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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

‘The Cave Boys of Hannibal, Missouri’ Missing in Action, Lost Boys in the Wilderness

Updated: Jan 27, 2023


(The missing Hannibal boys - photo courtesy of open on-line media)

In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte sold a vast swag of land that stretched from the lower Mississippi delta to The Pacific North West[1]. As rapid as change can be, within twenty years the little town of Hannibal Missouri, just 100 miles North West of St. Louis, seeded itself into a place in history on the banks of the Mississippi river. Hannibal would ultimately bed down as the home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of history's greatest adventure writers. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, would, over time, tickle the imagination of children and adults alike, with his wholesome tales of legendary free-spirited river boys, in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Today, Hannibal is a pretty little town rich in old American community spirit, colonial architecture, and a history garnished with heroism, pride and tragedy. The Old Baptist Cemetery is the final resting place of many pioneers and Civil War veterans, including two old long-gone locals who served with the 55th Massachusetts infantry, the sister regiment of the famous 54th, depicted in the movie ‘Glory’. Both African American, these men, like many others, fought to settle questionable deeds done in another era and to re-direct American goals towards a United States accelerating its way Westward.

It is highly likely that Napoleon had little understanding of what he had sold the fledgling United States Government, without doubt most of it he would not have even seen. He certainly was not to know that in the territory which is now the State of Missouri there are over seven thousand caves, many of them complex networks of caverns, chambers and tunnels that could easily swallow up any unwary amateur. Especially those perhaps distracted by what might lie ahead at the risk of forgetting the pathway behind. These caves explored by the young boyhood Clemens, were to later feature in ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’.

Like many, I have read the books of Mark Twain, including his 1883 memoirs, ‘Life on the Mississippi’. It would be hard to imagine that any young boy growing up in Hannibal could escape reading these stories and the lure of poling a raft on the river or venturing into any one of the hundreds of mysterious caves. Sadly, nearly fifty years ago, three little boys are believed by many to have done just that. On 10 May 1967, Billy Hoag, aged 10, His brother Joey, 13, and mate Craig Dowell, 14, disappeared. They were last reported as being seen at about 4.30pm, with flashlights and a shovel, heading in the direction of Murphy’s cave.

De-De Hoag, elder sister of the Hoag boys and 16 at the time of their disappearance, reportedly said that the boys had been grounded by their parents, just the day before, for coming home covered in mud, after allegedly playing around near vacant houses at the new construction site for interstate highway 79. De-De and especially another brother Tim, aged 15, had been given strict instructions by their parents, who had to go out, to make sure that the younger boys did not leave the home yard. It appears that in the blink of an owl the boys were gone and presumably met up with their mate Craig to probably go and do some more serious exploring. The boys were never seen again.

The subsequent search mobilised into one of the greatest search efforts that the United States had seen. People and donations poured into Hannibal from all over the country. Tips from well-meaning people, including clairvoyants and psychics, came into Hannibal police. Most of those people believed what they saw, either directly or as a vision, but all information was investigated and discounted as being of no value.

The physical search, included nearby woods, islands in the Mississippi, abandoned houses, and even rail cars leaving Hannibal, perhaps in response to one psychic who told of a recurring vision of the boys being locked in a rail car full of oranges.

Initial response was taken on by the Mark Twain Emergency Squad of Hannibal, however complex cave searches call for specialist attention. Nationwide response was instant, with members of the National Speleological Society flown in by Presidential Jet. The cave search specialists probed deep into the caverns lacing the subterranean Earth below Hannibal, but unlike the 2018 rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team in Northern Thailand, none of the three boys were found. After ten days the preliminary search was called off, with the long grueling task of continued searching left to family, friends, and periodic targeted efforts by local Search and Rescue specialists and volunteers.

I do not know all the details of this case. I can see that it has been extensively investigated and written about by police, authors and amateur researchers. One book worthy of note is ‘Lost Boys of Hannibal’ by John Wingate[2]. The positive reviews of this book and the various on-line interviews with the author speak for themselves.

From what I have read it seems that overall there is a clear opinion that the most likely cause of the tragic disappearance of these three boys is that they have somehow become trapped or lost in one of the caves below Hannibal, with a number of possibilities as to how that could have occurred. Whilst this may be the most likely probability based on all the facts, information and other influences at the time, it does not always remain the only possibility. Until some indisputable physical evidence is found or some strongly corroborated testimony is provided that establishes, on the burden of proof, that a certain circumstance did occur it can never be conclusive that any theory is a definite certainty.

The despair, sorrow filled grief, and guilt felt by family and searchers is best summed up by the comments of De-De, who allegedly said in a recent interview, “all I want is closure”. Unlike other tragedies, the family of the missing never reach closure, they are never able to learn the truth, however painful it may be. They are just left with wild tidal thoughts and no answers.

As an investigator who specialises in trying to understand lost in the wilderness missing person cases, I am identifying the signature communications in this tragedy. The Hannibal Caves boys’ case again likely puts forward the sad feeling of guilt by others. In this case, perhaps older siblings, unjustifiably feeling responsible, for not managing to put a harness on two younger brothers scheming to escape into some wild fantastic adventure, remain custodians of their pain. I am again seeing the searchers, the police specialists and volunteers, wondering, always frustrated by not discovering the truth and not providing some finality to family. I am again seeing the anguish of parents who have spent the rest of their lives searching, forever looking into the trees, into the river, the streams and dams, anywhere, hoping to see a message, a small communication to explain what happened. Family maintaining a necessary modicum of faith to keep going and even, one day, see the boys walk through the door, or at least find some remains to bury. As a realist perhaps I am also sadly left pondering the immortal words of Mark Twain; “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”[3]

By the way, - If you have information regarding this tragic case or any other, please contact your local law enforcement or Crime Stoppers.

(Article compiled by Valentine Smith APM - Detective Senior Sergeant, Victoria Police (Retired) - Licensed investigator Victoria 408-458-30S)

[1]The Louisiana Purchase 1803 – Sale of 2,140,000 square kilometres of mainland North America to the United States by France for $15,000,000.

[2]Lost Boys of Hannibal – by John Wingate – Wisdom Editions (2017)

[3]Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, in Following the Equator by Mark Twain (1897)


[1]Special recognition is given to the Editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post and other media for much of the information provided.

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