The Mysterious Disappearance of the Sodder Children
One of the most infamous unsolved cases. Was it murder, arson, kidnapping or a tragic accident?
It was Christmas Eve in 1945 in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The Sodder children were excited about the present opening of the following day. The five middle children: Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8) and Betty (5) had persuaded their mother, Jennie, to let them stay up later. She went to bed with George, their father. At 1230 Jennie woke up to the sound of the phone ringing. She went downstairs to answer it. On the end was a woman she didn’t recognise, she could hear laughter in the background and clinking glasses.
After hanging the phone up she noticed that the children, in their excitement, had forgotten to turn the lights out or pull the curtains. Jennie did this, finding her daughter Marion asleep on the sofa. The other children were nowhere to be seen, they must have gone to bed, in the attic room, she thought. Jennie returned to bed. As she was drifting off, a noise of something hitting the roof and rolling down woke her. She soon drifts off again, only to wake a half-hour later to the smell of smoke. The house is on fire.
The parents roused the older 3 children and grabbing toddler Sylvia, they call to middle five, in the attic room. Once outside the house, Marion tried to call the fire brigade, only to find that the phones were not working. George had a plan he can rescue his children through the window using the ladder he kept at the side of the house. George found that the ladder was missing. Still, he thinks he can drive one of his vans over to the window and climb on that to rescue the children. Neither of his vans will start. Forty-five minutes later the house collapsed. Seven hours after the fire started the fire brigade turned up, even though it was two miles away. By this time the Sodder family had come to the horrific realisation that five of their children had perished in the fire, or had they?
The Sodder Family Conspiracy
Questions on what caused the fire and whether the five children survived are still asked today. The parents at the time were convinced that their children survived. So much so that they erected a board on Route 16 asking for information on their missing children.
The first strange event that led George to start to question the fire, was the result of the investigation. The fire brigade said that the fire started from faulty wiring. The family had recently had the house inspected and rewired, so this seemed unlikely. Jennie then remembered that during the blaze the tree lights were still on, surely faulty wiring would have meant no electricity.
The phone that didn’t work was originally put down as the result of the wire being burned through. Later inspection showed that it had been cut, yet Jennie had an unidentified call at 1230 that night. Was the sound of something hitting the roof then rolling down, someone setting light to the house? Evidence would be found to suggest this.
The strangest fact though was that no bodies were ever found in the house. Chief Morris from the fire department stated that the bodies were cremated. Cremation of bones though takes two hours in above 2000 Fahrenheit, the house burned for forty-five minutes. The fire did not even reach temperatures to burn all the household appliances, as some were visible in the wreckage. A follow-up investigation would uncover a tiny piece of human vertebrae in the remains. When examined by the Smithsonian it was established that this bone showed no fire damage. It was possibly brought to the site when George bulldozed and covered the house up.
The ladder that George had been looking for the night of the fire, was found seventy-five feet away, thrown down an embankment.
An insurance salesman who had knocked on the door before the fire had warned that the house would burn down with the children in it. He even pointed out a fuse box that he believed would start the fire.
Sodder Family Investigation
The family were convinced that their children were alive. George wrote to J.Edgar Hoover asking for his help.
After this reply, George decided to hire a private investigator, C.C Tinsley, who uncovered more strange facts. The first being that the insurance salesman that had threatened the family, before the fire, was on the coroner's jury. He was instrumental at ruling the fire an accident.
The children had also been seen several times. Once in a car immediately before the fire. Another sighting had them having breakfast on Christmas morning fifty miles away. Ida Crutchfield who ran a Charleston Hotel claimed she saw the children a week after the fire.
When she attempted to speak to the children, one man became hostile. The party left early the next day.
Twenty years later, in 1968, Jennie would receive a photo in the post of a young man claiming to be Louis. His age an appearance fitted, but no one could trace him.
What became of the Sodder Children?
Despite many investigations, the mystery of the Sodder children continues still today. A popular theory is that George may have been punished for his outspoken ways by the Sicilian Mafia. George was born in 1895 and emigrated with his older brother at thirteen. His brother returned to Italy almost as soon as he landed in America. George never spoke about his Italian life or why he left Italy.
Fayetteville had a large Italian population and George was a prosperous man, who was not shy to express his opinions. He was quick to criticise Benito Mussolini and the fascist government of Italy. Some say this angered the Mafia and they took revenge through kidnapping the children.
It may also be that they were trying to extort money out of George, and the children were taken back to Italy to keep them safe. The children may have avoided contact, all this time, to keep the others from harm.
Whatever the truth the loss of her children, haunted Jennie for the rest of her life. She chose to wear black until she died in 1989. Whether the case will ever be solved, looks unlikely now. The only known surviving member of the family is Sylvia who was two when they fled the house fire. She believes the same as her parents, that her siblings were not killed in the fire. The case remains unsolved.