The U.S. state of Missouri is well known for its extensive systems of caves, with thousands of them sprawling out both above and below ground and vast swaths of these worlds of eternal darkness unexplored. This has made many areas in the state havens for spelunkers and explorers, and back in the 1960s three of these would-be cave explorers lived in the small town of Hannibal, Missouri, about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. Billy Hoag, 10, his brother Joey Hoag, 13, and their friend Craig Dowell, 14, were three adventurous boys who just so happened to have a subterranean labyrinth of caverns and caves right near their home, called Murphy’s Cave, which proved to be irresistible magnets for their adventurous curiosity, and indeed many boys in the area liked to go venturing down into the darkness with their flashlights. This would be a lure that would drag them down into the depths of the earth, and swallow these boys up in a baffling mystery that has never been solved.
Exploring caves was by all accounts a pretty common thing to do at the time, although the Hoag family did not approve, thinking it to be far too dangerous. Yet, the boys made routine excursions into those caves, and no one really thought much of it until a highway construction project came through to work on the adjacent Highway 79, and the risk of a cave collapse caused the parents to forbid the boys from going down there into those dank depths. The thing is, the blasting by the construction company was sometimes opening up whole new openings into sections of the caverns that the boys had never seen before, and these new areas to explore, mixed with the forbidden excitement of it all, made sure that they continued their intrepid cave expeditions, despite warnings from their parents and constantly being chased away by the construction workers. Indeed, on May 9, 1967 the boys were sternly admonished after they were discovered to have gone to the caves, the red mud all over them giving them away, and they were grounded to merely exploring their own yards. However, when has this ever stopped a group of boys with the flicker of adventure in their eyes? Explorers do what they do, damned if anyone likes it, and this was no different.
The lure of that enigmatic underground world and its unsolved mysteries was irresistible. On May 10, 1967, the Hoag family parents were out of the house shopping, and the brothers took this opportunity to pick up Dowell and make a covert excursion to the caves. They gathered up shovels and a flashlight, and between 4:20 and 5:00 PM the three of them were seen on the south side of Hannibal, headed off rights towards the caves along with their equipment and what seemed to be a makeshift homemade ladder. This would prove to be the last time anyone would ever see them again, and it would seem that their adventure took them right off the face of the earth.
When the boys were gone when their parents got home they were furious, but when they failed to return home by dinner time that anger gave way to a certain sense of dread. No one had any illusions about where they had gone, and neighbors saying that they had been seen carrying shovels and a flashlight only further cemented what everyone already knew, that they had gone to explore those caves and had never come out. Authorities were notified and a massive search was launched soon after. The focus of the search was at first aimed at the caves themselves, which seemed to be the most obvious place for them to have gone missing. It began with local authorities but as the news spread the search evolved into a national rescue mission involving the FBI, the National Guard, and hundreds of spelunkers both amateur and professional, including some of the top cavers in the world and members of The National Speleological Society. Teams of these seasoned cavers would scour the entire cave system day and night for a full 10 days, completely mapping the entire complex without finding a single trace of the boys, which led to fears that they had either been buried in a cave-in or perhaps had never been in these caves to begin with.
In the meantime, the search had also expanded to include a sweep of the whole region, including the woods, abandoned houses, and other separate cave systems in the region, and even psychics were brought in. It was one of the largest searches the state had ever seen, and through all of this the only trace of the boys found was a single sock lying on the ground in a quarry near the cave, which could not even be conclusively proven to have belonged to any one of them. There were of course, plenty of leads and tips, but many of these proved to be false, such as a “splash of blood” that had turned out to be fertilizer, and others were impossible to follow up on, like alleged sightings of the boys still alive outside of town and a mysterious man in black reported as lurking about the area where they had disappeared, allegedly watching rescuers go about their business. None of these leads and tips led anywhere at all, the boys were never found, and theories have orbited the mysterious vanishing ever since.
One idea is that a cave-in had buried the young explorers, but this is questionable, as professional spelunkers meticulously scoured every inch of the cave system they had reportedly entered, and would have searched any cave-in they came across. No trace was ever found of a body anywhere at any point. Another idea is that they had perhaps gone off to enter an entirely new cave system, perhaps even one that had never been discovered, explored, or mapped before, which wouldn’t be all that surprising considering how many caves dot the region and remain uncovered. Even up into recent years new cave systems that have been found have been searched for the boys, but they have found nothing. There is also the theory that the boys ran away from home, but there was nothing at all to suggest that they would do this. Then there is also the sobering thought that they may have been abducted, possibly by the mysterious stranger that had been seen in the area, but there is no evidence of an abduction either or who could have done this. It is as if those boys just went out to those caves to vanish into thin air.
The official search may have ended long ago, but the memory of this strange disappearance lingers on. There is a memorial plaque dedicated to the memory of the missing boys set up near the caves, and books have been written on it all, such as C.W. Stewart’s A Sorrow of the Heart, as well as being written of by researcher David Paulides in his Missing 411 books. We do not, however, have any answers for it. These boys went out there into the dark and never came back, and there has been no explanation since. What happened to these kids? Where did they go? Did they disappear into the gloom of those caves, swallowed up by the eternal darkness? If so, how is it that no sign of them was ever found? Were they kidnapped? Did they run away? Something else? No one knows, and the strange disappearance of these three boys remains totally unsolved.