This American Life’s, “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar”, and why it’s interesting to a genealogist.

While attending college I happened to hitch I ride back with a friend after a break. The ride back to school was between 5 1/2 hours to 6 1/2 hours depending on how fast you drove. With amount of time in the car you certainly needed to kill some time somehow and on this particular ride my friend put an episode of This American Life. I have never even heard of this show, was skeptical, and was prepared to be bored out of my mind. However, as the show started I was immediately captivated and I followed intently about the story of Bobby Dunbar. Bobby Dunbar was a boy who disappeared on August 23rd, 1912 near St. Landry Parish, Louisiana while picnicking with his family. The result was an eight month hunt which captivated the nation for this missing child.  The hunt eventually led to a man named William Cantell Walters, who was being accompanied by a child who resembled Bobby Dunbar. Notice how I say resembled, because what proceeded was an almost century old mystery as to whether the boy with Walters was really Bobby Dunbar.

Bobby Dunbar is standing in front of the car

Bobby Dunbar standing in front of the car

The boy the authorities located with Walters said his mother was named Julia Anderson and she had granted Walters custody over the boy. Julia Anderson’s son was named Charles Bruce Anderson, but authorities did not appear to believe the boy nor Walters and decided to bring in the Dunbars to identify if this boy was in fact Bobby Dunbar or Charles Bruce Anderson. Accounts differ as to what occurred during the initial contact between the boy and the Dunbars. Some newspapers say the boy yelled “mother” and ran to Lessie Dunbar while others said it appeared they did not know each other at all. Whatever the true account may have been the end was result was the boy was determined to be Bobby Dunbar and not Charles Bruce Anderson. For the rest of his life this boy lived as Bobby Dunbar, son of Lessie & Percy Dunbar, but the mystery still hung over his head as to who he really was. The mystery went unsolved for almost a century until Margaret Dunbar Cutright, one Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughters, started to search for the true identity of Bobby Dunbar.

In 2008, This American Life, aired the journey and findings of Margaret’s research in an episode titled, “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” (you may find audio with this link)

The reason I am sharing this particular episode with you is not only is it extremely fascinating, but Margaret utilized  techniques used by genealogists to trace ancestry, and try to determine the mystery of who really was Bobby Dunbar. Margaret had to track members from both families down, interview those family members, uncover documents, research various newspaper source, scour court documents, and eventually utilized a DNA test to answer her family’s century old mystery as to who Bobby Dunbar really was.

Of course I am not going to give away the ending of Margaret’s research because doing that will take away from the enjoyment of listening to the show, but trust me you will not be disappointed and yes, there is definitive answer in the end. This is a must listen for any genealogist and/or family sleuth.

One last interesting note in case you are interested in further pursuing this topic, I did a quick Google search for Bobby Dunbar and discovered there was book published last year in 2013 by Margaret Dunbar Cutright and Tal McThenia called, “A Case for Solomon”.  Might be interesting for those looking to further pursue.

Happy Hunting!


About donnycr

Started intensely conducting research on my family history just while finishing my graduate degree in 2008. Since then I have discovered numerous amounts of lines which I didn't even know about until recently. I am strictly an amateur genealogist and conduct my research as a hobby. I am mainly self educated and constantly learning about genealogy tips and tricks. One day I hope to turn my passion for genealogy into a profession, but for now just building my expertise. I enjoy connecting with others to exchange information and knowledge. I actually have a team of researchers working with me. Well actually one researcher, my mother, who works with my on uncovering our family history. I guess my father and I have sports and my mother and I have genealogy. Family lines I focus on are: Reagan, McNanny, Johnson, Newman, Gillis, Matchett, Esty, Esson, Crotty, White, Leighton, Sherwood, Driscoll, Alyward, Bohan, Fraser, Lynch, Savage, Haggerty, Guy, and more to come. If any of these lines interest you, please let me know and will be happy to connect - connect with me @ Thanks - Donny View all posts by donnycr

3 responses to “This American Life’s, “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar”, and why it’s interesting to a genealogist.

  • Margaret Dunbar Cutright

    Thank you, Donny, for your kind words. When I began researching the mystery of my grandfather’s kidnapping case I was insistent that I was not a genealogist. I mistakenly thought genealogists were mostly interested in collecting basic information like birth and death records, and the origin of where ancestors lived. Now I know that most genealogists are passionate about history with a clear understanding that every life has a story. When the picture of the past isn’t complete a genealogist pursues the pieces of the puzzle in every nook and cranny of a library, court archives, and digital resource available.Uncovering truth isn’t always clean or simple. But nothing is more rewarding than finding enough pieces of a puzzle to enlighten who you are and where you come from. A Case For Solomon would not have been published without my co-author, Tal McThenia, who also wrote and narrated The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.

    • dtrain15

      Margaret – Thank your very much for reading my blog post and for your comments. I made sure to credit Tal McThenia with being the co-author for A Case for Solomon within the post. I also ordered a copy for myself since the book will more than likely provide more depth and richer insight than the This American Life episode. I agree 100% with you about genealogy because when I first started researching my own family history it was birth dates, when they died, and where they lived. However, my research evolved unexpectedly because there is so much more in between the birth and death of one’s ancestors that needs to be discovered. Discovering those stories are what give me the most pride and biggest thrill because those stories are what made me who I am.

      Also on a personal note, I truly mean that was a remarkable show and an even more remarkable story you presented. Two parts of the show that stuck out and profoundly struck me. The first was when you were reading the letter from “a Christian woman” and you had this epiphany that “all this was a farce” (I am paraphrasing since I do not remember the exact quotes). I cannot even begin to imagine the weight of realizing what you realized as you read that letter. The second item that stood out was when I believe your father recounted the story of how your grandfather stopped at a diner? during a family trip and met with who your father believed were members of the Anderson family. When I heard that story I couldn’t help but think did your grandfather even think he was Bobby? What a question to carry for the rest of your life. Somehow through all this your grandfather, according to your father, turned out to be a great family man considering he had every reason not to be. It is impossible for me even begin to relate to your grandfather’s story.

      Lastly, thank you for sharing your journey and findings on This American Life. I feel everyone involved in researching their own families should listen to The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar at some point. I look forward to receiving and reading A Case for Solomon.

      Thanks again for your comments,


  • Brian Sumner

    When I listened to this TAL radio episode, I was most struck by Margaret’s reading of an excerpt from the letter from ‘a Christian lady’. I bought the book, expecting to read the letter in full, but can’t seem to find it in the text anywhere. Have I missed it or is there another source where I can read her arguments?

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