Early Christmas morning, December 25, 1945, tragedy struck the Sodder family in Fayetteville, West Virginia, when their house went up in flames. The parents and four children escaped, but five children disappeared. Did these kids die in the fire, or are they still out there somewhere? No one knows.
That night, the home was occupied by George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their ten children. Their son Joseph was away serving in the Army during World War II. After they had all fallen asleep, a fire broke out at about 1:30 a.m.
George Sodder immigrated to the United States from Sardinia, Italy, in 1908 when he was 13 years old. He soon found work on the Pennsylvania railroads, carrying water and supplies to workers. After a few years, he moved to Smithers, West Virginia, where he first worked as a driver and then launched his own trucking company, hauling dirt, freight, and coal. He then met Jennie Cipriani, who immigrated from Italy when she was three. The couple soon married, had ten children between 1923 and 1943, and moved to Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Settling in a two-story wood-frame house about two miles north of town, the family fit in the Appalachian town with an active Italian immigrant community. George’s business prospered, and they became “one of the most respected middle-class families around,” in the words of a county magistrate. However, George was an outspoken man with strong opinions that often alienated some people. One of these opinions was his strong opposition to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, which led to arguments with other immigrant community members and left some with hard feelings.
The telephone rang at about 12:30 a.m. on Christmas day, and Jennie went downstairs to answer it. On the other end of the line was a woman’s voice that she did not recognize, asking for someone who didn’t reside in the home. Jennie informed the caller she had reached the wrong number and hung up. She noticed the lights were still on then, and the curtains were not drawn downstairs. Her daughter Marion had fallen asleep on the living room couch, and Jennie assumed the other children who had stayed up had returned to the attic where they slept. She returned to bed after turning out the lights and closing the curtains.
However, Jennie was again awakened at 1:00 a.m. when she heard an object hitting the roof before rolling off. Hearing nothing more, she again went back to sleep. Another half-hour later, she woke up again when she smelled smoke and woke her husband.
Inspecting, they found the hallway filled with smoke and the stairway leading to the children’s bedrooms filled with flames. The fire appeared to be coming from a fuse box and telephone line in the room George used as an office. The couple shouted up the stairs for everyone to leave the house quickly, and the family fled. The parents, sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., 17-year-old daughter Marion, and two-year-old Sylvia made it safely outside. However, their sons, 14-year-old Maurice and nine-year-old Louis, and daughters,12-year-old Martha, eight-year-old Jennie, and five-year-old Betty, who slept in two upstairs bedrooms, were not there.
Blocked from returning to the house, George raced to the side of the building where a ladder always stood to get to the upstairs windows; however, the ladder was missing. He then ran to one of his trucks, thinking he could move it and stand on top to help the children out the window, but it wouldn’t start. The second truck also wouldn’t start — this was odd as they had been running perfectly the previous day. Barefoot, he climbed the wall and broke an attic window, cutting his arm badly. Making one last attempt, he tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but found it frozen solid.
By this time, the house was engulfed in flames, and they could only watch as it burned to the ground, presumably with the other children inside. Within the following hours, nothing was left but charred timbers, rubble, and the basement.
In the meantime, daughter Marion had run to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but got no response. Another neighbor also tried to call from a nearby tavern, but again, no operator responded. The neighbor then drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris. However, though the fire department was only two and a half miles away, the crew didn’t arrive until 8:00 a.m. By then, nothing was left but a smoking pile of ash. One of the firefighters overlooking the ashes was Jennie’s brother.
At that time, the fire department was low on manpower due to the war and relied on individual firefighters to call each other. Chief F.J. Morris said the next day that the already slow response was further hampered by his inability to drive the fire truck, requiring that he wait until someone who could drive was available.
Afterward, the police and firemen conducted a brief investigation, and by 10:00 a.m., Morris told the Sodders that they had not found any bones. It was later said that their search was cursory at best.
The local coroner convened an inquest the next day and determined that the five children had undoubtedly perished in the fire, even though no human remains were found. Thought to have been caused by faulty wiring, it was believed that the fire had been hot enough to cremate the bodies completely. Among the jurors was the man who had threatened George that his house would be burned down and his children “destroyed” in retribution for his anti-Mussolini remarks. Before the end of the year, the coroner issued five death certificates attributing the cause to “fire or suffocation.”
George and Jennie were too grief-stricken to attend the funeral on January 2, 1946, although their surviving children did.
Not long afterward, they began to rebuild their lives, and George covered the basement with five feet of dirt and converted the site into a memorial garden for their lost children. Jennie carefully tended the garden for the rest of her life even though she began to believe that the children they were memorializing might be alive somewhere.
However, they began to question all the official findings about the fire. They were not satisfied with the determinations made by local authorities due to the many unanswered questions and the unusual circumstances that occurred before and during the fire.
In the fall of 1945, a stranger appeared at the home asking about hauling work. Wandering to the back of the house, he pointed to two separate fuse boxes, commenting, “This is going to cause a fire someday.” George thought this was a strange comment, especially since he had just had the wiring checked by the local power company, which pronounced it in fine condition.
A couple of months before the fire, in October 1945, a visiting life insurance salesman tried to sell the family a policy. After being rebuffed, he became irate and warned George that his house “would go up in smoke…, and your children are going to be destroyed.” The salesman said this was because of “the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”
Another red flag was a strange car the family had seen numerous times before Christmas, whose occupants appeared to be watching the younger Sodder children as they returned from school.
George also disputed the fire department’s finding that the blaze was electrical because of the new wiring and positive safety inspection. They also wondered why, if an electrical problem had caused it, the family’s Christmas lights had remained on throughout the fire’s early stages when the power should have gone out.
He and his wife suspected arson, leading to theories that the Sicilian Mafia had taken the children, perhaps in retaliation for George’s outspoken criticism of Benito Mussolini and the fascist government of his native Italy.
Then, they found the ladder missing from the side of the house on the night of the fire at the bottom of an embankment 75 feet away.
Jennie also had trouble accepting Morris’s belief that all traces of the children’s bodies had been completely burned in the fire. Many of the household appliances and fragments of the tin roof had been found, still recognizable, in the ash. She contrasted the fire results with a newspaper account of a similar house fire that had occurred around the same time that killed a family of seven, where the skeletal remains of all the victims were reported to have been found.
To test this, Jennie burned small piles of animal bones to see if they would be completely consumed, and none were. An employee of a local crematorium she contacted told her that human bones remain even after bodies are burned at 2,000 degrees for two hours, far longer and hotter than the house fire could have been. Their house was destroyed in 45 minutes.
A telephone repairman told the Sodders that the house’s phone line had not been burned through in the fire, as they had initially thought, but cut by someone willing and able to climb 14 feet up the pole and reach two feet away from it to do so. A man whom neighbors had seen stealing a block and tackle from the property around the time of the fire was identified and arrested. He admitted to the theft and claimed he had been the one who cut the phone line, thinking it was a power line, but denied having anything to do with the fire. However, no record identifying the suspect exists, and why he would have wanted to cut any utility lines to the Sodder house while stealing the block and tackle has never been explained. Jennie would later say that if he had cut the power line, she and her husband, along with their other four children, would never have been able to make it out of the house.
The Sodders’ trucks’ failure to start was also considered. George believed they had been tampered with, perhaps by the same man who stole the block and tackle and cut the phone line.
The woman who had made the wrong-number phone call to the Sodder house was completely unconnected. When the woman who had made the call was located, she confirmed it had simply been the wrong number.
Evidence emerged which supported their belief that the fire had not started in the electrical fault and was instead set deliberately. A bus driver who passed through Fayetteville late Christmas Eve said he had seen some people throwing “balls of fire” at the house. A few months later, two-year-old Sylvia found a small, hard, dark-green, rubber ball-like object in the brush nearby when the snow had melted. Recalling his wife’s account of a loud thump on the roof before the fire, George said it looked like a “pineapple bomb” hand grenade or some other incendiary device. The family later claimed that, contrary to the fire marshal’s conclusion, the fire had started on the roof, although there was no way to prove it by then.
A couple of witnesses who claimed to have seen the children came forward. One woman watching the fire from the road said she had seen some peering out of a passing car while the house was burning. Another woman at a rest stop between Fayetteville and Charleston said she had served them breakfast the following day and noted the presence of a car with Florida license plates in the rest stop’s parking lot.
In 1947, the Sodders also tried to interest the FBI in investigating what they considered a kidnapping. Director J. Edgar Hoover responded to his letters, writing, “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.” However, he added that If the local authorities requested the bureau’s assistance, he would direct agents to assist. However, the Fayetteville police and fire departments declined to do so.
With these many questions, the Sodders hired a private investigator, C.C. Tinsley, from the nearby town of Gauley Bridge. Tinsley learned that the insurance salesman who had threatened them with a fire a year before over George’s anti-Mussolini sentiments had been on the coroner’s jury that ruled the fire an accident and told this to the Sodders. He also learned of rumors around Fayetteville that despite his report to the Sodders that no remains had been found in the ashes, Morris had found a heart, which he later packed into a metal box and secretly buried.
Morris had confessed this to a local minister, who confirmed it to George. When George and Tinsley confronted Morris with this news, Morris agreed to show the two where he had buried the metal box, and they dug it up. However, when a local funeral director examined the box’s contents, it was found to contain beef liver that had never been exposed to fire. Morris would later admit that the box had not come from the fire, but he had placed it there hoping that the Sodders would find it and be satisfied that the missing children had died in the fire.
In August 1949, George persuaded Oscar Hunter, a Washington, D.C. pathologist, to supervise a new search through the dirt at the house site. After a comprehensive search, artifacts were found, including a dictionary belonging to the children and some coins. Several small bone fragments were also unearthed and determined to have been human vertebrae. The bone fragments were sent to Marshall T. Newman, a specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, and they were confirmed to be lumbar vertebrae, all from the same person. He also estimated that the victim’s age would have been between 16 and 22. This age range determined it was not likely that these bones were from any of the five missing children since the oldest, Maurice, had been 14 at the time. Newman also added that the bone showed no sign of exposure to flame. Later, investigator Tinsley supposedly confirmed that the bone fragments had come from a cemetery in nearby Mount Hope but could not explain why they had been taken from there or how they came to be at the fire site.
The investigation and findings attracted national attention, and the West Virginia Legislature held two hearings on the case in 1950. Afterward, Governor Okey L. Patteson and state police superintendent W.E. Burchett told the Sodders the case was “hopeless” and closed it at the state level. The FBI decided it had jurisdiction as a possible interstate kidnapping but dropped the case after two years of following fruitless leads.
But the Sodders did not give up hope. They printed flyers with the children’s pictures and offered a $5,000 reward for information. They soon doubled the amount to $10,000. In 1952, they put up a billboard at the site of the house and another along U.S. Route 60 near Ansted.
The billboard brought in sightings of the children. One was from Ida Crutchfield, who ran a hotel in Charleston. She claimed to have seen the children approximately a week after they disappeared. She said the children had come in around midnight with two men and two women who looked “Italian.” She said that when she tried to speak with the children, one of the men looked at her in a hostile manner before turning around and talking rapidly in Italian. The group left early the following day. However, investigators did not find her story to be credible.
George followed up on many leads in person. When a woman from St. Louis, Missouri, claimed Martha was being held in a convent there, he traveled to the city only to be disappointed. He also followed up with a bar patron in Texas who claimed to have overheard two other people making incriminating statements about a fire that happened on Christmas Eve in West Virginia some years before. When George heard one of Jennie’s relatives in Florida looked similar to his, the relative had to prove the children were his own before George was satisfied. He also followed up on a tip from Houston that two of his sons were in Texas. None of these proved significant.
Though every lead went nowhere, the family continued their search.
Then, in 1968, twenty-three years after the fire, Jennie received an envelope in the mail, mailed from Central City, Kentucky. There was no return address, just the postmark. Inside was a photograph of a young man. On the back was written:
I love brother Frankie
A90132 (or possibly A90135)
Though authorities believed it to be some cruel hoax, George and Jennie thought the photograph looked exactly how Louis would have looked as an adult and was credible evidence that at least Louis was still alive.
Hopeful, they hired a private investigator to go to Central City, Kentucky, to track down the photo’s sender or the young man himself. However, the investigator left West Virginia with his fee and was never heard from again. Still hopeful, they added the new picture to the billboard.
It’s “like hitting a rock wall — we can’t go any further… Time is running out for us… But we only want to know. If they did die in the fire, we want to be convinced. Otherwise, we want to know what happened to them”. — George Sodder to the Charleston Gazette-Mail
The following year, George died on August 16, 1969, at the age of 73.
Jennie and her surviving children — except John, who never talked about the night of the fire except to say that the family should accept it and get on with their lives — continued to seek answers to their questions. After George’s death, Jennie stayed in the family home, and for the rest of her life, she wore black in mourning and tended the garden at the site of the former house.
Jennie died on February 15, 1989, at the age of 85. Afterward, the family finally took the weathered, worn billboard down.
Afterward, the surviving Sodder children, joined by their own children, continued publicizing the case and investigating leads.
Sylvia Sodder Paxton, the youngest in the family, died on April 21, 2021, at the age of 79. Her older “missing” siblings, if they survived, are probably no longer missing but are also deceased.
Many sleuths and authors who have examined the case believe that the children did, in fact, die in 1945. However, with so many unanswered questions, the case remains a genuine “unsolved mystery.”