The Bizarre Kidnapping Mystery That Stunned the 1910s South

Four-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared while his family was camping at Swayze Lake in Louisiana in 1912. Hundreds of volunteers searched for him, and the alligators of the lake were even sliced open to see if Bobby was inside, but they found no trace of him. The Dunbars were wealthy people, and cast a wide net to find their son. A tip came in eight months later that Bobby was seen with a poor itinerant worker named William Cantwell Walters, so the Dunbars asked police to detain the man and traveled to Columbia, Mississippi to check the boy out themselves.

The Dunbars arrived by train and were greeted by a cluster of locals who wondered if the mystery of the missing Dunbar boy was about to unravel in their hometown. But accounts vary about precisely what happened next. In one version of the story, Percy was alleged to have cautioned his wife not to see Bobby right away, since the townsfolk seemed ill-at-ease and may have had intentions to beat, or even lynch, Walters, a suspected kidnapper, if he was proven to be at fault. Another description has Lessie racing to meet Bobby for the first time and being uncertain if it was her son; she felt his eyes were too small. For his part, Bobby shrunk away, insisting his name was Bruce.

The next day, Lessie was permitted to give the boy a bath. After examining his moles and other distinguishing features, she pronounced him to be her Bobby without a doubt. The child seemed to have had a change of heart, too, embracing her and calling her “mama.”

So alls well that ends well? Maybe not. Walters identified the child's mother, who seemed as unsure of the child's identity as Lessie Dunbar was. Bobby grew up as the Dunbar's son, but who was he, really? Read the whole story the Dunbar kidnapping at Mental Floss.

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