‘A Case for Solomon’’ reconstructs the long, strange mystery surrounding the 1912 disappearance of 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar in rural Louisiana.
Authors Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright piece together their tale from sometimes-dubious newspaper stories, reporters’ and stenographers’ notes, family letters, and other surviving official documents. And they succeed in pulling together a fascinating narrative about an ostensible kidnapping and a 90-year case of mistaken identity, fully steeped in the flavor of the era. Theirs is a narrative about the fierceness of parental love, the flaws of the legal system, and ultimately about how we derive our own sense of who we are.
The saga begins a century ago when Bobby disappears from a family fish fry on Swayze Lake, more swamp than lake, in St. Landry Parish. His parents, Lessie and Percy, become frantic. A hundred men who know the terrain join the search, but find not a footprint, straw hat, or piece of Bobby’s clothing. Searchers futilely drag the lake for a body. Some believe a bear, loggerhead turtle, snake, or alligator might have killed Bobby.
Speculation rises that Bobby had been kidnapped, although there’s no ransom demand. Bigoted suspicion falls upon Italians, blacks, or tramps. Rewards are offered, and Percy hires a detective agency that escalates the search “up and down the Eastern Seaboard and across the South.” About eight months later, authorities in Mississippi apprehend William Walters, an itinerant tinker, traveling with a boy matching Bobby’s description.
When Percy and Lessie come to identify the child, they’re unsure he’s Bobby. Percy says the boy’s eyes are “drawn and tight” while “Bobby’s were round and open.” A telltale burn scar on the boy’s left foot isn’t as prominent as expected, but the child has Bobby’s cowlick and a mole above his left wrist. At first, Lessie harbors doubts, but she and Percy finally agree he’s their son. Still, the boy doesn’t seem to recognize them: He struggles when they hug him.
Walters insists that the child is not Bobby but Bruce Anderson, whose mother, Julia, agreed to let Walters take him from her home in North Carolina to visit Walters’s sister in South Carolina.
Walters hires lawyers who are sure they can summon witnesses to corroborate his story. Percy promises Walters’s lawyers to wait for the witnesses, but he reneges, and the Dunbars leave with Bobby.
When Anderson finally gets her chance to identify the boy, she, too, is initially unsure but shortly insists the boy is her son Bruce.
Walters eventually goes to trial. Towns, states, and newspapers take sides. A Louisiana jury convicts him, but the ruling is overturned on appeal and he is released in 1915.
In telling this tale, McThenia, who first reported it on radio’s “This American Life,’’ and Cutright, Bobby’s granddaughter who researched the case for over a decade, bring to life a time when newspapers routinely embellished and even faked news stories to boost circulation; people still traveled by horseback and wagon; and towns prided themselves on fewer street duels and lynchings.
In the last chapters of the book, the authors track the lives of the Dunbars and Andersons from the 1920s onward, until 2004, when DNA tests finally resolve the boy’s identity, long after Bobby’s 1966 death.
In the wake of the denouement, the Dunbar family, reeling with questions about their own identity, take comfort in a story from Bobby’s final years when he turns to his son, Bobby Jr., and declares, “I know who I am, and I know who you are, and nothing else matters. It’s how we live our life.”Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@joseph
peschel.com or on his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/