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#352: The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

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Customer Reviews

Great listening, but very biased

I was riveted while listening to this TAL show, but later I realized it was biased, its conclusion unfounded.

It's about a boy named Bobby Dunbar, son of Percy & Lessie, who disappeared at age 4 in 1912, and may have been found 8 months later in the hands of his alleged kidnapper, a tinker named William Cantwell Walters. But another woman, Julia Anderson, claimed the boy as her son, Bruce. A single unmarried mother, Anderson had allowed Walters to travel around with her son because she couldn't adequately provide for him. (Elsewhere I’ve read she did this about 7 months before Bobby’s disappearance, and that Walters also claimed Bruce was the son of his brother and Anderson, & thus his nephew, but this was never proven.) There was a trial that lasted 2 years. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the Dunbars. Ballads were written about the event, including its supposedly happy ending.

But the evidence was equivocal. Some newspapers had reported Lessie Dunbar & the boy at first failed to recognize each other, while others had reported they’d recognized each other at once. Anderson & the boy had done no better, although ac/to TAL Anderson was forced to pick her son out of a kind of “line up” of 5 similar-looking boys, at a time when she was tired from a long journey and the boy was crying. In any event, questions remained.

Then Margaret Cutwright, a granddaughter of the boy who came back, decided to make a genealogical project out of reviewing all the available evidence. She met descendants of Anderson (who’d later married and had 8 more kids) and of Walters. Her research led her to doubt her lifelong assumption that her famous grandpa was in fact the same boy who’d disappeared. Ultimately, her father (Bobby Dunbar Jr.) and a son (David) of Bobby Dunbar's brother Alonzo took DNA tests. The result is revealed at the show’s end, but I won't get into that until after the spoiler alert below.

So here's the bias:

1 Reporter Tal McThenia treats the DNA test as conclusive when it was anything but. *SPOILER ALERT* The test between the two Dunbar lines was negative; no match. But what if Lessie had cuckolded Percy, with either Bobby or Alonzo (or both, as long as it was a different paramour)? What if Alonzo's wife had cuckolded him with David, or Bobby's wife had cuckolded him with Bobby Jr? When 1 in 5 children secretly fail to share the DNA of their mother’s husband/social father, this isn’t a stretch. There may be reasons to believe Bobby was Bruce, but this DNA test isn’t one of them.

Macthenia also says the "easiest" way to test the DNA was by comparing these two Dunbar lines. But it was at least as easy (perhaps easier, since the show claims most of the Dunbars were hostile to Cutwright’s project, while the descendants of Anderson and Walters were welcoming) to have run a DNA comparison between Bobby Jr. and one of ANDERSON'S children. It also would've been the BETTER way, since Anderson's children were unquestionably hers & half of the "cuckold" problem would've gone away. In any event, a positive test wouldve been conclusive. Two of Anderson’s children (Jewel Tarver & Hollis Rawls) were interviewed & available. Given the negative Bobby-to-Alonzo result, a Bobby-to-Julia test should’ve been attempted. Why wasn’t it?

2 McT cites a note Lessie wrote--“To Elizabeth Dunbar, that she may know why I stayed in my shell of grief”--as evidence of Lessie’s guilty knowledge. But Lessie could’ve been referring to any number of things that caused her grief: her divorce, her choice to remain in her marriage as long as she did prior to the divorce, etc. It’s hard to know how to interpret this note, partly bc McT gives no date for it, & mostly bc it indicates it was attached to or part of something else, & McT fails to indicate whether that other thing exists.

3 McT lumps all the Dunbars together, tarring them as snobs in denial about the character of their ancestors. Referring to the hostility of some Dunbars to Cutwright’s project, McT says, “They were Dunbars, and that’s all they wanted to be.” But some Dunbars—those descended from Bobby, who genetically may be Andersons—may have simply meant that they didn’t care about genetics; that what mattered to them was their cultural & social heritage. That “love makes a family,” and they "were Dunbars" bc their whole lives they’d been raised & loved by Dunbars. McT never distinguishes between those descended from Alonzo & those descended from Bobby, even tho each set of descendants occupies a different position relative to the DNA result. (In fact, throughout the piece, McT repeatedly refers to biological relationships as the only “real” ones, something I observed in TAL’s “Switched at Birth” too, & found surprisingly insensitive to the adoption community for liberal NPR.) He also conveniently overlooks the fact that at least one Dunbar—Alonzo’s son David, who took the test—wasn’t stuck in denial.

4 The show is at pains to redeem Anderson from charges at the trial that she was a “loose woman” who’d failed to recognize her own son. We hear that “nothing mattered more” to Anderson than getting her son back. But Anderson also gave up a daughter to adoption, & we’re told nothing further about it. Did Anderson try to get her daughter back, too? Or was it just her famous son? Did she fall prey to that bit of human nature that makes something much more desirable as soon as we learn someone else wants it too?

Also, Anderson had placed Bruce himself in a kind of foster care when she allowed Walters to take him for more than 15 months. If the boy at issue was indeed Bruce (as the show concludes without a doubt he was), then Anderson did indeed fail to recognize her own son. Would you have trouble recognizing your 4-year-old (or your 4-year-old sibling, if you don’t have kids) after an absence of 15 months?

The point is, like the Dunbars, Anderson was far from perfect, but the show focuses almost exclusively on the Dunbars’ moral warts.

#352: The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, This American Life
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  • $0.99
  • Genres: Spoken Word, Music
  • Released: Mar 14, 2008

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