unsolved: the sodder children

On Christmas Eve (December 24th) in 1945, a fire destroyed a home in Fayetteville, West Virginia, United States. At 1:30 am, Jennie Sodder awoke to the smell of smoke and found her home, occupied by herself, her husband George and nine of their ten children, going up in flames originating from her husband's office.

After alerting her husband, who subsequently woke his older sons, both parents and four of their children, Marion, Sylvia and the two older boys, managed to escape the house. They yelled to the children upstairs, however, heard no response, and due to the fact the stairway was already on fire, they could not go and rescue them. John Sodder, one of the older boys, recalls going upstairs before the stairway caught alight, to wake the children and then returning downstairs believing they were getting up, however, he later changed his statement to say he remembers calling up the stairs to his siblings, with no response or sight of them.

Efforts to find help proved difficult, as their phone did not work and the neighbour's phone failed to reach the operator. A driver on a nearby road also saw the flames, and called from a nearby tavern, however also had trouble reaching the operator. It is unknown which one of them managed to alert the fire department. George attempted to save his children, attempting to use their ladder to climb through the attic window, however, the ladder could not be located. He also tried to pull his trucks up to the house in order to use them to climb into the attic window, but neither of them would start despite having worked fine the day before.

The six Sodders of whom had escaped had to watch their house burn and collapse over the next 45 minutes, just assumed their other five children had died in the fire. The fire department did not arrive until the next morning, due to the fact the war had made them low on men and individual firefighters were relied on to simply call the other people working, as well as this they were unable to find someone with the ability to drive the fire truck, consequently making the time of which they arrived at the house greater.

When the firefighters arrived, they could do nothing but look through the ashes that were left of the Sodder house. By 10 am, the Cheif told the Sodders that they had not found any bones in the ash, something which would have been expected if the children would have been in the house when it burnt. However, according to another account, a few bone fragments and organs were found however it was decided not to tell the family. It has been suggested that their search was not thorough, and was simply a form of curiosity. Morris believed that the five children of whom were unaccounted for had died in the fire, saying it had been hot enough to completely burn the bodies.

Although the chief told George to leave the site undisturbed so a more thorough investigation could be taken out, after four days he and his wife could not bear the sight anymore, so he bulldozed 5 feet of dirt over the site in order to place and memorial garden there. The local coroner came to the conclusion that the fire was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Among the jurors was a man, of whom in October 1945 had arrived at the Sodders house as a life insurance salesman and had warned Geroge that his house would go up in smoke due to his strong opposition to the Italian dictator Mussolini. Another visitor, seeking work, went round the back and warned George that a pair of fuse boxes would cause a fire at some point, which confirmed George as the local electric company had recently said that the newly rewired house was safe.

Death certificates for the five children were issued on December 30th, 1945, and a funeral was held for them on January 2nd, 1946, attended by the surviving children but not by Geroge and Jennie, of whom were too sad.

Not long afterwards, the Sodders began to question things about the night of the fire. At 10 pm that night, before going to bed Jennie told Martha (age 12), Jennie Jr (aged 8) and Betty (aged 5) that they could stay up as long as Maurice (aged 14) and Louis (aged 9) remembered to bring in the cows and feed the chickens. These five children are the five that are believed to have died in the fire. At 12:30 am the telephone rang and Jennie awoke to answer it. She recalls a woman's voice of whom she was not familiar with, with the sound of laughter and clinking in the background. She told the caller she had got the wrong number and remembers hearing the woman's strange laugh. As she hung up, she noticed the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn, things the children normally did when they stayed up later than their parents. Marion had fallen asleep on the sofa after going to work, so Jennie assumed the children had gone to bed in the attic where they slept and returned to bed. A later investigation located the woman who had made the call after believing it may have been connected, however it turned out she had simply called the wrong number.  At 1 am, Jennie awoke to the sound of an object hitting the house roof with a loud bang, and then a rolling noise, however after hearing nothing more, she went back to sleep.

The Sodders wondered why, if the fire was started due to an electrical issue, the Christmas lights had remained on during the early stages of the fire, when the power should have shut down. Then, they found the ladder of which Geroge had tried to find on the night of the fire, which was normally at the side of the house, at the bottom of an embankment 23 metres away.

A telephone repairman confirmed that the phone line had not been burnt in the fire and had been cut by someone who would have been willing to climb a pole and reach a long distance to cut it. A man of whom neighbours had seen stealing a block and tackle from the house around the time of the fire was arrested admitted to the theft and claimed he cut the phone line, thinking it was the power line. However, no record identifying him exists and it is unknown why he would have wanted to cut the power line during a theft.

Jennie also had real trouble accepting Morris’ conclusion that the bodies would have been burnt completely in the fire, as many appliances had been found recognisable in the ash. She began doing her own investigations, where she compared her fire to a similar house fire around the time that had killed a family of seven, where skeletal remains from all victims had been found. As well as this, she burned small piles of animal bones in order to see if any of them were completely destroyed, none ever were. An employee of a local crematorium she contacted told her that human remains would have been found even if the bodies burnt at 1090 degrees celsius for two hours, longer and far hotter than the Sodders house fire could have been.

The trucks failure to start was considered, with George Sodder believing they had been tampered with, perhaps by the same man who had completed the theft. However, in 2013, someone reported that they believed that Sodder and his two sons may have flooded the engines in their hurry.

More evidence began to arise that seemingly supported their belief that the fire had not started in the electric system and was instead started intentionally. The driver of a bus that passed through Fayetteville on the night of the fire claims he was people throwing balls of fire at the house. Months later, after the snow had melted, Sylvia found a small, dark green, hard object in a bush nearby, which Geroge believed looked like a device used in combat such as a hand grenade and believes that this was the noise Jennie heard when she was awoken that night. The family claim, although this goes against the official conclusion, that the fire actually started on the roof, although by then there was no way to prove it.

Witnesses claim to have seen the five Sodder children alive after the fire. One woman who had been watching the fire from a nearby road claims she had seen some of them peering out of a passing car whilst the house was burning. Another woman, at a rest stop between Fayetteville and Charleston, said that she served them breakfast the next morning, and noticed the presence of a car in the parking lot of which the children later got into. In the weeks before Christmas the year of their disappearance, the older sons had noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town, where the occupants were watching the younger Sodder children as they returned from school.

With the end of official efforts to resolve the case, and the FBI, of whom George Sodder got involved, shutting down their investigation into the possible kidnapping, the Sodders did not give up hope. Flyers were handed out and billboards were set up along highways near the town the family lived in. Their efforts brought another reported sighting of the children, a woman claims to have seen the children in Charleston a week after the fire. She says the children came in, around midnight, with two men and two women, of whom appeared to be Italian. When she attempted to speak to the children, one of the men looked round in a hostile manner and began speaking in Italian, immediately they all stopped speaking and left early the next morning. However, investigators do not consider her story credible as she had only seen photos of the children two years after the fire, five years before she came forward. Geroge followed up leads in person, travelling to areas from where tips have come from. Looking into a claim Martha was being held in a convent and a woman who believed she had met Louis, and that he and Maurice were living in Texas, however, nothing was found through any of the leads.

The Sodders previously hired a private investigator, of whom found out that one of the jurors of the case was the life insurance salesman that had previously made threats towards George. As well as this, he discovered that Morris had planted a cow's liver into a box in order to make the Sodders believe that parts of their children had been found in the fire, confirming they were dead. However, after receiving a letter in 1967 of which they believe was the most credible evidence that at least Louis was still alive, they hired another one. One day Jennie found a letter addressed to her in the mail, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky with no return address. Inside was a photo of a young man around 30 with features strongly resembling Louis, who would have been in his 30s if he had survived. On the back was written, Louis Sodder, I love brother Frankie, Ilil boys, A90132 or 35. They sent the private detective to the Central City to look into the letter, however, the man never reported back to the Sodders and was not located ever again.

After Georges death in 1969, Jennie and her surviving children continued to seek answers to the mystery of the children. Other than John, who never wished to speak about the fire, only commenting on the fact the family should accept it and get on with their lives. When Jennie died in 1989, the surviving children continued to publicise the case and investigate leads of their own accord. They, along with many other Fayetteville residents, have theorized that the Sicilian Mafia was attempting to extort money from George Sodder, due to the fact he had ties with them, and that the children had been taken by someone who knew about the planned arson, and were possibly taken back to Italy in order to keep them safe.

Although Slyvia is the only known, living child she still spreads awareness of the case today, such as online forums in addition to any media coverage she is able to get. However, in recent years, many people looking into the case have come forward to say they believe the children did die in the fire, as it was burning overnight meaning their bodies could have completely burnt. George Bragg expressed the fact he thought Johns original account regarding trying to wake the children was true, and his guilt may be the reason he wished his family to leave the case, as he feels bad for not making sure his siblings arose. Yet, these people have still said that the children may not have died in the fire, due to the unusual circumstances, and it is possible that they were kidnapped.

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