A Tale of Two Children, and DNA solves mystery of one

Published 7:47 pm Thursday, January 10, 2008

The story of a local family’s ancestor and the solving of a 90-year old miscarriage of justice is to be a feature of a national public radio program.

In February, This American Life with Ira Glass, a regular feature show produced by National Public Radio will chronicle the disappearance of 4-year old Bobby Dunbar in 1912 during a family outing near Opelousas, La., and the solving of a mystery that has haunted three families to this day.

One of the families included Julia Anderson of North Carolina, a young mother of three children in 1912, including 4-year-old Bruce Anderson. She became embroiled in a legal battle trying to prove Bruce was her son when other evidence said he was the missing Dunbar child.

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Two of Anderson’s surviving children, Jewel Tarver and Hollis Rawls, still live here.

Rawls’ memories of his mother Julia Anderson and her involvement in the 1912 disappearance of the Dunbar child depended a lot on what she later related to him as he grew older.

“Mother always said that … that was her child … the Dunbar, which wasn’t a Dunbar, was her child,” Rawls said. “She always said that was her son … Bobby (Dunbar) was her son.”

He said that people in the Ford’s Creek community had kept newspaper clippings of the case. Bilbo, Miley and Cameron were three local families that Tarver and Rawls named who knew of Walters and that he was working here in the company of a young boy, Bruce Anderson.

All of them knew Walters and knew the child’s name was Bruce Anderson, Jewel said. Both agree that there was a letter from Julia Anderson to Walters noting that Bruce was in his care “and she was glad they were getting along there (in Mississippi).”

Both Rawls and Tarver said their mother said she gave Walters permission to have Bruce in his care for two weeks while he traveled into north Georgia to visit Walters’ sister. Jewel said during that time something happened to Anderson’s sister and she went to be with her.

When Walters returned after two weeks and was unable to locate Julia, he kept young Bruce with him. Jewel said Walters was a tinker, a traveling handyman, and one job led to another, eventually causing him to end up with the boy in the south Mississippi area around Ford’s Creek, she said.

It was here that the family’s stories began to merge.

Tarver said Walters had been in the Ford’s Creek area for eight months when the events occurred in the Opelousas area that would forever change the three families. The Dunbar child, son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar of Opelousas, disappeared while on a family outing at nearby Swayze Lake. Months of fruitless searching yielded no clues as to the child’s fate.

At some point word reached the Dunbars and Opelousus authorities that a young boy resembling the missing boy was in south Mississippi. On checking the story, one thing led to another and Walters was arrested for kidnapping in Louisiana.

The subsequent trial and media coverage gained national attention at the time.

Walters’ descendants generally agree that he was railroaded by the justice system. He stayed in jail during the trial and the family said young Bruce was placed in the Dunbars’ care.

Although accounts at the time initially indicate some confusion as to whether Bruce Anderson was Bobby Dunbar, the Dunbars were able to take the boy as their missing son and raise him.

He grew up in the Opelousas area, eventually married and had children. It was his granddaughter, Margaret Cutright, who began a decades long search that would eventually unravel the mystery. In proving that her grandfather was indeed Bruce Anderson, Cutright had to undo her long-held beliefs about the mystery, according to articles chronicling her search.

“We’ve known just about all the time that he (Bobby Dunbar) was our brother … but you couldn’t prove it,” Rawls said.

They say the family story is that one of the lawyers for Walters was from Columbia and introduced Julia Anderson to her future husband, Ollie Rawls — Hollis’ and Jewel’s father. Rawls said their mother had, had three children with Walters’ brother and then eight children after marrying Ollie Rawls. He said their father was a laborer and that the family lived on a small farm in the Ford’s Creek area.

“She was just a good mother to all the children, us children,” Rawls said. “She was just a good mother; got up and got my daddy off to work and things like that.”

Along with helping other people, family members said she was a good nurse with the sick.

“If somebody was sick they would call for grandma to come,” even to delivering babies, said her granddaughter Linda Tarver.

“Mother didn’t have knitting needles,” Jewel said. “She got broom straw and she ripped the twine out of the flour sacks and it was red — I never will forget it — and she crocheted our dolls little booties … and I’ve often wondered how she kept those straws from breaking. But, she did and she crocheted them little ol’ booties for us. We were so proud of them.”

Another bit of history of which the family is particularly proud — Julia Anderson Rawls also was a founding member of the Murray Hill Church of God northwest of here.

“She just was a loving person …,” Tarver said. “I feel really blessed at the grandparents I had.”

In the interview for this story last Saturday, Tal McThenia, reporter, and Alex Blumberg, producer at This American Life Radio said they were instantly drawn to the Dunbar story and Julia Anderson’s role in it.

McThenia said he ran across the story in 2004, right after the DNA test results had been announced that Bobby Dunbar, Sr., was not related to the Dunbar family.

“I was just fascinated with that story … and (as a screenwriter) I was excited (in it) as a potential for a movie.”

He said he tracked Margaret Cutwright down, talked at length with her, and “agreed to talk more at some point in the future.” Cutwright was planning a possible book about the story, he said.

Three years later, Blumberg said he was having dinner with his college friend McThenia and the Dunbar story came up. McThenia says the radio program is constantly on the lookout for stories to air and the Dunbar saga was “an amazing story for the radio show.”

After further discussions, the pair contacted Cutwright and events moved quickly from November, 2007, Blumberg said. They met a second time with Cutwright who was joined by her father, Bobby Dunbar, Jr., in Wilmington, North Carolina.

McThenia said Cutwright has amassed an amazing amount of material in her journey for the truth about the identity of her grandfather, Bobby Dunbar, Sr.

He said it was after that meeting that they decided to tell the story from the perspective of the three families — Walters, Anderson and Dunbar.

“The story is basically that … Margaret has her legend that was told in her family (Dunbar), but Jewel has a totally different legend that was told in their family, and then Walters has a totally different story that was told in their family.

All of the stories and their consequences then merge into what we have now, Blumberg said.

Saturday’s meeting with Anderson’s descendants and taping of interviews was part of the actual production for the show. Blumberg and McThenia started with the additional interviews with Cutwright and her father in North Carolina, then traveled to Savannah, Ga., for interviews with nieces of the Walters’ family before coming to Poplarville. They will then end up in Opelousus where the tale all started.

McThenia says the story is remarkable in that these people have lived their lives for so long and not been in communication with each other.

“They were joined by this event in the past and then went their separate ways and it’s just remarkable to see them coming back together generations later,” he said.

“It’s almost been a hundred years since the events happened and it’s remarkable to me how … present that still is though, in all the people that we’ve been talking to.”

This American Life is an hour show and Blumberg says the Dunbar segment will probably take up the majority of the hour.

They anticipate it will run in mid to late February on public radio stations around the country that broadcast This American Life. A definite time will be announced closer to February, they said.