What happened to the missing boys?

Who was the mystery man that had been spotted at the top of Lovers’ Leap? 

Missouri is sometimes known as The Cave State—for good reason.   It is chock full of at least 7,000 caves—most of them revealed since 1950. Beloved adventures of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn have fueled the imaginations of children for generations.  Boys, especially, cannot stay away from the cavernous magnets.  

     My own older brother did his share of spelunking in Missouri and Arkansas.  His best friend once broke his hand—a fall inside a cave.  It was a challenge for the teen cavers to get the agonized friend back up the steep bank, and then to the doctor.  They carried huge silvery flashlights that could hold ten “D” Batteries in the handles.  I remember my brother sneaking in, covered in mud, and trying to wash his clothing and himself without alerting my mother.  It’s a safe bet the parents didn’t know the extent of it.  It has always been a dangerous business, even for seasoned Boy Scouts.  

     You can get lost in an instant in one of the underground mazes, unless you unroll a ball of twine as you go, to find your way back, or leave unique chalk markings on cave walls—and that is no guarantee.  Some passages are miles long.  It is too tempting to go into just one more room after your twine has run out.  Some caves have underground streams and bottomless pools with steep banks—another hazard.

     In 1967, in Hannibal, Missouri, there was a day in May that three boys did not return home from after-school activities.  From that day on, an eerie cloud blanketed Hannibal—it did for many years to come. I recently came across the old newspaper article.  It gave me a chill.  I did some further reading.  In the sad but true tale, three boys disappeared forever:  Billy Hoag, 11, Joel Hoag, 13, and Craig Dowell, 14.  There hasn’t been a sign of the well-liked members of the community in over 50 years.  They told friends they were going to investigate a cave opening that was revealed the prior week by a road grader doing a cut. 

They were seen going toward the opening with a small shovel.  One witness claimed to see just one of the boys going back toward the opening with a shovel at a later time but did not see him go in.  The day before, they had been forbidden by their parents to go into the cave, but the enticement may have been too much for them.  The rumbling road equipment created vibrations that contributed to cave-ins—that is one reason their parents were adamant.  The parents were also old enough to remember the horror of other cave disappearances. 

Some had disappeared forever.  Some had reappeared after several days, dazed and injured, and the remains of others were found under rained-down silt and rock, much later, quite by accident.  It is bad enough to be lost in a cave, but the low temperatures inside will cause hypothermia in no time.  If your lights go dead the total blackness in an interior cavern is suffocating.

     When the three boys did not come home that day, all of the parents compared notes.  Immediate family members made quick searches.  As they got more and more panicky, local cavers and law enforcement went into action.  After a day of no results, regional helpers came in, then groups of Missouri and Illinois caving clubs appeared on the scene.  They needed to find the boys within three days for a favorable outcome.  An expert from Washington, D.C. and his crew came in.  They examined not only the suspected road-cut caves but all cave systems in the area. 

When more people appeared on the scene, they formed lines and walked off parcels of the countryside looking for clues.  A found sock did not belong to any of the boys, a pool of blood was, instead, some oxidized chemical fertilizer.  It was as big of a media circus as you could have in 1967, before the days of instant news and electronic gadgetry.  Churches were turned into cafeterias and aid stations. 

Other community buildings were used for radio, TV, and newspaper reporters.  Information was traded freely among them as they chomped on delicious sandwiches made by parishioners, and gulped coffee from thermoses and huge stainless steel urns.   Pitchers of lemonade were supplied for what was the largest cave search in the country, to date.

     There were false starts caused by counterproductive rumors and educated guesses.   Every inch of nearby caves and tunnels was gone over with a fine-toothed comb by experts in the field.  Even though some personalities clashed, tempers flared, and egos got out of whack, the safety of the boys ruled.  No ground could have been covered more thoroughly. 

Reports about the good people of Hannibal, Missouri triumphed.  Despite all complications, people had pulled together to create harmony out of chaos.  The boys were not in the caves—unless the unthinkable had happened—there had been a cave in.  Every known cave passage had been covered—often by searchers on their bellies—three or more times.

     As it became necessary to declare the operation a recovery, and not a rescue mission, earth movers and steam shovels were used to expose known cave-in areas—still nothing.  Some questionable psychics had glommed on to the situation, and some reputable psychics had arrived with possible valid clues, but none were taken seriously by authorities.  Maybe they should have started digging where the psychics told them to.  “Alive, but very weak,” one said, “…dig here.”  A man calling himself a diviner had appeared on the scene with his coat hangers.  

     A second dark mystery would not go away.  “There! Up on the bluff!”  Several witnesses had seen an interloper in their midst. Who was the mystery man that had been spotted at the top of Lovers’ Leap—a local cliff—in the early mornings on several days before the boys disappeared? 

The strange character had been hulking on the ridge, moving things around, looking down below, for days—no one knew him.  No one had seen him before.  A high-up expert in the rescue operation then revealed to insiders in his realm, that the mystery man had been seen planting false clues for the searchers and rescuers—wasted search-time was a result.  Then, the mysterious man just disappeared before anyone could call him on it.  Who was this man and where did he come from?  Was he just a deranged individual, a catastrophe groupie, or was there more to it?

     Most agree on three possibilities:  1) the boys went into a cave and were swallowed up, due to disorientation or a cave-in;  2) they ran away from home as a group (not likely, they loved their lives, their families, no known problems) or— 3) they were kidnapped for nefarious purposes. 

Much to their parents’ chagrin, the boys could not be dissuaded from catching rides from strangers on jaunts in the town as the Hoag family did not have a vehicle at the time.  Years later, a Hoag brother that was in law enforcement researched the whereabouts of a prolific serial killer of young boys and discovered that he had been less than 40 miles away from Hannibal, on business, at the time the boys disappeared.

      It should be noted that they were scrappy young fellows.  Yet the possibility of an evil mystery man lurking and watching from Lovers’ Leap—alone or with accomplices—sends a chill to the bone.

     There was a fourth boy who had been invited to go into the cave with the boys that day in May.  He wanted to, but could not.  He had been grounded for a week for bad behavior, by his parents.  He had to decline.  One wonders what nightmares he had over the years.

     In a poignant addendum, Joel Hoag’s sister found a short personal anecdote her brother, Joel, had written down the year before.  Joel loved all things scientific and possessed his own telescope.  Upon his bedside table, on a piece of paper, was an event in his life he had jotted down. 

He described the night he saw a UFO hovering over Lover’s Leap—many people in Hannibal had reported seeing UFOs—1966 was a big year for them, all over America.  In the note, young Joel had written that on the night of the UFO viewing, “…there was Gibbous Moon.”—Joel’s own rather sophisticated terminology for the conditions that night.   On May 10, 1992, an etched granite stone was placed atop Lover’s Leap as a tribute to the boys.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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