The Enduring Mystery of the Sodder Children’s Christmas Disappearance

iStock
iStock

When a blaze broke out in the Sodder household in the early hours of Christmas 1945, there was nothing George and Jennie Sodder could do but watch their home collapse into a smoldering heap with five of their nine children presumably trapped inside. It would take hours for the fire department to arrive, but instead of five bodies, they found nothing. No bodies, just questions. Could a house fire completely burn the remains of the five children, or were they the victims of something far more nefarious? With so much unknown, the story of this ill-fated family continues to grip the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, more than 70 years later.

That Christmas Eve was pretty much like any other in the area at the time. George and Jennie Sodder—both Italian immigrants, who built a life in the United States—had gone off to bed with their 2-year-old baby girl, Sylvia. Their younger children—Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5—were allowed to stay up late to play with some of the new toys they had already acquired. The oldest sons, John, 23 and George Jr., 16, were already in bed after spending the entire day working at their father’s coal trucking business. The oldest sister, Marion, was watching her younger siblings before going to sleep.

By midnight, the entire family was in bed. Not long after that, the phone in George's office rang, waking Jennie. When she picked up the phone, she heard a strange laugh and was asked for a name she didn’t know. Obviously a wrong number, she thought. It was then that she noticed the lights in the house were still on and the doors were unlocked, which was hardly alarming given that the kids were preoccupied with their pile of new toys. She turned off the lights, locked all the doors, and went back to bed. It wasn't the last time she'd be awoken that evening.

A bit later, she woke up again, this time to the sound of something landing on the roof of the house and rolling off. Nothing came of it, and she went back to sleep. About a half hour later, at what would have been 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, she woke into a nightmare: The smell of smoke got her out of bed in a panic, and the sight of fire coming from George’s office on the first floor had her scrambling to grab Sylvia and alert her husband.

Jennie, Sylvia, George, John, George Jr., and Marion all escaped, but the fire had engulfed the staircase leading to the bedrooms of the five younger Sodder children.

There was hope, though: George always kept a ladder propped against the side of the house—he could climb through a top-floor window and get his kids out. When he ran to the ladder, though, he saw nothing; it had simply vanished. And when he tried to back one of his coal trucks next to the house to boost himself into a window, the engine wouldn’t start.

The calamities were never-ending: Buckets full of water were frozen over; phones in neighboring homes wouldn’t connect to operators. A perfect storm of misfortune had whipped up on the Sodders this one particular evening, seemingly without explanation.

Eventually a neighbor got in touch with the fire chief, who started a laborious “phone tree” where one firefighter called another who then called another, and so on. The fire department arrived at around 8 a.m. on Christmas morning, seven hours after the fire began, and did a quick search only to find no remains of the five Sodder children. Fire Chief F.J. Morris told the Sodder parents that the blaze—which was said to have been caused by “faulty wiring”—was likely hot enough to completely destroy the bodies. Something didn’t sit quite right with George and Jennie, though. They didn't think that this blaze was an accident, and they believed that their children might still be alive.

George had been threatened with fire before: According to Smithsonian, months before the tragedy, a man attempting to sell Mr. Sodder fire insurance was incensed when his offer was declined. The man also apparently didn’t take well to George’s vocal criticism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed," he reportedly screamed at George. "You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” A private investigator would later reveal that this same man served on the coroner’s jury that established the fire as an accident.

That’s far from the strangest occurrence around the fire. Apparently the fire department had found some bones and a heart at the scene, but for whatever reason—perhaps to spare the family further grief on Christmas Day—the chief never told the Sodders about it. When the family found out and confronted him years later, the chief led them to the site where the remains had been buried; upon testing the "heart," it was found to be a beef liver. And the bones belonged to someone older than any of the Sodder children.

In 1947, George and Jennie made an appeal directly to J. Edgar Hoover to get the FBI involved in the investigation. They received a personal reply from Hoover, who wrote that, "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." FBI agents said they would be happy to assist if local authorities gave them the go-ahead, but the Fayetteville police and fire departments said no.

As the years went on, rumors about the story extended way beyond West Virginia. Photos poured in from strangers around the country who were convinced they spotted the missing Sodder children, now all grown up. One in particular—allegedly of a much older Louis Sodder—was so convincing to the family that it was hung over the fireplace of their new home.

Alleged 1967 photo of Louis Sodder
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Then there were the anecdotes: a letter from someone saying young Martha was in a convent in St. Louis, the motel operator who saw the children right after the fire, and a picture of a young girl from New York City who looked so much like Betty that George drove to see her but was turned away by the girl’s parents.

George and Jennie’s obsession led to the couple placing a billboard on Route 16 in Ansted, West Virginia, offering a cash reward for any information on their children's whereabouts. With the Sodder children's faces plastered across the sign, the tragedy of that Christmas morning became physically woven into the fabric of the community.

With the accusatory battle cry “After 30 years it is not too late to investigate” emblazoned across the top, the billboard laid out the facts as the family saw them: There were no remains and no smell of burning flesh after the fire. “What was the motive of the law officers involved?” the billboard asked. “What did they have to gain by making us suffer all these years of injustice?”

Though the billboard is long gone now and only one Sodder child is still alive, the questions surrounding the case linger. Why was the family’s ladder found in a nearby embankment instead of being propped up against the house as usual? What was the banging sound that Jennie heard around midnight? What about the threats from the insurance salesman? If the fire was due to faulty wiring, why was the electricity still working during the blaze? And at last: Why no bodies?

For more than 70 years, these questions have stirred the imaginations of people in the Fayetteville community and mystery buffs around the country. Though the Sodder children's disappearance will likely remain a mystery forever, the circumstances surrounding that tragic Christmas in 1945 will ensure they are never forgotten.

10 Famous Siblings Who Conquered the World

The Williams sisters have won plenty of gold on their own and in doubles competition.
The Williams sisters have won plenty of gold on their own and in doubles competition.
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Whether you adore them or they drive you crazy, siblings play a major part in family dynamics. And while it’s noteworthy when one person in a family accomplishes great things, it’s doubly (or triply) remarkable when multiple siblings achieve greatness. To celebrate National Sibling Day, we’re taking a look at 10 sets of seriously accomplished siblings.

1. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

The Brothers Grimm.
A portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even if you know nothing about the Brothers Grimm, you’ve no doubt read versions of the fairy tales and folk stories they compiled. Born in modern-day Germany in 1785 and 1786, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were young boys when their father died. Their family struggled financially, but both brothers were able to study law at the University of Marburg. Jacob went to work as his professor’s library assistant, and he later became the royal librarian for the new King of Westphalia, Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte (that Napoleon's younger brother).

Wilhelm worked as his brother’s library assistant, and because Napoleon had recently conquered much of Germany, the two brothers wanted to help their fellow Germans preserve their culture’s stories. After gathering folk tales from books and committing oral stories to paper, the Brothers Grimm published collections of these stories, including Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin. Besides working together, Jacob also lived with Wilhelm and his wife, and Wilhelm named his first son Jacob. Before they died, the Brothers Grimm gave lectures and began work on a comprehensive German dictionary.

2. Louisa May and Abigail May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott
Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa May Alcott is best known for her bestselling novel Little Women, which she based on her experience growing up with three sisters. But Louisa’s youngest sister—the inspiration for Amy March in Little Women—was an accomplished artist in her own right. Abigail (who went by May) had shown vast artistic promise as a child and young adult, even covering the walls and window frames in the family home with sketches of people and animals, and Louisa used a portion of her new-found fortune to further May's training.

After studying art in Boston, London, Rome, and Paris, May lived in France and earned spots for her still life and oil paintings in the Paris Salon’s exhibitions. The two sisters were so close that May named her baby daughter Louisa (nicknamed "Lulu"), and just before May died in 1879 (a month after childbirth), she told her husband to send baby Lulu to Louisa in Massachusetts. Louisa raised her niece until her own death eight years later, at which point Lulu went back to Europe to live with her father.

3. Wolfgang and Maria Mozart

Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Maria Anna Mozart.
Left to right: Leopold Mozart; his son, Wolfgang Amadeus; and his daughter, Maria Anna Mozart.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

We remember musical wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for his instantly recognizable symphonies and concertos, but his older sister paved the way for him to become one of history’s most famous classical composers. Born in 1751, five years before her brother, Maria Anna Mozart (nicknamed Nannerl) played piano to audiences across Europe before she hit her teens. Her technical skills earned her a reputation as a prodigy and one of the best pianists in Europe.

Nannerl and her younger brother also toured together, wowing audiences with their harpsichord performances. Nannerl wrote down (or possibly collaborated on) her brother’s first symphony, but her father made her stop performing once she turned 18. Still, Nannerl continued to compose music, and Mozart praised his sister’s work. Although some scholars dismiss Nannerl’s talent, others stress that her early interest (and success) in music deeply influenced and inspired her younger brother’s career.

4. Venus and Serena Williams

Venus and Serena Williams.
Venus and Serena Williams.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

There aren't many athletes more decorated than the Williams sisters. Serena currently holds tennis's Open Era record for the most Grand Slam singles titles (for a man or woman) with 23, while Venus has won seven on her own, and, in 2000, became the first African American woman to win a single's title at Wimbledon since 1957. The sisters both have four Olympic gold medals to their name, three of which they won together in doubles play.

The two were born just 15 months apart, with Venus being the oldest. Despite Serena's otherworldly success, she knows to respects her sister's seniority in doubles play.

"She’s definitely the boss out there," Serena joked during an interview with BBC. To which Venus added: "Well I’m the older sister, so it kind of falls on me."

5. Emily and Austin Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and her siblings.
Left to right: Emily, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson.
Culture Club/Getty Images

Emily Dickinson’s poetry, as well as her mysteriously reclusive later life, continues to enchant readers more than a century after her death. But most people aren’t as familiar with her brother, Austin. Born a year and a half before Emily, Austin graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School before working as an attorney. A prominent member of the Amherst community, Austin served as the treasurer of Amherst College, founded the town’s private cemetery, and held leadership roles in civic organizations.

Austin and his wife lived next door to Emily and had a close relationship with the poet—who never had anything published under her own name in her lifetime. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia found the poems and was determined to get them published, ultimately enlisting Austin’s longtime mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who got her poetry shared with the world.

6. The Jackson Siblings

Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Michael, and Marlon Jackson
Left to right: Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Michael, and Marlon Jackson, with Randy up top.
William Milsom/Getty Images

From their home base in Gary, Indiana, Joe and Katherine Jackson raised nine children. In 1969, the five eldest brothers (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael) hit it big as the Jackson 5, delighting audiences with catchy hits such as "I Want You Back" and "ABC." Since then, the members of the Jackson family have continued to make music, both together and separately.

Although Michael and youngest sister Janet achieved the most success with their music careers, each one of the couple’s seven other children—including sisters Rebbie and La Toya, and youngest brother Randy—achieved musical success in their own right. In fact, all nine Jackson siblings have released solo songs that charted on Billboard charts.

7. William and Caroline Herschel

William Herschel.
William Herschel was appointed court astronomer by King George III.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Astronomer Sir William Herschel gets the credit for discovering, in March 1781, that Uranus was in fact a planet and not a star, as other astronomers had thought. Herschel also served as King George III’s official Court Astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and identified thousands of star clusters. But Herschel’s younger sister Caroline, born a dozen years after her brother, was also a seriously accomplished astronomer. As a young woman, she moved from her family’s home in Hanover to join her brother in England.

The two siblings shared a love of music and science, and Caroline worked as her brother’s assistant, providing technical support for the telescopes he built. She also was the first woman to be credited as the discoverer a comet (it’s called Comet C/1786 P1) and, after King George III began paying her, the first female scientist to ever be paid for her work. Caroline was awarded a Gold Medal from London’s Royal Astronomical Society and a Gold Medal for Science from Prussia’s King Frederick William IV.

8. The Wright Siblings

Wilbur Wright and his sister, Katherine.
A photo of Wilbur and Katherine Wright in 1909.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

We know that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the inventors of the first successful airplane. But Katharine, the Wright brothers’ youngest sibling, played a huge role in facilitating her brothers’ aviation success. After graduating from Oberlin, Katharine worked as a Latin teacher in Dayton, Ohio. Although she wasn’t an engineer, she frequently corresponded with her brothers when they were in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, testing airplane prototypes. The brothers bounced ideas off of her, and she gave them emotional support and encouragement when they worried that flight simply wasn’t possible. Katharine also helped run her brothers’ bicycle company, which provided the funds that the brothers used to finance their airplane experiments.

Additionally, Katharine played an integral role in publicizing the Wright Brothers’ success, encouraging them to give speeches and do public flight demonstrations. Katharine even learned French, so she could hobnob with European royalty and aristocracy, spreading the word of her brothers’ aeronautical achievement.

9. Harriet and Catharine Beecher

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Though most of the world knows Harriet Beecher Stowe, her sister, Catharine, made tremendous strides for women's education.
Culture Club/Getty Images

Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a landmark piece of work for the anti-slavery movement, but she also had 12 siblings, many of whom also worked tirelessly for causes like abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Catharine, the oldest sibling, was passionate about seeing young girls become educated, and she opened the Hartford Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1824. Working from textbooks she wrote herself, Catharine taught groups of young girls everything from philosophy and art to chemistry and algebra. During her life, she opened schools in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.

10. The Brontë Sisters

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Decades before J.R.R. Tolkien would create Middle-Earth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote stories together in childhood that revolved around fantasy worlds with names like Angria and Gondal. After a brief separation when they reached young adulthood, the sisters eventually reunited in 1845, following the death of their aunt Elizabeth, and began writing together once again. The next year, they published a book of poems under pen names titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Soon, each sister would write her own defining work: Charlotte published Jane Eyre in 1847, while Emily penned Wuthering Heights the same year, and in 1848, Anne Brontë published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

A Brief History of the Chain Letter

"If you can't participate in this chain letter you didn't ask for, let me know within five days so it will be fair to those participating!"
"If you can't participate in this chain letter you didn't ask for, let me know within five days so it will be fair to those participating!"
czarny_bez/iStock via Getty Images Plus

History can be maddeningly unspecific about certain things, particularly chronology. But when it comes to the history of the chain letter, it’s very possible that Jesus was the first to author one.

Hundreds of years ago, a story made the rounds that seemed incredible. Fifty-five years after Jesus had been resurrected and ascended into heaven, he decided to author a letter offering wisdom to his human charges. The note was taken to earth and hidden under a rock, which a young and earnest boy was able to lift. From there, the note was copied and circulated, each facsimile bearing a strange warning:

“He that copieth this letter shall be blessed of me. He that does not shall be cursed.”

As hoaxes go, it wasn’t a bad way to get someone’s attention. Copies of the letter survive from as early as the mid-1700s, proof that people have always had an innate curiosity—and superstition—about chain letters. In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of people have received and forwarded letters that promise charity, prosperity, or religious enlightenment.

The price for not being on board? Usually awful luck. Or death.

 

In 1888, a Methodist women’s missionary group was having serious cash flow problems. Additions to their facilities had added up to an astounding $16,000. While the group leaders prayed for assistance, they also acknowledged they might need to take the initiative.

Just when all hope seemed lost, a woman who had heard of their troubles said that she had a possible solution: Someone had told her that arranging for a chain letter could be a possible avenue to financial reward. Around the same time, the church received a chain letter requesting funds for another now forgotten object, sent to them by someone who thought it would work for this group as well. The head of the congregation, Lucy Rider Meyer, took the suggestions seriously and drafted a letter that contained both a solicitation to send her one dime and to send a copy of the letter to three friends, who would (hopefully) repeat the process.

Meyer dashed off 1500 copies and waited. The responses came pouring in. The missionaries eventually raised $6000, with many people sending more than a dime and others even using the letter as the inspiration to join their flock. In spirit and cold cash, the chain letter had been a success. Mostly.

While most recipients were happy to either contribute or disregard the letter, a few took the time to write back and complain about being targeted multiple times. One irritated addressee wrote:

"To tell the plain truth, I am exasperated with this plan. I am a very busy woman, and this is the third benevolence I have been asked to help in this way."

Others took a more direct way of holding on to their cash:

"I have figured up, and you must already have an abundance of money for the house. So I won’t send any."

The missionaries dubbed the chain letter a “peripatetic contribution box,” a kind of postal hat-passing that immediately began growing in popularity. Newspapers like the New York World printed forms to raise money for a memorial for Spanish-American war soldiers; in 1898, a 17-year-old volunteer for the Red Cross devised a chain that solicited money for ice to send to troops stationed in Cuba. So many thousands of letters poured in that they choked her Babylon, New York, post office, prompting her mother to issue an open plea to stop people from sending any more.

While potentially annoying to some, many of these letters were altruistic in nature—an attempt to drum up financial support for what was considered to be a worthy cause. But it didn’t take long for the template to be adapted to a less noble pursuit: conning people out of money.

At the height (or low point) of the Great Depression in 1935, the city of Denver became the epicenter of a massive chain letter campaign known as the Send-a-Dime effort. In a time of severe financial strife, recipients were urged to send along money to a list of names, with their own fortune coming when their turn arrived in the queue.

People in desperate need of hope began to rely on a promise of prosperity, populating chain letter brokerage firms that sold shares in names due to hit it big. The brokers made thousands; the letter writers made nothing. Western Union was sued for over $27 million for helping perpetuate the fraud, and the postal service threatened prosecution under anti-lottery and anti-solicitation statutes.

Although dime letters have since fallen by the wayside, chain letters were never totally stifled. In 1978, students at Harvard became fascinated by the “Circle of Gold” ploy sweeping the nation, where a letter could be purchased for $100 from some well-meaning seller. Fifty of those dollars would go to the person selling the letter, and the remaining $50 would be mailed to an address at the top of a list of names and addresses. The top name would be crossed out, the second place name moved up, and the buyer would attempt to sell two more letters. These were interesting marriages of chain letters as pyramid schemes, a theme that has often repeated itself.

Often, chain letters took delight in provoking a person’s superstitious nature, warning of severe consequences for not following the instructions. In some cases, there was a caution that not advancing the message would result in no change to the status quo. In others, it would be an outright warning of misfortune. These often contained testimonials that tried to personalize fate by detailing the name of a past recipient who either followed the instructions and prospered or didn’t follow the instructions and was immediately struck by a bus. For people who might otherwise be prone to tossing the letter, it helped ensure that the deliverer’s message (or scam) would be tended to properly.

 

In the 1990s, just before email replaced physical letters as the delivery method of choice for these pyramid scams and religious tracts, an unknown source perpetuated what became known as the “underpants exchange.” The letter read:

"Send one pair of pretty underwear of your choice to the person listed below, and send a copy of this letter to six friends…If you can't do this in seven days, please notify me because it isn't fair to those who have participated…You will receive 36 pairs of pretty panties!"

Despite whatever curious urge was gripping the originator, the pretty panties circulation thrived: The Baltimore Sun reported several satisfied enrollees who got mailed several pairs of underwear every week.

Chain letters still exist, primarily as social media threads that solicit money or gifts for lists of people in the hopes a person’s “turn” will eventually come. Aside from the occasional deluge of undergarments, it’s always a losing proposition. When Denver’s Send-a-Dime Depression scam came to an end, more than 100,000 “dead” letters were forwarded to the real winner: the U.S. Treasury, which took possession of $3000 in dimes.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER