The Mystery of the Missing Sodder Children

In the early morning hours of Christmas Day in 1945, a house fire broke out in Fayetteville, West Virginia. George and Jennie Sodder escaped the flames with four of their ten children. One child was away in the army. George broke a window, cutting his arm, in order to reenter the house and save his other five children. Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty shared two bedrooms upstairs. The staircase was now engulfed in flames. George frantically rushed outside to reach them through an upstairs window with a ladder he always kept leaning on the house. The ladder was gone. Distraught, George had the idea to drive one of his two coal trucks to the side of the house and climb it to reach the window. Neither truck would start, despite both working perfectly the day before. 

Marion Sodder, one of the daughters, raced to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department since their own phone was not working. No operator responded. A neighbor who saw the fire called from a neighborhood tavern, but again there was no response. Agitated, the neighbor drove to town and tracked down the fire chief until all the firefighters had been contacted. Despite being only two and a half miles away, firefighters did not arrive at the scene until 8 a.m., seven hours after the fire started. The Sodder family house had been reduced to ash and rubble.

The five children who did not make it out of the house were assumed to have perished. George, Jennie, and the four surviving children looked on sorrowfully as the fire department searched the charred grounds for remains. However, none were found. The fire chief speculated that the fire was hot enough to cremate the bodies. If that were true, the fire would have needed to reach between 1400 and 1800 degrees fahrenheit and last two hours. House fires generally only reach 1100 degrees, and the Sodder house was demolished in 45 minutes. Five death certificates were produced for the missing children, but George and Jennie believed they could still be alive.

George Sodder was born Giorgio Soddu in 1895 on an Italian island called Sardinia. He immigrated to the United States when he was thirteen. He later met Jennie Cipriani, another Italian immigrant. They settled in an Appalachian town with a small but active Italian community. George was known for his strong opinions about anything from business to politics, and had gotten into arguments with fellow citizens about his dislike for Mussolini.

In the months leading up to the fire, a number of strange interactions occurred with George and Jennie. First, a stranger showed up to their house in search of work. He claimed that the two separate fuse boxes on the back of the house would cause a fire one day, even though George had just gotten them inspected and they were in good condition. The second and more suspicious interaction happened when George declined life insurance from a salesman. The salesman declared, “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to pay for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” Furthermore, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the older Sodder children noticed a man parked along U.S. Highway 21 who would closely watch the younger children as they came home from school.

On the night of the fire, everyone had gone to bed around 12:30. Jennie Sodder was awoken by the telephone ringing. An unfamiliar voice asked for an unfamiliar name, and Jennie told them they had the wrong number and hung up. On her way back to bed, she noticed the downstairs lights were still on, the curtains were open, and the front door was unlocked. She locked the door, drew the curtains, and turned out the lights, noticing her daughter Marion asleep on the sofa. Jennie fell asleep and then was disturbed again by a loud bang on the roof followed by the sound of something rolling. An hour later, she woke up to smoke billowing into her bedroom.

The coroner conducted an inquest to determine the cause of the fire. The jury determined the fire was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Among the jurors was the angry salesman who told George his children would be destroyed. If the fire had been due to faulty wiring, the Christmas lights would not have remained on while the fire raged, but they did.

The Sodders hired a private investigator, who heard a story from a minister in Fayetteville. The minister claimed the fire chief confessed he discovered a “heart” in the ashes of the Sodder home and buried it.  The private investigator convinced the fire chief to dig up the “heart”, only to learn it was beef liver that was unaffected by the fire. The Sodders heard rumors that the fire chief did this in the hopes the family would cease investigating if they found any remains.

For almost four decades, a billboard featuring the five missing Sodder children was on display along Route 16 near their house’s ashy remains. Maurice was 14, Martha was 12, Louis was 9, Jennie was 8, and Betty was 2 at the time of their disappearance in 1945. Up until his death in 1968, George Sodder believed his children survived the fire and were kidnapped. Jennie received a letter from Kentucky in 1968 that contained a photo of a man in his twenties who highly resembled her son Louis. On the back of the photo was a handwritten note that read, “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. ilil boys. A90132 or 35.” They sent a private investigator to Kentucky, but never heard from the man in the photo again.

The youngest Sodder child, Sylvia, was alive as of 2015, aged 72. She firmly believes her siblings survived the fire. What happened to them after that, she may never find out.

If you’re interested in learning more about the mystery of the Sodder children, there is a Buzzfeed Unsolved episode describing the mystery. It goes into more details about the possible theories of what could have happened to the five young children after the mysterious fire.