On Christmas Eve of 1945 in Fayetteville, West Virginia, George and Jennie Sodder had been celebrating the Christmas season with nine of their ten children. Their son, Joe, was away in the Army. As the night grew later George retired for the night to bed followed shortly after by his sons John (23) and George Jr. (16). When Jennie decided it was time for the rest of the children to go to bed, they pleaded with her to stay up and play with their toys that their older sister, Marian (17), had gotten for them. After her children promised her that they would get a few chores done before bed, Jennie agreed to let them continue playing and then took her youngest child, Sylvia (3) to bed with her.
The phone ringing awoke Jennie a little past midnight. Jennie answered the phone and a woman asked to speak to someone Jennie didn’t know. When Jennie told her she had the wrong number the woman laughed and hung up. Jennie thought this was just a prank call and didn’t give it much thought. She then noticed that the lights were still on in the house and the doors were unlocked. She found this unusual because her kids were normally very good about attending to these things before bed. She turned off the lights, locked the doors and went back to sleep.
Jennie had barely fallen back asleep when she heard a thump on the roof followed by the sound of something rolling. She realized the house was on fire around 1:30 AM. She screamed for her husband and children to get out. The oldest boys, John and George Jr. made it out of the house as well as the oldest girl, Marian who ran out with baby Sylvia. Jennie and George also made it out.
When George was outside and saw that five of his children were still inside he tried everything possible to re-enter the home and save them. He first broke a window and in doing that cut his arm. Through all the smoke he saw that flames covered the entire first floor of the house. He then ran to a rain barrel to get buckets of water to try to extinguish the fire, but to his dismay found the water to be frozen solid in the cold winter. Thinking quickly, he ran to where he always kept his ladder, but it had mysteriously vanished. He attempted and failed to climb the house by hand. In one last attempt he and he sons thought to pull their work trucks up to the house to climb on them to get inside the top floor. Their terrible luck continued when they found that the trucks would not start due to the frigid weather.
In the meantime, Marian had run to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department. At first the operator could not be reached to place the call and when finally they did reach the operator each of the town’s firemen had to be called, woken up, and dispatched to the scene. The fire station was less than three miles from the Sodder home, but the firemen didn’t get there until 8 AM. and it was far to late because the house burned to the ground in less than 45 minutes of the fire starting.
The police arrived on the scene in the morning and after only a two hour investigation, concluded that the fire was started by faulty wiring. George argued that that couldn’t be because he had just gotten the wiring redone and the lights had stayed on for a time after the fire started.
The reports at the time claimed that there had been no remains whatsoever found in the ash and rubble. It was ruled by the coroner’s jury that the missing Sodder children had died in the fire.
A few days after the fire George Sodder plowed over what was left of his home and planted flowers there in memory of his children though the Fire Marshall advised against doing so.
George and Jennie believed that their children had been kidnapped and that the fire was intentionally set to cover the crime scene. And there were witnesses and rumors that supported that belief:
A strange man was witnessed stealing from the Sodder’s garage has the fire was burning. He had stolen their ladder and attempted to cut their power line, but instead cut the phone line. The ladder was found away from the house down an embankment. For some strange reason this man was never closely looked at as a suspect. He was only ordered to pay fines for stealing.
There was a bus driver who saw “fireballs” being thrown onto the house before the fire started. This claim was further backed up the following spring when little Sylvia found a green shell in the yard. The Sodder’s showed the object to a military friend who believed it to be an explosive device similar to a napalm bomb.
There was a woman who claimed to have seen the children in a passing car when the fire was in progress.
A woman at a tourist stop 50 miles west of the Sodder home says she saw the kids the morning after the fire and served them breakfast. They left in a vehicle with Florida license plates.
Yet another woman believed she saw four of the five missing children at her hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. She said they were with two men and two women and that she tried to speak to the children, but the adults looked hostile and wouldn’t allow it. They then spoke to the kids in Italian and that whole party stopped speaking to her. According to her they checked in near midnight, but the exact date she couldn’t remember. They left early the next morning. Most people believed that her story was not reliable enough for further investigation.
Jennie did her own research using chicken bones in the stove and could never get them completely destroyed be the fire. Her and George’s belief was strengthened more when another local home was burned to the ground and seven skeletons were found in the debris.
With all of these possible leads, the Sodder’s went to the authorities to have their case re-opened, but the police refused because they believed no crime had taken place.
In 1949 George, with the help of others, dug up the site of his former home looking for any remains that may have been overlooked.
Reports claimed that pieces of bone and possible human organs had been found. The organ found was tested in a lab and found to be a relatively fresh beef liver. Some say that it was planted there in an attempt to cover shoddy police work. It was reported that four pieces of vertebrae and two small bones, possibly belonging to a child’s hand had been found. A medical expert involved in the case stated that it would be very unlikely for all the other remains to be destroyed in such a quick burning fire. This expert believed the remains came from a 14 or 15 year old child, which would match Maurice’s age. George did not believe these bones belonged to his son because of the location that they were found. Years later after more testing on the bones, another expert stated that the remains belonged to a person between 16 to 22 years of age and that the bones showed no signs of being damaged in a fire. Some think that the bones were placed there from a nearby graveyard as a cover-up, but there is nothing that supports these theories.
Six years after the tragedy the Sodder’s made one last attempt to find new leads on their case. They put up a billboard at the site of the fire with the pictures of all five of their missing children along with the story of what happened that night. They even offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could find their children. Without any luck they raised the reward to $10,000 but still to no avail.
In 1968 a detective wrote an article about the events that took place that Christmas Eve years ago. A few months after the article was published the Sodder’s received a photo in the mail, postmarked from Kentucky, but with no return address, that was claiming to be of their son Louis as an adult. A message on the back of the picture read “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or (A90135)” Most thought that this was just a hoax brought on by the article, but the Sodder’s thought it to be a sign that their children were still alive. George and Jennie hired a private investigator who left for Kentucky to follow leads on the photo and then vanished and was never heard from again.
The person in the photo is a mystery to this day as well as the identity of the person who sent the photo. People who have gotten intrigued with the Sodder’s story and have studied the case point out that George owned a coal-trucking business. At the time this industry was under a lot of pressure from the Mafia, so some thought the gang was involved with the disappearances of the children. After all, the Sodder’s were of Italian descent and the number “90132” that was on the back of the photo was, at the time, the postal code for Palermo, Sicily.
George Sodder died in 1969 and Jennie in 1989. The majority of people believe that the Sodder children perished in the fire that night and that the Sodder’s just refused to accept it. There are also those who believe the kids were kidnapped and taken to Italy. The youngest Sodder Child, Sylvia, who was only an infant at the time, is still trying to find out what happened to her siblings that night.