75 years ago, a fire destroyed the Sodder family home on Christmas Eve. Only four of the nine children inside managed to escape. Due to a series of unexplainable events, the awful tragedy remains one of the most mysterious unsolved disappearances.
Private detective George Swain, who was hired by the Sodder family to investigate the disappearance, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail: “Since the fire and events have dealt the parents with the passing of their children, I have toiled and worked with every conceivable clue that could convince me of one of two facts – are they still with us or did they pass in that fire?”
The Sodder Family
Parents George and Jennie Sodder
Ages of the children on Christmas Eve, 1945
George Jr. (16)
Maurice (14) – missing
Martha (12) – missing
Louis (9) – missing
Jennie (8) – missing
Betty (5) – missing
Unfamiliar Occurrences In The Night
On December 24th, 1945, the Sodder family celebrated at their home in the small Appalachian town of Fayetteville, West Virginia. George was a successful businessman and they purchased a two-story, 7-bedroomed, family home where they could raise their ten children.
That fateful night, the Sodder children were too excited to sleep. Maurice, 14, Martha, 12, Louis, 9, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 5 – asked their mother, Jennie, if they could stay up late to play with the presents they had unwrapped early. Jennie agreed but made the children promise they would turn off the lights, shut the curtains and lock the door before coming upstairs to bed.
Then at 12.30 am, Jennie woke to the sound of the phone ringing. When she answered, a female voice she didn’t recognize was asking for a name she was not familiar with. She told the caller they had the wrong number and after hearing a “weird laugh” and the sound of glasses clinking in the background, the caller hung up.
Returning to her bed, Jennie noticed a light was still switched on where the children had been playing. She walked into the room and realized they had also left the curtains open and the door unlocked. She was annoyed they had not done as she had asked, considering that was the agreement if they stayed up late; so she locked the door herself then went to bed.
The Children Who Went Up In Smoke
At 1 am, Jennie woke again to the sound of a large object hitting the top of the roof with a loud bang – which she later said sounded like a rock – before it rolled down the side of the house. She went back to sleep and thought nothing more of it.
Then half an hour later, she woke again smelling smoke and discovered the office used by her husband, George, was on fire. Waking her husband in a wild panic, they both managed to escape with only four of their children – Marion, Sylvia, John, and George Jr. They shouted at the other children to get out of the house but in a matter of minutes, the house was now fully in flames.
In a frantic effort, George tried to get upstairs to the loft of the house where the children were trapped but the intense heat held him back. He then raced to the garage to retrieve his ladders so he could climb through an upstairs window but he quickly realized the ladders were missing.
Instead, he decided to move one of his trucks to the window and jump from its roof. Only neither of his two trucks would start despite previously working earlier that day. George’s arm by now was covered in blood following his attempts to smash the windows so he could save his children.
They could not even put the fire out themselves as the barrels that collected water around the property had frozen over. Desperately, the neighbors began to call the fire department but nobody could get an answer. The entire house collapsed 45 minutes later. They reached the heartbreaking conclusion, the five children that remained inside the house had not survived.
Fayetteville Fire Department did not arrive until 9 am the following morning. Chief Morris said the station was understaffed and due to the time of year, they could not have made it any sooner. The family house was now nothing more than a pile of ash, rubble, and smoking debris.
On December 26th, the fire department launched an inquest into the tragic event. They discovered the fire had started in the corner of one of the basement rooms. They put this down to faulty wiring from Christmas lights in the house. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates, attributing the causes of death as “fire or suffocation.”
The family members were then interviewed in turn. Their eldest son John stated:
“Mother and father went to bed at about 10.30 pm. We went upstairs at about 11.15 pm or 11.30 pm. We had everything ready for Christmas. There was a set of Christmas lights in my mother’s bedroom. (George Jr) woke me up and I came down expecting to help put the fire out. When I got to the door, flames were already there and I couldn’t get back. Fire had swept from the place where the desk was to the front door. George had started trying to wake the others, but I guess they either didn’t wake or didn’t move fast enough. I think somebody had set the fire.”
One coroner said they were surprised just how quickly the house had gone up in flames and collapsed entirely in a matter of minutes. The fire department explained this was a timber-framed house and due to the weather conditions on the night, the high wind speed would have sent the flames roaring through the household.
Yet, all investigators had no explanation as to why any remains belonging to the children could not be found. Even if the fire had destroyed the house, they would have come across human bones in the debris.
Plagued with despair, Jennie visited a local crematorium to determine if the flames could have destroyed human bone. For a skeleton to be destroyed by fire, the fire temperature needs to burn at more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit (454 degrees Celcius) consistently for 2 hours.
The entire Sodder family house was destroyed in 45 minutes, which would not be enough time for there to be no remains left of her children.
One witness who was riding the local bus route told the family he had seen fireballs being thrown onto the roof of the house that night. This also fits with Jennie’s version of events – hearing a loud bang and then a rolling sound on the roof. A telephone wire installer who visited the house after the fire also confirmed that it looked as if the power lines had been cut rather than malfunctioning and causing the disaster.
Another witness claimed to have seen a man entering the Sodder’s garage on the night of the fire and take items; which would help explain why they never recovered the missing ladders.
They now believed their children were taken before the fire had even begun. That this was an abduction covered up by the arson attack. Also, the children’s bedroom was in the loft of the house, and on the night of the fire, neither George nor Jennie saw the five children at the windows trying to get out.
It would be near impossible to believe they slept through the house burning down to the ground as the other family members had made their escape.
“What Was The Fate Of Our Children. Kidnapped, Murdered, or Burned?”
The Sodder family decided to create a memorial garden at the site of their former home. They paid for a giant billboard which could be seen from the nearby route 166. It read: “What Was The Fate Of Our Children. Kidnapped, Murdered, or Burned?”
This also included the faces of their five missing children, in the hopes that someone would find them alive and well. A reward of $5,000 (approx. $217,000 today) was offered for any helpful information and displayed pictures of all five children.
The billboard resulted in many reported sightings. A woman who was serving at a Charleston hotel, 50 miles west from the Sodder Home, said she had served the children breakfast the morning after the fire.
“The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction. I do not remember the exact date. However, the entire party did register at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered about midnight. I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children. One of the men looked at me in a hostile manner; he turned around and began talking rapidly in Italian. Immediately, the whole party stopped talking to me. I sensed that I was being frozen out and so I said nothing more. They left early the next morning.”
Another claim was the children had been sighted in a car driving away from the house as the fire raged on throughout the night. No eyewitness accounts were ever confirmed but it gave George and Jennie the hope they needed to continue their search.
In 1963, the reward was changed to $10,000. The children were pictured with their new ages: Maurice, now 29; Martha, now 27; Louis, now 24; Jennie, now 22; Betty, now 20.
They even wrote to J. Edgar Hoover for help and he replied: “Although I would like to be of service, the matter related appears to be of local character and does not come within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau.”
Sadly, the case was never reopened as the police stated that, according to the coroner, no crime had occurred.
Did George’s Political Views Cost Him The Lives Of His Five Children?
One theory was that they suspected the children were taken by the Sicilian Mafia in retaliation for George’s anti-Mussolini views.
Born in 1895, in Sardinia, Italy, George changed his name from Georgio Sodder when he first immigrated to America. A friendly, charming man; George would talk to anyone but one subject he would never discuss is why he left Italy at the age of 13.
George had a successful career in Pennsylvania working in railroad haulage. He later relocated to Smithers, West Virginia as a truck driver and after just two years, he had enough in savings to invest in his own trucking company. Through his work, he met his future wife, Jennie Cipriani, who was also an Italian immigrant.
Between 1923 and 1943, they had ten children together. The Sodders were, according to a county magistrate, “one of the most respected middle-class families around.”
In 1943, their second eldest Sodder child, Joe, had left home to serve in the military during World War II and was the only one of their children not home on the night of the fire.
On April 28th, 1945, Italy’s leader Benito Mussolini was executed. George had always been outspoken in his criticism of Mussolini and the Fascist government of his native homeland. This was met with a lot of disapproval from the local community in Fayetteville which was mostly made up of Italian immigrants.
Six months later, a traveling life insurance salesman had warned George that his house “would go up in smoke … and your children are going to be destroyed (due to) the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” George believed the salesman was acting out of anger as he had rejected his offer.
Another forewarning came when an electrician visited George’s house and warned that the fuse boxes were faulty and could cause a serious fire someday. George was concerned as he had just had the entire property rewired and a new gas stove installed; so he called the electric company he had hired. The company reassured George that all the electric wiring in the house was perfectly safe and explained the electrician who visited him was likely just looking for opportunities to work.
Then just weeks before Christmas that year, the Sodder children noticed strangers in a car were watching them as they walked home from school.
George would eventually exhaust himself searching for his missing children. In 1949, he brought in a bulldozer to the former house to uncover the burn area of the fire in an attempt to look for clues or remains. He did find one bone fragment in the debris but a pathologist later determined this would have belonged to someone much older than the children.
Speaking to the local Raleigh Register, George said: “I am still not convinced they are dead. Only three or four human bones, which may or may not be human were found even though the men had dug to the very floor of the basement. The pathologist tells me if the children had been caught in the fire, at least their skulls should have remained.”
“Like Hitting A Rock Wall”
In 1967, 22 years after the disappearance of the children, Jennie was sent a letter with a postmark from Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. Inside was a photo of a man in his early 30s who strongly resembled Louis. On the back was written:
I love brother Frankie
A90132 or 35
They asked a new private detective to look into the case but again this would go nowhere. Still, the photo was enlarged then framed and kept above the fireplace.
George told the Charleston Gazette-Mail later that the private detective found nothing in Kentucky, he said it was “like hitting a rock wall – we can’t go any further”.
Their former private detective George Swain had previously ended his investigation into what happened after working on the case for three years.
He stated: “My work on this mystery leaves the matter unsolved in spite of the fact I worked diligently in probing every known lead in the face of utter frustration met at every turn. Many mysterious circumstances will puzzle me forever. My efforts in a large measure were prompted by sympathy for the bereaved parents, and I regret that I was unable to bring them even a crumb of solace in the bereavement.”
Sylvia, the youngest in the family, who was only 2-years-old on the night of the fire, which is her earliest memory, is the only surviving member of the Sodder family.
George passed away in 1969 and Jennie, two decades later, in 1989. Shortly after her death, the billboard displaying the missing children was taken down.