Christmas Eve.1945: the fire burned the Sodder house in forty-five minutes. Five of twelve members of the Sodder family stood on the front lawn and watched their home burn. The oldest son, Joe, was still away serving the army. But when the smoke cleared, four of the ten Sodder children were gone. Vanished.Maurice, aged 14, Martha Lee, 12 ,Louis, 9, Jennie, age 8, and Betty, age 5. When the fire burned out, investigators poked through the smoldering remnants, bracing themselves for the finding of the four bodies, but they found nothing.
Not a piece of bone or clump of hair.
Not a shred of chard nightgown. Nothing.
George Sodder, born Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia, immigrated to America in 1908, He accompanied his older brother who took as far as Ellis Island before immediately returned to Italy, leaving 13 year old George all on his own. He eventually found work with various Pennsylvania railroads and in a few years moved to Smithers, West Virginia. , where he started his own trucking company,"hauling dirt for construction and later freight and coal." In 1922, he also met and married local girl Jennie Cipriani, whose own family came over from Italy when she was three. By 1945 , they had ten children. They settled in Fayetteville, West Virginia, a prominent part of a"small but active Italian immigrant community." Solidly upper middle-class.Opinionated George Sodder was always ready to discuss anything from "business to current events and politics, but was, for some reason, reticent to talk about his youth. He never explained what had happened back in Italy to make him want to leave."
The night of the fire, the family stayed up celebrating until around 12:30 am, opening a few presents before retiring to bed. Just as the family started to sleep, the telephone jarred everyone awake. Jeannie Sodder, sprang from bed and ran to answer it. "."An unfamiliar female voice asked for an unfamiliar male name." Jeannie also heard "raucous laughter" and what sounded clinking glasses in the background. She told the caller they had the wrong number and hung up." As she started to hang up, though, she heard the woman let out a strange laugh.
As she returned to bed, Jeannie noticed all the lights still on downstairs and an window open. Her daughter Marion, 17 , asleep on the living room sofa. Jeannie turned the lights off, shut the window and locked the front door, then went back to bed, She assumed everyone else was already asleep. As she drifted off,she thought she heard a "sharp, loud bang on the roof, and then a rolling noise." She dimly thought it might be a rock striking the roof. About an hour later, she awoke again, this time due to the heavy smoke filling her bedroom.
George and Jeannie got four of their children out of the house; running out into the bitterly cold, drizzly night in pajamas and bare feet. George tried desperately to get back into the house, trying to save his other four children, badly cutting his arm trying to crawl in through a broken window. Terrified, George surveyed what he knew: Joe was away, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr, hair singed, had escaped their shared bedroom, Marion was safe and so was 2-year-old Sylvia. That left Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty, trapped upstairs by a staircase that was now engulfed inflames. He tried getting to the upstairs via a ladder normally propped against the side of the house, but the ladder had strangely vanished. Bewildered by the missing ladder, he decided to drive his gravel truck to the window and climb onto the roof, but the truck wouldn't start.
Marion ran to a neighbors house and called the Fayetteville Fire Department, but couldn't get an operator, Another neighbor also tried calling the fire department, but again--no operator responded. "Exasperated, 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. " It was nearly eight am before the fire department arrived. By then, as the "Dec 26, 1945, edition of The State Sentinel newspaper in Fayetteville reports, "...the entire structure, with the burned bodies of the victims, was a heap of rubbish in the basement."
Two hours after the police arrived on scene, their investigation was complete, though they told they could investigate further, later, after Christmas if the family wanted. State police inspectors blamed the fire on faulty wiring and Chief Morris said the fire must have cremated all the children's bodies. When over a week passed without the police returning, George bulldozed "several feet of dirt into the ashes" that remained of his home , believing himself to be burying his children. On New Years Eve the "coroner’s office issued five death certificates...attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
But the Sodder family itself wasn't so sure.
The family planted flowers where their front door used to be and began stitching "together a series of odd moments leading up to the fire." George remembered a stranger who'd appeared at their back door two months earlier, ostensibly looking for work. Standing there, he pointed at the homes two fuse boxes and said, "This is going to cause a fire someday.” A few days later, an insurance salesman, angry when turned away, yelled ,"Your goddamn house is going up in smoke." He also warned George"...your children are gonna be destroyed" and that he was gonna pay for making dirty remarks about Mussolini. George made no secret of his dislike for the Italian dictator and frequently engaged in spited discussions over the subject with other members of Fayetteville’s Italian community. He shrugged off the salesman's' threats. Later, this same insurance salesman landed on the coroners jury that declared the Sodder fire an accident. The week before the fire, a strange man in a car was noticed watching the Sodder children as they arrived home from school. This happened several times. After the fire, it appeared their telephones lines had been cut and George believed his truck was tampered with.
Months passed. Morris told George he had discovered internal organs in the rubble and he himself personally buried them in a box not far from the house. George and a private investigator went back to the site and indeed unearthed a box containing what looked like a human liver. A coroner told it was a somewhat fresh beef liver!
Over the next years, the Sodders heard numerous rumors about their lost children and that fateful night. That several witnesses saw "several kids in a taxi cab on the road next to the fire." That a bus driver saw " balls of fire" land on the roof of Sodder home just before the fire broke out.
In 1949, the family "requested and received" permission to excavate the fire sight, which had remained untouched, expect for the flowers Jeannie planted, since the fire. Th dig was in "order to attempt to find bones and settle once and for all if the kids died in the fire or were somehow kidnapped beforehand." Oscar Hunter, a well-known pathologist, led the search. He told the media he expected to find large bones and that the fire wasn't hot enough to cremate the four bodies. Hunter and his investigators found vertebrae and a femur bone at the site but they "were determined to belong to a person between 16-22 years old and the bones showed no exposure to fire." The oldest of the missing children was only fourteen.
Jeannie experimented using pig and chicken bones, burning them in the backyard to try and incinerate them; to turn them to ash. It never worked. Th Sodders followed up on every possible leave, George traveled to New York after seeing a photo of a little girl in magazine,, convinced she was one his daughters. "He was not allowed access to the girl." Seven years ofter the fire, hotel owner Ida Crutchfield contacted the Sodders and told them she "believed the children were at her motel shortly after the fire, accompanied by two Italian men."
George and Jeannie Sodder, 1968
In 1951 the family placed a billboard near their former home, On the billboard was a picture of each of the missing children and an offer of a $5000 reward, It stayed up until after Jeannie Sodders death in 1989 [George passed away in 1969].
1968; Jeannie found an envelope in her mailbox. The envelope was postmarked Kentucky, but had no return address. Inside, she a photograph of a young man and on the back someone had written the message "Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil boys. A90132 or 35." She and George carefully studied the photo and agreed the man looked like their brother: same dark hair and dark eyes, same nose.They hired another private detective and sent him to Kentucky, but they never heard back.
The Photo in the Envelope
Today, the only Sodder left is Sylvia Sodder Paxton, only a baby when the fire happened. Hoping to finally end her parents long, long nightmare, Mrs. Paxton hopes to recover the 1949 bone fragments, sent to the Smithsonian in 1949 for testing, for DNA tests.
So what happened to the Sodder children? In the night of December 24, 1945 , they either died tragically, burning up in a house fire that was most probably arson or were kidnapped by person unknown for unknown reasons.
Sources: Abbott, Karen. Smithsonian.com, 25 Dec. 2012. Web. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-children-who-went-up-in-smoke-172429802/?no-ist>. http://www.defrostingcoldcases.com/case-month-sodder-children/
Alice. "Case of the Month: The Sodder Children." Defrosting Cold Cases. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 June 2015. <http://www.defrostingcoldcases.com/case-month-sodder-children/>.
Hopkins F.Autumn. "Christmas Eve Tragedy." N.p., 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 29 June 2015. <http://www.wvgazette.com/news/201312230105?page>.
Lutzke, Andrew. "Unsolved Mysteries and Scary Stuff: Where Are the Sodder Children?" CXF Culture Crossfire Culturecrossfirecom. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 June 2015. <http://culturecrossfire.com/etc/unsolved-mysteries-and-scary-stuff-where-are-the-sodder-children/#.VZBG8Ebfq->.