Over fifty years ago three Missouri boys stepped from their homes and into oblivion. The mystery of their disappearance has never been solved, and many wonder if some nearby caves they were exploring turned out to be their tomb.
On May 10, 1967, three boys who ventured into caves near their home were never seen again. They routinely explored caves in Hannibal’s Southside neighborhood. Primed by Twain's stories that were set in Hannibal they sought adventures in these dark places, but on this day they never returned home, and suppertime came and went and their places at the table remained empty.
The day before the boys were searching in the cave, which had been exposed by construction for Highway 79. Allegedly construction works chased them away, and the parents forbade them to return. Despite their parent's instructions they made plans to return after they got out of school
A massive and expensive search for them sparked attention from newspapers across the country, and for 10 days everyone hoped that good news would be announced about the explorers.
The disappearance of Billy Hoag, 10, Joey Hoag, 13 and Craig Dowell, 14, remains one of Hannibal’s greatest mysteries. What happened to them inside the Murphy's Cave complex, but did they really disappear inside there? Perhaps they were trapped in another cave because of the reconstruction on Highway 79.
The darker fears were either that they ran away or were kidnapped and taken away from Hannibal.
On Wednesday, May 10, 1967, Lynn Strube, 14, reportedly saw the boys headed in the direction of Murphy’s Cave around 4:30 p.m., flashlights and a shovel in hand. Hers was the last known sightings of the boys.
This is why most of the rescue efforts were focused on the cave system with an entrance near Birch and Walnut Streets. The Mark Twain Emergency Squad responded first, and a multitude of spelunkers joined the search for the boys.
The National Speleological Society was brought in by Presidential Jet 2, with William Karras in charge of the search, according to Courier-Post reports.
The search did not stop even when the sun went down, and floodlights glared into the dark recesses. By the third day there was fear it would turn into a body recovery mission instead of a rescue mission.
There was speculation that while work crews blasted to build Missouri Highway 79, they had perhaps become trapped in a smaller cave after a blast sealed it.
“Friends came forward and said that the boys, and other boys of the South Side had been entering these holes in late afternoon after the construction workers left for the day,” wrote J. Hurley and Roberta Hagood in their book, Hannibal Yesterdays. “This kind of activity would require daring and would have appealed to boys in spite of the great danger.”
The Courier-Post reported on May 12, “Mayor Harry Musgrove requested that the National Guard begin a search this morning from the Universal Atlas Cement Plant at Ilasco north along the river to a point beyond the cave area.”
Even trains that left Hannibal after 4:40 p.m. on May 10, were searched for signs of the boys.
As the days passed, tips poured in. Letters poured into the Hannibal Police Department, asking crews to scour islands in the Mississippi River. All of them led to dead ends.
A group of boys sighted in the St. Louis area, turned out to be from Cape Girardeau.
Psychics from across the country contacted officials with their premonitions. One described a vision of the boys locked in a rail car with oranges bound for somewhere in the U.S.
Besides the caves, the woods surrounding the area were searched as were abandoned houses in the city's South Side.
Ten days passed, and the preliminary search was called off. Localized searches continued but by the end of June 1967, all efforts ceased.
In 2006, an entrance to the cave was uncovered during the construction of the A.D. Stowell Elemtary School, rekindling memories of the boys.
A resident of Hannibal who knew the boys, authored a book in which psychics supposedly claimed the boys had fallen victim to serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
The Hoags' surviving sister, wondered if the construction company was complicit in a cover up when they realized they had blasted an area where they had failed to put up caution signs.
On Lover's Leap Park overlooking the Mississippi River a plaque has been erected in memory of the boys.
The mystery continues today, leaving people wondering if a trace of the boys sits somewhere beneath Hannibal, waiting for the moment when another cave entrance or passageway illuminates a puzzle unsolved after 50 years.
Article originally appeared in the Hannibal Courier-Post
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer