Is It Just Local Folklore?

I’ve always been fascinated by our Missouri legends — particularly eerie tales like the Hornet Spook Light near Joplin, the Blue Man of Spring Creek, and our very own bigfoot, Momo the Missouri Monster. But last year, I heard a story I’d never heard before, the story of a lesser-known mysterious creature of local folklore — half man, half cave monster — who is said to have roamed the Camden County woods for decades, living in a cave just outside of a small graveyard at the end of Old Route 5 in Camdenton, and last seen not so long ago. This is the story of Silas Crowler, the cave crawler of Camden County.

One of the unique things about our wonderful state is that it’s home to some 6,000 caves, many of which, particularly here in Camden County, are breathtakingly beautiful sites, safely visited by droves of locals and tourists each year. But others are tied to local legend and, in some cases, a dark history. Counterfeiters’ Cave and Robbers’ Cave in Ha Ha Tonka were said to be hideouts for criminals during the1830s, while it’s rumored that following the Civil War gunslinging outlaws Cole Younger and Jesse James hid out in caves throughout Missouri. And archeologists have been digging up artifacts of past civilizations in Missouri for decades, with many caves believed to hold the spirits of long-gone souls.

According to folklore, many of Missouri’s underground caves were once occupied by human-like creatures living in absolute darkness, feeding on the numerous animals, fish and bats known to inhabit Missouri caves. It’s believed these monsters began as what the Missouri State Parks refers to as accidentals — animals that are normally surface dwelling but have accidentally wandered, washed or fallen into a cave.

Yet unlike most accidentals that can’t survive long in the cave environment, it’s believed these cave creatures began as a group of ancient explorers who either became trapped or actually settled in a large system of caves and — over time and several generations — adapted to their cave surroundings, developing characteristics of under-ground dweller such as non-functioning or poorly functioning eyes and extreme sensitivity to the ultraviolet light of the sun.

And ...
there IS evidence that these creatures existed.

One of the first recorded sightings of these reclusive cave-dwellers dates back to the Civil War. In a letter to his mother, a Union soldier reported that while on nigh watch he spotted a strange, man-like creature with alabaster skin that shone in the moonlight. In 1898, the owner of a local tavern in Old Linn Creek was heading home in the early morning hours after closing up, when he saw a similar-looking beast in the treeline along the northwest edge of the town. And in 1926 on a stretch of land outside Montreal, a farmhand claimed that one summer night as he was sleeping under the stars, he awoke to find a man-sized, sickly-white, hairless beast crouched by a watering hole near him. The farmhand later told a local newspaper the creature “didn’t seem afraid, but instead appeared to be stalking its prey … me.” It was this newspaper story that started locals whispering about the strange creatures inhabiting Missouri’s dark caves — creatures that came to be known as the Missouri cave crawlers. 

After years of perplexing but harmless sightings, in the summer of 1931 — shortly after Bagnell Dam was completed and the reservoir area now known as Lake of the Ozarks flooded hundreds of the area’s low-lying caves — strange things began happening in Camden County.

"At first there were small signs that things were amiss."

In the central part of the county, farmers were regularly awakened in the middle of the night by frightened livestock, kicking and whinnying in their stalls, and then seeing strange tracks — oversized, odd-looking footprints — around their property in the morning. Still others reported signs that large, unfamiliar animals had been sleeping in barns at night — flatted hay and disturbed feed supplies.

But the first truly alarming incidents occurred in Versailles when ranchers began finding mutilated cattle, pigs and horses. Soon livestock began disappearing in droves. As it is in many small communities, locals speculated about what could be causing these strange occurrences … traveling gypsies, devil worshippers, an escaped psychiatric patient …  aliens? 

Unexplained grave robbings began in Camden County in the early-1940s centering around a cemetery at the end of Old Route 5, the Graveyard of Lost Souls. Authorities questioned the reclusive cemetery caretaker Mary Crowler and her young son, but they claimed to have neither seen nor heard anything unusual. The grave snatchings remained unsolved and continued for years, even spreading to neighboring counties.

There they found a cavern which appeared to be an animal’s den.

It was in the summer of 1976 as U.S. Bicentennial celebrations took place around the lake, that people began to notice an alarming spike in missing persons reports. Victims of presumed drownings who never resurfaced, young people last seen at parties who disappeared and were presumed runaways. And others who disappeared without a trace from their homes, workplaces and shopping centers — never to be heard from by family or friends again.

Later that year a small group of unofficial spelunkers from the university who were exploring the nearby sinkhole and cave, located a keyhole with access to a dark zone and previously undiscovered chambers. There they found a cavern which appeared to be an animal’s den. Bones were strewn about and the stench was horrendous, with a strong odor of decomposition. Upon closer examination, a medical student in the group confirmed evidence of human remains. The spelunkers passed through a keyhole passage to a lightly wooded area behind a small cemetery — the Graveyard of Lost Souls — where they found several of the graves freshly unearthed, the caretaker gone and the place abandoned.

It’s rumored that the lair belonged to Silas Crowler, the little-known middle aged son of the now deceased caretaker, Mary. Silas is believed to have been part human, part cave crawler, born in the mid- to late-1930s and when his mother died, he took over as caretaker of Lost Souls. As the story goes, when the Bagnell Dam flooded land to form the reservoir, most of the cave crawlers in those low-lying areas either died or found their way to caves in higher ground — and one or more are believed to have settled in the cave near the tiny cemetery. Some believe that one of these beasts fathered Silas. And Silas has never been found.

Much of this story took place well before the internet, but thanks to a few visits to the Camden County Museum & Historical Society (and many discussions over coffee with some local old timers!) I was able to verify bits and pieces of this fascinating bit of local folklore.

Is Silas real?
We can’t know for sure. But if he is out there and still roaming the woods and caves of Camden County, we’ve imagined what his lair might look like. We invite you to come experience it for yourself…if you dare.

— Gena Aldrich —