352: The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

In 1912 a four-year-old boy named Bobby Dunbar went missing in a swamp in Louisiana. Eight months later, he was found in the hands of a wandering handyman in Mississippi. In 2004, Bobby Dunbar's granddaughter discovered a secret beneath the legend of her grandfather's kidnapping, a secret whose revelation would divide her own family, bring redemption to another, and become the answer to a third family's century-old prayer.  Ira Glass plays the song "Mystery of the Dunbar's Child" by Richard "Rabbit" Brown. It describes Bobby Dunbar's disappearance and recovery and the trial of his kidnapper, all of which was front page news from 1912 to 1914. Almost a century after it happened, Bobby Dunbar's granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, was looking into her grandfather's disappearance and found that the truth was actually more interesting than the legend. And a lot more troubling. (1 minute) Act One: Reporter Tal McThenia tells the first half of Margaret's story. Everyone in her family knew the legend. Her grandfather went missing in a swamp in Louisiana, and was found 8 months later in Mississippi, in the hands of a wandering handyman named William Walters. But then another woman came forward and claimed the boy as hers. There was a big trial, and the boy was awarded to the Dunbars. In 1999, Margaret's father gave her a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the period. A lot of the clippings didn't match up exactly with her family's legend. So Margaret went on a quest to learn as much as she could, to small town libraries and archives all through the south, and eventually, to the living children of the "other mother," a woman named Julia Anderson. Her family had their own legend about the kidnapping. But in the Anderson version, Julia's son Bruce was the boy who was kidnapped, and it was Margaret's family, the Dunbars, who kidnapped him. (23 minutes) Act Two: Tal McThenia's story continues. Margaret meets the living relatives of the kidnapper, William Walters, discovers a long lost court file with lots of answers, and finally arrives at an incontrovertible truth, which, depending on your point of view, is either very troubling, or the answer to your prayers. (32 minutes)

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Each week we choose a theme. Then anything can happen. This American Life is true stories that unfold like little movies for radio. Personal stories with funny moments, big feelings, and surprising plot twists. Newsy stories that try to capture what it’s like to be alive right now. It’s the most popular weekly podcast in the world, and winner of the first ever Pulitzer Prize for a radio show or podcast. Hosted by Ira Glass and produced in collaboration with WBEZ Chicago.