July 15, 2020

Sodder Children Disappearance // West Virginia // 19

Sodder Children Disappearance // West Virginia // 19

On December 24th, 1945, a fire destroyed the Sodder home in Fayetteville, West Virginia.  There were eleven people residing in the home that night and and six of them made it out alive.  The bodies of five children disappeared and have never been found.  Appliances, dictionaries, and other various items were recognizable in the ash.  How could there not be a sign of the missing children?  Where are their bones?  Is it possible that they didn't actually die and were kidnapped before the fire?  In this episode, we will break down our theories.


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On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1945, a fire destroyed the Sodder home in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Residing in the home, was George Sodder, his wife Jennie, and nine of their ten children. During the fire, the parents, George and Jennie were able to escape, along with four of their nine children. The bodies of the other five children have never been found. The family believed that the children had actually survived.


George Sodder was born with the name Giorgio Soddu in Italy in 1985. He immigrated to the United States and he wouldn't say much about why he left his homeland. He found work on the railroads in Pennsylvania and eventually started his own trucking company. He met Jennie Cipriani, a storekeeper's daughter, who also came to the US from Italy, and she became his wife. George's business was doing very well and they became one of the most respected middle-class families around. However, he seemed to have very strong opinions about many topics, and wasn't particularly shy about expressing that. He had a strong opposition regarding the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini and this led to many strong arguments with other members of the immigrant community. George and Jennie ended up having ten children and the last one was born in 1943. By this time, their second oldest son, Joe, left home to serve in the military during World War II. The following year, Mussolini was removed from office and executed. George's harsh words and criticism had left some hard feelings. In October, 1945, a visiting life insurance salesman, warned George that his house would go up in smoke and the children are going to be destroyed. He said this was due to the dirty remarks George had made about Mussolini. Another visitor came by the house and was seeking work. He walked around the house and warned George that a pair of fuse boxes would cause a fire someday. George was a bit surprised by this observation because he had just had the house rewired when an electric stove was installed. The electric company checked everything afterwards and said it was safe. In the weeks before Christmas, George's older sons had noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town and they were watching the Sodder children as they returned from school.


The Sodder family celebrated on Christmas Eve 1945. Their oldest daughter, Marion, had been working at a dime store and surprised three of her younger sisters, 12-year-old Martha, 8-year-old Jennie and 5-year-old Betty, with new toys. The children asked their mother if they could stay up past their usual bedtime to play. 

At 10PM The mother, Jennie told the girls they could stay up later, as long as two of the boys 14-year-old Maurice and 9-year-old Louis, put the cows in and fed the chickens before going to bed. Her husband and the two oldest boys, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., were already asleep. Jennie scooped up they youngest, 2-year-old Sylvie and they went to bed.

At 12:30 AM Jennie heard the phone ringing and she went downstairs to answer it. The caller was a woman and she didn't recognize the voice or the person she was asking for, but there was the sound of laughter and clinking glasses in the background. Jennie thought the woman had a weird laugh and told her she had the wrong number. She hung up the phone and headed back to bed. Jennie noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn. This was unusual because the children normally took care of this when they stayed up late. Her daughter, Marion was sleeping on the couch, so Jennie assumed the others went to the attic and she closed the curtains and turned out the lights.

At 1AM Jennie woke up to the sound of an object hitting the house's roof with a loud bang, then a rolling noise. She didn't hear anything else and went back to sleep. A half hour later, Jennie woke up again and smelled smoke. She got up and saw that there was a fire in George's office around the telephone line and fuse box. She woke him up and he got his two older sons up. Both Parents and their children, Marion, Sylvia, John and George Jr. escaped the house. They yelled to the other children, but heard no response. The stairway was already on fire so they weren't able to go upstairs. The phone wasn't working, so Marion had to run to the neighbor's house to call the fire department. George climbed the wall, barefoot, and broke open an attic window, cutting his arm in the process. The Sodders kept a ladder against the house and they intended to use that, but on this night, the ladder was missing from its usual resting place. The water barrel that could have been helpful in extinguishing the fire was frozen solid as it was winter. George decided to pull both of his work trucks up to the house and use them to climb to the attic window, but the trucks wouldn't work, despite being just fine the previous day. 

At this time, the fire department was low on manpower due to the war and they relied on individual firefighters to contact each other via a phone tree as this was before 911 was established. Fire chief Morris said that the response time was also hindered by the fact that he didn't know how to drive a fire truck, so he had to wait for someone to respond that could drive. I'm not sure if or how firefighter's were on call back then or if you just keep calling until someone responds. Could they be drinking and partying with their friends and family? It was Christmas Eve, so, possibly.

There are two accounts about the firefighters on this day. One, says that the home was burned badly and they were not able to find the bones of the children as they would have expected. The other, is that they found a few bone fragments and internal organs, but decided not to tell the family. The firefighters did believe that the children died in the fire and suggested that it was hot enough to completely burn their bodies. 

As the days passed and the investigation was underway, Chief Morris told George to leave the site undisturbed so the state fire Marshall's office could conduct a more thorough investigation. Four days later, he and his wife couldn't bear to look at the sight anymore. George bulldozed 5 feet of dirt over the site. The next day, the local coroner did an official inquiry before a jury, stating that the fire was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Death certificates for the five children were issued on December 30th. A funeral was set for the children on January 2nd, and the parents couldn't bear to attend.

Once George and Jennie had time to settle down and think, they realized something was very odd when it came to that fire. If the fire was caused by an electrical problem, how did the Christmas lights remain on throughout the beginning of the fire? Shouldn't the power have gone out? Remember the ladder that went missing earlier in the story? It was always leaning against the house, but was later discovered at the bottom of an embankment, about 75 feet away. 

A telephone repairman told George and Jennie that the house's phone line was not burned through in the fire. It was actually cut, which meant someone would have needed to climb 14 feet up the pole and reach 2 feet away to cut it. There was a man who had been seen by neighbors, stealing around the time of the fire. He was arrested and admitted to the theft and also claimed he was the one who cut the phone line, but said he thought it was the power line and he had nothing to do with the fire. 

Another strange thing about the fire, was that several items from the home, including appliances, were found and recognizable in the ash. How could they clearly see the appliances, but not the remains of the missing children? Jennie found an article in the newspaper that had a house fire, similar to theirs and near the same time. In this house fire, a family of seven was killed, but skeletal remains of all the victims were reported. Jennie became so obsessed in finding the truth, that she began burning small piles of animal bones to see if they could be completely consumed.....they never were. She also contacted an employee at a local crematorium and they told her that human bones remain even after bodies are burned at 2,000 degrees for two hours. This is far longer and hotter than the house fire could have been.

It was mentioned earlier that George's trucks wouldn't start on the day of the fire. George believed they were tampered with, but his son-in-law later told the Charleston Gazette Mail in 2013 that he believed they flooded the engines by trying to start the trucks too quickly.

Many people believed that the wrong number call that Jennie answered the night of the fire was linked to the case somehow. The investigators did locate the woman that made the call and it's been confirmed that it actually was an accidental wrong number call.

By spring time, the family had planted flowers where the bulldozed home had been. In 1964, they found more information that made them believe the house fire was arson. The driver of a bus that passed through Fayetteville on Christmas Eve said she had seen some people throwing balls of fire at the house. A few months later, the young daughter, Sylvia found a small, hard, dark-green, rubber ball-like object in the brush after the snow had melted. George recalled Jennie hearing a loud thump on the roof just before the fire. They said the object looked like a pineapple bomb, hand grenade or some other combat device. They now believed the fire started on the roof, but there was no way to prove that any longer. 

There are witnesses that say they saw the missing children. One woman who watched the fire from the road said she saw the kids looking out a car window watching the house burning. Another woman said, at a rest stop between Fayeteville and Charleston, she saw them having breakfast the next morning and there was a car in the parking lot with Florida license plates.

Another lady, that worked at a Charleston hotel, claimed that she saw the children a week after the fire. She couldn't remember the exact date, but she said the children came in around midnight, with two men and two women, all of whom appeared to be Italian. She attempted to speak to the children and was met with a hostile look from one of the men and the whole group immediately stopped talking to her. They left the hotel early the next morning. Investigators do not believe this was a credible sighting as the woman had only seen photos of the children two years after the fire.

The family couldn't take it anymore and eventually hired a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley. He learned that the insurance salesman that threatened them with a fire a year before had been on the coroner's jury that ruled the fire an accident. He also heard rumors that Chief Morris found a heart at the investigation of the house fire and put it in a metal box and buried it. He apparently confessed this to a local minister who confirmed this to George. Both George and private investigator, Tinsley, confronted Chief Morris. He agreed to show them where he buried the metal box. They dug the box up and went to the local funeral director. The contents were examined and they were told it was actually beef liver, very fresh in fact, and was never exposed to fire. Chief Morris later admitted that he put the liver in there and hoped that the Sodder family would finally feel like their missing children had died in the fire. 

The family ended up doing a lot of the investigation work on their own as well for this case. George saw a girl in a magazine who was a young ballet dancer in New York City, he believed she looked like one of his missing children and drove to see her. Unfortunately, his demands to see the girl were not met. He also went to the FBI to see if they would investigate the case as a kidnapping. He was turned down for this as well.

Tips were still coming in and George followed up on them all. A woman in St. Louis claimed his daughter, Martha was being held in a convent there. A bar patron in Texas claimed to have overheard two other people making incriminating statements about a fire that happened on Christmas Eve in West Virginia years before. George even heard that a relative of Jennie's in Florida had children that looked similar to his, the relative had to prove the children were his own for George to be satisfied.

In 1967, George went to Houston to investigate another tip. A woman had written a letter to the family, saying that Louis Sodder revealed his true identity to her one night after having too much to drink. She believed both Louis and Maurice were living in Texas. George and his son-in-law, were not able to speak with the woman. Police found the two men she referred to in the letter and they both denied being the missing sons, but George had doubts about this.

The family received a letter about 20 years after the fire and they felt that it held the most credible evidence. Jennie found a letter in the mailbox that was addressed to her and had no return address. Inside, there was a picture of a man that appeared to be about 30 years old. The man had features that strongly resembled Louis.

George was able to persuade a Washington D.C. Pathologist, Oscar Hunter, to supervise a new search through the dirt at the site of the house fire. Artifacts were found, including a dictionary that belonged to the children and some coins. They also unearthed fragments and determined that it was human vertebrae. Could this be what they were looking for? Have the children been discovered after all this time? The fragments were sent to a specialist at the Smithsonian Institution. They confirmed, this was in fact, lumbar vertebrae, and all from the same person. The age of the individual at death would be about 16 or 17. This means that it's unlikely to belong to the missing children, since the oldest was 14 years old. It was also noted that the bones showed no sign of exposure to a flame and it was very strange that these were the only bones discovered during the thorough search. 

Later, it was confirmed that the bone fragments were from a nearby cemetery, but they couldn't explain why there were removed from there or how they got to the fire site.

The investigation was eventually closed at state level. The FBI ended up taking over and looking into a possible kidnapping case, but this too was dropped after two years.

A billboard was placed along State Route 16 with pictures of the five missing children, offering a reward for information. George Sodder died in 1969. Their son Joe, never talked about the fire and said the family should accept the death's and move on. Jennie stayed in the family home, wearing black to mourn and tending the garden at the site of the fire. The billboard remained up until shortly after Jennie passed away in 1989. 

The theory that is stated most often, is that the children were taken by the Sicillian Mafia, and may have been transported back to Italy. The family believed that the children avoided contacting them out of fear that they would be harmed. Several online sleuths have come to the conclusion that the children did die in the fire, but me? I'm not so sure. I don't believe in coincidences and this story has too many. How does a salesman threaten a fire and harm to the children and then exactly that happens? How does a fire start, but bones can't be found? How does the ladder go missing? What about both trucks not starting? Maybe the engine could get flooded on one, but both?

Were the children already out of the house when the fire started? When Jennie woke up, she only saw a few of the kids. What if someone was able to lure the children down the ladder? Like, if they said, there's a fire, you need to come with me! Then, they get rid of the ladder after kidnapping the children. The family never heard the children screaming or crying in the fire. I know this morbid, but witnesses were asked in the following days if they smelled burning flesh or heard cries, no one had.

That salesman just freaks me out. He made a threat that came true AND his ass ends up on the coroner's jury which ultimately rules the fire as an accident.

Chief Morris, the one who didn't know how to drive the fire truck, had been chief for 8 years. How do you make it to chief without being able to drive the truck? What does he actually do?

I thought it was very interesting that most people online are able to sweep everything under the rug and jump to the conclusion that this was just an accident and the kids perished in the fire. 


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