This is about a tragic Christmas mystery that remains unsolved after more than seventy-three years. It is about the five young Sodder children who disappeared on Christmas Eve 1945. Their names and ages are Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5. In the small town of Fayetteville, West Virginia no one could agree on whether those children were dead or alive. The only known facts are these on the night of Christmas Eve 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their children went to sleep at one a.m. A fire broke out later that morning. George, Jennie and four of their children escaped and five of the children were never seen again.
It is known that George had tried to save the children by breaking a window to re-enter the house. He reported that he could not see anything in the house because of the smoke from the fire that swept through all of the downstairs rooms. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty. Were trapped and hiding upstairs in their rooms and likely overcome with fear. He went back outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows, but the ladder he usually kept propped against the house was missing.
The family had called for the fire department. However, they were a volunteer unit. Due to notification problems, the crew didn’t arrive until 8 a.m. The house had long ago burned down. A search of the grounds turned up no trace of human remains. Fire Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates attributing the cause of death to “fire or suffocation. Still, George and Jennie Sodder wondered if their children were alive.
The family planted flowers across the space where their house had stood. Then they began to stitch together a series of odd moments leading up to the fire. A few months earlier, a stranger appeared at their home asking about hauling work. At the back of the house, he pointed to two separate fuse boxes, and said, “This will cause a fire someday.” George thought that was strange because he had just had the wiring checked by the local power company. They said it was in fine condition.
Sometime later, another man tried to sell the family some life insurance. He became irate when George declined. He swore and threaten that their house would go up in smoke and that the children would be destroyed. He was a supporter of Mussolini. George, an Italian immigrant, was an outspoken opponent of Mussolini. He occasionally got into heated arguments with other members of Fayetteville’s Italian community who supported the dictator. The older Sodder sons also recalled, that just before Christmas, they noticed a man parked along U.S. Highway 21, watching the younger kids when they came home from school.
On Christmas morning, at 12:30, the phone ring. Everyone was asleep. Jennie answered it. It was a wrong number but she heard people laughing and glasses clinking in the background. Before she returned to bed she noticed that the downstairs lights were still on and the curtains were open. She also discovered that the front door was unlocked. She saw her child, Marion asleep on the sofa in the living room. She assumed the other kids were upstairs in bed. She turned off the lights, closed the curtains and locked the front door before she returned to her room. She recalls having just dozed off when she heard a sharp, loud bang on the roof. Then she heard a rolling noise. About an hour later, she was awoken again by heavy smoke leaking into her room.
She just couldn’t understand how her five children could perish in a fire and leave no remains. She conducted experiments, burning animal bones, chicken bones, beef joints, and pork bones. She wanted to see how a fire would consume them. She was left with charred bones. The remains of various household appliances had been found in the burned-out basement. They were still identifiable. An employee, who worked at a crematorium, informed her that bones remain after bodies are burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees. Their house was destroyed in 45 minutes.
The oddities continued to flow. A telephone repairman told the family that their lines had been cut, not burned. That made them realized, if the fire had been the result of faulty wiring, then the power would have been off. The lights would not have been on downstairs. One day, while the family was visiting the site, Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard. Jennie recalled hearing the hard thud on the roof, the rolling sound. George concluded it was a napalm “pineapple hand grenade” of the type used in warfare.
Next came reports of the children being sighted. A local woman claimed to have seen the children in a passing car while the fire was in progress. Another woman who operated a tourist stop between Fayetteville and Charleston said she had seen the children the morning after the fire. She told police that she, served them breakfast. She also said that the car they came in had Florida license plates. A woman at a hotel, in Charleston, saw the children’s photos in a newspaper and claimed that she had seen four of the five children a week after the fire. She said that the children were accompanied by two women and two men of Italian extraction. However, she didn’t remember the date.
The entire party registered at the hotel and stayed in a large room. They registered about midnight. She claims that she tried to talk to the children; but, the men appeared hostile and refused to allow her to talk to them. She said that one of the men looked at her in a hostile manner. Then he turned around and began talking in Italian to the group. Then the whole party stopped talking to her. She got the sensed that they were warned to say nothing more. The group departed early the next morning.
In 1947, J. Edgar Hoover declined to have the FBI investigate the case after receiving a request from the family. In his letter, he said, “Although we would like to be of service, the matter appears to be local. It does not fall within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau. However, he said that they would assist if they could get permission from the local authorities. The Fayetteville police and fire departments declined the offer.
The Sodders hired a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley. He discovered that the insurance salesman who had threatened George was a member of the coroner’s jury that deemed the fire accidental. He also learned from a Fayetteville minister that F.J. Morris, the fire chief, had discovered a heart in the ashes. He hid it inside of a dynamite box and buried it at the scene.
Tinsley persuaded Morris to show them the spot. They dug up the box and took it to a local funeral director, who concluded it was beef liver and untouched by the fire. Later, the Sodders learned that the fire chief had told others that the contents of the box had not been found in the fire. He had buried the beef liver in the rubble in the hope that finding any remains would placate the family.
Over the next few years, the tips and leads continued. George saw a newspaper photo of schoolchildren in New York City and was convinced that one of them was his daughter Betty. He drove to Manhattan, but her parents refused to speak to him.
In August 1949, the family brought in a pathologist. The pathologist conducted a full and thorough excavation of the site. He uncovered several shards of vertebrae. He sent the bones to the Smithsonian Institution. They said that the vertebrae showed no evidence that they had been exposed to fire and thought that it is very strange that no other bones were found at the site. Since the house burned for about half an hour they should have found the full skeletons of the five children. They concluded the vertebrae that was found had most likely originated in the supply of dirt used to fill in the basement.
The report caused two hearings at the Capitol in Charleston. The result was the official closure of the case by government agencies. It was then that George and Jennie erected a billboard along Route 16 and passed out flyers offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of their children. Later they increased that amount to $10,000.
Tips continued to come in from around the country. A woman in St. Louis said the oldest girl, Martha, was in a convent there. A person in Texas overheard an incriminating conversation about a Christmas Eve fire in West Virginia. Someone in Florida claimed the children were staying with a distant relative of Jennie’s. George checked out each claim and always returned home disappointed.
In 1968, Jennie found an envelope in the mail addressed only to her. The postmarked was from Kentucky but it had no return address. Inside the envelope, she found a photo of a man in his mid-20s. On its flip side of the photo, a handwritten note read: “Louis Sodder. Physically, he resembled their Louis. They hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky. However, they never heard from him again. The family feared that if they published the letter or the name of the town on the postmark they might cause Louis harm. Instead, they updated the billboard with the new picture and hung an enlarged copy over the fireplace.
George died in 1968 and Jennie died in 1989. Upon Jennie’s death, the billboard was taken down. The family continues to investigate.
Since the children remains were not found. I don’t believe that they died in the fire. It’s possible that they were kidnapped and the fire was set to cover that crime. What do you believe? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll read your feedback in an upcoming episode.
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