A. R. Waud, Cypress swamp on the Opelousas Railroad, Louisiana, Harper’s Weekly, December 8, 1866
August 23, 1912
LESSIE DUNBAR TUCKED her son’s little toes into one sandal, then another, and fastened the straps. She harbored no illusion that they’d stay on for long. She lifted his hand and coaxed his baby ring into her palm. If this came off, it would never be found, not out here.
All the while, she felt him studying her eyes. Deep blue like his own, this morning Lessie’s were swollen and bloodshot. It was hay fever season, after all, and on top of that, they’d spent last night in a silt-encrusted cabin. But being only four, Bobby might wonder if she was crying or hurt.
Lessie had no time to explain or reassure. As soon as she released his hand, he was off, down toward the lake with his father and all the other boys and men. Maybe he hadn’t been worried about her at all.
She darted into the cabin to put the ring someplace safe and then returned to cooking. The fish fry had been called for noon, and at last count, she had at least a dozen mouths to feed.
Today, a Friday in late August, was the perfect time to fish. The record-breaking spring floodwaters, which had burst over the banks of the Atchafalaya River and into its surrounding bayou basin, were receding. And the ensuing explosion of giant red river crawfish, infamous for stealing bait, had subsided as well. “Craw-fish Are Vamoosing; Fishing Is Getting Good,” read a headline in the local paper in late July. From all the narrow bayou-lakes in the area, delighted reports of fat catches of perch and trout were making their way back to Opelousas, where the townspeople were wilting in the heat, weary of the summer dust settling over their sidewalks, and itching for escape.
The Dunbars took refuge at this place on Swayze Lake, as they had in years past. Owned by Lessie’s uncle, it was a largely wooded parcel with two primitive cabins wedged between a dirt wagon trail and the bayou’s ever-shifting shoreline. There were eleven in the party in all: along with Lessie, her husband, Percy, and their sons, Bobby and Alonzo, came Percy’s cousin Wallace, his wife and two sons, Lessie’s younger sister, Rowena Whitley, a family friend named Paul Mizzi, and a servant girl. With a crowd this size, and others expected to stop by soon, they had arrived a day early to ensure an ample catch. And since the camp had been underwater for months, there was also the chore of returning it to habitability. The women spent hours scrubbing mud from the walls and windows, as the men hacked out a clearing through the overgrown canebrake down to the lake.
Nothing could be done about the shoreline, however, where the rapidly receding floodwaters had left a five-foot-wide bank of soft, deep mud. Fishing from here was a mucky, clumsy business, Percy and the other men learned quickly, and direct access to the water was utterly precarious.
In the late morning, a young black boy entered the camp, bearing a message for Percy. Mr. David Thornton, who lived a mile to the north, was finalizing a land deal and needed the deed transfer notarized back at his farm. Percy, a notary, had either accepted the job earlier, or this was an on-the-spot request. In any case, fishing would have to wait.
As his father headed up to the road with the boy, Bobby tried to tag along. But Percy turned him back. He couldn’t watch Bobby and do his job at the same time, and, besides, he’d return before noon. Bobby grew distraught, screaming and clawing at his father as Percy moved to mount his horse.
In the struggle, the rubber band strap on Bobby’s straw hat snapped. His father stopped and leaned down to face his son. He didn’t have the patience to repair the strap, so he simply pressed the hat down harder onto the boy’s head. Then he turned away, climbed onto the horse, and swung his cork leg (a prosthetic he’d had since childhood) over and into its stirrup. As Percy set out down the road, he instructed the boy to take Bobby back to camp.
About that time, more guests arrived: John Oge, a planter and well-known state politician; Dr. Lawrence Daly; and Daly’s twelve-year-old son, who were happy to join in the fishing. Ambling down to the lake, rotund Oge challenged rotund Wallace Dunbar to a contest for the biggest catch.
For Lessie, the presence of Oge and Daly injected an air of formality into the gathering, and a reminder of the time, hastening her efforts in the kitchen. Every incoming fish needed to be cleaned, fried, and then drained over a bed of Spanish moss. She had Rowena to help in this process, and the nurse girl kept two-year-old Alonzo out of the way. But swollen-eyed Bobby would have to fend for himself.
The other three boys were several years older, and though he could tag along while they made their fun, he would never be part of it. So when Bobby saw Paul Mizzi heading down to the lake to shoot garfish, he begged his mother to let him follow. Thirty-year-old Paul had a unique friendship with Bobby. He often took the boy riding at his horse and cattle farm, on a big buckskin horse. And Paul was the only one who could call stout, little Bobby by his odious nickname “Heavy” and make it sound like a term of endearment. Plus, of course, few things were more thrilling than the firing of a gun.
As soon as Lessie agreed, Alonzo inevitably wanted to follow, as did one of Wallace’s sons. Before turning back to her work, she warned the boys away from the shore. It wasn’t just the mud; the lake plunged quickly to a depth of fifteen feet.
Searching the water with Paul and the other boys, Bobby saw the flash: just beneath the surface, the razor teeth of a garfish, panicking a school of sac-a-lait. Paul kept the boys back, raised his pistol, and started to fire. The shots ripped into the water’s surface and decimated an island of hyacinth, their echoes booming against the walls of cypress that lined the lake. A dead garfish floated to the surface, its head the shape of an alligator.
Overlapping with the excitement of gunfire was the madcap commotion of the fishing contest. With the boys cheering them on, Oge and Wallace baited hooks and cast lines at a furious pace. With the gars out of the way, the catching sped up substantially.
Then someone from the cabin called for help setting up for lunch, which ratcheted up the bustle. Later, no single person could quite remember all that followed. Lessie recalled finishing up the mayonnaise in the kitchen. Wallace recollected being instructed to move the dining table and benches away from the cabins into the clearing for a better view of the lake. John Oge knew only that he was lingering down by the shore, drinking ice water and waiting for the meal to be called. Paul Mizzi remembered hoisting Alonzo onto his shoulders and bouncing him back up to camp, nearly trampling Bobby on the way.
As the newspapers would later report, “Bobby’s last words were characteristic.” When Paul warned, “Get out of the way, Heavy, or I’ll run over you,” Bobby scuttled away and shouted back, “You can’t do it! You ain’t no bigger than me!”
EMERGING FROM THE cabin with the first plate of fish, Lessie scanned the crowd of men and boys swarming around the table. It wasn’t long into setting out the meal before she put her finger on what was wrong.
She asked where Bobby was. Her question landed on Paul, who still carried Alonzo atop his shoulders, but she knew before he could open his mouth that Paul had no idea. With a quick glance at the other men, she knew that neither did they.
She called Bobby’s name. Her eyes darted from one end of the clearing to the other. She called again, louder. And when Paul finally echoed her cry, Lessie’s panic burst open. She turned from the table and dashed toward the lake. They all watched her, mute, impotent. Her shoes sunk into the mud, and she stopped, her eyes racing across the water, the weedy shoreline, and the gnarled roots of the bank.
Lessie rushed from one end of the camp to the other, calling for Bobby, and the others joined in. Bewildered, the boys watched the adults spin out of control all around them. Little Alonzo gaped in horror as his mother collapsed to the dirt.
Wallace, Oge, and Daly struck out on the wagon trail behind the camp, to the north. It was possible that Bobby had taken off, once again, after his father. The three men trotted up the road, calling the boy’s name and getting no response, scanning the dense woods and spotting no one. They ran into Percy, riding back from the Thornton place, and broke the news.
Percy raced back to camp, where flies covered the uneaten fish on the table, and his wife’s tiny frame lay crumpled on the ground. He knelt beside her and held her, as Paul and the others filled him in on the details.
Within moments, Percy was up again, scouring the area just as the others had before him. He remembered Bobby’s straw hat with its broken strap and told them all to keep an eye out. It couldn’t have stayed on long.
There were footprints in the mud everywhere, but closest to the water’s edge where the earth was soft, none the size of Bobby’s. The tangle of brush that bordered the camp seemed impenetrable, but Percy dropped to his knees nonetheless and scrambled into it. As the rest of the party continued the search in every other direction, Percy tore through the roots and weeds and canebrake on his hands and knees, dragging his cork leg behind him, searching for Bobby, his hat, or his footprints. He crawled north and south, his voice hoarse from calling, and, too close to the water’s edge, he sunk elbow deep and deeper into the mud.
Lawrence Daly and John Oge burst back into camp. After searching northward on the trail, they had just now turned south, where they came upon bare infant footprints in the dirt. They weren’t sure if the prints were Bobby’s, and they didn’t know if he had been barefoot or not. Lessie grabbed Bobby’s sandals from the ground, and she and Percy followed the men back to the road.
She knew in an instant that the tracks were Bobby’s. They matched the size of his sandals, and none of the other children had gone unshod. On this question, one newspaper would later report her sworn oath that she was “willing to lay down her life.”
The four followed the prints south along the wagon trail, all the way to its dead end at a T with the railroad tracks, just a few yards west of a wooden trestle over the lake. The footprints crossed the railroad tracks and dropped down an embankment into a sandpit on the other side. Damp sand had clung to the child’s feet, and they detected signs of a scramble or a fall on the way back up the embankment. Then on the railroad tracks, the prints appeared again clearly. Percy led the group after them, but it wasn’t long before he stopped dead, staring down. The footprints, he would later recall, had “suddenly disappeared.”
They looked everywhere for the boy’s path to pick up again: up and down the tracks and in the grass alongside, then, defeated, back to the spot where Percy had stopped. The final footprints pointed west, toward Opelousas, away from the railroad bridge. Where had the boy gone?
Speculating that perhaps the prints were not Bobby’s after all, Daly and Oge hurried to retrieve several children from the black settlement to the north. With Percy and Lessie watching, they coaxed the children’s feet into position, side by side with the footprints in the dirt. All of the children’s feet were larger than the prints.
The westbound excursion train returning to Opelousas lumbered over the bridge, and someone flagged it down. Its passengers, relaxed and happy from a day at lakes nearby, gaped down at the odd scene: a frantic, mud-spattered search party clustered around barefoot black children. When the passengers heard the news, their summer bliss fell away, and many rushed off the train to aid in the search. The engineer promised to call for more help when the train made it back to town.
Indeed, two hours later, railway superintendent Harry Flanders had dispatched a special train carrying one hundred men, all hunters and fishers who knew the terrain well. From the east, a car carrying a rail gang home from a day’s work at nearby Second Lake stopped and joined in the search. As late afternoon turned to evening, the hunt broadened for a mile through the woods and tangled shoreline of the lake. They all knew what to look for: tiny footprints, a straw hat, a scrap of blue rompers, a shivering four-year-old boy. They found none of it.
A crossbred dog owned by someone up the road was brought in to follow the scent of the footprints. It zigzagged into the woods, was detoured by a coon and a jackrabbit, then finally darted out onto a log extending from the shore into the water. There, on the log, sat a ham bone, remnants of lunch left by one of the searchers.
By dark, Lessie’s sister Rowena had been sent back home to Opelousas with Alonzo and the servant girl. Although it had begun to rain and there was nothing for Lessie to do here but worry, she could not leave. With Percy occupied, helping to supervise the crowds of searchers, she huddled in one of the cabins, paralyzed.
Last night, as she had put Bobby to bed, the swamp beyond these thin plank walls was loud with life: pig frogs grunting, nighthawks shrieking, the gurgle-laughs of a barred owl. Tonight it was a more ominous din, and not just the rain, either. The woods outside were alive with barking dogs, roaring flames, and men screaming her son’s name.
A CENTURY BEFORE, the idea of a family camping trip into the Atchafalaya River basin would have been unthinkable. Most Louisianans saw the place as an impenetrable swamp, and rightfully so. There were few inroads into the region, no roadways that crossed it, and most of its waterways were dangerous and barely navigable. In 1816 geographer and cartographer William Darby published the popular study A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana, which afforded curious readers across America a glimpse into the basin’s dark interior. “To have an idea of the dead silence, the awful lonesomeness, and dreary aspect of this region,” Darby wrote, “it is necessary to visit the spot.” It was hardly an invitation.
For the next century, levees were built across the basin to buffer its towns from flooding by the Mississippi, which fed into it from the northeast. Massive clogs of stumps and trees were removed from waterways to create deeper channels for travel and commerce. Low-lying swampland was drained to accommodate an increasing pressure for plantation agriculture. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the Atchafalaya, as untouched and primordial as much of it still appeared, was a thoroughly designed and managed environment.
But the war ended Louisiana’s plantation system, and along with it came the destruction and deterioration of the levees. Even more significant was a series of catastrophic floods during which the Mississippi breached the levees and, with the channels clear of timber, inundated the Atchafalaya full force. In 1866, a year after the war’s end, reportorial illustrator A. R. Waud ventured into the region to capture the bayou for readers of Harper’s Weekly. Waud’s drawing is a child’s worst nightmare. Thick cypress limbs hang heavy across the entire scene, and in their dark shadows lurk grinning black alligators.
The rebuilding of the levees continued through the turn of the century. In the areas where farming had been abandoned, lumberjacks moved in to harvest the cypress. In northern parts, agriculture made a slow comeback with drainage and the planting of rice fields. And across the region, a fishing economy blossomed. Locals staked personal claims to specific streams and channels, setting up camps along the shoreline or traveling in houseboats to fish where the waters were unclaimed. Steamer service through the larger channels was on the rise. Seasonal roads were cut through the woods. And railroads were built to connect New Orleans with the bayou’s growing new towns.
In 1905 the Opelousas, Gulf and Northeastern Railway, more commonly known as the O.G., opened its tracks to Melville and linked Opelousas with “the Lakes” along the way. This chain of deep, clear bayous, partially connected and surrounded by woods, had long been a haven for the adventurous sportsman. Percy Dunbar had hunted and fished here since he was a boy. With the railroad came a new degree of civilization to the lakes, which were now accessible to whole families for single-day picnic excursions as well as for weekend campouts.
Swayze Lake was closest in, an easy hour-and-a-half ride. Besides Lessie’s uncle’s camp, there were a few other fishing shacks scattered around Swayze, none closer than a mile, and a black community to the north. Down the lake from the Dunbars’ camp, the O.G. crossed the water via wooden trestle and continued eastward to Half Moon Lake and then Second Lake after that.
Second Lake was private, open only to members of the Opelousas Rod and Gun Club. In 1912 that included political leaders and patriarchs of St. Landry Parish’s Civil War–era aristocracies: Edward B. Dubuisson, R. Lee Garland, Sheriff Marion Swords, and Percy’s business partner, Henry E. Estorge. While Percy’s name wouldn’t appear as a member until 1917, he knew and was known by all of these men in 1912, approaching that inner circle, if not inside it already. Unlike Swayze, Second Lake was a resort with amenities, boasting a new clubhouse and kitchen, a wide lawn, and manicured grounds, which the St. Landry Clarion credited to “the energy and good taste of ‘[S]ebe’ and ‘Aunt Mary,’ the keepers there.” That year, the club rolled out shooting tournaments as its latest feature. And for one season at least, the lake itself was cleared of the pernicious lavender-blossomed Japanese water hyacinth, which had been fouling the waterways of the Atchafalaya for the past thirty years.
Just north of Second Lake was Half Moon Lake, developed into a resort by O.G. superintendent Flanders to coincide with his inauguration of daily round-trip rail service. Half Moon promised most of the amenities of Second but was open to the general public. A kitchen was being built, swings and other visitor conveniences were to be erected, and grounds were being tidied for what the Clarion called “a real ‘parky’ appearance.”
So when the Dunbars ventured out to the lakes in 1912, there was nothing at all pioneering about their journey. On a Thursday in late August, the O.G.’s passenger carriages would be overloaded with families, fishing poles, and bulky gear for camping and cooking. They had every reason to believe that their excursion would be safe.
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.
By Saturday afternoon, Lessie grew physically ill. When an afternoon special arrived with more searchers, Percy boarded the train with his wife for its return to Opelousas. They fled the swamp, but its black mud clung to their clothes and skin.
When they climbed the front steps of their Victorian cottage on Union Street, they could hear family and friends gathered inside. But the Dunbars had moved here only days before, so the place did not seem at all like home. Possibly, this would afford Lessie and Percy a small comfort when they opened the front door. This was not yet Bobby’s house either, and they might not feel him in every corner.
LESSIE DUNBAR WAS born Lela Celeste Whitley in February 1886, a decade into her parents’ doomed experiment with life in Texas. Newlyweds John and Delia Whitley had settled on a promising parcel along the state’s remote southeastern coast, but the nearest town was Morales, a bloody hotbed of post–Civil War anarchy bypassed by the incoming railroad and left to die. Four years and three siblings after Lessie’s birth, the Whitleys fled back east to resettle among Delia’s kin in St. Landry Parish.
Thomas Quirk, Delia’s father, was one of the more prosperous Anglo planters in Grand Prairie, a community fifteen miles north of Opelousas whose greatest wealth and most fertile land were in the hands of French-speaking Acadians. Thomas may not have been able to offer financial support, but as John got the new farm on its feet, Delia had plenty of siblings who could help with feeding and caring for the children.
Lessie’s health may well have played a role in the Whitleys’ return. She was born with a horseshoe kidney, an anatomical anomaly wherein her two kidneys were fused together into the shape of a U. This was not a grave concern in and of itself, but Lessie suffered from a common ancillary condition: obstruction of the urinary tract, which would gradually lead one kidney to atrophy and, late in her life, the temporary failure of the other. From childhood onward, she likely suffered chronic abdominal and flank pain, vomiting, and recurring infections. At least in St. Landry, unlike in Texas, the family had professional medical care within a reasonable distance.
They also had access to quality Catholic education. In 1902 Lessie and two of her sisters were enrolled in the Mt. Carmel Academy at Washington, Louisiana, run by an order of nuns who taught in remote French-speaking settlements up and down the state’s southwestern bayous. In the academy’s tuition books, while the Quirk cousins and most other boarders paid $10 to $14 per year, the Whitley girls’ records are different: in Mother Melanie Leblanc’s delicate script is written “gratis,” “in honor of St. Joseph,” “give vegetables when they can and help with work.”
For her brief schooling at Mt. Carmel, Lessie would remain grateful to Mother Melanie and the order for her entire life. It was a rigorous bilingual curriculum, going far beyond the basics to include Louisiana history, French literature, philosophy, and astronomy. Of the “household arts,” Lessie excelled at embroidery, crochet, and sewing, specializing in clothes for dolls and people alike. Hers was a God-given talent, and Mother Melanie and the other sisters nourished it. In a 1902 school photo, Lessie stands in the rear row among the tallest girls, a commanding presence, shouldering ahead of her fellow students. Her wide face is grimly determined, betraying no trace of childhood, and her pale eyes seem to be looking beyond.
As Lessie’s final year at Mt. Carmel was nearing a close, her future husband’s career was beginning just two blocks down the street. At first Percy Dunbar didn’t have an office for his real estate business, so he tucked himself into the shop of an old shoemaker. In these early years, he snapped up tax sale bargains and turned them for a profit, negotiated timber rights for relatives and neighbors, and sold small rural tracts and lots in town, slowly but surely building a reputation. It helped that he was also Washington’s town constable, whose duties, in addition to keeping the peace, included seizure and sale of debtors’ property.
Though descended from Robert Dunbar, a successful Scottish American planter in Natchez, Mississippi, Percy had not grown up with easy privilege. Before the Civil War, his grandfather Samuel had a modest plantation with fourteen slaves in East Feliciana Parish; after the war, Samuel relocated to St. Landry, and his land and wealth were divided among his sons—Percy’s father Robert being one of five. Percy’s maternal grandfather was Felix A. King, president of the Opelousas Board of Police during and after the Civil War, but he was an accountant by trade, with nothing like a fortune. Robert and Madeline raised Percy and his siblings on a small family farm between Opelousas and Washington, and while Percy was certainly schooled during boyhood, there are no records of a college education.
What is known about Percy’s youth indicates that, like Lessie’s, it was a physical struggle. As a boy, he lost his foot and lower leg in a firearms accident. Though he spoke of the incident later, he never specified the person who pulled the trigger, which suggests it was either he himself or someone too beloved for him to name. The local papers of his youth were dotted with accounts of boys’ mishaps with guns, and even a foot peppered with birdshot, if not treated promptly, often led to infection farther up the ankle and amputation.
By the time he reached adulthood, Percy had adapted to his cork leg so fully that strangers couldn’t even tell he had it. As one family member recalled, he turned his leg into something of a parlor trick: out in public, he would put on a big show of whittling a stick, drawing a crowd close; then, without warning, he would jam the knife through his pants and into the cork, scattering the startled gawkers. A good thing, then, that his young bride was so skilled with needle and thread.
A year before marriage, Percy executed a series of shrewd career maneuvers: he relocated to the larger town of Opelousas, partnered with H. E. Estorge, and added insurance sales to the duo’s roster of services. Estorge, fifteen years Percy’s senior, was deemed by the Clarion one of St. Landry’s “noblest Creole sons,” a fixture of parish leadership and state politics. In late 1906, the new partners’ first ad was designed to attract attention: in a newspaper column flanked by letters to the editor and classifieds, the notice for Estorge & Dunbar was printed vertically in giant lettering. St. Landry was in the midst of a real estate boom, and Dunbar and Estorge cashed in, selling suburban lots around the perimeter of Opelousas, parceling off plantations, and bringing whole new towns to life along just-laid railroads.
Percy may have met Lessie (just turning twenty and fourteen years his junior) via their overlap in Washington, or even in the social circles of Opelousas, which Lessie’s sister Mary had entered via marriage into the prestigious Dupre family. As a candidate for wife, Lessie was ideal: a young, attractive, well-liked, nun-schooled Catholic, and a skilled homemaker from a family with a name.
For the Whitleys, the proposal was welcome. By now it was clear that John was too old and infirm to thrive as a planter. Lessie’s two older sisters still lived at home, unmarried and supplementing the family income with seamstress work; by 1910, the Whitleys had taken in two schoolteachers as boarders as well. From a financial perspective, marriage to Percy Dunbar was Lessie’s best hope for a brighter future.
In the cool early-morning hours of a weekday in June 1907, they were wed at the home of a Dupre relative in Washington. The wedding made the front page of one of the St. Landry weeklies and even appeared in the New Orleans Item. In one Opelousas paper, Lessie was called “a popular and accomplished daughter of our sister town,” and in another, Percy was described as “the genial and indefatigable real estate and insurance hustler.” After a honeymoon in New Orleans, the newlyweds settled into married life in Opelousas, in a rented home centrally located on Court Street and big enough for Percy’s younger brother Archie to move in too.
The indefatigable hustler threw himself into public life. In 1910 Percy was elected as board member and secretary of the recently reorganized Progressive League. He became secretary of the local Democratic Party, overseeing party primaries, and in the summer of 1912, he was appointed to the city’s board of supervisors. A year into the Dunbars’ marriage, Bobby was born, then Alonzo two years later, but given Lessie’s health issues, her pregnancies were far from worry free.
IN HIS FIRST few years, Robert Clarence Dunbar was fearless, even in the face of painful consequences. When he was eighteen months old, he bolted away from his nurse into the backyard and put his left foot directly into a pile of red-hot ashes. It was a severe burn, enough to disfigure his big toe and impair its growth. Later, a crash with Lessie’s sewing machine left a deep cut above Bobby’s right eye. Worried that her son would lose his sight, she took him to the doctor, but fortunately, the wound just left a scar.
Bobby often played with the neighbor’s daughter, Margaret Durio, but as he aged, his stomping grounds broadened well beyond the yard next door. Nearly every afternoon, he was known to dash down to the courthouse square to scare the goldfish in the fountain. Inevitably, he would fall in and soak himself, requiring Deputy Chachere to fish him out and carry him home. Bobby had also taken to racing out the gate and down the street to meet his father on his way home from the office. But when a rowdy saloon opened up along this route, Lessie grew so worried that the sight of public drunkenness would taint his childhood that in the summer of 1912, the Dunbars moved. Their new home was a modest Victorian on Union Street, a safer distance from the dangers of downtown. Apparently it was easier to relocate the entire family than to keep Bobby Dunbar inside the yard.
In mid-August 1912, Bobby accompanied his mother on a visit to her third cousin Douce Mornhingveg, wife of an Opelousas jeweler. Lessie and Douce had not spent time together since girlhood, but their reunion was marred by what Douce would later describe as Bobby’s “badness.” He was “simply outrageous,” she would cluck.
Just a week later, that same quality—call it badness or irrepressible wanderlust—finally resulted in the sort of trouble from which Deputy Chachere could offer no rescue. As Lessie collapsed into her bed on August 24, “prostrate with grief,” there were hundreds of men scouring the woods and lakes in search of her son, but there would be no dripping-wet homecoming.
Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation
A Case for Solomon
Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation
In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing in the Louisiana swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable. A wandering piano tuner was arrested and charged with kidnapping— a crime then punishable by death.
But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not the lost Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South. A gripping historical mystery, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic century-long effort to unravel the startling truth.
- Free Press |
- 464 pages |
- ISBN 9781439158609 |
- August 2013