The Bizarre Kidnapping Mystery That Stunned the 1910s South

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Family Photo: Unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Headlines: Clarion-Ledger, April 26, 1913; The Madison Journal, May 3, 1913; The Times-Democrat, August 7, 1913. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Family Photo: Unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Headlines: Clarion-Ledger, April 26, 1913; The Madison Journal, May 3, 1913; The Times-Democrat, August 7, 1913. Background: iStock

The last time anyone could say with certainty that they saw the real Bobby Dunbar was August 23, 1912. Later described in newspapers as stout “but not fat,” rosy-cheeked, and sporting a straw hat, the 4-year-old son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar had accompanied his parents and their friends to a weekend camping retreat at Swayze Lake near Opelousas, Louisiana. Percy, who ran a successful real estate and insurance company, quickly left to attend to business; Lessie stayed behind to care for Bobby and his 2-year-old brother, Alonzo.

The morning they arrived, Bobby left his mother to go watch his father’s friend, Paul Mizzi, shoot fish in the murky water, a muddy splash of swamp surrounded by trees. As lunchtime neared, Lessie began calling everyone to help set up for the meal. According to a contemporary newspaper report, as Mizzi and Bobby walked to the dining area, the young man told the little boy to get out of the way; Bobby laughed and said something sassy, then "disappeared like magic."

When Bobby failed to reappear, his mother grew frantic. It's easy to imagine her worst fears about the alligator-infested waters nearby. By the time Percy returned to the lake around noon, he found friends searching for his son, and more than 100 locals quickly joined the search party.

For over a week, they combed the swamp and surrounding area, looking for bones, a body, or Bobby’s straw hat. Gators dragged from the water had their bellies sliced open to check for body parts. Some of the men set off dynamite in the water to see if his corpse would rise to the surface.

The good news was that nothing was found. The terrible news was that nothing was found. For eight excruciating months, Percy and Lessie were in a state of shock, unsure whether to grieve for Bobby or hold on to a thread of hope.

Then, in April 1913, Percy got a telegram from Columbia, Mississippi. The telegram said that a transient had been spotted with a boy matching Bobby’s description. Within days, Percy and Lessie were convinced it was their Bobby. They would take him in, raise him, and love him, even as the man accused of kidnapping Bobby protested his innocence—even as he insisted the boy’s real name wasn't Bobby Dunbar, but Bruce Anderson, his traveling companion.

The Dunbars hadn't found their child, he said. They had kidnapped someone else's.

BOBBY LOST AND FOUND

The confusion surrounding the Dunbar mystery seems hard to understand today. With DNA testing, questions over Bobby's identity could now be resolved in a laboratory. But in the Louisiana of 1912, a lack of forensic science, among other issues, helped perpetuate a tragedy that wound up affecting multiple generations of families.

Owing to the wealth and influence of the Dunbars, Bobby’s disappearance earned plenty of attention. At first, Percy sent hundreds of postcards with Bobby’s photo and description to town officials in Florida, Texas, and other states. He offered a $5000 reward for information leading to Bobby’s recovery, with the local citizens and the Planters National Bank of Opelousas joining together to offer another $1000. Newspapers around the country made it a national headline. Percy traveled to orphanages around the state, hoping to see that his fair-haired, blue-eyed boy had been safe and sheltered the entire time.

As is often the case with missing parties, the search turned up several leads without merit. But according to the book A Case for Solomon, co-written by Bobby’s granddaughter Margaret Dunbar Cutright, a few weeks after Bobby's disappearance the family received a letter from Poplarville, Mississippi, saying that a boy looking remarkably like their own had been seen in the company of an itinerant worker. Fatigued by false hope, Percy asked his brother, Archie, to go to Poplarville on his behalf. But Archie reported that the boy was not Bobby.

In April 1913, eight months after Bobby had last been seen, a telegram came from Columbia, Mississippi, saying that a boy looking very much like Bobby had been seen in the company of an itinerant worker named William Cantwell Walters—likely the same itinerant worker seen in Poplarville. After asking a favor from a sheriff friend, Percy was able to have authorities in Columbia detain Walters and the child until the Dunbars could judge for 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.

Newspapers compared a photo of Bobby Dunbar (L) with an image of the boy believed to be Bobby following his disappearance (R).
Newspapers compared a photo of Bobby Dunbar (L) with an image of the boy believed to be Bobby following his disappearance (R).

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.”

It was a fairy tale ending. The Dunbars quickly returned home to Opelousas, where a veritable parade was awaiting them. Their son was invited to ride a fire truck and celebrated at every turn; he soaked up the adulation.

Newspapers eager to promote a feel-good story largely backed the Dunbars’ assertion, though some of the copy seemed to hint at the same doubt Lessie had initially experienced. “The Dunbars say they have identified the child by marks on his body,” The Los Angeles Times reported, “and they hope that the environment of their home will reawaken some memories in his mind by which they will be more certain.”

A CRIME WITH NO MOTIVE

Back in Mississippi, Walters was dumbfounded. Awaiting extradition to Louisiana on a capital charge of kidnapping that could see him executed or sent to prison for life, he told anyone who would listen that it was the Dunbars who were the kidnappers. The boy was Bruce Anderson, the son of Julia Anderson, he said, a woman from back home in North Carolina who had been involved with Walters’s brother for a time. Although the stories would differ, Walters maintained that a little over a year prior he had agreed to look after Bruce because he felt Julia didn’t have the means to provide for him. As a traveling worker, or “tinker,” Walters found that having Bruce around made strangers more likely to take him in for food and lodging.

It seemed easy enough to clear the matter by inviting Julia, ostensibly the boy’s actual mother, to support his story. Eager to have a possible exclusive, a New Orleans newspaper paid for Julia to travel from her home in North Carolina in May 1913 to meet Bobby. She was asked to identify her son among a group of several boys.

Just as Lessie had hesitated, Julia also didn’t seem sure she was meeting her son. Maybe it was Bruce, but perhaps it was not. The media latched on to her hesitation—surely a mother could identify her own child—and used it to bolster the case against Walters, who was finally extradited to Louisiana in 1914 to stand trial for the kidnapping of the Dunbar boy.

It took two weeks for an Opelousas court to try and convict Walters, who continued to protest his innocence. Julia was also scheduled to testify on his behalf, but fell ill and instead gave a statement from her bed. Wanly, she insisted "Bobby" was Bruce and that Walters should not be condemned for any crime. The jury was not swayed, and sentenced Walters to life imprisonment.

As bleak as things were for the Anderson side of the controversy, Walters did get one break. His lawyer was successfully able to argue that Louisiana law regarding kidnapping was unconstitutional by focusing on a legal technicality based on an omission in the text. That appeared to sway the court into having the case thrown out. Mindful of how expensive it was to try him the first time, the district attorney declined to attempt a second conviction. Walters was free to go. Meanwhile, Julia Anderson was married and starting another family.

DISCOVERING THE TRUTH

Bobby continued life as a Dunbar, remaining in Louisiana and becoming a salesman for Briggs Electrical Supply. He had four children of his own, before succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 58 in 1966. He never seemed to express any curiosity about his national fame, or the strange circumstances surrounding his alleged disappearance.

Questions over Bobby’s lineage would have likely ended with the court case had it not been for the work of Cutright, who became interested in her grandfather’s case in 1999. Her father, Bobby Dunbar Junior, gave her a massive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, much of it revealing the contradictory stories of how unsure Lessie had been about her son’s reappearance. She also dug up the case file kept by Walters’s attorney, reading testimony from several people who had placed Walters and Bruce together.

In 2004, she was able to convince her father to take a DNA swab and see if it matched with a sample taken from the son of Bobby’s brother, Alonzo. The results proved they were no relation: Bobby Dunbar was almost certainly Bruce Anderson. The real Bobby Dunbar likely met a swift and unfortunate fate at Swayze Lake, perhaps left alone just long enough to disappear into the water.

The DNA solution provided an answer, but it could never provide context. Why, Cutright wondered, did Percy and Lessie so readily accept a child that was not their own? And why did Julia Anderson waver when presented with the opportunity to conclusively identify Bruce?

The answer may lie in the wealth that the Dunbars enjoyed—not as a means of influence, but as a promise for a better life. Julia had, after all, already allowed Walters to care for Bruce. Now he’d be in a steady home and a supportive family.

Percy and Lessie’s motives are more difficult to understand. It’s possible the weight of their grief caused them to latch on to the fantasy of their child being returned to them. Maybe Lessie, who had grown frail during the search, embraced the lie to the extent that Percy felt the need to go along with it. Perhaps Bruce, only around 5 years old, was able to comprehend that his new life of riding fire trucks and being the toast of the town was better than trailing Walters as he performed odd jobs in odd towns.

The Dunbars separated in 1920 and divorced soon after. Some time later, Lessie wrote a letter to her granddaughter that made reference to her “shell of grief.” It’s hard to know whether she was referring to the pain of losing a child, the regret of taking one—or both.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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