Entry 10: The Sodder Children
As we near the end of our cold case exploration and the holiday season, the final case follows the heartbreaking disappearance of five children from their home on Christmas Eve. The Sodder children’s disappearance has captivated the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia and has haunted the Sodder family for years, desperate for answers and diminished hope that their relatives might be found.
The Missing Sodder Children. 1945. “The Children Who Went Up In Smoke,” by Karen Abbot. Smithsonian, 25 Dec. 2012.
1945: The Sodder family included parents George and Jennie, and their ten children. On the night of Christmas Eve, 1945, nine of the ten children (as one son was away serving in the army) settled into bed in preparation for the morning. Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.
George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, though he could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through the living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom. Outside with his wife remained Sylvia (2), Marion (17), John (23), and George Jr. (16). Unaccounted for were Maurice (14), Martha (12) Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5). George ran to the side of the house to get his ladder in an attempt to bypass the downstairs to get into the children’s bedrooms upstairs, but discovered his ladder to be missing.
In desperation, he thought he could drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they’d functioned perfectly the day before, neither would start now. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel to quell the fire but found it frozen solid. George’s voice ached from the smoke and from screaming out his young children’s names.
Marion sprinted to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator response. A neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. The neighbor drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree” system whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another until all responders were aware of the situation.
Though less than two miles away, the fire department didn’t respond until 8 A.M., finding nothing but ash and a grieving family. George and Jeannie assumed that five of their children were dead, but a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies, though an official heat index reading was never taken.
A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt, intending to preserve the site as a memorial. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates just before the new year, attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
Still, the Sodders began to speculate if their children had survived the fire.
George Sodder was born in Italy in 1895, and immigrated in 1908 with an older brother who quickly returned back to Italy. Once he met Jennie and they settled in West Virginia, they became “one of the most respected middle-class families around.” George held strong opinions about everything from business to current events and politics, but was, for some reason, reluctant to talk about his youth. He never explained what had happened back in Italy to make him want to leave. Fayetteville was quaint, with a small but active Italian immigrant community, and George made a name for himself, launching his own trucking company, hauling dirt for construction and later freight and coal.
A few weeks after the fire, the Sodders began recalling strange instances prior. There was a stranger who appeared at the home a few months earlier, back in the fall, asking about hauling work. After turning him down, he pointed out the two separate fuse boxes, and said, “This is going to cause a fire someday.” Since he had just had the wiring checked by the local power company, which pronounced it in fine condition, George thought little of it, aside from it being odd at the time. Around the same time, another man tried to sell the family life insurance and became irate when George declined. “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke,” he warned, “and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” George was outspoken about his dislike for the Italian dictator, occasionally engaging in heated arguments with other members of Fayetteville’s Italian community, and at the time didn’t take the man’s threats seriously. The older Sodder sons also recalled something peculiar: Just before Christmas, they noticed a man parked along U.S. Highway 21, intently watching the younger kids as they came home from school.
Undeterred, 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. They soon increased the amount to $10,000. Then there were the anecdotes: a letter from someone saying young Martha was in a convent in St. Louis, the motel operator who saw the children right after the fire, and a picture of a young girl from New York City who looked so much like Betty that George drove to see her, but was turned away by the girl’s parents.
The billboard stood for over 30 years, and now, only one Sodder child remains: Sylvia, who believes her brothers and sisters lived long past the fire. Her children and grandchildren continue the hunt for answers, and the local community holds the children in memory. Theories have circled around mafia involvement, kidnapping, or perhaps the melancholy reality that the children never survived the inferno.
As always, the BuzzFeed Unsolved video delving more in depth in details is provided here for future viewing. Best of luck in theorizing, and until next time (whenever that may be). Thank you for sticking around this long; I hope I’ve given you something to look forward to reading, and have been able to tickle your “Sherlock Holmes” gene at least a little.