The spellbinding story of one of the most celebrated kidnapping cases in American history—the kidnapping of Bobby Dunbar—and a haunting family mystery that took almost a century to solve.
THE MOST NOTORIOUS KIDNAPPING CASE IN AMERICAN HISTORY
In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing in the Louisiana swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable. A wandering piano tuner was arrested and charged with kidnapping— a crime then punishable by death.
But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not the lost Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South. A gripping historical mystery, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic century-long effort to unravel the startling truth.
Marjorie Dunbar, Mark’s grandmother: Well, I got married in 1935. And when I first started dating him, I found he had been kidnapped when he was a little boy . . . Everybody was always interested in that. He was kidnapped and taken, and he was kept for nine months. He was a little over four years old, and his mother and father didn’t get him back until he’d been gone nine months.
Mark: Did they beat him a lot?
Marjorie: Yes, an old peddler was there that picked him up. And he would make him go out and beg for food and money. And when he would try to tell his name, he would whip him. He had scars on his back when they brought him back.
And he’d been dressed as a girl and . . . they had dyed his hair. And you could hardly recognize him as being the Bobby Dunbar that had been kidnapped.
Marjorie Dunbar was my grandmother, and the story she repeated on tape to my cousin Mark for his eighth-grade social studies project was the one I grew up with too. Back in 1912, when our grandfather, Robert Clarence Dunbar, was a little boy, he had wandered off from a camping trip in Louisiana and been kidnapped. Many months later, he was miraculously found in Mississippi and returned home to his parents, Percy and Lessie.
Grandma first told me the story during a visit when I was in fifth grade, six years after Grandpa had died. No matter that it had a happy ending and had happened long ago, the story frightened me. She showed me a collection of newspaper articles about the kidnapping, but the thing most seared into my memory was an illustration of the kidnapper himself: a man named William Walters. For many nights after that, I still saw his thick handlebar mustache and piercing eyes when I tried to go to sleep.
There was another part of the story that I found more bewildering than terrifying, embodied in the title of one of the articles: “A Case for a Solomon.” When my grandfather was returned to his parents, another mother named Julia Anderson had come down from North Carolina to claim him as her son, not Bobby Dunbar. After much controversy and a court trial, she was proven wrong. I couldn’t help wondering: Where was this other mother’s son? Did she ever find him? I tried to make sense of it all in a short essay for school entitled “The Lost Boy.” Apparently I failed: the teacher told me it was too confusing.
As I grew older and heard the story again and again, the mystery and questions at the edges of it wore down, and it achieved the soft simplicity of a childhood fable, complete with a moral at the end: don’t wander too far from home and don’t talk to strangers. As a mother, I even used the story as a lesson for my own children as well.
In 1999, not long after losing Grandma, my brother Robert Clarence Dunbar III was killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed in New Mexico. Afterward, I spent time with my parents, grieving and helping them through the shattering loss of their firstborn son. One day, as we were looking through old family photos and remembering Robbie, my dad handed me a thick, heavy black binder. It was a copy of the family scrapbook devoted to my grandfather’s kidnapping, passed down from my grandfather’s mother, Lessie Dunbar, to my grandmother, and when she died, passed on to her children.
The binder was stuffed with newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and telegrams, taped in with little if any discernible order. I stopped suddenly on an editorial cartoon, dated 1913 and entitled “Fifty Years from Now.” It depicted a boy, whose shirt collar read “Bobbie III,” on the floor reading a newspaper story about the kidnapping mystery and asking his grandfather, labeled “Boy Taken from the Tinker,” the following question: “Grandpa, do you ever think we’ll know for certain what our right name is?” Next to that caption, a long time ago, someone had scribbled a confident retort: “Why sure! It’s Bobbie Dunbar.” The cartoon was a mirror to the moment I was living as I stared at it. The little boy, Bobbie III, was my brother.
The scrapbook was like a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box, and over the next few months, I lost myself in trying to piece it together. At first it was easier to explore a mystery in my grandfather’s past than to make sense of the aching questions about life and death in my own present. But soon the scrapbook—and the story it told—was no longer a safe source of escape. The controversy over my grandfather’s identity, hurried through in my grandmother’s retelling, in fact had been front and center in the kidnapping case for two full years after he was recovered.
And the very first time I looked beyond the scrapbook, my family legend was turned squarely on its head. One quick online search of “Bobby Dunbar” led me to the genealogical website of Tammy Westmoreland, who had posted this note about her great-grandmother, the “other mother,” Julia Anderson:
“Julia had a son from her first marriage named Bruce that was kidnapped from NC when he was six years old and taken to LA. She tried to get him back, but the people who kidnapped him won him in court and changed his name to Bobby Dunbar.”
In this version, the kidnapper was not William Walters at all, but rather my own ancestors, Percy and Lessie Dunbar. As much as I had absorbed the controversy playing out in the pages of ninety-year-old newspapers, it had not occurred to me that my grandfather’s identity—my own family’s identity—was still being challenged in the age of the Internet. Bobbie III’s question was now fully my own.
Within months, I was piecing together a broader historical record in libraries, archives, and courthouses across several states. I explored the story’s landscapes as I read about them, peering into the swampy murk of Swayze Lake from the wooden railroad trestle where little Bobby Dunbar had disappeared; wandering across the Mississippi farm where the lost boy had made friends with a fox terrier named Rambler; marveling at the lovely white mansion where Lessie Dunbar had given my grandfather a bath when he first was recovered; and roaming the halls of New Orleans’s Hotel Monteleone, where the future governor of Louisiana had examined the boy’s foot to determine that he was Bobby Dunbar—a decision, it dawned on me then and there, that had made my life possible.
With great apprehension, I ventured to Poplarville, Mississippi, to meet the descendants of Julia Anderson in person: not just Tammy Westmoreland and her aunts and uncles but also two of Julia’s own children from a later marriage, Hollis Rawls and Jewel Tarver. Right away, I could tell that for Julia’s children, two generations closer to the story than I was, the case was far more than a genealogical mystery. It was a festering injustice, reflected vividly in the childhood story that Jewel’s daughter Linda had grown up hearing:
I knew that . . . Mother’s brother Bruce had come down from North Carolina with Mr. Walters; they came on a wagon. And . . . [t]his little boy had taken missing over in Louisiana . . . [T]here was a hearing, the people in Louisiana proved that he was their child, [but] he really wasn’t. They just got him. They just took him.
For all their indignation over the past, Julia’s family was only kind and open with me. I shared my research with them, and they shared their stories. One in particular was strange and unnerving: Hollis told me that some fifty years ago, my grandfather—then a grown man—had come to Poplarville to see him. It would be years before I fully believed the story and understood its significance.
In Georgia, I met the family of William Walters, my grandfather’s alleged kidnapper. Jean Cooper and Barbara Moore, Walters’s great-nieces, recalled that long after his conviction, William Walters adamantly maintained his innocence, though his motivation in taking Bruce Anderson in the first place remained a dark mystery even to his immediate family. Jean and Barbara’s grandfather could not fathom why his brother would have carried a small boy halfway across the country. Nearly a century later, neither could I.
As far from home as I would travel, the most significant chapter of my search occurred in Lumberton, North Carolina, just a few hours from where I’d grown up. I sat at the hospital bedside of ninety-year-old Bernice Graves Hardee, Julia Anderson’s oldest living child, who had lived with her brother Bruce for the first year of her life in North Carolina, before the kidnapping controversy. Holding Bernice’s fragile hand, staring into her watery blue-gray eyes, and hearing her memories of her mother, I felt as if I were with Julia herself—the woman who might or might not be my great-grandmother. When my father, Bobby Dunbar Jr., came into the hospital room, Bernice glowed with life. Just months before she died, God had answered her lifelong prayer: her brother had returned. Neither my dad nor I dared to challenge her belief that we were kin. “It is the truth, what I know, isn’t it?” she asked before I left. All I could do was smile and nod weakly.
As much as I accepted that the descendants of Julia Anderson and William Walters had their own truths, I still believed that my truth was the right one. My grandfather was Bobby Dunbar, the lost boy who was found. But eventually, the historical record put up too many challenges to that belief for me to ignore. Everything I thought I knew seemed to be crumbling out of my grasp. And far more than a question of roots was at stake.
My brother Robbie’s memorial service, for all of the anguish I felt, had been one of the most profound moments of coming together that I had ever experienced with my extended Dunbar family. As we gathered around the smoky barbecue pit, a Dunbar ritual that originated with Grandpa and Grandma, I felt my family’s unquestioning love and embrace. Researching this story, I hoped, naïvely, that my work might somehow help to recapture that connection and bring us all closer in a new way. Instead it threatened to do precisely the opposite. I had hurled open the family closet and was yanking out its skeletons. I was betraying, and dividing, my own family.
It has taken years to come to some kind of peace with that tension, and for healing within my family to occur. An essential part of that process has been sharing this story with my coauthor, Tal McThenia, an objective “outsider,” and entrusting him to craft and write this book. During our four years of collaboration, we have demanded of each other a clear-eyed loyalty to the story’s difficult truths. And we have kept each other’s hearts open to the devastation and hope at the bottom of its mystery. Like Tal, I take great pride in the fact that our work exposes and corrects a series of century-old injustices and falsehoods. But ultimately, the most important part of this story comes after the public agony of my grandfather’s early years. It is the life he chose to live in private that makes this family story most necessary to share.
—Margaret Dunbar Cutright
In synopsis, this story invariably prompts a barrage of incredulous questions. How can two mothers claim the same boy as their own? How could there be any uncertainty, from either mother, in knowing the child she bore? The answers to these questions are complex, incremental, and cumulative, and in the end, the issue of recognition is probably the least relevant and certainly the least compelling.
This is a story of loss: one mother’s agonizing surrender to it, and another mother’s terrified, scorched-earth fight against it. It is a story of the ferocious, selfless, and seemingly irrational maternal instinct to protect a child.
But what of the boy himself? He must have known who he was.
The answer, in this story, for this boy, is not so clear-cut.
If a child’s memory, like anyone’s, is imperfect from the moment of its inception, an infinitely evolving alchemy of lived experience, imagination and speculation, cues and suggestions, then how do they know what is “true”? If a child’s sense of self depends on owning memory, on attaching to concrete and stable forces around him—home and family—and on the simple act of having a name and knowing it, what happens when all of that is challenged, when all of that is constantly in flux?
It is the boy who is the puzzle, and the quiet hero of this story.
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.
“Rarely do nonfiction books engage me so deeply and satisfyingly as . . . A Case for Solomon has. Exhaustively researched . . . [the book] reads like fiction.”
– Elissa Schappel, Vanity Fair
“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 ofThe 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
"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
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