The saga began on April 23, 1912, when four-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared while on a fishing trip with his family near Swayze Lake in Louisiana. After a frantic search by Bobby's mother Lessie and other members of the Dunbar family , authorities were notified and numerous volunteers joined in the search. Even the lake was dredged up for traces of the boy and alligators were killed to see if any traces could be found in their stomachs. But nothing was found and authorities began to assume the worst. Percy Dunbar, who had been away on business at the time, immediately rejoined his wife and to help with the search.
Since the Dunbars were a fairly prosperous family, his parents held out the hope that Bobby had been kidnapped for ransom and newspapers began promoting the kidnapping theory. Pictures of little Bobby, along with his grieving parents and two-year-old brother Alonzo, were run in papers in New Orleans and beyond. Given the $6000.00 reward that was offered for the boy's safe return, police received numerous tips about potential sightings from people hoping to cash in. While members of the Dunbar family personally checked out each of these tips, nothing really came of it.
That is, until December of that same year when a wandering tinker named William Cantwell Walters was picked up by police. Walters made a specialty of repairing and tuning pianos and organs so his services were often in demand by local farm families. The fact that he was traveling with a four-year-old boy hardly escaped attention and police grilled Walters about the boy's identity.
According to Walters, the child in question was named Charlie Bruce Anderson. Ten month's earlier, the boy's mother had placed her son in the tinker's care due to being unable to support him. Given the publicity surrounding Bobby's disappearance, police had already questioned Walters several times earlier. In fact, Bobby Dunbar's own uncle had personally investigated Bruce and concluded that he wasn't his nephew. Still, the promise of a hefty reward ensured that various people kept contacting the Dunbar family claiming that Bruce was actually the missing child.
It likely didn't help that Walters was already viewed as a suspicious character due to his nomadic lifestyle and lower class origins. That he had a small boy in his care even though he wasn't a relative also raised dark suspicions about the true nature of their relationship. Photographs of the boy were taken without Walters knowing and, on one occasion, Bruce was repeatedly grilled about his identity while Walters was out of the room. One farmer would later testify that the boy had admitted to his original name being Bobby but Walters was able to take him away anyone could act on it.
Finally, Percy Dunbar himself decided to come to Hub, Mississippi where Walters and Bruce were staying to see if the child was really his son. Despite the obvious differences in appearance between the boy in question and his missing son (not to mention the absence of a prominent scar on one foot), Percy Dunbar openly concluded that the boy was indeed Bobby. The difference in hair colour was explained away by Walters using hair bleach while other physical differences were explained away to the rough life he had on the road with the old tinker. As for Walters' motive in kidnapping Bobby, Percy Dunbar insisted he had taken boy to be used as a shill for begging (despite the fact that Walters was no beggar).
People who knew Walters personally came to his defense, including some who pointed out that Bruce had been seen with him long before Bobby disappeared, But Percy Dunbar had money and influence enough to override all the objections and to have Walters arrested for kidnapping. As for Bruce himself, he was thoroughly frightened about being separated from the only father he ever knew but the townspeople who had hoped to cash in on the reward were jubilant. Percy never bothered to tell them that the reward offer had expired months earlier though he arranged for his wife to come to Hub to claim her missing son. As for Lessie Dunbar, it took considerable convincing by her husband before she was willing to acknowledge that "Bobby" was her son. Finally, the Sheriff received a letter from the Dunbars formally recognizing the boy as their son and he was released into their custody.
Which still left the question of what was to be done with his supposed kidnapper, the thoroughly confused William Cantwell Walters. Not only was he facing charges for kidnapping, but details of the case were being reported in newspapers across the country. Given the public anger surrounding the supposed kidnapping, the Sheriff had to have a special security detail at the jail where Walters was being kept due to lynching fears. It likely didn't help that the townspeople who had started the whole thing by accusing Walters began making claims that the boy had been abused while in Walters's care.
In the meantime, the media storm over Bobby Dunbar continued to grow. The Hippodrome Theater in New Orleans contacted Percy Dunbar for the right to put the little boy on display, something to which he immediately agreed. Percy also made a number of public statements during which he announced that "Bobby" had all of the identifying marks needed to prove his identity. He also drummed up animosity against Walters by announcing that Bobby had recognized his mother (he hadn't) and that the boy had been whipped into submission, something that made the Sheriff beef up security at the jail where Walters was being held. Many of the townspeople, no doubt still hoping to cash in on the reward, announced that they had seen the tell-tale whip marks as well.
But there were still some troubling questions raised about how Walters, who walked with a visible limp, could have kidnapped Bobby Dunbar in the first place. Also, many people in Hub knew Walters personally and were willing to speak up for him. Then there was the fact that Bruce didn' t have the tell-tale scar that Bobby had, not to mention the absence of any real signs that he had been physically abused. All of which meant that the town was basically split over the entire question of whether or not the boy was really Bobby Dunbar. There was also the promised reward with just about everyone associated with the case (including the Sheriff) demanding a share.
In the midst of all this controversy, the Dunbars decided to return home to Louisiana along with their newfound son. While the Dunbars had initially promised to remove Bobby from the town until the entire matter was settled, they overrode any objections raised by the Sheriff and, away they went. Their triumphant return to their hometown, along with the promised appearance at the Hippodrome Theater, helped cement public opinion in favour of the Dunbars and "Bobby."
With the prime witness in the case being removed from his reach, Walters' lawyer, Hollis C. Rawls, collected formal depositions from his client's character witnesses, including a woman who swore that the boy in dispute had been sitting on her lap when she read to him about Bobby Dunbar's disappearance. Unfortunately, public opinion (helped along by how Percy Dunbar played to the news media) was thoroughly against Rawls' client. The possibility of a fair trial seemed increasingly remote, which, given the fact that kidnapping was a capital offense in Louisiana, meant that William Cantwell Walters would potentially hanged if convicted.
And the trial had yet to begin...