Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'World famous' kidnapping saga starts well, ends badly

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NEWS media faking quotes and entire stories to boost sales, newspapers degraded into marketing arms of their owners' other interests: problems created by Rupert Murdoch and other 21st-century media barons?

Think again. These dastardly deeds were widely -- and presumably profitably -- committed a century ago.

The biggest story of 1912 and 1913 in much of the southern United States was the disappearance of four-year-old Bobby Dunbar in backwoods Louisiana, the discovery of a homeless boy in neighbouring Mississippi six months later, two communities' battle over the boy's identity, and the subsequent kidnapping trial.

The strengths of this fascinating but ultimately frustrating retelling of the Bobby Dunbar story are the details.

Particularly gripping are the feisty but frequently fictitious headlines and story excerpts, and the cartoons and advertisements from the warring daily newspapers of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Opelousas, La.

Unfortunately, the last third of A Case For Solomon disappoints. It abandons details in favour of speculation and dubious assertions such as the trial being "world-famous."

Perhaps this dichotomy is a result of the book's dual authorship.

Tal McThenia, who works in documentary film and television production, wrote a version of this story for U.S. public radio. The book publisher's website reports that Margaret Dunbar Cutright, the granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, "has researched the case for more than a decade, gathering and analyzing legal documents, family correspondence, and newspapers."

Did McThenia write the first part of the book, with its extensive citations, and Dunbar Cutright the impressionistic remainder?

That's a mystery that would tax the mental agility of Solomon, the biblical king who settled a dispute over a child's identity by ordering it cut in half. The woman who objected, choosing instead to let the boy live with her rival, was the real mother.

The first section of A Case For Solomon depicts public and private life in the southern U.S. a century ago, highlighting its privilege and poverty, its racism and sexism, and particularly its striving for a morally uplifting narrative.

Headlines are revealing: "Italian Woman Disembarks from Frisco Train With Child Not of Her Race"; "Little One, Half Asleep, Does Not Respond to Endearments"; "2 Fakers and the Facts."

From the New Orleans Daily States comes a pungent dissection of one of the women who claimed the child: "Animals don't forget, but this big, coarse country woman, several times a mother -- she forgot. She cared little for her young. Children were only regrettable incidents in her life."

In addition to such aggressive and unjustified journalism inspired by the case, the book displays dozens of examples of faked quotes, "embellished dialogue" and completely invented stories.

As a reminder that multimedia ownership and promotion are not new, it reports that the New Orleans Item newspaper "cross-marketed heavily" its newsreel coverage as the "first motion picture record of a criminal prosecution."

But as the book sags to its conclusion, it deteriorates into sloppy writing and random anecdotes.

Amazingly, it does not even report the sentence imposed on the convicted kidnapper. It glosses over the results of recent DNA testing that appear to settle the question of the boy's identity.

This about-face leaves readers wondering how the raffish journalists quoted in the earlier passages reported the outcome of the trial, and how the reporters who had argued for the losing side covered their behinds.

Nowhere does A Case for Solomon offer evidence that the case "haunted a nation," as its title asserts.

In the end, this book is nearly as unsatisfactory as contemporary accounts of the case.

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.

A Case For Solomon

Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation

By Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright

Free Press, 419 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J7

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