Truth Be Told
Authors reveal true story of missing Louisiana boy
By Holly A. PhillipsPosted Aug 30, 2012
One hundred years ago, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing from his family’s camp on Swayze Lake. The public clung to the news, hoping for his safe return. Less than one year later, they got their wish when Dunbar was seen with a man named William Walters. But before Dunbar could return to his family, a woman known as Julia Anderson came forward. The boy was her son Bruce, not Dunbar. Although the court decided it was Dunbar, a century has reformed this story multiple times. A Case For Solomon, written by Margaret Dunbar Cutright and Tal McThenia, finally reveals the true story.
DIG: What were some things you came across in your research that surprised you?
Margaret Dunbar Cutright: That my grandfather really wasn’t born as Robert Dunbar.
Tal McThenia: That John M. Parker played such a big role in the outcome of this case. It has a larger link to the political history in Louisiana. His role was remarkable. In our research, we found handwritten letters that connected him to the Dunbar’s lawyer in Opelousas. He went into the case claiming he had no bias, but the letters cast doubt on his neutrality.
MC: I considered John Parker to be the “King Solomon” in the story, because he determined where the boy ended up and who he became.
TM: Letters and newspapers were terrific in offering a full sweep of the story. There were letters from Julia to the lawyers that showed how off-page she was. She was just told when to come to Louisiana. It was an intimate, heartbreaking look of her experience during that time.
DIG: How were you able to put together such a detailed narrative?
TM: It was hard. The newspapers were incredible, but they were also sensationalized. To use them as source material, we had to figure out not only what newspapers were the best, but which reporters were more reliable. Some of the intimate scenes were told in interviews after-the-fact. If Lessie [Dunbar] reported a story to the newspaper, we had to decide whether the recollections were plausible.
MC: For me, it was a matter of using common sense to compare the research; does this piece fit? Tal was brilliant at pulling it all together. What’s in the book is our best analysis of what the research told us.
TM: There was so much detail in the court records, too. I kept waiting for a moment when I wouldn’t be able to write a detailed narrative, but everything was so well documented that it rarely happened.
MC: Today, you get to see it on TV and the Internet and hear it on the radio. But in 1912, the newspaper was how you heard stories, so we took those and asked ourselves, “Okay, what makes sense here?”
TM: I compare it to reality TV. A show is a half an hour of their lives, and there’s so much more we can’t know. Even from the newspaper articles, you can see some of the characters performing.
DIG: The book is advertised as “the true story.” Given the research, and the DNA test, is this what you believe happened?
MC: Conclusively, the DNA test told us who he was not. Bobby Dunbar is still missing. The book explains not who this is, but how this happened.
DIG: In that case, what happened to Bobby?
MC: He could’ve been eaten by an alligator or a cougar. Maybe it was quicksand. There were no clothing or bones found. Swayze Lake is still there today, but there’s not near as much water. For him to disappear completely discounts the animal theory, because an alligator wouldn’t have eaten him whole. There would’ve been blood or something left behind.
TM: William Walters traveled with numerous boys on a wagon, so the story the boy tells of someone falling off the wagon was a legal theory that pushed those memories to the forefront.
DIG: Why was it so difficult for Lessie and Julia to identify the boy?
MC: You have to remember it was 1912. There was no DNA, they didn’t even start fingerprinting children until 1913, so you didn’t have that to fall back on. Julia Anderson hadn’t seen her son in 15 months and she truly wanted to do the right thing.
TM: She was shown two children, neither of which were her sons. When she didn’t identify the boys, someone went outside, clapped, and said she’d failed to identify the child. She was manipulated to believe she had failed, whether it was on purpose or not. She was confused, and that’s the root reason why she stumbles.
MC: Lessie is a completely different story. She is on this roller coaster; her hopes are up and down. She was emotionally devastated and fragile. You have to understand they were surrounded by people who wanted to see the lost boy found. The way I view it, she would have to accept that Bobby was dead and there was no turning back once she said the boy was Bobby. She lived her whole life believing this was her son.
DIG: Do you feel at peace now that you’ve uncovered the truth?
MC: I am absolutely more at peace now. The DNA test was a terrible shock. It’s like finding out you’re adopted. You think you know your heritage and then have to ask, “Who am I?” It took time for people to understand that it really doesn’t matter.
TM: It’s also brought peace to the other families.
MC: It’s for the greater good. For Julia’s children, she always told them they had a brother and it was important to tell them the truth so they would have validation. For William Walters, he was innocent of this kidnapping. He wasn’t a saint, but his relatives and ancestors were delighted to know that he’s ultimately innocent.
DIG: What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
MC: This book was written to clarify and correct a story that had become a legend. It was so distorted; all three families had three different versions. Lessie and Percy did not recover their son, Walters was innocent, and my grandfather was born Bruce Anderson.
TM: It also shows the sheer power of loss and how that can transform and takeover someone’s life. It emphasizes what we’re capable of as humans. Bruce’s transformation to Bobby brings forth how and why we form an identity and what our memories are. There’s a lot of uncertainty about that after you finish this book.
The authors of A Case For Solomon, Margaret Dunbar Cutright and Tal McThenia, are hosting a book signing at Barnes & Noble in CitiPlace on Tuesday, September 11, at 6 p.m.