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.

Bonnie and Clyde’s Sawed-Off Shotgun Is Hitting the Auction Block This Week

Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A surefire way for you and your partner to win the costume contest this Halloween is to show up dressed as Bonnie and Clyde—wielding the antique (unloaded!) sawed-off shotgun from the 1933 shootout at their Joplin, Missouri, hideout.

The Boston Globe reports that RR Auction is holding an online auction for the Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun through 12 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, September 20, and live bidding will take place Saturday afternoon at the Omni Parker House in Boston. The auction house estimates a final sale of around $75,000.

Bonnie and Clyde sawed-off shotgun
RR Auction

Police detective Tom De Graff confiscated the weapon after the shootout, during which Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and their companions killed two policemen—and wounded De Graff—before escaping by ramming their car through the garage door of the apartment and speeding off. When De Graff left the department in 1941, he took the shotgun with him as a souvenir.

RR Auction is also auctioning off the wristwatch Clyde wore when he died, a bulletproof vest found in his car, and a black book of poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery.

Bonnie Parker book of poems
RR Auction

“With little to do other than pine for Clyde and chat with her jailer, it is no surprise that Bonnie’s fertile imagination turned to poetry,” the auction listing says. “Of the 10 poems in this book, five appear to be original compositions, largely drawn from her adventurous life on the road with the Barrow Gang.” Some of the titles are pretty much exactly what you might have expected from the rip-roaring criminal, like “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.”

In addition to Bonnie and Clyde’s personal effects, the auction includes several artifacts from other infamous 20th century criminals. Among the items is a sterling silver cigarette case engraved with “To Al and Mae, 12-18-29, From John Torrio.” The “Al” in question is none other than Al Capone—the case was an anniversary gift from mobster mentor to mentee. There’s also a 14-karat gold pinkie ring emblazoned with a Star of David and the initials “MC,” for Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen.

Al Capone cigarette case
RR Auction

Mickey Cohen gold ring
RR Auction

If you’re hoping to go gangster this Halloween without dropping bags of money on accessories, you can at least learn the lingo for free.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

The Man Who Forgot Himself: How Presumed-Dead Lawrence Bader Invented a New Life

AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

Suzanne Peika could not quite believe what she was seeing. It was February 2, 1965, and Peika was standing in front of an archery booth at a sporting goods convention in Chicago. A man with brown hair, a thin mustache, and an eyepatch was holding court for retailers. Aside from the patch and the facial hair, he looked exactly like her uncle Lawrence Bader.

There was just one problem: Her uncle was supposed to be dead.

In 1957, Coast Guard authorities had discovered Bader's rented boat washed ashore on Lake Erie after a storm. There was no sign of Bader, and no clues as to what had happened to him. Bader’s wife, Mary Lou, was effectively widowed, and his four children were left without a father. Eventually, he was declared legally dead.

Now, nearly eight years later, Peika had been summoned by a man from Akron, who told her to rush over to the sports convention. He had seen something there she would not believe.

After staring at a man who was almost certainly her uncle, she approached the booth. "Aren't you my Uncle Larry?" she asked.

The man laughed and seemed confused. No, he was not anyone’s Uncle Larry. His name was John Johnson, though he went by the nickname “Fritz.” He lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a sports director for a local television station. He was polite but firm. It was nothing more, he said, than a misunderstanding.

Peika rushed to a phone and called her family. Lawrence’s two brothers jumped on a plane from Ohio to Chicago, where Johnson was again confronted. No, he said. He was not their brother, this man named Larry Joseph Bader, who had disappeared in 1957. Finally, he agreed to accompany them to a police station to be fingerprinted. The brothers explained that Bader had been in the Navy and his fingerprints would be on file. That would settle the matter once and for all.

The next day, they all received a call from police. The fingerprints matched: The man known as Fritz was Lawrence Bader. After disappearing during a storm on on Lake Erie, he wound up over 700 miles away, with a new job, a new face, a new wife, new children, and a completely different set of memories about the first 30 years of his life.

 

Bader was born December 2, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Stephen, was a dentist, and Bader considered following him into the practice. After a stint in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, Bader enrolled at the University of Akron, but his grades were mediocre, and he flunked out after just one semester. During his brief enrollment, Bader met Mary Lou Knapp, and the two were married on April 19, 1952.

To support their growing brood of children, Bader took on a job as a cookware salesman for Lifetime Distributors. Though he was an affable man and well-liked by colleagues and clients, the earning potential of the job was limited. He carried debts and fell behind on his taxes. It was later estimated that Bader failed to file tax returns from 1951 to 1957.

A wooden oar is pictured in the water
Jurgute/iStock via Getty Images

On May 15, 1957, Bader announced to Mary Lou that he needed to drive to Cleveland on business. Afterward, he planned on going fishing and would be late. Mary Lou, pregnant with their fourth child, suggested that he might want to come directly home instead.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Bader said, and left.

Bader did drive to Cleveland. He also cashed a check for $400 and paid some outstanding bills, including an installment premium for his life insurance policy. Then he headed for Eddie’s Boat House, a boat rental operation on the Rocky River, which empties into Lake Erie. It was late afternoon, and the proprietor, a man named Lawrence Cotleur, warned him that a storm was coming. Bader seemed unconcerned. He paid a $15 deposit and asked for the boat to be equipped with lights. When Cotleur told him it wouldn’t get dark for hours, he insisted. Cotleur noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Bader went out on the motorboat, which was also equipped with oars, and began making his way along the water. The Coast Guard spotted him and reiterated Cotleur’s warning, advising him it wouldn’t be safe when the storm hit.

That was almost certainly the last time anyone interacted with a man answering to the name Lawrence Bader.

The next morning, the boat was found washed up on shore at Perkins Beach in Lakewood, more than five miles away from Eddie’s Boat House. One of the propellers on the motor was bent and the hull was scratched, but there was no sign the boat itself had capsized or had tipped over. A single oar was missing. The life jackets were accounted for. The gas can was empty. Bader and his suitcase were nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard made a thorough search of the water but discovered nothing. It was impossible, they said, to survive the choppy current without a life jacket, and certainly not for hours at a stretch. After two months, law enforcement had little choice but to effectively give up hope Bader would ever be found, alive or dead.

Obviously, no one thought to look in Omaha.

 

It was between three and five days later, depending on the account, when a man named John Johnson materialized at a restaurant and bar named Ross’s Steak House in Omaha. He was there looking for a bartending job, a drink guide stuffed under his arm. He carried a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag along with a Navy-issued driver’s license. He explained to his would-be employer, Mike Chiodo, that he had just gotten out of the Navy after a 14-year stretch. A bad back had led to his discharge, and he decided to travel the country a little. He was staying at the Farnam Hotel near the bus station. He’d be a good hire, he told Chiodo, because he used to tend bar at clubs in the service.

He got the job and was soon holding court among the regulars. When people remarked on his unusual name, he said he was originally reared at an orphanage in Boston. Of the 22 babies found on doorsteps, they were given the same generic name but a different nickname. His was Fritz, he explained, because he reminded people of a character in the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes, that story would change, and he would say the nickname came from a short haircut he got in the service that made him look like a German soldier.

Two glasses filled with ice are pictured
Igor Vershinsky/iStock via Getty Images

He insisted on being called Fritz and used his full name infrequently. Checks were signed Fritz. He had his bills made out to Fritz. He also had the curious habit of dating his checks by season, not month, day, and year. If a bill came due in July, he would write “summer” on it.

Yet no one seemed to think he was unusual at all. They found Fritz to be a joy to be around, and Fritz found joy in virtually everything. He was a determined bachelor who went out on frequent dates, sometimes playfully showing up in an old hearse that had a place to lounge in the back. He listened to classical music and proved to be adept at archery, winning several regional championships. It was a life, one Akron resident later said, that would never have been welcome in a more conservative town like the one back in Ohio.

He also had ambitions beyond bartending. After his shift and late at night, he would visit local radio station KBON to use the recording equipment and practice his broadcasting skills. In 1959, he was hired by the station and became something of a local celebrity. Fritz was game for stunts like sitting in a box on top of a 50-foot flagpole to raise money and awareness for polio. He didn’t come down for 15 days, an endurance challenge that added to his local legend.

Around 1961, he met and married a former model named Nancy Zimmer. Nancy had been married once before and had a daughter. Soon, they’d welcome a son and he would begin a prosperous career on KETV, a local television affiliate.

Between his social life, marriage, and career, Fritz was very much alive. Back in Akron, Lawrence Joseph Bader had been declared legally dead.

 

When he was discovered by his niece in 1965, Fritz was a broadcaster working part-time as an advisor for archery companies. The eyepatch was from the excision of a malignant tumor, which had taken his eye in 1964. Now cornered by his family, the new life he had built for himself began to crumble.

Though he insisted he had no memory of being Bader, whom he called “that other fellow,” his reappearance led to a number of legal and ethical quandaries. There were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou and which now seemed to be null and void. Social Security payments sent to Mary Lou and calculated based on his demise would have to be addressed. Even Cotleur, the boat house owner, was looking for restitution. Bader had left behind a damaged rental that needed replacement. “He owes us a boat,” Cotleur said.

There was also the matter of the marriage. Because Bader was alive, he was still legally married to Mary Lou and could be considered a bigamist. At minimum, he had a financial responsibility to the family he had left behind in Akron. Fritz hired a lawyer, Harry Farnham, who recommended he undergo a battery of psychological testing at an area hospital. After several days of intense evaluation, doctors could not say he was willfully deceiving anyone. It truly appeared as though he had no recollection of ever being Lawrence Bader.

“I am John (Fritz) Johnson and I have never heard of this Bader man until this matter came up,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He seemed more bemused than upset by the situation, admitting that, yes, he did look like Bader and that both shared a love of archery. Beyond that, he didn’t care to explore his memories with anyone, citing doctors who told him that examining his past could be psychologically damaging.

A white mask is pictured
francescoch/iStock via Getty Images

“My God, don’t you understand?” he told a reporter. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”

For a time, the situation seemed precarious. If it could be proven Bader committed fraud, he was looking at legal consequences. But no one could prove that. Instead, his lawyer argued the surgery to remove a cancerous lesion may have affected his memory. Perhaps he once knew why Bader disappeared and Fritz appeared, but there was little hope of finding answers now.

Struck by the peculiar nature of their employee’s double life, KETV terminated him. Nancy left him, their marriage essentially erased in light of the fact that he was already married. She seemed bewildered. "I just don't know what to think," she told a reporter.

Quickly, Fritz found himself back to work as a bartender, earning $100 a week. Of that, $50 went to Mary Lou for child support and $20 went to Nancy. He was left with $30 and moved into an Omaha YMCA.

 

Mary Lou spent several months in seclusion, shying away from curious reporters and from Fritz. Eventually, she decided to meet him in Chicago, with their four children in tow. That meeting, which took place in August 1965, was described as amicable, though Fritz insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. Because he insisted they were strangers, there was little choice but to consider him a stranger, as well. Mary Lou voiced hope that maybe one day he would come around.

"I am hopeful he will eventually remember," she said. "He's convinced himself that he doesn't recognize anybody." Learning he was alive was "unreal," she said. "It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't like an emptiness when I thought he was drowned."

It turned out that there would be no time for Fritz to come around. In 1966, his cancer reappeared, this time in his liver. He died on September 16 of that year.

His passing posed the question of how to pay respects to a man who appeared to have lived two distinctly different lives. In Omaha, a service was held at First Methodist Church for John “Fritz” Johnson. The next day, his body was transported to Akron so he could be buried in a family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery as Lawrence Joseph Bader.

The question of whether Bader suffered some kind of injury during the storm or had some kind of neurological disorder has never been fully answered. Given the circumstances of his disappearance—his timely insurance premium payment, his mounting debts, and his wildly different and unencumbered lifestyle in Omaha—it seems likely that Lawrence Bader decided he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out.

If he was telling the truth about having 30 years of memories as Fritz, then it’s possible Bader experienced dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.

In one such case, in 2005, a lawyer and father of two in New York disappeared. He was found six months later living in a homeless shelter in Chicago under a new name. Once discovered, his wife revealed he had been overcome by stress relating to his experience in Vietnam as well as being near the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Only neuropsychological tests can sift out cases of true dissociative fugue from people simply hiding from their problems. It’s unlikely, however, that Bader would have suffered from amnesia for nearly a decade. In such cases, memories are not lost but are misplaced. They eventually return.

If he did experience a total erasure of his previous existence, at least some remnants lingered. He managed to retain his ability in archery. And while he may have believed his nickname came from an orphanage his psyche invented out of whole cloth, it’s far more plausible that a conscious memory of his previous life had inspired it. As a cookware salesman, his boss was a man named Mr. Zepht. His first name was Fritz.

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