"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Taking of Joan Gay Croft

"Tulsa Tribune," April 9, 1948, via Newspapers.com

On April 9, 1947, the town of Woodward, Oklahoma, (population 5500) was slammed by a monster tornado.  What made the disaster even worse was that a telephone strike meant that the outside world was unable to give the town any advance warning.  Woodwardians literally did not know what hit them.

That night, the two-mile wide tornado destroyed the town.  Almost instantly, more than a thousand people were injured, over a hundred of them fatally.  However, the Woodward tornado is still remembered today not just for the death and devastation, but because of a haunting mystery associated with the event.

Hutchinson “Olin” Croft was a successful sheep farmer; a man of some importance in his area.  He lived in Woodward with his wife Cleta and their two children, Joan and Geri.  The tornado flattened their home, killing Cleta instantly.  Olin was seriously injured.  Four-year-old Joan and eight-year-old Geri, on the other hand, were only slightly hurt.  The three survivors were brought to Woodward’s only hospital.  As they weren’t in need of emergency care, the two girls were sent to wait in the hospital’s basement while staff looked after those in need of immediate help.

Later that night, as the Croft girls lay together on a cot, two men wearing khaki Army-style clothing came into the hospital basement announcing that they had come for Joan.  As one of the men picked her up, the child protested that she didn’t want to leave her sister.  The men reassured her that they would be coming back for Geri.  The men told hospital staff that they were friends of the Croft family, and were taking Joan to Oklahoma City Hospital, where relatives were waiting for her.  It was a plausible enough story, and the hospital workers, overwhelmed by the injured and dying tornado victims, were too busy and too exhausted to ask any more questions.  The men, who appeared to be rescue workers or officials of some sort, were allowed to depart with the girl.

Soon after Joan was taken away, Olin's sister Ruth was told that her brother's name was listed in the local newspaper as being among the deceased.  She rushed to the hospital to find her orphaned nieces and take them to her home.  When she got there, she was told that Olin was alive and would recover.  He had been confused with one "Olan Hutchinson," who had died in the tornado.  When Ruth went to the hospital basement to check on the girls, Geri told her what had happened to Joan.  When Ruth called Oklahoma City Hospital, she was told not only that Joan was not there, but wasn't expected to be transferred to them.  The increasingly panicked Ruth called all nearby hospitals, the morgue, and an orphanage, without result.  The police were called in, but were unable to find any trace of the girl.  Despite the wide publicity the case received, it was as if she and her two kidnappers vanished into mist the moment they left the hospital.

No one has ever seen Joan again.  To date, it’s a complete mystery who the men in khaki were, how they knew the Croft girls were in the basement, and why Joan was targeted for abduction.  Over the years, several women came forward in the belief that they were Joan, but these claims were all proved to be incorrect. 

There was one intriguing postscript to the mystery.  Robert E. Lee, a reporter for “The Oklahoman,” wrote a number of articles about the Croft kidnapping.  In April 1999, he received an email from an anonymous writer asking if he would like to know “what really happened to Joan Gaye and where she has been this past 54 years?”  The writer continued, “She has been and is living in OKC off and on since 1956 under a different name with the full knowledge of her father, Orlin Croft!  She even graduated from an OKC high school under her different name.”  The writer provided an email address where, they claimed, Joan could be contacted.  

The newspaper’s computer technicians could not trace the email address.  Lee wrote back to his mysterious informant, who replied, “I know this time of year there are many people who crawl out of the woodwork claiming to be the ‘lost’ girl, but I was never physically lost.  My immediate family(s) knew where I was.  I just didn’t know who I was.

“Until just lately I never faced the fact that Cleta Croft, my mother died upon me.  I buried this information deep within my long term memory and refused to accept.

“Joan” provided an email address where she could be contacted, adding “We will arrange to meet in person to discuss the details.  I propose we meet at Penn Square for the first meeting.  I would like to meet in public, but not publicly and without photos.  Please let me know a time and date convenient for you.  I am on the internet on most MWF between 9 and 10:30 a.m.  As to compensation, I would prefer none!”

Lee wrote back agreeing to meet his correspondent, but never received a reply.  The email address “Joan” had provided soon stopped accepting messages.

Was this really the missing girl?  Or--as seems more likely--just another of the many warped hoaxers who insert themselves into high-profile crimes?  If Lee was the victim of a cruel prank, that leaves us back to Square One:  Who took little Joan Croft, and why?


  1. Such an unusual kidnapping, and so brazen. The fact that there were two men, that they wore uniforms, suggest preparation, but the timing suggests a crime of opportunity. Very strange and tragic, coming on top of the death of the mother.


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