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Fire and Mysteries: The Bizarre Case of the Sodder Children

Among missing persons cases, there are those which seem to continually and persistently baffle and perplex those who would try to dig into them to find answers. These are the cases that seem to become even stranger and more confusing the more we investigate them, spiraling downward into a sort of madness and posing far more questions than they provide answers. One such case that surely ranks among the most frustratingly elusive of these is that of a family who lost their house and five of their children to a fiery inferno, only to be taunted and tortured for the rest of their days with continual mysterious clues and evidence suggesting that the children had perhaps survived. It is a case orbited by so many puzzling clues, mysterious people, conspiracy theories, and so much bizarreness that it has become mired in a pit of enigmas from which it will likely never escape, and it has rightly earned its place in the pantheon of America’s weirdest and indeed creepiest unsolved disappearances.

The story begins on Christmas Eve of 1945 in the small, middle-class Appalachian town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, where the Sodder family, consisting of father George Sodder, mother Jennie Sodder, and 9 of their 10 kids lived, with one son away in the military. When it was time for bed that night, five of the family’s children, Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (10), Jennie (8), and Betty (6), begged to be allowed to stay up late so that they could play with the presents that they had received from their older sister, Marian (17). Jennie Sodder reluctantly agreed to let them stay up after making them promise to turn off the lights and lock the doors before they went to bed, and then went to sleep with her husband and their other children, 23-year-old John, 16-year-old George Jr., and 2-year-old daughter, Sylvia.

Jennie Sodder with one of her children as an infant

Jennie Sodder with one of her children as an infant

In the dark, cold early morning hours of Christmas morning, Jennie Sodder was jolted awake by the ringing of their phone. It was odd to get a call at such a late hour, but she nevertheless roused herself from bed and went to answer it as her husband and Sylvia slept. When Jennie picked up the phone, there was an unfamiliar woman on the other end of the line and the sound of laughter, chatter, and the clinking of glasses could be heard in the background, as if there was a party going on. The stranger asked to speak with a man who Jennie didn’t know, and she politely informed the caller that she had the wrong number. The woman on the other end of the line let out a nervous laugh and hung up the phone. It was at this time that Jennie noticed that the lights were still on downstairs, and she just assumed that the other children who had stayed up had forgotten to turn them off. When Jennie went downstairs she found that not only were all of the lights on, but the curtains were still wide open and the front door was unlocked, which was odd because the children had promised to close up before going to bed and they weren’t known to just leave the door unlocked and lights on like that. Puzzled by why the kids would do this, Jennie went about locking up, closing the curtains, and turning off the lights before going back up to bed.

As Jennie Sodder began to drift off to sleep once again at around 1:30AM, she was yet again shocked awake, this time by a sudden loud noise that sounded like a rock or ball hitting the roof and then rolling down the side of the house. Not long after that, tendrils of smoke began to snake through the air of the room and Jennie rushed out to see what was going on. It soon became apparent that one of the rooms of the house which was used as an office was on fire, and she woke up the others in a panic. Jennie and George rushed through the hallway screaming for everyone to get up and get out of the house, and as the flames and thick smoke spread at an alarming rate they rushed out onto the front lawn where they did a head count. 2-year-old Sylvia was there because she slept in the same room as her parents, and Marion (17), John (23), and George Jr. (16), had all managed to escape from their upstairs windows without any serious injury, but the other children were nowhere to be seen.

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Realizing that their other five children were still in the house, George Sodder desperately tried to get back inside, but the flames and smoke from the rapidly growing fire prevented him from getting back into the front door. He ended up breaking open a first floor widow to gain entrance, cutting his hand badly in the process, but it quickly became clear that the smoke and fire and heat was too intense near the stairway for him to have any chance of getting upstairs that way. George went back outside with the plan to use the ladder that was always kept in the same place in the garage in order to get into an upstairs window, but the ladder was mysteriously gone. He then had the idea of pulling up one of his two coal hauling trucks to the side of the house and using it to climb up to the second floor, but his bad luck continued when neither of the vehicles would start, even though they had worked perfectly fine the previous day. Other unfortunate events seemed to almost maliciously conspire against the family. Efforts to scoop water from a water barrel were thwarted when the water proved to be frozen solid. Daughter Marion rushed to a neighbor’s house to call the Fire Department but was unable to get through, and yet another neighbor who had seen the blaze and tried calling was likewise unable to reach an operator. In the end, one of the neighbors physically drove into town to contact the Fire Department directly, and in the meantime the house was totally consumed by the unusually fierce fire, being razed to the ground within 45 minutes. Unbelievably, due to an archaic “phone tree” system used by the department at the time, in which one fireman calls another, who calls another and so on to mobilize, the Fire Department would not arrive until 8AM, long after the entire Soddder house had been reduced by the aggressive fire to ash and smoking debris piled atop the ruined basement. Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (10), Jennie (8) and Betty (6) never got out of the house, and it was presumed they had died in the horrific fire.

An investigation into the fire came to the conclusion that it had been caused by faulty wiring in the Christmas lights the family had set up. Strangely, when the burned remains of the house were inspected, no human remains were found amongst the charred rubble, and a coroner and the fire chief both stated that the house had burned down far too breathtakingly quickly to have completely reduced the bodies completely to ash, as corpses take around 2 hours of burning at 2,000 degrees in order to do this and the house had been totally razed to the ground in less than an hour. By all accounts, there should have been skeletons there amongst the ashes and incinerated debris, but there was nothing at all. Nevertheless, the missing children were officially considered dead and issued death certificates, despite any real concrete physical evidence to the effect that they had in fact died, and the Sodders covered the basement with dirt in order to plant flowers there as a memorial to the tragic loss of their children. As far as authorities were concerned, the case was closed, but for the family it was a different story.

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Despite the official reports they’d been given, the Sodders began to find the lack of any remains found in the smoking ruins of the house to be highly suspicious, as well as the fact that no one had seen or heard the children at the windows screaming or trying to get out, and they began to wonder if their children might actually have made it out somehow and were alive somewhere. They launched their own investigation and began to uncover some odd details that quickly cast the case in a more sinister light. George recalled that a few months before the fire broke out, a man had come to the house asking about work hauling coal for his business, and the stranger had made an offhand comment about how the house’s two fuse boxes were bound to cause a fire someday. At the time George had thought nothing of it, but it became rather ominous and disturbingly prescient in retrospect. Adding to this were claims made by the older Sodder children that they had recently been seeing a van on several occasions parked along nearby U.S. Highway 21, whose driver had appeared to be intently watching the younger children come home from school. Another witness claimed to have seen a man enter the house garage during the actual fire itself and steal the ladder, which he had then reportedly used to get up and cut the phone line and then proceeded to steal other items from the garage. One bus driver later claimed to have seen someone throwing “fireballs” at the house, and the subsequent discovery of an odd green rubber casing that later was revealed to have come from some sort of incendiary device led them to speculate that this was the cause of the bang and rolling noises Jennie had heard on the night of the fire. Additionally, a telephone repairman told them that the power lines seemed to have been cut rather than burned, further casting doubt on the idea that mere faulty wiring had produced the fire.

Even more chilling were the reports that came trickling in after photos of the children were distributed from people who claimed to have seen the missing children alive and well in the days after the fire. One woman claimed to have seen the children in a car driving away as the blaze was in progress. A waitress at a diner also reported seeing the kids on the morning of the accident, claiming to have actually served breakfast to them at her establishment, which was located fifty miles west of Fayetteville. She also said that there had been a suspicious car with Florida license plates in the diner’s parking area. In another sighting, four of the five children were allegedly seen at a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina a week after the fire. The witness would later say of the incident:

The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction. I do not remember the exact date. However, the entire party did register at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered about midnight. I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children…. One of the men looked at me in a hostile manner; he turned around and began talking rapidly in Italian. Immediately, the whole party stopped talking to me. I sensed that I was being frozen out and so I said nothing more. They left early the next morning.

The missing Sodder children

The missing Sodder children

In light of all of these findings and evidence, the Sodders became convinced that their children had not died in the fire as had been claimed, but had rather been kidnapped, with the blaze serving as a mere diversion to cover for whoever had done it. They approached police with the evidence they had accrued and demanded that the investigation be reopened, but authorities insisted that there was no still no concrete evidence of any crime. The Sodders even approached the FBI, but were told that it was a local case that was not in their jurisdiction, and that they could not do anything unless local law enforcement allowed it, which they didn’t. There was in fact a shocking lack of any cooperation from law enforcement or the Fire Department, and it was as if the authorities just wanted the whole thing to go away. Without any help, it was left up to the family to pursue the matter on their own.

In the meantime, the case progressively got stranger and stranger. A private investigator hired by the Sodders found that an insurance salesman who had had an intense argument with George Sodder in the weeks before the horrific accident just happened to have been on a coroner’s jury that had deemed the fire the result of faulty wiring. Interestingly, during the argument the furious salesman had warned that George’s house would burn down and that harm would befall his children. When George Sodder went looking through the remains of the house desperately searching for any other shred of evidence that may have been missed in the original investigation, a dynamite box was recovered which held what seemed to be a human body organ, bizarrely not burned at all. It was later found to have actually been a hunk of beef liver that was fresh enough to have been placed there after the fire. To make matters even more bizarre, it was reported by the private investigator that the fire chief had actually planted the organ there himself, perhaps thinking that if some remains were found then the family would stop their private investigation into the incident.

Further adding to the conspiracy theory that authorities were covering something up was the later discovery of human bones at the site, specifically four lumbar vertebrae, which were found by the family as they sifted through the charred ruins with the help of a Washington, D.C. pathologist by the name of Oscar B. Hunter. The bones were curiously unburned, and would turn out to be from a single unrelated individual between the age of 16 and 22. Since the small fragments of bone were hardly the five full skeletons one would expect to find, and were additionally completely undamaged by fire, these remains were also suspected of having either been planted at the scene after the fire or mixed in somehow with the dirt George had used to fill in the basement. They were certainly not from any of the Sodder children, or indeed from anyone who had died in such an intense inferno.

Reward flyer for the Sodder children

Reward flyer for the Sodder children

The Sodders, still convinced that their children had been kidnapped, went on to erect a billboard on Route 16 prominently featuring the children’s photographs, and posted a $5,000 reward which would quickly escalate to $10,000 for any information leading to their whereabouts. Over the following years, tantalizing clues and leads suggesting that the children were still alive would continue to come in. In one instance, George was looking at a photo of schoolchildren from New York City and was positive he could see his missing daughter Betty among them. He was so convinced that the girl in the photo was his daughter that he immediately drove all the way to New York to speak with the family, but they refused to talk to him or show him the girl when he arrived. With no evidence that any crime was being committed other than his own conviction that it was Betty, he was sent home in frustration and dismay, unable to pursue the matter further. In another potential lead, a letter from St. Louis claimed that the oldest daughter, Martha, was living in a convent there, and in yet another it was claimed that the children had been whisked off to Italy to live with a distant relative of Jennie’s. Sightings of the children popped up all over the place, with rumors swirling that they had ended up in an orphanage or had even been kidnapped by the mafia, due to the fact that the Sodders were of Italian descent and George’s business was coal, an industry influenced by the mafia at that time, but ultimately none of these tips or rumors led to anything.

George spent years hiring private investigators and driving around the country following up on leads that went nowhere, yet never gave up hope that the truth was out there somewhere. Perhaps the most mysterious potential lead came in 1968, in the wake of a magazine article on the case written by a detective. One morning, Jennie Sodder went out to her mailbox to find an envelope addressed specifically to her, and postmarked from Kentucky but with no return address. Inside the envelope was a picture of a young man in his mid-20s who bore a striking resemblance to their son Louise, who had been 9 at the time of the fire. On the back of the photograph was written a mysterious message that read “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” Authorities deemed it a twisted hoax, but the Sodders became so convinced that it was their missing son that they hired a private investigator to go over to Kentucky to try and track down where the letter had come from. In an eerie turn of events, the private investigator departed for Kentucky only to vanish without a trace, never be heard from again. The identity of the man in the photograph, the origin of the letter, the meaning of the cryptic message written on the photograph, and what became of the missing investigator have never been found and remain a perplexing mystery to this day.

George Sodder would die the following year, having never found out what had happened to his beloved children, yet still convinced that they were alive somewhere and driven practically past his limits by this idea. Jennie Sodder would pass away in 1989, still equally sure that her children had not died in the fire. The rest of the Sodder family continued to doggedly follow up on any leads to the case, never really coming closer to any understanding of what happened to their siblings. In the end, there would be only one Sodder child left, Sylvia, who had been a mere toddler at the time of the fire and is now an elderly woman who claims the chaos of that night is her earliest memory and still adamantly believes that her siblings did not perish in the blaze, continuing to spend her time searching for any clues that might shed light on what became of them even all of these years later. Nowadays the missing person billboard is long gone and a new house stands where the fiery tragedy happened in 1945, giving no outward hint of the unsettling incident which would launch one of the most baffling unsolved crimes in United States history.

Mystery photograph allegedly showing an adult Louis Sodder

Mystery photograph allegedly showing an adult Louis Sodder

What happened to the missing Sodder children? Did they in fact simply die in the fire as claimed by authorities at the time? If so, what happened to their remains? What of the other mysteries surrounding the case, such as the mysterious stranger watching the children in the days leading up to the blaze, the strange comments about the fuse box, the cut phone lines, the cut power lines, the missing ladder, the malfunctioning trucks, the “fireballs” thrown at the house, the strange phone call that evening, the man stealing from the garage, the threats from the salesman, the somewhat botched investigation, the authorities seeming to want to brush the whole case away, hints of cover-up and conspiracy, the discovery of beef liver and bones obviously placed on the premises after the fire, and the numerous sightings of the missing children over the years? Indeed, who is the person in the mysterious photograph sent to Jennie Sodder back in 1968 and where did the envelope come from? What happened to the investigator who went to check it out only to drop off the face of the earth? What do we make of any of this?

The case of the Sodder children is so permeated with strangeness, as well as often contradictory available information, that it is even hard to know where to begin. It is completely saturated with baffling hints, questions, clues, and weird events, which have made it an attractive mystery for amateur sleuths, paranormal enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists over the years, yet despite all of the supposed evidence, debate, and theories that have been bandied about, we seem to be no closer to understanding what truly happened or the ultimate fate of these children. Considering there have been no new leads or breakthroughs in the case and that nearly all of the family have since died, as well as certainly any witnesses or people possibly involved, it seems unlikely that we will ever know for sure. Whatever answers that may be out there seem to have vanished up into smoke just as completely as the house that was relentlessly devoured by the ravenous flames all those years ago.