The Disturbing Sodder Mystery - The Children Who Disappeared in a Cloud of Smoke (True Story)
On Christmas Eve in Fayetteville, West Virginia in 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and 9 of their 10 children turned in for the night. The tenth child was a son who happened to be away in the Army. Sometime after midnight, a fire started, George, Jennie and four of their children managed to escape the fire, but the other five have not been seen or heard from since that smoke-filled evening.
For nearly 40 years, a huge billboard sat on Route 19 near Fayetteville. The Billboard shows the noisy images of the five raven-haired, doe-eyed children: Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5. Just underneath their names and ages, was a paragraph that depicts what might have happened to the Sodder children.
George Sodder's Immigration Story and Rise to Prosperity
George Sodder was born Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia in 1895. In 1908, when he was 13 years old he immigrated to the United States. He made the trip to America with an older brother, but once young George safely reached Ellis Island, his brother returned to Italy and left George to his own defenses. Scrappy and hungry for work, young George found a job on the Pennsylvania railroads – he carried water and supplies to rail laborers.
A few years after he landed on Ellis Island, George relocated to Smithers, West Virginia, where he worked as a driver. He was smart, hard-working, and he had an entrepreneurial spirit, so eventually he started his own trucking company. One day he wandered into a local store called the Music Box, there he met the owner’s daughter, Jennie Cipriani. Sometime later, the two fell in love, they married and had 10 children.
The couple thought Fayetteville, West Virginia, with its small town vibe and large Italian immigrant community, was a nice place to raise a family, so they settled there. The Sodders were a much respected family, and George was well-known and liked throughout the community. He was known as an opinionated, boisterous man who had cheerful conversation with just about anyone he met. However, it is noted that he never talked about his past, nor did he talk about why he decided to up and leave Italy.
The Expanded Story of that Fateful Christmas Eve
George Sodder attempted to save his children. After he, his wife and accounted for children initially escaped, George went back into the house to rescue the others. In the midst of his a re-entry, he sliced a patch of skin off his arm.
He claims he couldn’t see anything in the house, because it was thick with smoke and fire. He knew that 2 year old Sylvia, 16 year old George, Jr., 17 year old Marion and 23 year old John were safely outside with his wife.
He assumed the others were still upstairs, but he could see that the flames had swept through most of the downstairs area, and the staircase was so engulfed in flames that there was no way for him to reach them that way, so he raced back outside, figuring he could get to them via the upstairs windows outside.
At the Sodder house, a ladder was permanently propped against the outside, but on this Christmas Eve, amidst the unthinkable disaster, George noticed that it was inexplicably missing.
His next idea was to drive one of his trucks up to the house and climb on top of it to get in through the windows and rescue his kids. When he went to his truck, strangely enough, it did not start – as luck would have it, he had two trucks, so he tried the other…neither truck worked, even though both trucks were running just fine up until this time. At this point, George Sodder was at his wits end trying to think of ways to save his five children.
Marion Sodder ran over to a neighbor’s house to all the fire department, but failed to get a response from an operator. Another neighbor noticed the blazing fire and attempted to make an emergency call from a local pub, but oddly enough, again no operator responded to repeated calls. While the Sodders watched their house burn and attempted to save their children, the neighbor drove into town and hailed Fire Chief F.J. Morris.
Chief Morris set off a “phone tree” system, where one firefighter phoned another, and so on, and so on. Even though the fire department was only a couple of hours away, the fire crew did not arrive until 8 a.m. By the time they arrived, the Sodder home was nothing more than smoking ash.
George and Jennie believed their five children were deceased; however, a search of the grounds resulted in no trace of human remains. Chief Morris’ initial assumption was that the fire completely cremated the bodies of the Sodder children.
A state police inspector examined the rubble and determined the fire had been caused by faulty wiring. George Sodder dedicated the home as a memorial to his children, and in a ceremonial gesture, he covered the basement in five feet of earth. Approximately one week later, the coroner issued five death certificates, the official cause of death for each of the Sodder children was “fire of suffocation.” However, there is much more to the story…
As the Sodders attempted to heal from their unimagineable tragedy, they couldn’t help but take notice to the series of strange events that happened just before the fire broke out. A few months prior to the fire, a stranger appeared at their house, inquiring about work. He made his way to the back of the house where he pointed to two fuse boxes, and stated “This is going to cause a fire someday.” As if this wasn’t already strange enough, it bothered George even moreso, because he had just had the wiring checked and it was declared to be in excellent working order.
Then there was the insurance man who tried to sell life insurance to the family, he had gotten unusually upset when George turned him down. What was really strange was the statement the man made to George before he left, “Your goddam house is going up in smoke” he shouted, “and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” It was a known fact that George did not like the Italian dictator. In fact, he had gotten into heated arguments with other Italian members of the Fayetteville community, so at the time, he did not give much heed to the man’s threats.
The two older Sodder sons also brought up a strange incident. Just before the Christmas holiday, they noticed a man they had never seen before, parked along U.S. Highway 21. The man was intently watching the younger kids as they made their way home from school.
At around 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, the phone rang inside the Sodder house and sliced through the silence. Jennie answered the phone, but it was a wrong number. As she made her way back to bed, she noticed that all the downstairs lights were on, the curtains were open, and the front door was unlocked. Marion was asleep on the sofa, and she assumed the other kids were all upstairs still asleep in their beds. She closed up her house and returned to bed, but just before she fell asleep, she heard a loud thud on the roof, and then a rolling noise. The next time she awoke, was when her house was choked with smoke and fire.
Jennie Sodder never could understand how five bodies could live behind absolutely no trace. She saw remnants of the fire still in identifiable condition, so it didn’t make sense that five children would leave nothing behind. She spoke with an employee at a crematorium who told her that bones would still remain after bodies are burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees; their house went down to ash in all of 45 minutes.
The strange events began to surmount. A telephone repairman advised the Sodders that their lines had been cut, not burned. They thought about the fact that if the fire had been electrical, the power should have been dead, so how is it that the downstairs lights were still functioning?
Next, a witness came forward and claimed he saw a man at the scene of the fire removing block and tackle used for removing car engines. This might explain why neither of George’s cars would start that evening. Whilst visiting the site of the fire, Sylvia Sodder found a hard, rubber object in the yard. George remembered the loud thud his wife heard on top of the roof the night of the fire, and he concluded it could have been a napalm “pineapple bomb.”
A woman came forth and claimed to have seen the missing children in a passing car while the fire was in progress. Another woman claimed to have served them breakfast the morning after the fire; she operated a restaurant approximately 50 miles West of Fayetteville. She further claimed the car they drove off in had Florida plates.
Next, a woman at a hotel in Charleston recognized the children from the newspaper; she said she had seen four of the kids a week after the fire that supposedly claimed their lives. According to her report, they were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian descent. She stated she tried to be nice and talk to the kids, but the men reacted in a hostile manner whenever she tried to interact with the children.
Even after these witness reports, local officials refused to launch an investigation...
Two years later, George and Jennie contacted the FBI and received a reply from J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover declined to avail the Sodder of the services of the FBI, citing the case was out of his jurisdiction. Instead, he rerouted them to their local Fayetteville authorities, and told them that if they could get their permission, the FBI would step in – both the local police and fire department refused to participate.
Desperate for answers, the Sodders next move was to contact a private investigator by the name of C.C. Tinsley. Tinsley’s investigation turned up the fact that the insurance salesman who harassed George earlier was actually a member of the coroner’s jury that deemed the fire an accident.
Tinsley also turned up an odd story from a local minister that Chief F.J. Morris confided that he had discovered a heart at the scene in the ashes, but he hid it inside a box and buried it at the scene.
After Tinsley prodded Morris to unearth the box, they took it to a funeral director, where it was concluded to be beef liver, undamaged by the fire. Afterwards, rumors began to fly that the fire chief told others that he buried the beef liver in the ashes with the hope that finding any remains would cause the family to halt further investigation.
In late summer of 1949, the Sodders mounted a new investigation where they hired a pathologist by the name of Oscar B. Hunter. The site was excavated and several small pieces of vertebrae were unearthed. Hunter sent the bones to the Smithsonian Instituted which concluded the bones were human, belonging to one individual of an indeterminate age ranging from 14 to 22.
The vertebrae showed no evidence of exposure to a fire, and the report relayed that it was very strange that no other bones were found and it confirmed that fire that lasted only 45 minutes or so should yield the skeletons of all five bodies. It was at this point that George and Jennie had the billboard erected, along with a $5,000 reward and eventually a $10,000 reward.
The Famous Sodder Children Billboard
Disturbing Photograph Addressed to Jennie Sodder
Needless to say, the reward and the billboard brought out “sightings” of the Sodder children everywhere, George followed up on the most compelling, but he always returned to Jennie empty handed. Then, in 1968, 20 plus hears after the fire, Jennie received an envelope addressed to only to her.
The postmark reflected Kentucky, but it had no return address. Inside the envelope was the photo of a young man in his mid-20s. On the back of the picture was a cryptic note that read “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”
George and Jennie were stricken by the resemblance to their son, Louis. Besides the dark, curly hair, and dark brown eyes, the man in the photo had the same nose, and the same upward tilt of the left eyebrow. They hired yet another private investigator and sent him to Kentucky, he was never heard from again.
The Sodders worried that if they made the letter public, or named the town on the postmark, their son might be harmed. Instead, they amended the billboard to include the updated the image of what they believed to be Louis, they also hung the image over their fireplace.
A Father's Unanswered Plea, A Mother's Endless Mourning & The Sad End to a Sad Story
George stated in an interview, “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,” one year later, George Sodder died.
Afterwards, Jennie had a built around her property, and she began adding rooms to the house. Some say the rooms created a barrier between her and the outside world. Since the night of the fire, Jennie had worn black, as an indication that she was in mourning, she continued to wear black until her death in 1989. That same year, the billboard finally came down, after 4 decades.
The Sodder children and grandchildren continued the investigation, but still no hard evidence was surfaced. They surmised that the local mafia had attempted to recruit George, and when he declined, they had someone the kids know kidnap the children. That someone told the kids about the fire, and offered to take them to safety. If the kids really did survive the fire, they never contacted their parents out of fear for their parent’s lives.
Today Sylvia Sodder, the youngest of the Sodder children, is now 72 years old. Her earliest memory is that of her blood laden father attempting to rescue his children, and the gut-wrenching screams that accompanied the ordeal. She doesn’t believe her siblings perished in the fire, and she constantly searches for clues to their disappearance.