Updated: Jan 24, 2022
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Hannibal, Missouri is a small town of about 17,000 people that sits along the famous Mississippi River. It’s most well known for being the childhood home of author Mark Twain, who often wrote stories about young boys going on adventures. But in 1967, three boys went on their own adventure in the town and never returned. Let’s talk about The Lost Boys of Hannibal, who haven’t been seen or heard from in almost 55 years.
Joel Wise Hoag was born on July 25, 1954 to mom Helen and dad Mike. About two years later, he was joined by younger brother William Francis.
Billy and Joey, as they were more commonly called, also had nine other siblings. According to their sister Deborah, who went by DeDe, Billy was very mischievous while Joey was more serious and interested in science, especially astronomy. Both boys were adventurous and loved exploring the area around their home with their many young neighbors and classmates.
One particular area the boys loved was Murphy’s Cave. In 1967, the cave was close to the construction site of Highway 79. (I did read on a forum that the cave was actually discovered during the construction, but I can’t confirm this.)
On Monday, May 8, 1967, Billy and Joey were exploring the cave when they were spotted by a worker. The worker told them to get out because it was dangerous, but no known precautions were taken after that to keep other explorers away.
Despite the worker’s warning, the boys went back the next with two of their friends. Later that night, they came home covered in mud and were promptly scolded by their mom. She ordered them to wash their clothes, and both their parents warned them to never go near the construction site again, or they would be in major trouble. But, as children often do, they didn’t listen.
The next day was Wednesday, May 10. The boys’ parents, who owned a popular tavern in town, left for a meat market around 4 pm, giving their older children orders to make sure Billy and Joey didn’t leave the house. But at some point, 15-year-old Tim Hoag and 16-year-old DeDe lost track of their younger brothers, who slipped out of the yard and headed for another adventure. A flashlight and shovel were later found to be missing from the Hoag home.
Over the course of the afternoon, just like the previous days, the boys were spotted with several of their peers. One of them was 14-year-old Craig Dowell, who some sources described as a friend of theirs, others as an acquaintance. The brothers asked another friend of theirs, 11-year-old Greg Henderson, to go with them to the cave, but he got called in for dinner so he couldn’t.
From here, some of the details become fuzzy. There are a few contradictory accounts of exactly what happened between now and the time anyone realized Billy, Joey and Craig were missing.
They were reportedly in Murphy’s Cave around 4:35 pm, but gone a few minutes later. They were spotted several more times around town between 4:40 and 5:15 — sometimes together, sometimes separately.
One source said the last known sighting of the boys was by a teenage girl. Another says it was a teacher. Yet another says they were last spotted on top of a cliff called Lover’s Leap by a janitor at their school. This was the latest reported sighting of the boys; after 5:15, all traces of them were lost.
It was also around that time that another friend of the Hoag brothers stopped by their house to see if they were home. Their parents, who were back from the meat market, said they weren’t there, but that if their friend saw him to tell them to hurry home. When they weren’t home by 5:45, their brother Tim started looking for them. He went to Murphy’s Cave and saw some of the boys’ friends there, who said they saw Billy, Joey and Craig going into the cave earlier. But a quick search of the cave by Tim turned up nothing. Just before 6:30 pm, Helen Hoag called the police.
In addition to police, groups like the Mark Twain Emergency Squad and National Speleological Society were brought in to help look for the boys. Altogether, over 200 cave explorers, both professional experts and amateur enthusiasts, searched through Murphy’s Cave, mapping it as they went. Some of the passages they searched were so narrow that one of the more petite searchers, at 98 pounds, could barely squeeze in.
Within a few days, the boys still hadn’t been found — and people started to wonder if they really were in the cave. Had they even returned to the cave after those last few sightings of them around town? Or had something else happened to them? Investigators searched trains that had left Hannibal around the time the boys were last seen, perhaps wondering if they had been snatched without anyone noticing. But these searches, just like the ones in the caves, didn’t lead to much. The preliminary search was called off 10 days later, though another source said the cave would continue to be searched for the next month.
In 2006, the entrance to Murphy’s Cave was discovered during the building of an elementary school. It was searched by police but, again, no trace of the boys was found. In 2015, Hannibal Police Department Lieutenant John Zerbonia said case would stay open, but there probably wouldn’t be any more searches.
The case of the Lost Boys of Hannibal has been the subject of at least three books. The first was A Sorrow of the Heart by Charles Stewart***, published in either 2009 or 2010. The other two were written by John Wingate, a childhood friend of the boys. The Lost Boys of Hannibal*** was released in 2017 and Souls Speak*** in 2019. The case has also been a subject of a podcast, also called The Lost Boys of Hannibal, which aired its first episode in July of 2019 and appears to still be going.
Podcasters Franki Cambeletta and Chris Koetters have done a pretty deep dive into the case and even said they want to solve it.
According to an October 2020 post on John Wingate’s website, there’s a new effort underway to keep mapping out Murphy’s Cave. There are no plans to open up the cave system to the public, and the project is limited to “skilled and experienced cavers,” according to the post. No human remains have been found during this exploration.
So what happened to the Lost Boys of Hannibal? Let’s go over some theories and speculation.
The first theory is that they ran away, but this isn’t very likely. There wasn’t much evidence I could find that they would want to do this, and they all had plans for that evening that they never showed up for.
The next theory is that the boys were kidnapped and possibly killed. Like I just alluded to, they were supposed to be at church that evening, and probably would have had to catch the bus between 5:30 and 5:45 to be there by 6 pm. Yet they were reportedly sighted near Murphy’s Cave as late as 5:15, likely with dirty shoes and clothes that they would have then had to go home and clean up. Was this just a case of kids being irresponsible, as kids often are? Or were they trying to evade someone who was following them? Or did someone perhaps spot three young boys traveling alone and see a crime of opportunity?
The aforementioned book Souls Speak also explores the possibility that they were early victims of John Wayne Gacy.
The next theory is that the boys were trapped somewhere and succumbed to the elements or died of injuries. During the highway construction, sections of the road were being blasted to destroy them and make room for the new road, creating holes. These holes were sealed up a few days after the boys were last seen, despite orders from the mayor to keep them open. DeDe Hoag believes her brothers and Craig Dowell may have gotten trapped in one of these holes and accidentally buried after they were sealed.
Other, similar theories suggest they were trapped in a road cave in, fell into a sinkhole or did actually return to the cave, only to become trapped somewhere where they couldn’t be found. Caves, like many other things in nature, are vast and often largely uncharted. It’s entirely possible that even the most meticulous of searches could fail to turn up human remains.
The last theory is that the boys didn’t actually all go missing at once. They were all reportedly spotted in and around Murphy’s Cave on the day they disappeared, but some of these sightings were not of all three of them, meaning they separated at some point. Did they separate and go missing in multiple different ways, in two or even three tragic coincidences?
There is one last point of speculation I want to go over — and, again, I want to emphasize that this is pure speculation, not accusations. At the time the boys went missing, machines being used to search the caves could go as far down as 39 feet — but the town mayor ordered them to go no further than 37 feet. Greg Henderson, the boys’ 11-year-old friend who barely missed the cave trip that day, thinks there might have been corruption. He believes the mayor and others involved in the search may not have wanted to find the boys for fear of lawsuits if it could be proven the boys died at a dangerous construction site.
So what do you think of this case? Do you think the boys were kidnapped, or did they die of injury on the construction site and their bodies weren't able to be recovered? You can head over to this blog's corresponding YouTube video and let me know in the comments!
William Francis Hoag, Joel Wise Hoag and Edwin Craig Dowell were 11, 13 and 14, respectively, when they were last seen in Hannibal, Missouri on the afternoon of May 10, 1967. Billy has red hair and blue eyes and a scar under his right arm. Joey has brown hair and eyes and was last seen wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
If you have any information about this case, you can contact the Hannibal Police Department at 573-221-0987.