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In August, 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared during a family camping trip near a swamp in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. After an 8-month, nationwide search, investigators found a boy in Mississippi matching Bobby’s description. He was with a traveling piano tuner, who was arrested and charged with kidnapping. But when a destitute, single mother named Julia Anderson came forward to claim the boy as her son, the case became a sensationalized battle over custody. Nearly 100 years later, Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughter Margaret Dunbar Cutright started digging into the mystery again. She worked with documentarian Tal McThenia to put the pieces together. They join Diane to discuss the meaning of family identity and truth.
- Margaret Dunbar Cutright granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar.
- Tal McThenia radio and television documentary writer and producer.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “A Case For Solomon: Bobby Dunbar And The Kidnapping That Haunted A Nation” by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. Copyright 2012 by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. Reprinted here by permission of Free Press Publicity. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Dianne Rehm. One hundred years ago this month, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing from a family gathering in Louisiana. Eight months later, a boy fitting his description was found in Mississippi, but two different mothers claimed him as her son.
MS. DIANE REHMThe boy's true identity remained disputed for three generations until a DNA test proved the truth. Tal McThenia reported this story in a radio documentary that aired on "This American Life" in 2008. Margaret Dunbar Cutright is the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar.
MS. DIANE REHMThey've written a new book together. It is titled "A Case for Solomon." They join me in the studio. You are welcome to join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to both of you, thank you for being here.
MR. TAL MCTHENIAGood morning, Diane.
MS. MARGARET DUNBAR CUTRIGHTGood morning.
REHMTal and Margaret, this is such a fascinating story. I was really engrossed in reading about it, learning about it. Margaret, what were you told about your grandfather and the kidnapping?
CUTRIGHTWell, as a child, my grandmother shared with us that my grandfather had gone missing from a family camping trip in southwest Louisiana that was in a swamp. It was called Swayze Lake, and that there was a tremendous search for him and that eight months later he was found in the hands of a wandering tinker and was recovered.
CUTRIGHTBut then another woman came forward and said that it was her son and then William Walters was tried for the kidnapping.
REHMWilliam Walters being the tinker or the piano tuner?
CUTRIGHTYes, there were several identification tests held since there were two families claiming him and it was determined that this child was indeed Bobby Dunbar and he lived his life as Bobby Dunbar.
REHMYou know, I wonder what your own personal reactions were when you heard that story. What did you think? What did you feel?
CUTRIGHTAs a ten-year-old, it frightened me. My grandmother brought a newspaper article that retold the story from 1954 called "A Case for Solomon" and it had a photograph of William Walters and he had a very thick handlebar mustache. And to me, he looked evil because in my mind, he had taken my grandfather as a child. He was a kidnapper so I was frightened of his picture.
REHMAnd so you're ten years old when you first hear about this story. What made you go back and begin to question what you had read or heard?
CUTRIGHTIn 1999, my older brother Robbie passed away unexpectedly and after mourning his death with the family, my father presented me with a scrapbook that actually belonged to Lessie Dunbar, my great-grandmother. And in it were, like, 400 newspaper articles that were not in any chronological order.
CUTRIGHTBut I was told there were two other scrapbooks that were missing. My grandmother, Bobby Dunbar's wife, Marjorie Dunbar had these scrapbooks in her possession and she had lend them out to reporters years ago and they were never returned. So there was a lot of information missing which, after I assembled in chronological order these newspaper articles, I began to research microfilm the old fashioned way. It was not digitized...
REHMYou had to see how.
CUTRIGHT...and began to realize how the story was huge. It was a national story.
CUTRIGHTIt was a huge story and there was a tremendous amount of information out there that had not yet been assembled all in one place.
REHMAnd Tal McThenia, when did you first meet Margaret? How did you get involved in this story?
MCTHENIAWell, I actually heard about the story online when the DNA test results were announced in 2004 and it mentioned in the article there was an interview with Margaret. And she lived at that time in Garrison, N.Y. and I lived about an hour away from Garrison so somehow the physical proximity gave me license to feel like a...
REHMA preview, yeah, of course.
MCTHENIARight, right, right. So I just called her up on the phone. I was like, oh, 845 area code, perfect and I called her up. At that time I was -- my interest was I was a screenwriter and I immediately thought this story would be an amazing film.
MCTHENIAAnd, Margaret, for someone just calling her...
MCTHENIA...on the phone was really great. We talked for probably about...
CUTRIGHTAbout an hour.
REHMYou loved the fact that she was interested in the story, but I mean, you still had your own questions?
CUTRIGHTIn 2004, I wasn't ready to even think about a screenplay, though I've always thought that -- I've always seen this story visually in my head with vignettes running through my mind. But in 2004, I simply wanted truth. I wanted an accurate accounting. I had like a 10,000-piece puzzle in front of me and I hadn't yet assembled everything.
CUTRIGHTI didn't comprehend fully the entire story. The story had been sensationalized so much by the media that it was hard to get to the truth.
REHMTake us back then to August 23, 1912, the day that Bobby Dunbar went missing. You said they were at a family picnic. How many people were at that picnic, do you know?
CUTRIGHTThere were, I think, nearly 13 people in the party.
REHMThirteen people in the party and all of a sudden, somebody noticed that Bobby was gone?
CUTRIGHTYou have to imagine that where they were. Southwest Louisiana, at Atchafalaya Basin was very much like a jungle, you know, we're talking swamp, thick brush, wildlife, quicksand.
REHMHow do you have a picnic there?
CUTRIGHTWell, you know, it was like a family camping...
CUTRIGHT...area. It was common at that time for people to go and enjoy the fishing and they mostly went out by train. It was not really accessible easily and there were other sections in this area where there were public parks that were being built for the public to come out and enjoy the fishing. It was like going to a state park.
REHMHow long was he missing before they realized he was gone?
MCTHENIAYeah, probably 15 minutes, he was. You know, they were getting ready for lunch and everybody was kind of doing everything, you know, doing different things. There were men down at the lake fishing. The women were in the two cabins preparing the food. There were other kids running around. It was just one of those nightmare situations in a group party where suddenly nobody is watching, you know, nobody is watching that child.
CUTRIGHTAnd in an instant, he wandered off.
REHMHe's four years old.
REHMHe had wandered off.
CUTRIGHTRight. His father, Percy Dunbar, had gone a mile or so down the road to notarize a land deal and he really wanted to go with his dad and he wasn't allowed to go and so some thought perhaps he was chasing after his dad.
REHMI see. So tell eight months later, a boy matching Bobby's description turned up in Mississippi. By the way, we do have photographs on our website, drshow.org You can take a look at the comparison of the child at four when he went missing and a little later on in his life. What struck you about how the child was found? Who said he was Bobby Dunbar, Tal?
MCTHENIAWell, for those eight months, it had been a -- it had really been a national search and there had been sightings of boys across the country. In Mississippi in particular, this wandering handyman, William Walters, had been a suspect since as early as September, as early as one month after Bobby Dunbar went missing.
MCTHENIABecause of, you know, it's sort of a community suspicion around him. He's...
REHMBecause he's homeless?
MCTHENIAHe's homeless. He travels around in a wagon, you know, going from house to house fixing clocks and organs. And he has this little boy with him and he doesn't have a very easy explanation for who this child is either, in relation to him and that's for a variety of reasons. In fact, at that time, he didn't know who the father of the child was.
MCTHENIAAnd, you know, there's a lot of speculation that he was actually using the child to gain sympathy so that the, you know, he could have a place to stay, the mothers in the homes would bathe and cuddle him. And so in addition to the kindness of the community that came forward, to him, there was a great deal of suspicion, too.
REHMTal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright, they're co-authors of a new book. It's titled "A Case for Solomon." We'll take your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMSo in this hour, we're talking about a case that occurred back in 1912 when a four-year-old named Bobby Dunbar disappeared during a family camping trip. And eight months later, he turns up in the hands of a wandering piano tuner and another woman comes forward and claims he's her son when the Dunbars say he's their son. And so we have a book titled "A Case for Solomon" written by Tal McThenia, a journalist and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. She is the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar.
REHMAnd we go on to understand that this becomes a huge case in the media. Why does it become such a huge case in the media, Margaret?
CUTRIGHTWell, because two women claimed one child as their son.
REHMOne woman comes forward and says, this is my boy Bobby. And another woman comes forward and says what?
CUTRIGHTThis is my son Bruce Anderson. You know, she had allowed Williams Walters to take Bruce in February of 1912 with him. And he ends up taking Bruce on the road and they end up in Mississippi by June of 1912. Bobby Dunbar goes missing in August of 1912.
MCTHENIAShe took -- she allowed Walters to take the child...
MCTHENIA...because she was in an incredibly destitute position. She was working in the home of Walter's parents and she'd already had -- she'd had -- she'd left an abusive marriage. She was -- in addition to Bruce she had another daughter that she had just had. And...
REHMSo she was a single mother with no real means of support.
MCTHENIAExactly. And she was -- and, yeah, the situation with Walters -- with William Walters' parents was becoming increasing untenable. They were abusive and accusatory of her, you know, accusing her of stealing. And there was a great deal of shame and scandal, you know, obviously around being a single mother with two children from two different fathers. And she gave Walters Bruce out of desperation. She didn't really -- she could not have cared for him.
REHMSo on the one hand, you have the Dunbar family, which is in fairly good circumstances. You have a single mother who has had two children by two different husbands. She has a girl with her. She gives the boy to this gentleman, this piano tuner to wander around.
CUTRIGHTI think it's more like she allows William Walters to take Bruce and they do stay in touch. She writes several letters and William Walters writes several letters to her letting her know how Bruce is doing. So she knew where Bruce was. She knew who had Bruce. Bruce Anderson was never missing. The media later sort of makes it sound as though William Walters was a kidnapper and had kidnapped multiple children.
REHMIs there -- was there any evidence to indicate that that was true?
MCTHENIAI guess at the -- there was. There -- evidence was procured I support after Bobby Dunbar was recovered and taken to the -- after the child was taken and taken back to the Dunbars there was -- that's when sort of this evidence gathering process began of, you know, organizing this sort of hunt for clues as to -- you know, the idea of a kidnapping gang was -- became sort of wildly popular in the -- with prosecutors. And he...
CUTRIGHTThere had been a $6,000 reward offered. Many people from the public came forward to say they saw him here, they saw him there. But...
REHMBut here's the thing that I don't get. Eight months is a pretty short period of time for a child to change in appearance sufficiently that this Mrs. Dunbar says, this is definitely my son Bobby Dunbar. And for Mrs. Walters to say -- or whatever...
REHM...Anderson to say, this is definitely my son Bruce. Surely a woman is going to know what her son looks like after eight months.
CUTRIGHT...Dunbar, Bobby's mother, she was -- you know, for eight months the search went on. And, as you can imagine, you've watched I'm sure other current children go missing and how parents respond. It was a horribly...
CUTRIGHT...you know, it's a tragic circumstance...
CUTRIGHT...very traumatic. And Lessie didn't -- I think Lessie and Percy didn't really believe at first that, you know, when they were first contacted that this child was their son. It took quite a bit of convincing for them to even go look at the child. They were afraid to get their hopes up again.
REHMHad they had their hopes dashed previously?
CUTRIGHTDashed many times. Oh, many times.
REHMI see, I see.
CUTRIGHTThere was a tremendous search in the fall of 1912 that lasted and led up to some men being arrested for the kidnapping. They were eventually let go. And when they were let go there was such a letdown. You know, she still doesn't know where her son is. Is he dead or is he alive? And you can imagine that it broke her, you know, her spirit, her mental, emotional. You know, how do you -- gosh, not knowing where your child is is devastating.
REHMGo ahead, Tal.
MCTHENIAIt's almost -- at a certain point I think it became for both of them almost a trap, the idea that this search was continuing and that they couldn't have the sense of closure of the body of their child, of a -- the certainty of death. And in Mississippi when Walters was apprehended with this child the community became collectively so certain that this was Bobby Dunbar they sent photographs of the child to the Dunbars. And the Dunbars and these people wrote letters back and forth and discussed traits.
MCTHENIAAnd so before Lessie -- as doubtful as she was, before she even went to see the child, she was ready -- so, so ready to believe that he was hers.
REHMI see. I'm also thinking however about Mrs. Anderson, Bruce Anderson's mother and thinking about the anguish she as a single mother with little or no resources...
REHM...of her own, must have felt when she's going up against someone who has resources, who has a certain standing in society. To what extent do you think class became an issue in this whole awarding of Bobby Dunbar to Lessie and Percy?
MCTHENIAI think it was huge. I think it was absolutely huge. On the one hand she's a single mother and she's -- and there's the stigma of being a single mother and without any resources. And then on the other hand the Dunbars who were not wealthy but they were connected in Appaloosas, La. the town that they were from and the parish. And they -- Percy Dunbar was a real estate and insurance salesman and part of kind of a clique of town leaders. And he was also a politician.
MCTHENIAAnd a lot of political bigwigs kind of came into this story including the future governor of Louisiana John M. Parker who...
CUTRIGHT...whose opinion was that the child would be better off with the Dunbars whether he was really Bobby Dunbar or not...
CUTRIGHT...because of the situation that Julia was in. The he would be better off living with the Dunbars than he would...
REHM...with Julia Anderson.
CUTRIGHT...a single mother.
REHMNow there was a trial and William Walters was convicted of kidnapping. How come he's let out of jail just two years later, Tal?
MCTHENIAThat's -- we had probably 15 pages of our book devoted to that that we had to -- it's a really complicated legal firm, but...
REHMBecause he -- they were going to lynch him, for heaven's sake.
MCTHENIAYeah, well, he...
CUTRIGHTWell, it was a capital crime.
MCTHENIAYeah, it was a capital offense and at the same time the trial was going on the -- Walters' lawyers had an amazing co-council that was local that was in Louisiana. And he was preparing for the inevitability of an appeal because he knew that it was very unlikely with a local jury that they would get -- that he would get a fair trial. And so he prepared an astounding appeal. The Supreme Court heard the appeal and found reason for -- you know, plenty of reason for a retrial. So they remanded it for another trial and the parish -- at that point...
CUTRIGHTSt. Landry Parish.
MCTHENIA...yeah, St. Landry Parish -- the prosecutor said, you know, that trial broke us.
REHMWe can't do it.
MCTHENIAWe can't do it again and...
REHMWe can't do it again.
CUTRIGHTBut they'd spent $8,000 on the first trial.
MCTHENIAAnd it was -- you know, I think that there was a sort of unspoken conclusion that the Dunbars had their child and therefore justice had been done. Let this poor old man out of jail.
REHMI am just fascinated with the letter that was written by William Walters addressed directly to Bobby Dunbar's father Percy. He says, "I see that you got Bruce/Bobby Dunbar, 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's 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.
REHMI did not teach him to beg or bum, but in as much as you have him, take good care of him. So you have lost 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." Such a letter and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What was life like for Bobby after the trial, Margaret?
CUTRIGHTWell, after the trial he, you know, settled in with the Dunbars, but I think that he had a lot of issues with his health. They put him in school and he stayed behind in school for a while. He had hookworm disease that had caused -- that had probably gone untreated for quite a while and had...
REHMHookworm in his gut.
CUTRIGHTUm-hum. It was a very common thing in rural Mississippi at the time and probably many other places. But we believe that it affected his ability to sleep and focus on schoolwork. And it affected him in different ways.
REHMWhat did he say? Did he say to anyone, Julia Anderson -- Julia is my mom?
CUTRIGHTNo, never. He -- as an adult -- in 1932, when the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping -- the baby had been kidnapped and murdered, he was interviewed. And this was 20 years later and this is the first time that he speaks out as an adult. His -- Percy has passed away by this point and Lessie has moved to another state. And he gives memories and thoughts out at that time that indicate to us that he was -- had affection for William Walters. He still would like to see this man, even though he, in his mind, thought that he'd been abused and been told, you know, a lot of things.
CUTRIGHTHe had a memory of being in a wagon and food and supplies falling out of this wagon because of a flood. And to him, it was humorous watching this grown man William Walters struggle to maintain how to control all of that. But it was a big clue for me because that flood happened in the spring of 1912. And it was a Bruce Anderson memory, not a Bobby Dunbar memory. Bobby Dunbar went missing in August of 1912. This flood happened in the spring of 1912. So it's that kind of...
MCTHENIAI think he -- as much as he internalized the conclusion that he was Bobby Dunbar, these other memories came in. And there was -- I think he experienced a conflict between sort of memory given to him, memory supplied to him in one way or another when he was a child and then true memory -- his own true memory. And those things, I think, were at conflict within him for a lot of his life. And Margaret had an amazing encounter with a really, really, really old woman who in Appaloosas went to -- who was childhood friends with Bobby. And she had a memory of -- do you want to tell that, Margaret? I don't know the story...
REHMI think you're going to have to hold that thought and we'll take a short break here. Such a complicated and such a fascinating story. And we have neglected to say that Percy and Lessie were divorced because Percy got a little violent and maybe unfaithful.
REHMWe're talking in this hour about a new book written by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. The book is titled, "A Case For Solomon: Bobby Dunbar And The Kidnapping That Haunted A Nation." Here's a wonderful email from Cathy who says, "Such an interesting and tragic story. I first heard it back in 2008 on "This American Life." The next day we left on a family vacation. My 10-year-old son always wanted to hear stories, so I retold him the case of Bobby Dunbar. When this show came on this morning I called him up and told him to tune in. He remembered my retelling of this story and is now listening to your program this morning."
REHMHere's another email. Chris says, "Please ask Margaret if things have been reconciled within her family. The story on "This American Life" is one of my favorites. Margaret?
CUTRIGHTI think there has been an acceptance and some reconciliation, yes.
REHMThere was some anger because you pursued this story?
CUTRIGHTI think there was definite resistance and definitely hard feelings, but you have to understand that when you learn -- it's like learning you're adopted. When you learn that you're not who you've always believed that you were it's sort of like you've stood on a rock and it turned to sand. You lose your balance. You have to rethink. You have to want to look in the mirror to comprehend and understand this story from our perspective.
REHMAnd your siblings felt what?
CUTRIGHTWell, my siblings are a different generation. I'm the third generation. The generation that -- of course, Bobby Dunbar's children, my father and his siblings are the ones who had the most pain and struggle with this.
REHMDo we know how the whole trial and the whole experience of having Bobby Dunbar go to the Dunbars -- how did that affect Julia's life, Julia Anderson?
MCTHENIAWell, Julia came down for the trial to testify. And…
REHMAnd to say?
MCTHENIAAnd to say this is my son Bruce. And she, during the trial, grew terribly ill. And she in fact testified on a cot in a lobby of a hotel. And when she was delirious, you know, only less than 24 hours after having an operation. So she was in terrible health and she'd lost everything back home in North Carolina.
REHMWhat about her daughter, Bernice?
MCTHENIAShe had been given up for adoption.
MCTHENIASo she had no family, no children. A remarkable thing happened at that trial, though. The witnesses who came forward for Walters's defense, rallied around Julia. And they told her stories about the experiences that they had with Bruce when he was in their care while, you know, traveling with Walters. And they bonded over their affection for this child that they both knew that was now lost to all of them. And Julia…
CUTRIGHTShe remained in Mississippi.
MCTHENIAYeah, she had nowhere to go. And so they essentially took her in to their community in Fords Creek, which is just outside of Poplarville, Miss.
REHMAnd did Bernice know of everything that had happened?
CUTRIGHTI met Bernice before she passed in 2000. And she told me that she didn't meet her mother until she was 24. She had been adopted and was raised by another family.
REHMDid she know of her connections?
CUTRIGHTShe knew of Bruce.
REHMShe knew of Bruce.
CUTRIGHTShe knew of Bruce and she knew of her mother.
REHMDid she know of Bobby Dunbar?
CUTRIGHTI'm not sure that she knew of Bobby Dunbar, but I do know that she knew she had a brother, Bruce. And that she knew that her mother was Julia Anderson. And that when they reconciled at 24 it was an answer to her prayer. When we met her -- my father and I went to meet her -- and my mother -- in 2000 she believed that we were Bruce Anderson's descendants. She believed my father was Bruce Anderson's son.
CUTRIGHTAnd at the time we didn't contradict what she believed because that's not what we thought at the time. But she said she prayed her whole life for her brother or his kin to come. For me it was like listening to Julia Anderson herself hearing her talk about Julia. It was one of the most special moments throughout my whole search.
REHMIsn't there some indication that Bobby Dunbar, as he grew up, visited with Walters Anderson a number of times?
CUTRIGHTWell, with Julia, when she married Ollie Rawls and they had seven children together. And Hollis Rawls said that my grandfather came to the ice house where he worked in Poplarville, Miss. and met him. And at the time it didn't register with him what was happening, even though he knew his whole life. His mother had told him and all of her children about their brother Bobby, who was actually Bruce. Our meeting was short and brief, but to me it says that my grandfather wondered. You know, why would he go and visit Hollis Rawls?
CUTRIGHTI mean he must have had questions.
REHMYeah. Someone sent an email saying, "Weren't there -- even though there was no such thing as DNA testing at the time, weren't there birthmarks, weren't there some distinguishing marks?"
MCTHENIAThere were. There were. One of the most distinguishing marks for Bobby Dunbar that was on two reward posters in the fall of 1912 was a burn scar on his big toe. He had run into some ashes and the toe was so burned that it was scarred and malformed. So it was a very, very distinguishing mark. And that was one of the things that whenever anybody would stop a man with a boy on a train or on the road…
REHMThey'd look at the toe.
MCTHENIA…they'd look for this toe. And when the Dunbars finally saw the boy for themselves that was one of the first things that they looked for. And it is a matter of hot contention what exactly they saw. And this is sort of one of the things that we explore in the book a lot, is that toe. And what we know is a few days after that first identification the Dunbars began to say that the toe scar had faded over time. That it had faded more and that on the road, you know, barefoot, it could have faded even more.
MCTHENIASo they began to, you know, in conjunction with their desperate hope that this was Bobby, I think they began to convince themselves of the fact that his body had changed, too.
CUTRIGHTYou know, they wanted to believe that this was…
CUTRIGHTThey needed to…
CUTRIGHTLessie needed to believe that this was her son.
REHMI understand. Why did Lessie and Percy divorce, Margaret?
CUTRIGHTWell, I think that the marriage probably -- I'm sure -- began to fracture during this traumatic kidnapping trial…
REHMOf course, yeah.
CUTRIGHT…and all of the circumstances that surrounded that, but ultimately they divorced in 1927. And, you know, she accused him of infidelity. And he accused her of…
MCTHENIAPoisoning the boys against him and of basically telling the kids that he'd committed adultery. And…
CUTRIGHTYou know, it's very interesting because there were two divorces. Lessie got her divorce in Florida. And Percy got his divorce in Louisiana. They couldn't even agree on how to divorce.
REHMAll right. Margaret, I'm going to bring you now to the question of the DNA testing.
REHMTell me about why and how you decided to go through that.
CUTRIGHTWell, the DNA testing was -- when I first met with Julia's children in Poplarville, Miss. and some of her grandchildren, one of the descendants, Linda, her question to me immediately was will your family do a DNA test with my family so that we can finally know once and for all what the truth is? That was a sort of loaded question. I had already had discussions with my father. And he had always said he would do a DNA, be willing to do that, but he didn't really wanna pay for it not knowing how much it would cost.
CUTRIGHTBut he wanted all his brothers and sisters to agree on that. It took four years later, when a reporter came around to interview my father and I. And the reporter asked my father to do a DNA test. And he had already spoken to the other family member who also contributed DNA for the comparison. It was a paternity test.
CUTRIGHTPercy Dunbar had two sons. And they're Bobby and Alonzo. Bobby and Alonzo had sons. So the Y chromosome should match for these first cousins and it didn't. So what the DNA test proved or shows us, tells us is that they are not blood related and they should be related. Now, we don't know for certain through that DNA test that this is Bruce Anderson. It does not prove who he was. It proves who he was not. That's what the DNA test -- you only know that this child, that my grandfather was born Bruce Anderson by reading the tremendous amount of research and following where Bruce Anderson was.
CUTRIGHTBruce Anderson was never missing. Bobby Dunbar is still missing.
REHMBobby Dunbar is still missing. What do you surmise could have happened, Tal?
MCTHENIAWell, at the time people speculated that he had drowned. His footprints were found near a railroad trestle that went over a section of the lake. The lake was dredged and no body was found. People dove into the lake for a whole day looking for a body. They cut open alligators and disemboweled them to see if there were traces of a child inside. And they didn't find anything. My speculation is that he did drown and his body just was not found.
MCTHENIAHe might have been eaten by an alligator and they didn't cut that alligator open. But I, you know, as extensive and comprehensive as that search was, it's hard for me to believe that he really did go very far from where he was last seen.
REHMDo you agree with that, Margaret?
CUTRIGHTI do agree with that. I think the most likely scenario is that he was eaten by an alligator. And that's sort of hard to say, hard to imagine, you know. But we're out in the jungle in the swamps. There's quicksand. There were black bear. There were cougars. There was wildlife. But they didn't find a body. They didn't find any clothing. They didn't find his hat, his straw hat that was loose on his head. They never found that, you know. It makes common sense to me that he fell off that bridge and was consumed.
REHMAnd your relatives would rather not have learned that Bobby Dunbar was actually Bruce Anderson.
CUTRIGHTI don't know that that's a true statement. I think they want to remember who they know and loved and grew up with. The man that was their daddy and their grandfather. It's complicated when you throw in all of this is he, isn't he, you know. But they remember his love and his unconditional love. And his embrace. And that's what they want to remember. All of this other controversy is getting in the way of remembering the man that he really was, the family man. And honoring…
REHMIt changes, you know, one's whole idea of who or what is family doesn't it? What kind of reaction, Tal, did you get to the 2008 story on this in "American Life?"
MCTHENIAIt was a really popular show. The response to "This American Life" was huge. And I think a lot of response had to do with the issue of family secrets, which everyone has. And it really touched a nerve, I think, for a lot of people that are looking into their own pasts and their families' pasts.
REHMI'm going to read a final quote here. Apparently, Margaret, your father once asked his father, Bobby, Sr., point blank, "Who are you? Who do you think you are? His father looked at him square in the eye and answered, I know who I am and I know who you are and nothing else matters. It's how we live our life." Congratulations on this book. Really terrific. It's titled, "A Case For Solomon: Bobby Dunbar And The Kidnapping That Haunted A Nation," Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates was just named a MacArthur Fellow. A conversation with Coates about the devastating effect of mass incarceration on black families and his recent memoir about growing up in inner-city Baltimore.
For this month's Environmental Outlook: Ten years ago, Israel experienced a prolonged drought that forced the country to come up with a strategy to address water scarcity. What its experience could teach an increasingly water-starved planet.
Russia is sending what it calls "volunteer" troops to Syria, and its airstrikes have targeted CIA-backed rebels. We look at Russia's support of the Assad regime and escalating concerns over a possible U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria.