In folklore, primarily European, changelings are referred to as “…a mischievous or troublesome faerie child which has been left in the place of a human child, with the real human child stolen by faeries and hidden away in the faerie realm.” The general consensus among scholars is that the stories about changelings became scapegoats among parents attempting to explain away “imperfect children”. These were usually children with some form of disability or birth defect. Babies that simply cried too much could even be dubbed as malicious imposters. Even royalty could not be shielded from these frivolous accusations; King Charles I of England was rumored to have been a changeling due to his “…’peevish nature’ as a child and a nursemaid’s claim that a figure appeared mysteriously at his bedside and cast a cloak over the sleeping baby’s cradle.” King James, also of England, and his rumored homosexual tendencies were the root of changeling accusations made against him.
The term changeling was given a bit of a spotlight following the release of the 2008 Clint Eastwood directed film, Changeling. Inspired by true events, Changeling follows a single mother Christine Collins who comes home from work one evening to discover her son, Walter, is missing. After five months of dead end after dead end, Christine is relieved when Walter is found in Illinois; very much alive. Relief quickly turns to horror when the boy that steps off the train is not Walter. As authorities vehemently deny Christine’s claim, she finds a true ally, a clergyman, who sees the case as his chance to expose corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department and the government. The film would go on to earn Angelina Jolie an Oscar nomination and ignite interest in the very strange, but very real phenomenon of ‘missing’ children being returned to the wrong families–or even people posing as someone else’s child.
Robert “Bobby” Dunbar
August 23rd, 1912, had started off tranquil for the Dunbar family. Lessie and Percy Dunbar had taken their two sons, Alanzo and Bobby, on a fishing trip to Swayze Lake near Opelousas, Louisiana. The four spent most of their morning fighting off the torrid heat by playing in the water then returning to their nearby cabin for lunch around noon. It was during this time that 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar had wandered off. Police on the scene immediately suspected kidnapping following the discovery of footprints walking away from the Swayze Lake area and towards a nearby railroad trestle. There were also reports of a “strange man” lurking in the area. Almost right away, the story of the missing boy was widely reported in newspapers across the United States in 1912 and 1913 on an almost daily basis. After an extensive eight-month nationwide search, which consisted of catching and dissecting alligators to look for undigested body parts, throwing dynamite in Swayze Lake in hopes it would eject a small corpse from the water and Percy Dunbar offering a $1k reward (adjusted for inflation, that would be closer to $30k today); investigators still had nothing in the way of evidence explaining little Bobby’s fate. That is until local police received a tip in April 1913 about an itinerant handyman in Mississippi traveling with a boy who matched the description of the blonde-haired blue-eyed Bobby Dunbar.
William Cantwell Walters, the traveling tinker in question, vehemently denied any involvement in the Dunbar disappearance. Walters said the boy in his custody was named Bruce Anderson and that Bruce’s mother, Julia Anderson, had given him the child as a traveling companion while she went in search of work. Bruce was believed to be the illegitimate son of Julie and Walters’ brother, but this claim has never been confirmed. Despite several residents of Columbia, Mississippi, backing up Walters’s story and claiming they saw Walters and Bruce together days before Bobby’s disappearance, the police still took the boy away and sent him on the next train to Louisiana. To this day, it is still unclear how the initial reunion of “Bobby” and his parents actually went. “One newspaper claimed it was joyful, and that the boy instantly shouted “Mother!” upon seeing Lessie. Other accounts claim that both Lessie and Percy Dunbar were hesitant to confirm that the boy was Bobby.” One thing everyone can agree on is that after bringing the boy home for the night, giving him a bath, and inspecting the various moles and marks on his body, Lessie confirmed the next day that the boy in question was her son. It was shortly after this identification that Julia Anderson arrived to dispute it.
Shortly, after a literal parade in Opelousas to celebrate Bobby’s safe return, Anderson arrived from North Carolina to support Walters’ version of events. She said this was all a terrible misunderstanding and that she had allowed Walters to take her son only for what was supposed to be a two-day trip to visit one of Walters’ relatives. She further asserted that she had not consented for Walters to take her son for more than a few days. According to newspaper accounts, Anderson was subjected to a lineup of five boys, roughly the same description, height and weight of her son; among them was the boy that had been claimed by the Dunbar’s. Like Lessie Dunbar, Julia Anderson was unable to immediately identify any of the boys as Bruce, she would inevitably need 24 hours as well to confidently identify the boy known as Bobby Dunbar as actually being Bruce Anderson. But, unlike Lessie Dunbar, the news of Julia being unable to recognize her own child was met with incredible hostility. With her character being dragged through the mud in the local papers, a court-appointed arbiter deciding the boy in question was Robert and with no money to sustain a lengthy court battle, Julia Anderson was forced to return to North Carolina alone. She would eventually go on to marry again and have seven more children. Although her children indicated that her life was a happy one after settling in Poplarville, they said that she nonetheless spoke often of her lost son and that their family always regarded him as having been kidnapped by the Dunbars.
William Walters was later convicted of kidnapping, a capital offence in Louisiana, but the charges were overturned on a technicality two years later and he was released. He always maintained his innocence until his death in 1945. The boy raised as Bobby Dunbar would go on to get married, have four children of his own and died on March 8th, 1966. “…He gave at least one media interview as an adult, claiming to recall the details of his kidnapping. However, family members state he was reportedly uncertain as to his true identity for his entire life…” One of Bobby’s granddaughters began an investigation of her own in 1999 that ended in 2004 when authorities announced that DNA, provided by Bobby Dunbar Jr, tests had proved the child found with Walters was not Robert. The identity of the child who was identified as Bobby Dunbar is unknown; he has not been proven to be Bruce Anderson or anyone else.
With the results of the DNA testing, Bobby Dunbar was again classified as a missing child. However, his case is no longer being investigated by law enforcement due to the passage of time. Many believe that Bobby may have fallen off that nearby railroad trestle and died, his body most likely eaten by the alligators that resided in Swayze Lake. Others believe that Bobby really was kidnapped, and the police simply arrested the wrong man.
Subject of the previously mentioned film Changeling, Walter Collins was a California native born in September of 1918. In 1928, 9-year-old Walter was living in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles with his mother, a phone operator at the nearby telephone company, while his father was serving 40 years at Folsom Prison on a “third strike” robbery charge. On March 10th of 1928, Christine Collins was getting ready for a last-minute shift when she gave Walter some money to go to the movies. He was later seen standing on a street corner in Lincoln Heights, at around 5:00 pm, by a neighbor. This would be the last accurate sighting of Walter Collins.
When it started to get dark outside and Walter still wasn’t home Christine immediately became frantic as she started to search for him. When visiting the homes of all Walter’s friends turned up no results, Christine contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. Walter’s disappearance received nationwide attention and hundreds of tips came rolling in. But they would ultimately all result in dead ends. The LAPD briefly considered that Walter was kidnapped for ransom by an enemy or former acquaintance of his father. This would also turn up nothing. After months of negative publicity and scrutiny, the officer in charge of the case, Captain J.J. Jones, was delighted in August of 1928 when he received the news that a boy in Dekalb, Illinois turned himself into police with the claim that he was Walter Collins.
Christine was more than happy to pay the $70 (about $1,140 today) to bring the boy back to Los Angeles. But upon his arrival (a public reunion organized by the police in hopes of finally being cast in a positive light by the press) Christine had to take Captain Jones aside and inform him of the bad news. They had it wrong. The boy in question was not Walter Collins. He merely resembled Walter. Emotionally drained, Christine was eventually convinced by Jones to take him home and “try the boy out” for a few weeks. Christine returned to Jones three weeks later, this time with dental records and testimonials from friends to prove her case, again claiming that the child in her custody was not her son. Jones was less than impressed. “What are you trying to do, make fools out of us all? Or are you trying to shirk your duty as a mother and have the state provide for your son? You are the most cruel-hearted woman I’ve ever known. You are a fool!” Jones allegedly told Collins before having her committed to the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital under a “Code 12” internment; a term used to jail or commit someone who was deemed difficult or an inconvenience.
Afterwards, Jones interrogated the boy who eventually admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr. After his mother died, he says that he lived a solitary life with new life with his “cold fish of a father and malicious stepmother”. He ran away, hitchhiking around the country and working odd jobs. Hutchins’ primary motive for posing as Walter was to get to Hollywood to meet his favorite actor, Tom Mix. Hutchins was promptly sent back to his family in Iowa and then sent to the Iowa Training School for Boys. In his late teens and early adulthood, he sold concessions at carnivals and eventually moved back to California where he worked as a horse trainer and jockey. Arthur died in either 1952 or 1954–depending on which publication you read–of a blood clot, leaving behind a wife and young daughter.
Christine Collins was released from the hospital ten days after Hutchins’ confession and filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. She won her lawsuit against Captain Jones and was awarded $10,800 (approximately $150k today), which Jones never paid. The only punishment Jones received for what he did to Christine Collins was a four-month unpaid suspension from the LAPD.
Less than 24 hours after Christine Collins’ September 13th release from the hospital, there would be a major and tragic development in Walter’s case. “On the afternoon of September 14, 1928, a fifteen-year-old boy in LA’s juvenile hall named Sanford Clark asked to speak to detectives. He told them a long, harrowing tale of his experiences for the last two years at his uncle Stewart Gordon Northcott’s chicken ranch in rural Wineville, about 14 miles northwest of Riverside, where four boys had been murdered. One of them, he said, was “the boy who was in all the newspapers,” Walter Collins…” While Gorden Northcott was found guilty and sentenced to death for three murders, investigators that raided his farm and found ‘bits’ of body parts and clothing belonging to young boys theorized there may have been as many as eleven victims. These killings would later be referred to as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Despite Northcott’s mother confessing to killing Walter, Christine refused to believe he was ever there as his body was never recovered. On February 13th, 1929, Northcott was sentenced to death and hanged on October 30th, 1930. “It’s said that he had to be supported during his climb up the thirteen steps, and then collapsed on the gallows. He was more or less rolled through the trapdoor where he strangled to death at the end of the noose.” As the rope used during his execution was too slack to cause any breakage to the neck, it apparently took Northcott thirteen minutes to die from strangulation. Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma on November 1st, 1930.
Christine Collins never lost hope that Walter was still alive somewhere and continued to search for him for the rest of her life. She died in 1964 at the age of 75.
Frédéric Pierre Bourdin: “The Chameleon”
Frédéric Bourdin is the subject of those stories that, once you hear the gist of it, you’re baffled how you’ve never heard of it because it’s so crazy. The serial imposter garnered international media attention in 1998, when it was discovered that the then 23-year-old French native had assumed the identity of a missing boy from San Antonio, Texas; and had been living with the boy’s family for almost five months.
The Barclay family will be the first to admit that 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay was “no angel”. The boy they called Icky Nicky had attention-deficit disorder and rarely stood still. Local authorities were familiar with Nicholas and initially believed he left of his own accord as he had done so before. His mother stated that he occasionally hit and cursed at her, and the police were often called to the residence in response to arguments. Nicholas was frequently truant and got into trouble when he did attend school, even going so far as to threaten teachers.
On June 14th, 1994, Nicholas was expected to attend a sentencing hearing regarding an incident where he broke into a convenience store and stole a pair of shoes. On June 13th, he disappeared. Nicholas was last seen playing basketball with friends in a nearby park in San Antonio, Texas. He allegedly called home and wanted his mother to pick him up, but she was asleep, and Nicholas’s older brother refused to wake her. He never returned home.
Law enforcement officials were notified by an employee at a youth shelter in Linares, Spain in October 1997. The caller reported that Nicholas was living at the shelter after having escaped from a sex-trafficking ring. The man said the boy claiming to be Nicholas had been subjected to years of abuse. Nicholas’s sister boarded a flight to Spain, provided a positive identification, and brought the person posing as her brother back to Texas. The rest of Nicholas’ family also believed the man–who was later identified as Frédéric Bourdin–to be the missing boy. Despite the major physical differences. While Bourdin had dark brown hair and dark brown eyes and spoke with a French accent and used “European phrasing.” Nicholas had light brown hair and blue eyes. However, Bourdin had given himself the same tattoos that Nicholas had, of the letter’s “J” on his left shoulder, “T” on his left hand between his thumb and forefinger, and the letters “L” and “N” on his outer left ankle.
In late 1997, a local private investigator grew suspicious while he was working with a TV crew that had been filming an interview with the family. The investigator compared a photo of Bourdin’s ears to Nicholas’s ears and discovered that they did not match. In February 1998, the FBI obtained a court order that required “Nicholas” to provide a sample of blood and his fingerprints. After they were identified as belonging to Bourdin, in September of 1998 Bourdin pleaded guilty to passport fraud and perjury in a federal court. He was sentenced to prison for six years, more than twice as long as recommended by the Texas sentencing guidelines. According to interviews, Bourdin claimed his reason for pretending to be orphaned children was that he has been looking for “love and affection” and the attention he never received as a child.
Nicholas Barclay has never been located and his case remains unsolved. Some believe he may still be living in the San Antonio area. While many agencies continue to classify him as a runaway, foul play is heavily suspected in his disappearance. If you have any information on the whereabouts of Nicholas Barclay, you are encouraged to contact the San Antonio Police Department 210-207-7484.
Bourdin was released and deported back to France in 2003. Following a move to the city of Grenoble, he almost immediately assumed the identity of another missing boy, Léo Balley. In 2003 Léo would have been 14-years-old. Bourdin was almost 30. A DNA test was requested, and testing proved he was not Balley.
Léo Balley was last seen near Lac Fourchu in Taillefer Massif, France on July 19th, 1996. The 6-year-old was in the company of his father and three friends of his father. He disappeared while his father was installing a tent. Despite extensive search in the mountain, in the lake and nearby waterfalls no trace of Léo Balley has ever been found. While little information is readily available in his case, the general hypothesis appears to be that Léo was the victim of accidental death. If you have any information to the whereabouts of Léo Balley please contact the Gendarmerie Nationale. Their email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the course of numerous media interviews, Bourdin has confessed to creating up to 500 fake identities:. His bizarre story would go on to inspire two Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes, a 2010 film- entitled The Chameleon– a primarily fictionalized account of the Nicholas Barclay case, a Bourdin-approved autobiography and a 2012 documentary called The Imposter.
Despite Bourdin maintaining he has no plans on resuming his life as an imposter, for the sake of his children and their pet cat, when asked if he was a new person after becoming a husband and a father, Bourdin responded, “No, this is who I am.” As of 2021, Bourdin continues to live in France with his children. The status of his marriage is unclear. In 2015, Bourdin wrote on Facebook, “I miss my old life, my freedom, hell I don’t even have a criminal record left in France…But nothing in this world could make me abandon my wife, kids and pets… I wish you could have followed my childhood and my past life through your very eyes instead of getting glimpses of it through the lying eyes of those who see themselves as a reporter.”
The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders by Anthony Flacco, Jerry Clark and Michael H. Stone (Foreword)
*Updated July 25, 2023