explain or reassure. As soon as she released his hand, he was off, down toward the lake with his father and all the other boys and men. Maybe he hadn’t been worried about her at all.

She darted into the cabin to put the ring someplace safe and then returned to cooking. The fish fry had been called for noon, and at last count, she had at least a dozen mouths to feed.

Today, a Friday in late August, was the perfect time to fish. The record-breaking spring floodwaters, which had burst over the banks of the Atchafalaya River and into its surrounding bayou basin, were receding. And the ensuing explosion of giant red river crawfish, infamous for stealing bait, had subsided as well. “Craw-fish Are Vamoosing; Fishing Is Getting Good,” read a headline in the local paper in late July. From all the narrow bayou-lakes in the area, delighted reports of fat catches of perch and trout were making their way back to Opelousas, where the townspeople were wilting in the heat, weary of the summer dust settling over their sidewalks, and itching for escape.

The Dunbars took refuge at this place on Swayze Lake, as they had in years past. Owned by Lessie’s uncle, it was a largely wooded parcel with two primitive cabins wedged between a dirt wagon trail and the bayou’s ever-shifting shoreline. There were eleven in the party in all: along with Lessie, her husband, Percy, and their sons, Bobby and Alonzo, came Percy’s cousin Wallace, his wife and two sons, Lessie’s younger sister, Rowena Whitley, a family friend named Paul Mizzi, and a servant girl. With a crowd this size, and others expected to stop by soon, they had arrived a day early to ensure an ample catch. And since the camp had been underwater for months, there was also the chore of returning it to habitability. The women spent hours scrubbing mud from the walls and windows, as the men hacked out a clearing through the overgrown canebrake down to the lake.

Nothing could be done about the shoreline, however, where the rapidly receding floodwaters had left a five-foot-wide bank of soft, deep mud. Fishing from here was a mucky, clumsy business, Percy and the other men learned quickly, and direct access to the water was utterly precarious.

In the late morning, a young black boy entered the camp, bearing a message for Percy. Mr. David Thornton, who lived a mile to the north, was finalizing a land deal and needed the deed transfer notarized back at his farm. Percy, a notary, had either accepted the job earlier, or this was an on-the-spot request. In any case, fishing would have to wait.

As his father headed up to the road with the boy, Bobby tried to tag along. But Percy turned him back. He couldn’t watch Bobby and do his job at the same time, and, besides, he’d return before noon. Bobby grew distraught, screaming and clawing at his father as Percy moved to mount his horse.

In the struggle, the rubber band strap on Bobby’s straw hat snapped. His father stopped and leaned down to face his son. He didn’t have the patience to repair the strap, so he simply pressed the hat down harder onto the boy’s head. Then he turned away, climbed onto the horse, and swung his cork leg (a prosthetic he’d had since childhood) over and into its stirrup. As Percy set out down the road, he instructed the boy to take Bobby back to camp.

About that time, more guests arrived: John Oge, a planter and well-known state politician; Dr. Lawrence Daly; and Daly’s twelve-year-old son, who were happy to join in the fishing. Ambling down to the lake, rotund Oge challenged rotund Wallace Dunbar to a contest for the biggest catch.

For Lessie, the presence of Oge and Daly injected an air of formality into the gathering, and a reminder of the time, hastening her efforts in the kitchen. Every incoming fish needed to be cleaned, fried, and then drained over a bed of Spanish moss. She had Rowena to help in this process, and the nurse girl kept two-year-old Alonzo out of the way. But swollen-eyed Bobby would have to fend for himself.

The other three boys were several years older, and though he could tag along while they made their fun, he would never be part of it. So when Bobby saw Paul Mizzi heading down to the lake to shoot garfish, he begged his mother to let him follow. Thirty-year-old Paul had a unique friendship with Bobby. He often took the boy riding at his horse and cattle farm, on a big buckskin horse. And Paul was the only one who could call stout, little Bobby by his odious nickname “Heavy” and make it sound like a term of endearment. Plus, of course, few things were more thrilling than the firing of a gun.

As soon as Lessie agreed, Alonzo inevitably wanted to follow, as did one of Wallace’s sons. Before turning back to her work, she warned the boys away from the shore. It wasn’t just the mud; the lake plunged quickly to a depth of fifteen feet.

Searching the water with Paul and the other boys, Bobby saw the flash: just beneath the surface, the razor teeth of a garfish, panicking a school of sac-a-lait. Paul kept the boys back, raised his pistol, and started to fire. The shots ripped into the water’s surface and decimated an island of hyacinth, their echoes booming against the walls of cypress that lined the lake. A dead garfish floated to the surface, its head the shape of an alligator.

Overlapping with the excitement of gunfire was the madcap commotion of the fishing contest. With the boys cheering them on, Oge and Wallace baited hooks and cast lines at a furious pace. With the gars out of the way, the catching sped up substantially.

Then someone from the cabin called for help setting up for lunch, which ratcheted up the bustle. Later, no single person could quite remember all that followed. Lessie recalled finishing up the mayonnaise in the kitchen. Wallace recollected being instructed to move the dining table and benches away from the cabins into the clearing for a better view of the lake. John Oge knew only that he was lingering down by the shore, drinking ice water and waiting for the meal to be called. Paul Mizzi remembered hoisting Alonzo onto his shoulders and bouncing him back up to camp, nearly trampling Bobby on the way.

As the newspapers would later report, “Bobby’s last words were characteristic.” When Paul warned, “Get out of the way, Heavy, or I’ll run over you,” Bobby scuttled away and shouted back, “You can’t do it! You ain’t no bigger than me!”

EMERGING FROM THE cabin with the first plate of fish, Lessie scanned the crowd of men and boys swarming around the table. It wasn’t long into setting out the meal before she put her finger on what was wrong.

She asked where Bobby was. Her question landed on Paul, who still carried Alonzo atop his shoulders, but she knew before he could open his mouth that Paul had no idea. With a quick glance at the other men, she knew that neither did they.

She called Bobby’s name. Her eyes darted from one end of the clearing to the other. She called again, louder. And when Paul finally echoed her cry, Lessie’s panic burst open. She turned from the table and dashed toward the lake. They all watched her, mute, impotent. Her shoes sunk into the mud, and she stopped, her eyes racing across the water, the weedy shoreline, and the gnarled roots of the bank.

Lessie rushed from one end of the camp to the other, calling for Bobby, and the others joined in. Bewildered, the boys watched the adults spin out of control all around them. Little Alonzo gaped in horror as his mother collapsed to the dirt.

Wallace, Oge, and Daly struck out on the wagon trail behind the camp, to the north. It was possible that Bobby had taken off, once again, after his father. The three men trotted up the road, calling the boy’s name and getting no response, scanning the dense woods and spotting no one. They ran into Percy, riding back from the Thornton place, and broke the news.

Percy raced back to camp, where flies covered the uneaten fish on the table, and his wife’s tiny frame lay crumpled on the ground. He knelt beside her and held her, as Paul and the others filled him in on the details.

Within moments, Percy was up again, scouring the area just as the others had before him. He remembered Bobby’s straw hat with its broken strap and told them all to keep an eye out. It couldn’t have stayed on long.

There were footprints in the mud everywhere, but closest to the water’s edge where the earth was soft, none the size of Bobby’s. The tangle of brush that bordered the camp seemed impenetrable, but Percy dropped to his knees nonetheless and scrambled into it. As the rest of the party continued the search in every other direction, Percy tore through the roots and weeds and canebrake on his hands and knees, dragging his cork leg behind him, searching for Bobby, his hat, or his footprints. He crawled north and south, his voice hoarse from calling, and, too close to the water’s edge, he sunk elbow deep and deeper into the mud.

Lawrence Daly and John Oge burst back into camp. After searching northward on the trail, they had just now turned south, where they came upon bare infant footprints in the dirt. They weren’t sure if the prints were Bobby’s, and they didn’t know if he had been barefoot or not. Lessie grabbed Bobby’s sandals from the ground, and she and Percy followed the men back to the road.

She knew in an instant that the tracks were Bobby’s. They matched the size of his sandals, and none of the other children had gone unshod. On this question, one newspaper would later report her sworn oath that she was “willing to lay down her life.”

The four followed the prints south along the wagon trail, all the way to its dead end at a T with the railroad tracks, just a few yards west of a wooden trestle over the lake. The footprints crossed the railroad tracks and dropped down an embankment into a sandpit on the other side. Damp sand had clung to the child’s feet, and they detected signs of a scramble or a fall on the way back up the embankment. Then on the railroad tracks, the prints appeared again clearly. Percy led the group after them, but it wasn’t long before he stopped dead, staring down. The footprints, he would later recall, had “suddenly disappeared.”

They looked everywhere for the boy’s path to pick up again: up and down the tracks and in the grass alongside, then, defeated, back to the spot where Percy had stopped. The final footprints pointed west, toward Opelousas, away from the railroad bridge. Where had the boy gone?

Speculating that perhaps the prints were not Bobby’s after all, Daly and Oge hurried to retrieve several children from the black settlement to the north. With Percy and Lessie watching, they coaxed the children’s feet into position, side by side with the footprints in the dirt. All of the children’s feet were larger than the prints.

The westbound excursion train returning to Opelousas lumbered over the bridge, and someone flagged it down. Its passengers, relaxed and happy from a day at lakes nearby, gaped down at the odd scene: a frantic, mud-spattered search party clustered around barefoot black children. When the passengers heard the news, their summer bliss fell away, and many rushed off the train to aid in the search. The engineer promised to call for more help when the train made it back to town.

Indeed, two hours later, railway superintendent Harry Flanders had dispatched a special train carrying one hundred men, all hunters and fishers who knew the terrain well. From the east, a car carrying a rail gang home from a day’s work at nearby Second Lake stopped and joined in the search. As late afternoon turned to evening, the hunt broadened for a mile through the woods and tangled shoreline of the lake. They all knew what to look for: tiny footprints, a straw hat, a scrap of blue rompers, a shivering four-year-old boy. They found none of it.

A crossbred dog owned by someone up the road was brought in to follow the scent of the footprints. It zigzagged into the woods, was detoured by a coon and a jackrabbit, then finally darted out onto a log extending from the shore into the water. There, on the log, sat a ham bone, remnants of lunch left by one of the searchers.

By dark, Lessie’s sister Rowena had been sent back home to Opelousas with Alonzo and the servant girl. Although it had begun to rain and there was nothing for Lessie to do here but worry, she could not leave. With Percy occupied, helping to supervise the crowds of searchers, she huddled in one of the cabins, paralyzed.

Last night, as she had put Bobby to bed, the swamp beyond these thin plank walls was loud with life: pig frogs grunting, nighthawks shrieking, the gurgle-laughs of a barred owl. Tonight it was a more ominous din, and not just the rain, either. The woods outside were alive with barking dogs, roaring flames, and men screaming her son’s name.

A CENTURY BEFORE, the idea of a family camping trip into the Atchafalaya River basin would have been unthinkable. Most Louisianans saw the place as an impenetrable swamp, and rightfully so. There were few inroads into the region, no roadways that crossed it, and most of its waterways were dangerous and barely navigable. In 1816 geographer and cartographer William Darby published the popular study A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana, which afforded curious readers across America a glimpse into the basin’s dark interior. “To have an idea of the dead silence, the awful lonesomeness, and dreary aspect of this region,” Darby wrote, “it is necessary to visit the spot.” It was hardly an invitation.

For the next century, levees were built across the basin to buffer its towns from flooding by the Mississippi, which fed into it from the northeast. Massive clogs of stumps and trees were removed from waterways to create deeper channels for travel and commerce. Low-lying swampland was drained to accommodate an increasing pressure for plantation agriculture. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the Atchafalaya, as untouched and primordial as much of it still appeared, was a thoroughly designed and managed environment.

But the war ended Louisiana’s plantation system, and along with it came the destruction and deterioration of the levees. Even more significant was a series of catastrophic floods during which the Mississippi breached the levees and, with the channels clear of timber, inundated the Atchafalaya full force. In 1866, a year after the war’s end, reportorial illustrator A. R. Waud ventured into the region to capture the bayou for readers of Harper’s Weekly. Waud’s drawing is a child’s worst nightmare. Thick cypress limbs hang heavy across the entire scene, and in their dark shadows lurk grinning black alligators.

The rebuilding of the levees continued through the turn of the century. In the areas where farming had been abandoned, lumberjacks moved in to harvest the cypress. In northern parts, agriculture made a slow comeback with drainage and the planting of rice fields. And across the region, a fishing economy blossomed. Locals staked personal claims to specific streams and channels, setting up camps along the shoreline or traveling in houseboats to fish where the waters were unclaimed. Steamer service through the larger channels was on the rise. Seasonal roads were cut through the woods. And railroads were built to connect New Orleans with the bayou’s growing new towns.

In 1905 the Opelousas, Gulf and Northeastern Railway, more commonly known as the O.G., opened its tracks to Melville and linked Opelousas with “the Lakes” along the way. This chain of deep, clear bayous, partially connected and surrounded by woods, had long been a haven for the adventurous sportsman. Percy Dunbar had hunted and fished here since he was a boy. With the railroad came a new degree of civilization to the lakes, which were now accessible to whole families for single-day picnic excursions as well as for weekend campouts.

Swayze Lake was closest in, an easy hour-and-a-half ride. Besides Lessie’s uncle’s camp, there were a few other fishing shacks scattered around Swayze, none closer than a mile, and a black community to the north. Down the lake from the Dunbars’ camp, the O.G. crossed the water via wooden trestle and continued eastward to Half Moon Lake and then Second Lake after that.

Second Lake was private, open only to members of the Opelousas Rod and Gun Club. In 1912 that included political leaders and patriarchs of St. Landry Parish’s Civil War–era aristocracies: Edward B. Dubuisson, R. Lee Garland, Sheriff Marion Swords, and Percy’s business partner, Henry E. Estorge. While Percy’s name wouldn’t appear as a member until 1917, he knew and was known by all of these men in 1912, approaching that inner circle, if not inside it already. Unlike Swayze, Second Lake was a resort with amenities, boasting a new clubhouse and kitchen, a wide lawn, and manicured grounds, which the St. Landry Clarion credited to “the energy and good taste of ‘[S]ebe’ and ‘Aunt Mary,’ the keepers there.” That year, the club rolled out shooting tournaments as its latest feature. And for one season at least, the lake itself was cleared of the pernicious lavender-blossomed Japanese water hyacinth, which had been fouling the waterways of the Atchafalaya for the past thirty years.

Just north of Second Lake was Half Moon Lake, developed into a resort by O.G. superintendent Flanders to coincide with his inauguration of daily round-trip rail service. Half Moon promised most of the amenities of Second but was open to the general public. A kitchen was being built, swings and other visitor conveniences were to be erected, and grounds were being tidied for what the Clarion called “a real ‘parky’ appearance.”

So when the Dunbars ventured out to the lakes in 1912, there was nothing at all pioneering about their journey. On a Thursday in late August, the O.G.’s passenger carriages would be overloaded with families, fishing poles, and bulky gear for camping and cooking. They had every reason to believe that their excursion would be safe.

WELL INTO THE night, the walls of the cabin shook with a series of thunderous explosions. If Lessie had allowed herself to venture outside, she would have faced what looked like a battlefield. Muddy men wandered wild-eyed through the smoke-filled camp. In the dark beyond, lanterns flashed through the trees, and across the lake was a line of massive fires. The surface of the water itself was roiling with the blasts of dynamite. To the south, by the train trestle, a thick cable was stretched from shore to shore, dangling massive hooks to drag the depths.

They were looking for a body.

At last, the explosions brought to the surface something pale and white. A call went up, and a light was brought to bear: it was the bloated belly of a deer drowned in the spring flood.

The dragging and dynamiting continued through the night, in vain. With the break of dawn, men dove into the lake to search the little coves that the hooks had been unable to reach—the places where a body may have been caught up in weeds. John Oge was one of the divers; he plunged into the murk all morning, ripping through the tenuous hyacinth, scouring the dark tangle of roots underwater along the banks.

If Bobby had not drowned, searchers speculated, any number of wild animals could have killed him. Just a few miles from here, a massive black bear killed two calves in 1908. A poisonous snake might have struck, a giant loggerhead turtle might have snapped off a limb, or if Bobby had slipped into the water, a mature garfish could have devoured him. As the search wore on, some even wondered if the boy had met a slower and crueler demise, his blood poisoned from mosquito bites. But the likeliest predator of all was an alligator, well known for lurking beneath the water’s surface by the shoreline and waiting for a turtle, bird, or small mammal to make its oblivious approach. In just seconds, a gator could shoot up, snap its jaws around its prey, and recoil underwater, leaving only a splash and a fast-fading ripple. After waiting for the prey to drown, the creature would rise to the surface to swallow it whole.

Four years prior, just weeks before Bobby was born, southwest Louisiana had been horrified by an eerily similar case of a missing boy. About one hundred miles west of Swayze Lake, three-year-old Harry Frye accompanied his parents and their friends on a Saturday-afternoon fishing trip on the Calcasieu River. While the adults took spots up and down the banks, Harry first lingered with his mother at camp, then headed upstream to join a group of men. An hour later, he was noticed missing, and a frantic days-long search ensued. Dragging of the river turned up pieces of the boy’s clothing, bloody and shredded. If one believed the national wire, a tooth-punctured teddy bear was recovered as well. Almost everyone concluded that it was death by alligator, and when a fourteen-foot suspect slithered onto the banks nearby, the men raced home for guns. Though the gator eluded the angry hunt, “the search was abandoned, as the evidence seems conclusive as to [Harry’s] fate.”

But whatever Bobby Dunbar’s fate, there was no scrap of clothing to offer resolution.

By Saturday afternoon, Lessie grew physically ill. When an afternoon special arrived with more searchers, Percy boarded the train with his wife for its return to Opelousas. They fled the swamp, but its black mud clung to their clothes and skin.

When they climbed the front steps of their Victorian cottage on Union Street, they could hear family and friends gathered inside. But the Dunbars had moved here only days before, so the place did not seem at all like home. Possibly, this would afford Lessie and Percy a small comfort when they opened the front door. This was not yet Bobby’s house either, and they might not feel him in every corner.

LESSIE DUNBAR WAS born Lela Celeste Whitley in February 1886, a decade into her parents’ doomed experiment with life in Texas. Newlyweds John and Delia Whitley had settled on a promising parcel along the state’s remote southeastern coast, but the nearest town was Morales, a bloody hotbed of post–Civil War anarchy bypassed by the incoming railroad and left to die. Four years and three siblings after Lessie’s birth, the Whitleys fled back east to resettle among Delia’s kin in St. Landry Parish.

Thomas Quirk, Delia’s father, was one of the more prosperous Anglo planters in Grand Prairie, a community fifteen miles north of Opelousas whose greatest wealth and most fertile land were in the hands of French-speaking Acadians. Thomas may not have been able to offer financial support, but as John got the new farm on its feet, Delia had plenty of siblings who could help with feeding and caring for the children.

Lessie’s health may well have played a role in the Whitleys’ return. She was born with a horseshoe kidney, an anatomical anomaly wherein her two kidneys were fused together into the shape of a U. This was not a grave concern in and of itself, but Lessie suffered from a common ancillary condition: obstruction of the urinary tract, which would gradually lead one kidney to atrophy and, late in her life, the temporary failure of the other. From childhood onward, she likely suffered chronic abdominal and flank pain, vomiting, and recurring infections. At least in St. Landry, unlike in Texas, the family had professional medical care within a reasonable distance.

They also had access to quality Catholic education. In 1902 Lessie and two of her sisters were enrolled in the Mt. Carmel Academy at Washington, Louisiana, run by an order of nuns who taught in remote French-speaking settlements up and down the state’s southwestern bayous. In the academy’s tuition books, while the Quirk cousins and most other boarders paid $10 to $14 per year, the Whitley girls’ records are different: in Mother Melanie Leblanc’s delicate script is written “gratis,” “in honor of St. Joseph,” “give vegetables when they can and help with work.”

For her brief schooling at Mt. Carmel, Lessie would remain grateful to Mother Melanie and the order for her entire life. It was a rigorous bilingual curriculum, going far beyond the basics to include Louisiana history, French literature, philosophy, and astronomy. Of the “household arts,” Lessie excelled at embroidery, crochet, and sewing, specializing in clothes for dolls and people alike. Hers was a God-given talent, and Mother Melanie and the other sisters nourished it. In a 1902 school photo, Lessie stands in the rear row among the tallest girls, a commanding presence, shouldering ahead of her fellow students. Her wide face is grimly determined, betraying no trace of childhood, and her pale eyes seem to be looking beyond.

As Lessie’s final year at Mt. Carmel was nearing a close, her future husband’s career was beginning just two blocks down the street. At first Percy Dunbar didn’t have an office for his real estate business, so he tucked himself into the shop of an old shoemaker. In these early years, he snapped up tax sale bargains and turned them for a profit, negotiated timber rights for relatives and neighbors, and sold small rural tracts and lots in town, slowly but surely building a reputation. It helped that he was also Washington’s town constable, whose duties, in addition to keeping the peace, included seizure and sale of debtors’ property.

Though descended from Robert Dunbar, a successful Scottish American planter in Natchez, Mississippi, Percy had not grown up with easy privilege. Before the Civil War, his grandfather Samuel had a modest plantation with fourteen slaves in East Feliciana Parish; after the war, Samuel relocated to St. Landry, and his land and wealth were divided among his sons—Percy’s father Robert being one of five. Percy’s maternal grandfather was Felix A. King, president of the Opelousas Board of Police during and after the Civil War, but he was an accountant by trade, with nothing like a fortune. Robert and Madeline raised Percy and his siblings on a small family farm between Opelousas and Washington, and while Percy was certainly schooled during boyhood, there are no records of a college education.

What is known about Percy’s youth indicates that, like Lessie’s, it was a physical struggle. As a boy, he lost his foot and lower leg in a firearms accident. Though he spoke of the incident later, he never specified the person who pulled the trigger, which suggests it was either he himself or someone too beloved for him to name. The local papers of his youth were dotted with accounts of boys’ mishaps with guns, and even a foot peppered with birdshot, if not treated promptly, often led to infection farther up the ankle and amputation.

By the time he reached adulthood, Percy had adapted to his cork leg so fully that strangers couldn’t even tell he had it. As one family member recalled, he turned his leg into something of a parlor trick: out in public, he would put on a big show of whittling a stick, drawing a crowd close; then, without warning, he would jam the knife through his pants and into the cork, scattering the startled gawkers. A good thing, then, that his young bride was so skilled with needle and thread.

A year before marriage, Percy executed a series of shrewd career maneuvers: he relocated to the larger town of Opelousas, partnered with H. E. Estorge, and added insurance sales to the duo’s roster of services. Estorge, fifteen years Percy’s senior, was deemed by the Clarion one of St. Landry’s “noblest Creole sons,” a fixture of parish leadership and state politics. In late 1906, the new partners’ first ad was designed to attract attention: in a newspaper column flanked by letters to the editor and classifieds, the notice for Estorge & Dunbar was printed vertically in giant lettering. St. Landry was in the midst of a real estate boom, and Dunbar and Estorge cashed in, selling suburban lots around the perimeter of Opelousas, parceling off plantations, and bringing whole new towns to life along just-laid railroads.

Percy may have met Lessie (just turning twenty and fourteen years his junior) via their overlap in Washington, or even in the social circles of Opelousas, which Lessie’s sister Mary had entered via marriage into the prestigious Dupre family. As a candidate for wife, Lessie was ideal: a young, attractive, well-liked, nun-schooled Catholic, and a skilled homemaker from a family with a name.

For the Whitleys, the proposal was welcome. By now it was clear that John was too old and infirm to thrive as a planter. Lessie’s two older sisters still lived at home, unmarried and supplementing the family income with seamstress work; by 1910, the Whitleys had taken in two schoolteachers as boarders as well. From a financial perspective, marriage to Percy Dunbar was Lessie’s best hope for a brighter future.

In the cool early-morning hours of a weekday in June 1907, they were wed at the home of a Dupre relative in Washington. The wedding made the front page of one of the St. Landry weeklies and even appeared in the New Orleans Item. In one Opelousas paper, Lessie was called “a popular and accomplished daughter of our sister town,” and in another, Percy was described as “the genial and indefatigable real estate and insurance hustler.” After a honeymoon in New Orleans, the newlyweds settled into married life in Opelousas, in a rented home centrally located on Court Street and big enough for Percy’s younger brother Archie to move in too.

The indefatigable hustler threw himself into public life. In 1910 Percy was elected as board member and secretary of the recently reorganized Progressive League. He became secretary of the local Democratic Party, overseeing party primaries, and in the summer of 1912, he was appointed to the city’s board of supervisors. A year into the Dunbars’ marriage, Bobby was born, then Alonzo two years later, but given Lessie’s health issues, her pregnancies were far from worry free.

IN HIS FIRST few years, Robert Clarence Dunbar was fearless, even in the face of painful consequences. When he was eighteen months old, he bolted away from his nurse into the backyard and put his left foot directly into a pile of red-hot ashes. It was a severe burn, enough to disfigure his big toe and impair its growth. Later, a crash with Lessie’s sewing machine left a deep cut above Bobby’s right eye. Worried that her son would lose his sight, she took him to the doctor, but fortunately, the wound just left a scar.

Bobby often played with the neighbor’s daughter, Margaret Durio, but as he aged, his stomping grounds broadened well beyond the yard next door. Nearly every afternoon, he was known to dash down to the courthouse square to scare the goldfish in the fountain. Inevitably, he would fall in and soak himself, requiring Deputy Chachere to fish him out and carry him home. Bobby had also taken to racing out the gate and down the street to meet his father on his way home from the office. But when a rowdy saloon opened up along this route, Lessie grew so worried that the sight of public drunkenness would taint his childhood that in the summer of 1912, the Dunbars moved. Their new home was a modest Victorian on Union Street, a safer distance from the dangers of downtown. Apparently it was easier to relocate the entire family than to keep Bobby Dunbar inside the yard.

In mid-August 1912, Bobby accompanied his mother on a visit to her third cousin Douce Mornhingveg, wife of an Opelousas jeweler. Lessie and Douce had not spent time together since girlhood, but their reunion was marred by what Douce would later describe as Bobby’s “badness.” He was “simply outrageous,” she would cluck.

Just a week later, that same quality—call it badness or irrepressible wanderlust—finally resulted in the sort of trouble from which Deputy Chachere could offer no rescue. As Lessie collapsed into her bed on August 24, “prostrate with grief,” there were hundreds of men scouring the woods and lakes in search of her son, but there would be no dripping-wet homecoming.

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 23, 2012

    This story is compelling. It comes at the reader in little bits

    This story is compelling. It comes at the reader in little bits and you
    will find yourself wandering through the pages with more questions than
    answers, but keep the faith. The research is thorough and the people
    involved come to life anew as the pieces of the puzzle come together.
    It would make a fascinating book club read. It was pulled from the
    pages of family scrapbooks and newsprint from 1912 and we have only 21st
    century eyes with which to examine its many nuances. You'll find we
    haven't grown much wiser for our years, our technology, or our 24-hour
    global news feeds. I came away frustrated at the press, the legal
    system and the public's appetite for sordid tidbits of others' broken
    lives. Ms. Cutright has navigated some rough waters to find answers for
    herself and her family--Dunbars and Andersons alike. I congratulate her.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 25, 2012

    An interesting report, but 500+ pages is too long. I found myse

    An interesting report, but 500+ pages is too long. I found myself skipping over paragraphs as it became a bit tedious reading every little detail. That said, it is compelling realizing that this all happened 100 years ago...today it would be resolved quickly without causing more suffering to so many people and tearing lives apart. It kept me coming back each day to find out what happened next.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 17, 2012

    Amazing Book! I felt like a reporter reading this book, because

    Amazing Book!
    I felt like a reporter reading this book, because at times it read like a report or case study. I had to actually remind myself that it read that way because it is a real story that happened in America!! I was amazed at how many people were willing to lie to themselves because the alternative was too painful. As a family therapist, I was mesmerized and would have loved to have met the family. There were so many family patterns and issues that weren’t dealt with, but with anything, a lie will slowly rip apart the seams of a very intact family. It was a great book that I enjoyed reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 10, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Why is nothing ever as it appears to be? It is an undisputed f

    Why is nothing ever as it appears to be?

    It is an undisputed fact that Bobby Dunbar disappeared during a family trip, and was recovered eight months later having been abducted by a man of nefarious background. The question that arose after he was found became “who does this child belong to.” Two families are claiming he is there son, and lacking the modern technology to confirm Bobby’s parentage the case is tried by public opinion. The press is allowed to draw conclusions, the public pick sides, and families torn apart trying to take this child back into their life. Who is right becomes a fight over more than just Bobby does; it became a statement against life style, discrimination, and how money can buy a verdict.

    The overall size of the book seems daunting but this story needs every page to make sure readers know exactly what is going on and when. The facts unfold slowly and with precise detail to showcase every step taken during the entire process where a child’s life lay in the balance. It is told through documented facts, implied conversations, and family gossip, combined together make for a compelling and riveting read you cannot put down until you have it completed.

    We all examine our family wondering if we know all the secrets and where the skeletons are hidden. What if every little secret about your family was documented for everyone to reflect on and you wonder your entire life if this is in fact really your family. This was more than 15 minutes of fame for Bobby Dunbar, it was a lifetime of nightmares and inconclusive information.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 13, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This is one of those books that sticks with you for a while. I

    This is one of those books that sticks with you for a while. I was horrified to learn the role the press played in this whole fiasco. We really have not learned from past mistakes. When Bobby Dunbar went missing, no stone was left unturned. Yet when a boy was found who was similar in looks, the press was there to “get the story”. I felt like they were willing to make the story fit a happy ending no matter what.
    My sympathies went to Julia Anderson who had no resources due to her financial circumstances. I was pleased to learn the truth had been found but saddened by the pain everyone involved in this case suffered. The authors have done a tremendous amount of research and have successfully told the story in a way that carried the reader along, making them want to know what happened next.

    We are given a look at the time period and how things worked for those who had and those had not. In this day and age we have the benefit of DNA testing. Yet I wonder how much the press would be able to skew the opinions of all parties involved. It is sad that so many lives have been destroyed. Yet I feel that a mystery was left unanswered in this story. I don’t know if anyone will ever solve that mystery. This is definitely worth the read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2014

    anonymos

    book drawn out with tooo much unnecessary details. At times hard to keep interested. Could have been easily 100 pages shorter.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    Very good book. Very interesting story and well written.

    Very good book. Very interesting story and well written.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

    Old fashioned 'media circus'

    I won't ruin the plot by telling you if Bobby is really Bobby but I can't help but wonder.... what happened to the other boy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 27, 2013

    I loved the book, but I really enjoy true stories with trials an

    I loved the book, but I really enjoy true stories with trials and investigations.  The ending is especially rewarding, I think, and I am very happy that the families got one.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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