Fayetteville, WV

The unsolved mystery of the Sodder Children, who vanished in 1945

Sara B
Photo byPublic Domain

the early morning of December 25, 1945, tragedy struck the Sodder family in Fayetteville, West Virginia, when their house burned. However, only the parents and four children escaped the house fire, and the other five were never found, not in the ashes of the burned house or seen ever again. It has been an unsolved mystery since 1945.

What happened to the Sodder Children?

George and Jennie Sodder had ten children, and the night the house went into flames, nine of the ten children were inside the house. George Sodder immigrated to the US from Tula, Sardinia, Italy 1908. He was 13 years old when he and his brother immigrated to the US; however, his brother did not stay in the US and ended up going back to Italy.

He never talked about why he left Italy and remained in the US his entire life. George stayed and found work on the railroads in Pennsylvania, carrying water and other supplies to workers.

Eventually, he found full-time work as a truck driver in Smithers, West Virginia, and shortly after, he started his own trucking company. George met Jennie while living in Smithers, she too was an Italian immigrant, and they got married.

The couple settled in Fayetteville, West Virginia, which at the time had a large population of Italian immigrants, and they lived in a two-story timber frame house 2 miles north of town. Georges's business went well, and soon, they became ¨one of the most respected middle-class families around¨.

However, according to locals, George had strong opinions about people and was not shy about expressing how he felt, especially the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. This topic often caused strong arguments with others in the Italian community.

Mussolini was killed in 1945; however, those who disagreed with George about Mussolini had hard feelings—even to the effect that a traveling salesman who came in contact with George and they had a disagreement warned George that one day his ¨house would go up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed¨, because of the remarks Goerge was making about Mussolini.

Strange Visitors

He was not the only visitor to make such remarks; one day, another visitor looking for work and looking around the back of his house stated that a pair of fuse boxes would one day catch a fire. However, George had recently had the entire home rewired and checked to ensure the house would not burn down and found the remarks strange.

As well as a few weeks before Christmas, one of the older sons noticed a strange car parked along the main road and noted that the people inside the car were watching the younger children as they returned from school.

The Fire

The night before the fire, Christmas Eve, the children stayed up late playing with gifts their sister had bought them, with their mother's permission. However, Jennie is permitted to stay up late as long as they remember to feed the cows and chickens before bed. They agreed.

However, at 12:30 a.m. and 12:30 a.m., a strange phone call came, and when Jennie answered it, the caller was a woman. Jennie heard laughter and glasses clinking in the background, but the number was wrong.

Jennie returned to bed, but first, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not shut, which is usually the children's job if they stay up later than their parents. However, they did not.

Marion, the oldest daughter, had fallen asleep on the couch and assumed the other children who stayed up late had gone to their rooms to sleep. She turned off the lights, closed the curtains, and went to bed.

However, at 1,a.m. Jennie was awakened by an object hitting the roof with a large bang and a rolling noise, yet she went back to sleep. The next time she woke up was 1:30 a.m. to the smell of smoke and discovered that George's office was on fire.

She woke up George, and he woke up his older sons, and George, Jennie, and four of their children, Marion, Sylvia, John, and George Jr., escaped the house. As they ran out, they yelled for the other children to get up, but there was no response, and they could not go upstairs because the stairwell was on fire.

Some reports say John went up to the attack to wake the boys, and they weren't there, but it is unclear whether or not that is accurate. They waited outside for the children to come out, and they never showed up.

George then attempted to climb to the attic to look for the children with his ladder; however, when he went to get his ladder, it was not where he left it. George also attempted to move his truck close to the house to get to the upper levels, but his vehicle did not start, and the previous day, it was working without an issue.

At this time, Marion was attempting to call for help, and the phone lines did not work; she ran to the neighbor's house and was still unable to reach the operator. Eventually, a neighbor had to drive into town to get help and found the fire Chief, Morris, who still told her he had to call the rest of them in for assistance, which took 7 hours.

The firefighters arrived at the house at 8 a.m.

The Investigation

While waiting for fire rescue, George attempted to enter the house several times in search of his children, but his efforts were unsuccessful. When the fire team showed up, the house was burned, and no bones were found in the ashes.

Chief Morris also stated he believed the house burned hot enough to burn the children's bodies completely, but other theories state that the fire was not adequately investigated to determine if that was true. However, the investigation was brief; by 10 a.m., the firetrucks were gone.

The coroner determined the five children died in the fire and offered death certificates; however, George and Jennie began questioning what happened shortly after. They questioned the official findings about the fire and were unsatisfied with the determinations made by the local authorities before and after the fire.

The Sodders begin to question what happened.

George remembered the insurance salesman making the threat, the strange man commenting about the fuse box, and the odd car parking and watching the children. George disputed the fire department's findings that the fire was started for electrical reasons, mainly because George had it checked recently to see if there was a problem with the electricity.

Why were the lights on while the house was burning down? Jennie suspected arson due to Georges's beliefs, and there were theories the Sicilian Mafia had taken the children. The ladder was also found missing at the bottom of an embankment 75 feet from its usual location.

Jennie did not believe the children burned in the fire, either, since the household appliances did not burn completely. As well as a recent fire killed a family of seven, and all of the skeletal remains were found inside the house.

Jennie even began burning small animal bones to test her theory, and none fully burned. A local crematorium she spoke with stated that human bones remain even after bodies are burned at 2,000 degrees for two hours.

Which was longer and hotter than the house fire could have been. As their house was destroyed in 45 minutes.

The telephone repair man also stated that the house phone line had not been burned through the fire but was cut by someone who climbed 14 feet up the pole. Even the neighbors said they saw someone stealing a block and tackle from the property around the same time as the fire, and the person was identified and arrested.

He admitted to the theft and admitted to cutting the phone line but thought it was a power line and denied any involvement with the fire. He was let go and got a fine for stealing.

George also believed his truck was tampered with, but no suspects were found. The woman who called with the wrong number had nothing to do with the incident; it was just the wrong number.

Eventually, evidence emerged that the fire was set deliberately, as a witness came forward and said he saw people throwing balls of fire at the house. Two years after the fire, baby Sylvia found a small, hard, dark green rubber ball in the brush nearby, and George said it looked like a pineapple bomb, hand grenade, or another device used to light a fire.

The family concluded the fire started on the roof. However, the fire marshall disagreed.

Sightings of the children.

There have been many claims that people have seen the children; one woman who saw the fire said she saw the children peering out a passing car while the house was burning.

Another woman said she saw them between Fayetteville and Charleston; she served them breakfast, and the vehicle had a Florida license plate.

1947, Sodder tried to enlist the help of the FBI because they considered it a kidnapping, but Director Hoover stated:

"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."

He also added that if local police asked for their help, he would, but they never did. George then hired a private investigator, C.C. Tinsley; however, nothing ever came from that investigation that was not already known.

In 1949, George spoke with Oscar Hunger, a pathologist, and convinced him to supervise a new search through the dirt at the house, and some artifacts and bone fragments were found. The pieces were sent to a specialist with the Smithsonian Institution, and they were confirmed to be veteran lumbar.

It was confirmed that the bones were not likely to be the children as the bones were older than the missing children. The oldest was 14, and the bones had not been exposed to fire.

The police ended the investigation.

In 1950, Governor Okey L. Patteson and police superintendent W.E. Burchett told the Soddders the case was hopeless and closed at the state level. The FBI then had jurisdiction but dropped the case after two years due to no leads.

The Sodders, however, never gave up and printed flyers and offered rewards; in 1952, they printed a billboard and placed one at the house and on US Route 60.

The billboard brought in leads, but nothing helped to find the children. The Sodder children have never been found. George died on August 16, 1969; he was 73; even then, Jennie continued the search until her death on February 15, 1989, when she was 85.

The remaining Sodder children continued the search but were never found or heard from ever again.

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