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.

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

When Ohio Outlawed Seduction

Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images
Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images

"Hot for Teacher" may have been a major hit for Van Halen back in 1984, but the very idea of a personal relationship between teacher and student—regardless of age—was nothing to sing about for Ohio lawmakers back in the 19th century. On April 22, 1886, the Buckeye State passed a law that made it illegal for any man over the age of 21 to put the moves on a woman he was instructing. Those who dared try would face the possibility of spending up to a decade in the clink.

To be clear, while the statute quite rightly made it illegal for an adult male teacher to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of his young students, the wide latitude of the law went far beyond that, stating:

A male person over twenty-one years of age, who is superintendent, tutor or teacher in a private, parochial or public school, or seminary or other public institution, or instructor of any female in music, dancing, roller skating, athletic exercise, or any branch of learning, who has sexual intercourse, at any time or place, with any female, with her consent, while under his instruction during the term of his engagement as superintendent, tutor or instructor, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not more than ten years nor less than two.

Translate that to today's standards and what it means is that, even if you're an unmarried thirty-something looking for Mr. Right, you'd be wise to keep your hands off your personal trainer, lest he be arrested for reciprocating your romantic interests. (And yes, the same goes for your roller skating instructor.)

But Ohio was hardly the first state to pass such a law. In Virginia, dangling the prospect of marriage as a way to get some nookie was a no-no with "any unmarried female of previous chaste character" and again punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The lawmakers were generous enough to note that the "chastity of the female shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.") New York instituted a similar law in 1848, but considered the crime a misdemeanor (whereas Virginia classified it as a felony).

Georgia, too, had a seduction law, which reads very Jackie Collins-esque with phrases like "induce her to yield to his lustful embraces" and "allow him to have carnal knowledge of her." Any man charged with the crime had one of two choices: take his chances in court and risk spending two to 20 years in prison—or marry the gal! The written law noted that, "The prosecution may be stopped at any time by the marriage of the parties, or a bona fide and continuing offer to marry on the part of the seducer." Which was certainly one way to snag a husband!

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