It seemed a simple and redemptive story. In 1912, a 4-year-old boy wandered away from his family and vanished in the Louisiana swampland. At first, Bobby Dunbar’s parents feared he had drowned or was eaten by alligators, but soon, they believed he was abducted. Fueled by hope, the family conducted an aggressive campaign to find Bobby, and, in the process, galvanized public sympathy. After eight months, Bobby was found, dirty but safe, in the company of an itinerant tinker. He and his parents, Lessie and Percy Dunbar, were reunited, and the public rejoiced.
But the story is not simple. Another woman, Julia Anderson, claimed Bobby was her son Bruce, taken from her North Carolina home months earlier by an acquaintance.
The Dunbars and Anderson fought in the courts. Newspapers battling for circulation capitalized on the story’s conflict and emotion. Aggressive reporters invaded the Dunbar’s home, insisting on interviewing the parents and Bobby. Reporters bullied Julia when she traveled to Louisiana to see the child she believed was hers. The journalists harassed and intimidated the families, children, and witnesses. Increasingly, the truth became mired in competing versions of reality.
This historically accurate account reads like a thriller and a tragedy. The meticulous research anchors the story and brings alive the century-old events through vivid description. Margaret Dunbar Cutright, a North Carolinian and granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, conducted the early research into family documents. Co-author Tal McThenia initially produced the story as a segment for the NPR radio show, “This American Life.” Later, the two teamed up to write this book.
The central question — Bobby Dunbar or Bruce Anderson? — is not resolved until almost a century after the original disappearance. In the intervening years, the parents and the child grapple with pain, loss, and haunting questions of identity. But ultimately, there is redemption and healing. Not a simple story, but a wondrous one.
Download the NPR story, “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,” from the archives of “This American Life”: thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives.
Free Press. 2012, 436 pages, hardback, $26.99.