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The 1945 Christmas Eve Fire Mystery
What Happened To The Children?
A mystery started in the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, but today the story is still just that a mystery after almost 68 years. During the 1900s the coal mining industry helped the area grow, but by the end of the last century coal mining in the area had declined and the areas main industry had become tourism. The county is now know for white water rafting and fishing in the New River Gorge. Hiking and bike riding in New River Gorge National Park along with rock climbing. The large historic district has 75 places for people to visit and they have shopping and dining as well. When the mystery started in 1945 the area was still thriving as a coal mining town and the people where hardworking miners. The town had a large Italian community at the time. George Sodders came over from Italy on his own at the young age of 13 while his future bride, Jennie Cipriani came over from Italy with her family at age 3. George met Jennie when he went into her family's shop called Music Box. They married soon after and started a family. This family would become the center of a mystery when five of their children disappeared after a 1945 Christmas Eve fire. The mystery has never been solved.
Christmas Eve 1945
On December 24, 1945, George and Jennie Sodder celebrated Christmas Eve with nine of their ten children. One of their sons was away serving in the Army. Five of the children were allowed to say up late and play with their presents and they even said they would finish their chores before going to bed. Just after midnight Jennie was woken up by the telephone ringing around midnight. A female voice on the other end of the line asked to speak to someone by name, but Jenny did not know the name. The caller laughed before hanging up. She believed it was a prank and decided to go back to bed. Before going to sleep Jenny noticed the children had left the lights on and not locked the door like she asked them to do. After returning to bed Jenny was woken up again by a sound on the roof. Soon she realized the house was on fire. It was about 1:30 a.m.
Jenny yelled for her husband and her children to get out of the house. Once outside Jenny watched as two of their sons, John, 23 and George Jr., 16 rushed out. Daughter, Marion, 17 ran out carrying the baby, Syliva, 2. Her husband George ran out as well. They took account of who had made it out and realized that five the children were still inside the house. The fire was spreading quickly and the smoke was thick. George tired to get back into the house by breaking windows even injuring himself in the process, but he could not get in. He ran to get the ladder kept at the side of the house to try to get in one of the upstairs windows. He thought the children were probably still trapped in their upstairs bedrooms. The ladder was always against the house, but that night it was missing. It would later be found down a hill after the fire.
George then tried to start his two coal trucks to try and get help. They would not start even though they had worked fine the day before. George and Jennie even tired to get water out of the rain barrel, but it was frozen solid. Daughter Marion ran to a neighbors to call the fire department. No operator was available. A neighbor also tired to reach an operator when they saw the fire and was unable to. That neighbor finally drove into town to find the fire chief. The chief started a phone tree to gather up the crew. It was their version of a fire alarm at that time. The firehouse was two and a half miles away from the Sodder home, but by the time the crew arrived at 8 a.m. the Sodder home had burned to the ground.
George and Jennie were told their five children were dead. A search turned up no remains. It was suggested the fire was hot enough to cremate the bodies. Had Maurice, 14, Martha, 12, Louis, 9, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 5, really died? If they did where were their bodies? The state police blamed the fire on faulty wiring. The death certificates were issued before the new year new listing the cause of death as "fire or suffocation". The Sodders cleaned up the site and planted a garden in memory of their children.
The Mystery Begins
The parents soon started to discuss the events leading up to the fire and soon realized that weird things had been happening long before the odd phone call on Christmas Eve. There were the two strange men that visited in the months before the fire. One man came asking for work and when he went to the back of the house he said the fuse boxes were going to cause the house to burn to the ground. George thought that was odd because the power company had inspected the home recently. Another man tried to sell George insurance and when George declined the man yelled that the home would go up in smoke. The man also yelled about George's outspoken politics and George's dislike of the leader of Italy at the time Mussolini. George's beliefs bothered many in the local Italian community. Along with the visitors the older Sodder sons remembered seeing men watching the younger children as they played outside. These memories fueled the couple's belief that their children might not have died in the fire.
Jennie soon learned that pieces of household items could still be made out during the search for the children's bodies. How could those items be found when no bones were found? When the land was being cleared a telephone repairman told them their telephone wires were cut before the fire. Jennie also remember the power was still on as she ran downstairs and out of the house. If the fire had been caused by an electrical problem wouldn't the power have gone out at that point?
Soon sightings of the children started in Charleston, West Virginia in a hotel and a restaurant. George and Jennie wrote to J. Edger Hoover, the head of the FBI in 1947, but they were told this was not a federal matter. Two hearings held at the capital in Charleston, West Virginia that concluded the police work had closed the case. Tips continued over the years including a possible sighting of one of the girls in New York City. Letters came saying that one of the girls was in a convent in St. Louis. Someone even claimed the children were in Florida with a distant relative. The Sodders did not give up and George followed every lead traveling all over the country. The couple set up a billboard on the site of their former home on Route 16 and passed out fliers regularly. The reward grew from $5,000 to $10,000 over the years.
The Photograph Deepens The Mystery
In 1968, over two decades after the fire Jenny received an envelope with a Kentucky postmark and no return address. Inside was a photo of a man in his twenties. On the back of the photo a handwritten note read, "Louis Sodder. I love bother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35". The parents believed it was a photo of Louis who was 9-years-old the night of the fire. They hired a private investigator sending him to Kentucky.The investigator was never heard from again. The Sodders feared that if they revealed the city in the postmark on the envelope to the media the children would be harmed. The updated photo believed to be Louis was added to the billboard. The Sodders kept a copy of the photo in their living room.
George died the same year the photo arrived in 1968. He was buried in Highland Memorial Park in Fayette County, West Virginia. Jennie continued to wear black as she had done since the fire to mourn her children. She also built a fence around her home and added rooms till she had a layer of rooms around her to protect her from the outside world. She died in 1989 and was buried next to George. The billboard came down not long after her death and the land was sold.
The Rumors Take Over
Rumors flew over the years about what happened to the Sodder children, but no one has ever come forward with proof of life or death of the children. One rumor was that the Italian mafia took the children and sold them. This is the only rumor with a slight clue. At the time of the crime in 1945 the postal code for Palermo, Italy was 90132 and the photo sent to the family in 1968 had either A90132 or A90135 on the back. Another rumor was that the local police were connected to the man selling insurance and that they used the man to start the fire. That is one of the stories that ends with the children being murdered because the police had a problem with George's politics. None of these theories have ever been proven.
Soon no one in Fayetteville, West Virginia will remember when this crime happened. The memories of the billboard on Route 16 will be forgotten. The questions from children to their parents about the faces on that billboard will be distant memories. The youngest daughter of Sodders family who was two the night of the fire is now entering her seventies. She may not ever have the answers if she does get them soon. She may die like her parents never knowing the the truth. The former site of the home and billboard no longer show signs of the mystery that happened there. Most people today who drive by would never know that a tragedy had taken place there on Christmas Eve 1945.
If you do know anything about this case please contact the Fayetteville, West Virginia police department: 304-574-0255.