The lost boys: Mississippi River town haunted by the unsolved disappearance 50 years later

In the Late afternoon in May 1967, three Missouri boys slipped through their backyard in order to do what they like to: explore a labyrinth of caves in Hannibal — the hometown of Mark Twain — as if they were re-enacting the adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

They were never seen again.

The unknown fate of the children — Billy Hoag, 10, and Joey Hoag, 13, and Craig Dowell, 14 — is one of Hannibal’s greatest mysteries, ghostly residents of the small Mississippi River town for 50 years.

Did the boys die in the vast underground Murphy’s Cave, where they were reportedly seen heading? Or were they met with a dark fate?

An exhaustive search, which included spelunkers and FBI agents, yielded no clues.

“They disappeared without a trace,” said the 80-year-old Richard McHargue, who was a young local radio reporter in the boys disappeared.

“It was a traumatic experience for the local population here,” McHargue said. “This is the childhood home of Mark Twain, we were not accustomed to that kind of intense exposure.”

“It took your breath away,” he said.

On May 10, 1967, Joey Hoag got off the school bus outside his parents’ home in Hannibal ‘ s Southside neighborhood where he was greeted by his 16-year-old sister Debra “DeDe” Hoag. Billy was already in the house, which he shared with his 10 brothers and sisters. Joey walked to his bedroom and changed from his school clothing.

The Hoag parents were shopping in a nearby meat market and DeDe, was giving orders.

“I said: ‘You stay in the yard now, you hear me?'” she remembered. “Billy gave no answer.”

The two brothers had ventured out the night before you go to the caves next to the Highway 79, which snaked through the country, such as the Mississippi River, which was under construction at the moment. The employees were blasting over the earth they built a new Route 79, leaving gaping holes in the hills, and exposing a network of passage ways that lead to the caves.

“The night before, the boys had come home covered in red clay, mud – they were on the way out of bed,” Grandpa told Fox News.

“Workers were blasting the old road and the introduction of a new,” she said. “Papa said to them: ‘have you never ever go in those holes again.'”

Or the Hoag brothers and their neighborhood friend, Craig Dowell, entered Murphy’s Cave is not known.

Witnesses reported seeing the trio walk in the direction of the cave, according to the Hannibal Courier-Post, and The said torches, and a homemade ladder were later found missing from the family home.

For the next 10 days, the federal police and the national media descended on Hannibal, a city of about 20,000 people at the time. The members of the National Speleological Society — flown in from Washington on the Presidential Jet, 2 — were also on the scene, according to archived reports from the Courier-Post.

Spelunkers make their way through Murphy’s Cave, crawling through small spaces in the rocks and mud looking for any sign of the boys.

“They mapped out the cave and they’ve found nothing,” DeDe said.

The construction company, meanwhile, was immediately ordered by the mayor to keep the holes open, but the workers sealed them just a few days after the disappearance, according to DeDe and her family.

“If they blasted those holes open, not any form of caution tape around them,” DeDe said. “I think the boys was buried in one of the holes and I think that someone from the construction company who ran the equipment knew that she was buried.”

With no sight of the boys in the caves, asking about their whereabouts was even darker. Trains leave Hannibal at 4:40 pm on May 10, were all sought for the boys, according to the Courier-Post. Speculation about a possible abduction spread all over the city.

On 12 May, the newspaper reported: “Mayor Harry Musgrove requested that the National Guard to search this morning from the Universal Atlas Cement Factory in Ilasco north along the river to a point outside the cave.”

Related Picture

Expand / Collapse

The front cover of the Hannibal Courier-Post on May 12, 1967.

(Hannibal Courier-Post)

The paper also reported all kinds of tips: A lonely sock thought to be Dowell found in a quarry by the members of the Mark Twain Emergency Team and a red substance believed to be blood.

McHargue’s son, Mike, was 8 years old when the boys disappeared. Now lieutenant of the Hannibal Police Department, the younger McHargue said: “It is very likely that they got lost in a cave.”

“They would have found a large pool of water down a slope,” he said.

But, McHargue noted, “Under Missouri law, a missing person case is never closed. It stays open forever until it is resolved.”

“Should we get a lead, we will investigate,” he told Fox News.

For The Hoag, who lives three miles from the old caves, the smart about her brothers quickly turned into a chronic anxiety and claustrophobia, she said that she lived with her entire adult life.

“When the boys disappeared, I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I used to think, ‘How can I eat when they do not eat? How can I have a blanket on me if they don’t have one?'”

Billy, red-haired and freckle-faced, was mischievous and a “funny little thing,” she said. Joey was more serious, a science student is often seen with a telescope with which he watch the stars.

Their emptiness, DeDe said, felt it always.

“Not a day goes by that there isn’t something, that makes me think about them,” she said.

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.

Follow us

Don't be shy, get in touch. We love meeting interesting people and making new friends.

Most popular