A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation
Tal McThenia, Margaret Dunbar Cutright
A Case for Solomon tells the spellbinding story of one of the most celebrated kidnapping cases in American history, and a haunting family mystery that took almost a century to solve.
A CASE FOR SOLOMON: BOBBY DUNBAR AND THE KIDNAPPING THAT HAUNTED A NATION chronicles one of the most celebrated—and most misunderstood—kidnapping cases in American history. In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar, the son of an upper-middle-class Louisiana family, went missing in the swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable, in the pinewoods of southern Mississippi. A wandering piano tuner who had been shuttling the child throughout the region by wagon for months was arrested and charged with kidnapping—a crime that was punishable by death at the time. But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South.
Amid an ever-thickening tangle of suspicion and doubt, two mothers and a father struggled to assert their rightful parenthood over the child, both to the public and to themselves. For two years, lawyers dissected and newspapers sensationalized every aspect of the story. Psychiatrists, physicians, criminologists, and private detectives debated the piano tuner’s guilt and the boy’s identity. And all the while the boy himself remained peculiarly guarded on the question of who he was. It took nearly a century, a curiosity that had been passed down through generations, and the science of DNA to discover the truth.
A Case for Solomon is a gripping historical mystery, distilled from a trove of personal and archival research. The story of Bobby Dunbar, fought over by competing New Orleans tabloids, the courts, and the citizenry of two states, offers a case study in yellow journalism, emergent forensic science, and criminal justice in the turn-of-the-century American South. It is a drama of raw poverty and power and an exposé of how that era defined and defended motherhood, childhood, and community. First told in a stunning episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic struggle to determine one child’s identity, along the way probing unsettling questions about the formation of memory, family, and self.
let him go on his way.” The revelation must have taken jurors by surprise. Walters had been arrested before, with this very boy, but because no scar was found on the toe, he had been released. As the defense team saw it, the revelation challenged Percy’s latest assertion that there had been too much focus on the scar. If that were the case, how, in December, could the incorrect description still be given out? Mr. Dunbar responded that the description must have been copied from the circular, and
in a cell alongside Joseph Marshall. The snitch, pretending to be a kidnapper himself, extracted a coldhearted confession: the Marshall brothers had taken Bobby Dunbar into Mississippi, avoiding the trains, Joseph faking a fake leg to garner free meals. Finally, though, the child became a liability. As the Pic worded it, they “had to do away with it on account of money running short and they were about to be overtaken.” Dovetailing with the stifling of cries inside the shed, it was Walter Lamana
Parker”: Shreveport Journal, March 12, 1932. 202 “[A]t all times”: Affidavit of Jobie Sweeney, June 13, 1913, WWDF, book 3, 104a. 203 “I have been”: Brewer’s original statement, and the most comprehensive account of this meeting, is found in Marion County Progress (Columbia, MS), June 21, 1913. Chapter 14 206 “Q. How many brothers”: Transcript of In the Matter of W. C. Walters’ Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Fifteenth Judicial District Court, July 2, 1913, 43. 206 “about a
native American people who once inhabited southern Louisiana, including the region of St. Landry Parish, and were thought to have fed on their enemies. In Choctaw, Atakapa means “eater of human flesh.” Chapter 17 243 “W. C. Walters Left Us”: Columbian (Columbia, MS), February 5, 1914. 243 “I’m going to show you”: ATT, February 3, 1914. 243 “accustomed to”: NODP, February 2, 1914. 243 a written statement: NOTD, February 1, 1914. 244 “I want to be tried”: NOTD, February 2, 1914. 244
“It is stated”: OE, February 12, 1916. 360 all eyes turned: NOI, NODS, April 9, 1916. 361 ribbon-adorned bouquet: NOTP, April 9, 1916. 361 Parker campaign ad: DFS. 361 Four years later: In 1916, Parker won St. Landry, but the establishment Democrat garnered a sweeping majority. Barely registering defeat, Parker accepted the Bull Moose nominee for U.S. vice president that same year. But when his running mate and friend, Theodore Roosevelt, abandoned the Progressives at the last minute to