A Lifetime of Questions: The Sodder Children

House fires aren’t an uncommon occurrence.

Many people go through it, and the sense of loss can be devastating. After all, it’s very possible that you could lose precious family heirlooms, photographs, and important documents in the event of such a blaze.

But in 1945, the Sodder family lost something much worse in a house fire. They lost five children.

Though local officials initially ruled that the children had died in the fire, strange occurrences around the time it happened and conflicts in the evidence have led to over 70 years of debate about whether or not the Sodder children could have been kidnapped from the house instead.


The Sodder Family

sodder childrenGeorge Sodder, the family patriarch, was an Italian immigrant who was born under the name Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia, Italy in 1895. He came to the US when he was 13 alongside an older brother, who returned to Italy as soon as he and George had cleared customs at Ellis Island.

After working on the railroads as a gopher for a while, he started his own trucking company in Smithers, West Virginia. This is where he met Jennie Cipriani, a storekeeper’s daughter who had also emigrated from Italy during childhood. The two hit it off, and eventually married.

The couple settled in a two-story timber-framed house just outside of Fayetteville, West Virginia. They had their first child, Joe, in 1923, and proceeded to have nine more. The last of their children was Sylvia, who was born in 1943. By that time, George’s business had prospered, and the family was known as “one of the most respected middle-class families around,” according to a local official.

However, George had some strong opinions, particularly about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom he stridently opposed. He wasn’t afraid to get into arguments about these opinions and had alienated some members of the local Italian immigrant community as a result.

These spats would fuel a multitude of theories about the case later on.


The Sodder Children and The Fire

On December 24, 1945, the Sodders were beginning their Christmas celebrations. The oldest son, Joe, was away in the military, but the other nine children were home. Marion, who was 17 at the time, had been working at a dime store in downtown Fayetteville, and came home with surprises for her three younger sisters: Martha – age 12, Jennie – age 8, and Betty – age 5.

The kids were so delighted with their new toys that they begged their mother to allow them to stay up after their usual bedtime.

At 10pm, Jennie agreed to let them stay up later, as long as Maurice – age 14, and Louis – age 9, remembered to put the cows in the barn and feed the chickens before they went to bed. George and the two oldest boys, John – age 17 and George Jr. – age 16, had spent the day working and were already asleep. After reminding the children of their chores, Jennie took Sylvia – age 2, upstairs with her and went to bed.

At 12:30am, the telephone rang.

Jennie got up and answered it; finding that a woman whose voice she didn’t recognize was on the other end of the line. There was the sound of laughter and clinking glasses in the background. The woman asked for someone of a name that was unfamiliar to Jennie, so she told the woman that she’d dialled a wrong number and hung up, later recalling that the caller had had a “weird laugh”.

As she went back to bed, she noticed that the curtains were still open, and the lights were still on. She quickly fixed them and went back to bed.

At 1am, she was awakened again by the sound of something hitting the house’s tin roof with a loud bang, then whatever the object was rolling off. She listened for a while, but when she didn’t hear the sound again, she went back to sleep.

It wasn’t to last, because another half hour later, she was awoken again. This time, she smelled smoke. And when she went to investigate, she discovered that the room George used as an office was ablaze, burning around the telephone line and the fuse box.

Jennie ran and woke George, who in turn woke John and George Jr. Both parents and four of the children – John, George Jr., Sylvia, and Marion – escaped the house with no injuries. However, there was no sign of the other five children who had been sleeping in the attic. The remaining family members yelled frantically up to them but could not go up and rescue them because the staircase was already burning.

Efforts to rescue the remaining children turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. The phone line at the Sodders had ceased to work, so Marion ran to their neighbor to call the fire department. At the same time, a driver on a nearby road saw the flames and went to a tavern to call for help as well. They were unsuccessful, either because they couldn’t reach the operator or because the phone at the tavern was broken.

At some point, either the neighbor or the motorist did in fact reach the fire department and inform them of the fire at the Sodder residence.

George, who was barefoot at the time, climbed the wall and broke open an attic window, cutting his arm in the process. His initial plan was to save his children using a ladder, but it was not in its usual spot resting against the side of the house, and could not be found anywhere nearby.

They then tried to use their water barrel to extinguish the flames, but the contents were frozen solid. Their last idea was to pull both of the trucks that George used in his business up to the house and use them to climb back up to the window, but neither would start, despite having been in perfect working order that day.


The Initial Investigation

The six remaining Sodders had no choice but to watch as the house burned down and collapsed over the next 45 minutes. They assumed that Maurice, Louis, Martha, Jennie, and Betty had perished in the flames.

Meanwhile, the fire department, low on manpower due to the war and relying on individual firefighters to contact each other via a phone tree – this was before the establishment of 911, which wouldn’t even be suggested until 1957 – didn’t even arrive at the fire until much later that morning.

Fire chief F.J. Morris said that the already slow response was further hindered by the fact that he actually didn’t know how to drive a fire truck, so he’d had to wait for someone who could drive to respond.

After extinguishing the last remaining embers of the blaze, the fire department searched the ashes – though modern fire professionals note that this search was cursory at best.

At 10am, Chief Morris told the Sodders that they hadn’t found any bones, which they would have been expecting to find if the children had indeed been in the house as it burned. Another account contradicts this, however – it states that the fire department actually did find some bones, as well as some internal organs, but chose not to tell the family of these discoveries.

In any case, Chief Morris believed that the five children who were unaccounted for had died in the fire and suggested that the blaze had gotten hot enough to have burned the bodies completely. He told George Sodder to leave the site undisturbed so that the state fire marshal’s office could conduct a more thorough investigation at a later date.

However, after only four days, George and Jennie Sodder decided that they could not bear the sight of the charred ground that was once their home, and George bulldozed 5ft of dirt over the site with the intention of turning it into a memorial garden for his lost children. The next day, the local coroner convened an inquest into the matter, which found that the fire was accidental and had been caused by “faulty wiring”.

Death certificates for the five children were issued on December 30, 1945. George and Jennie were so stricken with grief that they didn’t even attend the funeral, which was held on January 2, 1946, although the surviving children did.


Ominous Happenings

Shortly after the funeral, the Sodders began to have doubts about the official findings for the house fire and the fate of their children. There had been multiple strange and threatening incidents that they’d encountered over the previous few years, and they eventually began to think that their children had been kidnapped, and the fire was a cover-up.

In October 1945, a visiting life insurance salesman threatened George Sodder after having his services declined. He warned George that his house would go up in smoke… “and your children are going to be destroyed.” He attributed this impending bad fortune to “the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.

Interestingly, this man was amongst the jurors for the coroner’s inquest that ruled the fire an accident, though this fact hadn’t been uncovered until the family hired a private investigator months later.

Another visitor, who had approached George under the pretense of looking for a job, took the occasion to go around to the back of the house and warn George that a pair of fuse boxes located there would “cause a fire someday.” George was puzzled by these remarks because the house had been recently re-wired after the family had installed a new stove, and the local electric company had pronounced it safe.

Finally, in the weeks before Christmas that year, some of the older Sodder boys had noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town, with its occupants watching the younger Sodder children very carefully as they walked home from school.

All of these happenings made the Sodders start to think that, perhaps, their children had been kidnapped by people affiliated with the Sicilian Mafia as payback for George’s outspoken dislike for Mussolini.


More Evidence Unfolds

Further evidence began to surface that supported their doubts. The ladder that had been missing the night of the fire was found at the bottom of an embankment 75ft away from the house, where it had absolutely no business being there.

A telephone repairman told the Sodders that the house’s telephone line hadn’t been burnt in the fire – instead, it had been cut by someone who was willing to climb 14ft up the pole and reach 2ft away to do so.

A man whom neighbors had seen stealing a block and tackle from the Sodder’s property the night of the fire was identified and arrested. He later on admitted to the theft and claimed that he had been the one who cut the phone line, thinking it was a power line. Despite these confessions, he adamantly denied having any connection to the fire.

There are no records identifying him that currently exist, and why he would have wanted to cut any of the utility lines while stealing a block and tackle remains unknown. Jennie Sodder said in 1968 that if he had cut the power line, then she, her husband, and their surviving children never would have made it out of the house.

Along with her other doubts, Jennie Sodder had trouble believing Chief Morris’ claim that all traces of her children’s bodies would have been burned completely in the fire. Many of the household appliances had been found, still recognizable, in the ashes, as well as fragments of the tin roof. She contrasted the results of the fire at her home with a newspaper account of a similar house fire that had killed a family of seven; in that case, skeletal remains of all of the victims were found.

She started conducting experiments, burning small piles of various animal bones to see if they would be completely consumed. They never were. An employee of a local crematorium that she contacted told her that pieces of human bodies typically remain even after burning at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, which is far longer and far hotter than the house fire could have possibly been.

The Sodders’ trucks failure to start was also considered. George believed that they had been tampered with, possibly by the same man who had cut the phone line. However, one of his sons-in-law told the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2013 that he’d come to believe that, in their haste to start the trucks and save the children, George and his sons had actually just flooded the engines.

The driver of a bus that had passed through Fayetteville late on the night of the fire said that he had seen people throwing “balls of fire” at the house. A few months later, when the snow had melted, little Sylvia found a small, dark green, rubber ball-like object in the brush near the site of the house.

George, recalling his wife’s account of a loud thump on the roof before the fire, said that it looked like a “pineapple bomb” hand grenade or some other incendiary device that would be used in combat.

However, the device was never examined by officials, so it’s unknown if it was actually some sort of grenade, or another unrelated object.


Sightings and Witnesses

sodder childrenThere were other witnesses who claimed to have seen the children on or after the night of the fire, and these sightings fueled the family’s beliefs that the children were still alive for years. One woman who had been watching the fire from the road said that she had seen a few of the kids peering out of a passing car while the house was still burning.

Another woman who worked at a rest stop between Fayetteville and Charleston said that she’d served them breakfast the next morning and noted the presence of a car with Florida license plates in the parking lot while they were there.

The Sodders hired a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley from the nearby town of Gauley Bridge to look into the case. He was the one who discovered that the man who threatened George had also been on the coroner’s jury. Additionally, he found out that there were rumors around Fayetteville that, despite his report to the Sodders that no remains had been found in the ashes, Chief Morris had found a heart in the rubble, which he’d later packed in a metal box and secretly buried.

The chief had apparently confessed this to a local minister, who later confirmed it to George Sodder. George and Mr. Tinsley confronted Morris, and he agreed to show the two were he had buried the heart. They dug up what was left and took what they found to a local funeral director. After examining it, the man told him that it was really a beef liver that was very fresh and had never even been exposed to fire.

Later, the rumors around Fayetteville changed – now it was said that Morris had afterwards admitted that the box with the liver had not come from the fire, and he’d instead placed it there in the hopes that the Sodders would find it and be satisfied that the missing children had died in the fire.


The Family’s Search

Occasionally, George Sodder didn’t even wait for tips to come in – instead, he made them himself. After seeing a photo in a magazine of young ballet dancers, he became convinced that one of them was his daughter Betty and drove all the way to New York City, where the school was located, to see her. His repeated demands to contact her were obviously refused, and he eventually had to return home without answers.

He also wrote multiple letters to the FBI, trying to interest them in what he fully believed was a kidnapping case. Director J. Edgar Hoover responded personally to these 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.” He added that if local authorities requested the FBI’s assistance, then he would, of course, direct agents to do so. Unfortunately, the Fayetteville police and fire departments declined to do so.

In August 1949, George persuaded Oscar Hunter, a pathologist from Washington D.C., to supervise a new search through the dirt at the house site. After a very thorough search, several artifacts, including a dictionary that had belonged to the children and some coins, were found. Several small bone fragments were also uncovered, and these were determined to have been human vertebrae.

They were sent to the Smithsonian Institute to be examined by a specialist named Marshall T. Newman. He confirmed them to be parts of a human’s lumbar vertebrae and further asserted that they were likely all from the same individual. His report reads, “Since the transverse recesses are fused, the age of this individual at death should have been 16 or 17 years. The top limit of age should be about 22, since the centra, which normally fuse at 23, are still unfused.”

Given this age range, it was highly unlikely that these bones came from any of the five missing children, considering that the oldest of them was Maurice, who was only 14 at the time.

Newman added that the bones showed no sign of exposure to flame, and further agreed that it was “very strange” that those should be the only bones found at the site, considering that a wood fire of such a short duration should have at least left full skeletons behind, if not flesh.

The report concluded that the vertebrae were more likely to have been in the dirt that George Sodder had used to cover the site, though the theories about where they are from and how they got there are reaching at best. The Smithsonian returned the fragments to the Sodders in September 1949, according to its records, and their current whereabouts are unknown.


Continued Search

sodder childrenWith little to no evidence of what happened to their children and a cease in all official investigation into the case, the Sodders continued the search on their own. They had flyers printed with photos of the children, offering a $5000 reward – that they would later double this – for information that could settle the case for even one of the victims.

In 1952, they put a billboard up at the site of the house, and another along US Route 60 near Ansted that contained identical information. These efforts soon brought in another sighting of the children.

Ida Crutchfield, a woman who ran a hotel in Charleston, claimed to have seen the children approximately a week after the fire. She claimed that they came in late at night, accompanied by two men and two women who all looked to her as “being of Italian extraction.” When she attempted to speak with the children, one of the men gave her a hostile look and began talking rapidly in Italian, silencing the whole group. She also said that they left early the next morning.

This account is not considered credible by investigators, as Ida had only seen photos of the children two years after the fire, five years before she came forward. The family continued to receive leads about the possible whereabouts of one or more of the children, most of which George Sodder followed up himself.

When he heard that a relative of Jennie’s in Florida had children who looked similar to his own, he made the man prove that the children were in fact his before George would leave him alone.

The most credible information they ever received came in 1967, when Jennie found a letter addressed to her amongst the family’s mail. It was postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, but had no return address. Inside the envelope was a photo of a young man, around 30, with features that strongly resembled those of Louis Sodder, who would have been around that age at the time. On the back was the following text:

Louis Sodder
I love brother Frankie
IiiI boys
A90132 or 3

The Sodders hired another private detective to go to Central City and investigate the strange missive, but he never reported back to them and they could not locate him afterwards. Nonetheless, the family took the photo to be genuine and added it to the billboard.

They left Central City and other details out of it for fear that Louis might come to harm. They also put an enlargement of it over their fireplace. There is little to no concrete information about the rest of the text on the back of the photo, though it has sparked wild speculation amongst armchair detectives.


Where Are They Now?

George Sodder died in 1969. Afterwards, Jennie and her surviving children – excluding Joe, who never talked about the fire other than to say that the family should accept the children’s deaths and move on – continued the search.

Jennie stayed in the family home, wearing black in mourning and tending the garden at the site of the fire until her death in 1989. After that, the family finally took down the weathered billboard.

The working theory is still that the children were taken by the Sicilian Mafia, and may have been transported back to Italy. The family believes that, if the children survived and were aware that their parents and siblings were also alive, they avoided contact for fear of their relatives coming to harm.

As of 2015, Sylvia Sodder Paxton, the family’s youngest daughter, is the only one who is still alive. She says that escaping the house that night is her earliest memory, and that she and her father would often stay up late over the years, talking about what could have happened to her lost siblings.

She still believes that they survived, and quietly assists her grandchildren’s efforts to keep the case in the public eye. “She promised my grandparents she wouldn’t let the story die, that she would do everything she could,” her daughter said in an interview in 2006.

Modern sleuths that have examined the case are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the children really did die in the 1945 fire. George Bragg, a local author who wrote about the case for his 1993 book, West Virginia’s Unsolved Murders, believes that John Sodder was telling the truth in his initial statement when he said he had tried to physically awaken his siblings before fleeing the house.

Stacy Horn, who did a segment on the case for National Public Radio during its 60th anniversary in 2005, also believes that the children’s deaths in the fire is the most plausible solution. In a blog post containing material that she cut from the story for him, she notes that the fire continued to smolder all night after the house collapsed, and that the firefighters may not have known what to look for in the ashes.

She does write, “However, there is enough genuine weirdness about this whole thing…that if someday it is learned that the children did not die in the fire, I won’t be shocked.”

So, what happened to the Sodder children? Did they die tragically in a terrible fire? Or were they taken, possibly raised under new identities? Could they be out there somewhere?

Would they even know if they were?

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