The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

People going missing and then returning much later and doubts arising about their identity make for engrossing real life stories and have been the stuff of books and films. This is even more so when the missing person is a child who is later reunited with their families. The excellent radio program This American Life this week repeated an old episode where a child named Bobby Dunbar disappeared in Louisiana in 1912 at the age of four. After being missing for nearly eight months, he was discovered in the company of William Walters, an itinerant piano tuner and handyman.

Or was he?

Walters claimed that the boy was not Bobby Dunbar but someone he knew who came along with him with the permission of his mother Julia Anderson who claimed that the boy was her son Bruce. She was the caretaker of the parents of the alleged kidnapper and she confirmed his story. But she was poor and could not afford a lawyer while the Dunbars were well-to-do. During the trial she was portrayed as a woman of loose morals and this may have swayed the judge give custody of the boy to the Dunbars. This story made national news and the legend of Bobby Dunbar was born.

But in 1999, Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughter was given a scrapbook of the case and upon reading it realized, as so often happens, that family lore was quite different from the facts of the case. She became obsessed with finding out what happened and this show recounts what her investigations revealed and how it upended the lives of the three families involved

As the website says: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page.

I normally prefer reading transcripts because it is so much quicker but I have to agree with this recommendation. The strength of this program lies in how well the story is told with pauses and music, and it is an engrossing hour if you have the time to spare.

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