A mysterious fire destroyed the Sodder residence in Fayetteville, West Virginia, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1945. This house was occupied at the time by George Sodder, his wife Jennie, and their children.
George, Jennie with four of the nine children managed to escape the fire. The remaining five Sodder children’s bodies were never discovered. For the remainder of their lives, the Sodder family thought that the five missing children had survived.
The Sodder Family Background
George and Jennie Sodders were recognized in Fayetteville as a respectable, wealthy couple who reared their ten children together. George was in charge of a modest trucking company. The family lived in a two-story house just a few miles from the town center.
Jennie grew up in the West Virginia town of Smithers. She worked in town at her father’s store. When George met Jennie in her mid-twenties, he frequently stopped by the shop on his trucking route.
George and Jennie were both born in Italy and moved to America as children. When they became Americans, George was thirteen, and Jennie was a toddler. In 1923, the two married.
They had ten children together over the next twenty years. George progressed from job to job to owning a successful trucking firm by the time he was in his forties.
George had strong anti-Mussolini feelings and opposed the Fascist dictatorship in his own Italy. Many of the families in Fayetteville were also Italian immigrants who strongly disagreed with George’s views.
What Exactly Happened on That Fateful Day?
On Christmas Eve, 1945, the Sodder family celebrated. Marion, the oldest daughter, was working at a dime store in downtown Fayetteville when she surprised three of her younger sisters—Martha, Jennie, and Betty—with new toys she had purchased.
The younger children were so pleased that they asked their mother if they may remain up past their usual bedtime.
Jennie told them at 10 p.m. that they could stay up a little later if the two elder boys who were still awake do a duty. 14-year-old Maurice and his 9-year-old brother Louis, were asked to put the cows in and feed the chickens before going to bed.
George and his two oldest sons, John and George Jr., had fallen asleep after spending the day working with their father. She took Sylvia upstairs with her, and they went to bed together after reminding the children of their remaining responsibilities.
At 12:30 a.m., the phone rang. Jennie got up and went downstairs to answer the phone. The caller was a lady whose voice she didn’t recognize, asking for a name she didn’t know, with laughter and glasses clinking in the background.
Jennie informed the caller that she had dialed the incorrect number, later recalling the woman’s “strange laugh.” Jennie hung up the phone and went back to bed. As she did so, she saw that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn, two things the children always did when they stayed up later than their parents.
Marion had dozed out on the living room couch, so Jennie assumed the other children who had stayed up later had returned to the attic to sleep. She returned to bed after closing the curtains and turning the lights.
Jennie was awakened again at 1 a.m. by the sound of an object striking the house’s roof with a tremendous bang, followed by a rolling noise. She went back to sleep after hearing nothing else.
She woke after another half hour, smelling fire. When she got up, she discovered that the room George used as his office was on fire near the phone line and fuse box. Jennie jolted him up, and he, in turn, jolted his older sons.
George had attempted to save them by shattering a window and slashing a slice of skin off his arm. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke and fire that had engulfed the downstairs rooms: the living and dining rooms, the kitchen, the office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom.
He took a frenzied inventory of what he knew: 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as were Marion, 17, and her two kids, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had escaped the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out.
He assumed Martha, Louis, Maurice Jennie, and Betty were still up there, hiding in two beds on opposite ends of the corridor, divided by a now-burning stairway.
The Sodder house burned down less than 45 minutes after the fire started. Initially, the fire brigade blamed the blaze on defective wiring.
What Happened Following the Incident?
The fire department didn’t show up till 8:00 a.m. By then, all that survived was a burning pile of ash.
Following that, the police and firefighters conducted a brief inspection, and at 10:00 a.m., Morris informed the Sodders that no bones had been discovered. It was eventually revealed that their search was, at best basic.
The next day, the local coroner held an inquest and decided that the five children had probably died in the fire, even though no human bones were discovered.
The fire was thought to have been started by defective wiring and was hot enough to cremate the bodies.
A man who had threatened George with having his house burned down and his children “destroyed” in retaliation for his anti-Mussolini rants was among the jurors.
The coroner issued five death certificates before the end of the year, all of which were attributed to “fire or suffocation.”
The Strange Incidents Which Prevented Children from Being Rescued
• George’s ladder, which he typically propped against the house, was mysteriously missing.
• He then intended to drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they had worked flawlessly the day before, neither would start now.
• George then considered another option. He attempted to scoop water from a rain barrel, but it was frozen solid.
• Finding aid and rescuing the children proved unexpectedly difficult. Marion raced to a neighbor’s house to call the Fayetteville fire department because the phone was not working.
A driver on the adjoining road saw the flames and called from a nearby tavern; they were also unsuccessful because they couldn’t contact the operator or the phone there was broken.
• Despite the fire department being only two miles away, assistance did not arrive until 8 a.m.
What happened to the Fire Truck? Why Did It Take So Long?
Because of the war, the fire service was short in the workforce at the time and relied on mainly on individual firefighters to call each other and assemble.
The next day, Chief F.J. Morris explained that his inability to drive the fire engine delayed the already slow response, forcing him to wait until someone who could go was available.
The Clues of Sodder Children and the Fight for The Justice
The Sodders encountered a bus driver who claimed to have witnessed “fireballs” being thrown onto the house’s roof. Could this be the sound Jennie heard?
A woman acquainted with the Sodders claimed to have seen the five children pass by in a strange car while the fire raged.
A waitress at a diner fifty miles west of Fayetteville would later recall serving breakfast to the five children on Christmas morning, but she couldn’t remember how many adults were with them.
As word spread and images of the children were shown in the area, a woman claimed to have seen four children with four adults at a motel in South Carolina.
George recognized one of the youngsters in a newspaper photo of New York City as his daughter Betty. He drove to Manhattan to find the youngster, but her parents refused to speak with him.
Since their abduction in 1945, the Sodder children have been seen all around the world. Some claimed Martha had entered a convent in St. Louis, while others claimed Jennie’s distant relatives took up the children.
These glances inspired George and Jennie to conduct their investigations and forensic experiments. Jennie burned chicken bones in an oven for 45 minutes to see if they could be destroyed by fire. The bones were not broken. George had heard of another house that had burned down and plainly had complete skeletons among the debris.
Bones are generally not burned away in flames, even if they are long-lasting, and instead remain in fractured form. When Jennie spoke with a crematorium employee, she discovered that bones were always left behind, even when bodies were burned at 2,000° Fahrenheit for two hours—the Sodder home was only torched for 45 minutes.
Furthermore, no burned flesh was observed at the scene, and fragments of domestic equipment were discovered in the rubble, indicating that not everything was ash.
Armed with these data, George and Jennie returned to the police station and urged that the fire be examined further. The police declined, citing that the coroner’s investigation established that no crime had been committed.
As a result, the Sodders pursued the probe on their own. They looked for information and images, went through the house rubble, and spent time figuring out what happened to solve the riddle.
In the ashes of a burned-out house, George Sodder discovered a few bones and what appeared to be internal organs. However, lab examinations revealed that the “organ” was a cow’s liver and that the bones had not been exposed to fire.
Jennie and George eventually believed their children were alive and had been abducted during the fire. The Sodders suspected that the fire had been ignited on purpose to conceal the mysterious abduction.
Jennie and her surviving children, with the exception of John, who never spoke about the night of the fire other than to urge that the family should accept it and go on. continued to seek answers to their questions.
Jennie lived in the family home when George died, and for the rest of her life, Jennie wore black in mourning and tended the garden on the site of the former house.
The Famous Billboard of the Sodder Children
When you traveled to Fayetteville, a quintessential little town in West Virginia, USA, a billboard telling the family mystery was erected at the site of their house.
A billboard featuring the faces of five solemn-looking Sodder children with dark eyes that, remained in place until the mid-1980s. The words printed on it gave goosebumps to everyone who gave it a cursory glance. The billboard had this wording which later became an iconic statement.
“What was the Motive of the Law officers involved? What did they have to gain by making us suffer all these years of injustice?
Theories Behind the Sodder Children’s Disappearance
One widespread theory is that the Sodder children were abducted. A few months before the fire, George Sodder disagreed with an insurance salesperson about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. According to reports, the salesperson backed the dictatorship, while the Sodder patriarch opposed him.
According to accounts, the disagreement culminated with the salesman threatening George, saying his home was “going up in smokes” and his children would be “destroyed.” An investigation was launched; however, it was subsequently dropped due to a lack of actual evidence against the salesman.
This raised even more questions. How could five children being abducted from their family home in the middle of the night without awakening the parents or other siblings? Also, wouldn’t someone have recognized the missing children by now and alerted authorities?
The individual who disconnected the phone lines at the Sodder residence came next. During the fire, someone saw him remove a bolt and tackle used to remove car engines.
He admitted to the theft but claimed he had nothing to do with sparking the fire; he had only intended to cut the power cables but instead clipped the telephone line. He was released, and there are no records identifying him or asking why he sought to cut lines to take a bolt and tackle.
Another widely held belief is that the five Sodder children were stolen and sold to an orphanage in Italy. The family got a letter from a woman claiming that one of their children was alive and well at an Italian convent.
Many people reported seeing the children, but inquiries yielded no results. Jennie Sodder received a photo of a young man in the mail more than two decades after the fire.
It appeared to be one of her missing sons, and the writing on the back of the photo stated, “Louis Sodder, I love brother Frankie, llil boys, A90132 .” The snapshot was sent from Kentucky, and the family dispatched a private investigator there, but they never heard back from him.
The most likely scenario for the Sodders was that the children were kidnapped before the house was set on fire.
Sightings of Sodder Children and the Mysterious Letter
A woman claimed she spoke with a man in a bar who drunkenly talked about a fire in West Virginia. She was taken aback when the man revealed that he was one of the children who had gone missing that day: Louis.
George researched and discovered the man had a brother – possibly the older boy Maurice! He drove down to Houston to meet the man he thought was the father of his missing child.
There was a resemblance – twenty years later, no one knew what tiny Louis may look like now, but George was confident it was him. When the man and his brother met with him, he told George that he never claimed to be his father’s son. Someone must have misinterpreted him or spread the rumor.
George’s second and final chance to see his son came in 1968. Thousands of people who drove past the fading features of the Sodder children on the billboard every day would have seen something different — a fresh photograph to replace the childhood photo of little Louis. It depicted a young guy who had an unmistakable similarity to the little boy in the previous image.
In this new photograph, he was in his late thirties, with dark curly hair and the same straight nose as his father. This photograph had arrived in the Sodders’ mailbox a few weeks before.
Jennie went to the mailbox and discovered a letter addressed to her inside. Despite the lack of a return address, the postmark indicated that it originated in Kentucky. A statement was written on the back of the photo: “Louis Sodder. I adore my brother Frankie. A90132 Ilil Boys.”
The Sodders, unsure what to make of the enigmatic note, dispatched a private investigator to the Kentucky hamlet to investigate. He was never heard from again.
The family was concerned that if this were their son, whoever abducted him would hurt him if they made the discovery public. So they did the only thing they could think of: they enlarged the image and hung it above their fireplace.
Recent Findings About Sodder Children
Stacy Horn of National public radio performed a comprehensive investigation for her radio show in 2005 and concluded that the children died in the fire. Everything followed was a concoction of denial, anguish, and survivor’s guilt.
Her interpretation of the fire chief’s unusual actions was that he did uncover some remains on the day of the fire and withheld the information from the family. “A brief, informal search is conducted, but instead of the skeletons they anticipate to find, there are only a few bones and parts of internal organs,” Horn explained.
But because the family was never notified immediately, they — and generations of story followers — were sure that nothing had been discovered.
If that’s the case, what happened to the actual remains? On the other hand, Horn’s essay offers a few surprises that haven’t been included in many of the popular versions of the narrative over the years. Piles and heaps of fuel are among them.
According to sources, George Sodder utilized his basement as a garage for maintenance on his truck engines, and he had several 55-gallon drums of gasoline down there.
The combination of this and the layer of dirt on top could have converted the basement into a super high-temperature pressure cooker. Completely incinerating the children’s remains more thoroughly than a traditional funerary incinerator.
Because of the increased heat, the firefighters only discovered random fragments, which later disintegrated underground. The primary fire lasted less than an hour, but it was smoking for much longer and might continue to do so even with limited oxygen underground if there was enough fuel.
For many years, people have been baffled by this case. There were reports of the children being seen after the fire, but the official story is that they died at home.
Whether the fire was intense enough to cremate their bodies completely has sparked debate. Over 70 years later, many questions persist about what happened to the Sodder children.
The case of the Sodder children has long gone unsolved and given the circumstances and the lack of professional handling by the legal and justice agencies at the time, it may likely remain so.
Observing the departments’ misconduct in handling this matter is quite disheartening. Most of the links likely point to the children dying in the fire on that fateful night.
Instead of rebuilding the house, the Sodders transformed it into a memorial garden for their missing children. In this way, their tale is preserved.