Gotham teacher Tal McThenia (collaborating with Margaret Dunbar Cutright) recently saw the release of his nonfiction book A Case For Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation. The book chronicles a fascinating true story. In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar goes missing in the Louisiana swamps. He turns up eight months later, but is it really Bobby Dunbar or another boy who went missing around the same time? As two families claim the boy, an array of legal, medical, and law enforcement professionals try to solve the mystery. Tal first presented this story on NPR’s This American Life,and the books’ co-author is the granddaughter of the found boy.
Well into the night, the walls of the cabin shook with a series of thunderous explosions. If Lessie had allowed herself to venture outside, she would have faced what looked like a battlefield. Muddy men wandered wild-eyed through the smoke-filled camp. In the dark beyond, lanterns flashed through the trees, and across the lake was a line of massive fires. The surface of the water itself was roiling with the blasts of dynamite. To the south, by the train trestle, a thick cable was stretched from shore to shore, dangling massive hooks to drag the depths.
They were looking for a body.
At last, the explosions brought to the surface something pale and white. A call went up, and a light was brought to bear: it was the bloated belly of a deer drowned in the spring flood.
The dragging and dynamiting continued through the night, in vain.
With the break of dawn, men dove into the lake to search the little coves that the hooks had been unable to reach—the places where a body may have been caught up in weeds. John Oge was one of the divers; he plunged into the murk all morning, ripping through the tenuous hyacinth, scouring the dark tangle of roots underwater along the banks.
If Bobby had not drowned, searchers speculated, any number of wild animals could have killed him. Just a few miles from here, a massive black bear killed two calves in 1908. A poisonous snake might have struck, a giant loggerhead turtle might have snapped off a limb, or if Bobby had slipped into the water, a mature garfish could have devoured him. As the search wore on, some even wondered if the boy had met a slower and crueler demise, his blood poisoned from mosquito bites. But the likeliest predator of all was an alligator, well known for lurking beneath the water’s surface by the shoreline and waiting for a turtle, bird, or small mammal to make its oblivious approach. In just seconds, a gator could shoot up, snap its jaws around its prey, and recoil underwater, leaving only a splash and a fast-fading ripple. After waiting for the prey to drown, the creature would rise to the surface to swallow it whole.
Four years prior, just weeks before Bobby was born, southwest Louisiana had been horrified by an eerily similar case of a missing boy. About one hundred miles west of Swayze Lake, three-year-old Harry Frye accompanied his parents and their friends on a Saturday-afternoon fishing trip on the Calcasieu River. While the adults took spots up and down the banks, Harry first lingered with his mother at camp, then headed upstream to join a group of men. An hour later, he was noticed missing, and a frantic days-long search ensued. Dragging of the river turned up pieces of the boy’s clothing, bloody and shredded. If one believed the national wire, a tooth-punctured teddy bear was recovered as well. Almost everyone concluded that it was death by alligator, and when a fourteen-foot suspect slithered onto the banks nearby, the men raced home for guns. Though the gator eluded the angry hunt, “the search was abandoned, as the evidence seems conclusive as to [Harry’s] fate.”
But whatever Bobby Dunbar’s fate, there was no scrap of clothing to offer resolution.