The Enduring Mystery of the Sodder Children’s Christmas Disappearance

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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.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Bigfoot

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Erin McCarthy: Hello and welcome to a very special bonus episode of History Vs., a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re going to be exploring a tale Theodore Roosevelt wrote about in his book The Wilderness Hunter, a memoir of his time on the frontier, which was published in 1893. Many of the stories in the book are just what you’d expect from a big game hunter like TR, but there’s one unusual tale that stands out from the rest, one that Roosevelt called “a goblin story which rather impressed me.”

Here to tell us about what’s now known as The Bauman Incident is Mental Floss science editor Kat Long, who wrote a piece about the event for us.

Kat Long: A couple years ago I visited a small village on the central coast of British Columbia, where members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation have cultural stories about sasquatches, or buk’wis in the local language. They also shared with me a lot of stories about sasquatches and their personal encounters with them in their ancestral territory.

McCarthy: Is that why when I asked someone to write this story, you volunteered so quickly?

Long: Yes, it is.

McCarthy: What was the Bauman incident?

Long: The Bauman Incident supposedly occurred in the mountains of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming, which in the late 19th century was still the Montana Territory.

On one of TR’s hunting trips to the region, he met a grizzled old trapper named Bauman who told him a wild tale.

TR doesn’t mention Bauman’s first name, but it may have been Carl L. Bauman. According to a Montana Historical Society journal, this Carl L. Bauman was born in Germany in 1831. He moved west in the 1860s, and died in Montana in 1909. So that timeline and geographical detail fits with TR’s account, but we don’t have any proof that he was the one.

Bauman told TR how, as a young man, he and a friend went into the Montana forest to hunt beaver. And they set up their traps in a mountain pass that had been the scene of another trapper’s mysterious, gruesome death the year before.

So over a few days and nights, Bauman and his friend were tormented by a strange animal that destroyed their camp, and it howled with the cover of the trees, and watched them as they slept and all kinds of creepy activities. And in the morning, they found footprints indicating that the creature walked upright.

Finally, after a few days of this, they couldn’t take it anymore, and as they packed up to leave, Bauman had to walk a few miles away to gather up some beaver traps from a stream and when he returned to the campsite, he found his friend dead, with fang marks in his neck. The scariest part about it was that the beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely—and this is what TR wrote—“romped and gamboled round it in [an] uncouth, ferocious glee.”

McCarthy: What did they think was the culprit?

Long: TR writes in the beginning of the story that the culprit could have been “merely some abnormally wicked and cunning wild beast, but … no man can say.” He also suggests that Bauman thought it was “something either half human or half devil, some great goblin beast.” Bauman doesn’t tell TR what he thought it was, and TR never comes right out and says it, but he seems to imply that it was a sasquatch.

McCarthy: But he wouldn’t have called it sasquatch or Bigfoot, because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we weren’t using those words yet—sasquatch didn’t come around until the late 1920s, and Bigfoot until the late 1950s. So anyway—why do people think this incident involved a sasquatch? Was that something they believed in at that time?

Long: Tales of “hairy giants” or “wild men” of the forest were already circulating around the Pacific Northwest and indigenous peoples of the region had legends including sasquatch-like characters. So they also shared tales of seeing and interacting with the actual sasquatches with the white trappers they met, and then the white trappers and hunters picked up the tale and retold the stories.

McCarthy: What’s the differences between what’s in this account and what’s in the account of indigenous peoples’ encounters with the sasquatch?

Long: The Kitasoo say sasquatches are shy and generally stay out of people’s way, and they are definitely not known as bloodthirsty murderers. But they do, however, scream really loudly in this really high-pitched freaky sound, and they also really stink, and TR mentioned those two characteristics in his account of the Bauman Incident as well.

McCarthy: What are some of the encounters that the Kitasoo told you about with sasquatch?

Long: I remember one story that was told to me by one of the leaders in the community that they were out overnight on a beach gathering clams, because it was the time of year when the tide was out and they could dig them up out of the beach really easily. So they’d been doing this all night and they were sort of gathered around the beach. Some of the members of the group heard this crazy scream coming out of the woods. They looked over to the elder of the group and the elder wasn’t doing anything, he didn’t seem alarmed at all, so they were like “OK, we’ll just continue doing our thing,” but they kept hearing this scream just out of the woods. And it is very quiet up there, I mean, it would have been shocking. And so [they] kind of gathered closer and closer to the boat they had all come in on. The elder said “Why aren’t you out gathering clams? What’s going on?” and all of a sudden, this piercing, super loud scream just came out of the woods, and he suddenly looked incredibly shocked and started banging the anchor on the boat trying to scare whatever it was away, and everybody jumped on the boat and motored away as fast as they could.

So in that story, we see the sasquatch screaming. They didn’t see him—it really stayed out of sight—but it was kind of like, the sasquatch might have been a little curious about what they were doing and was trying to get their attention, but then they just got the hell out of there.

McCarthy: They were like “we don’t see you, and based on that noise, we don’t want to see you.”

Long: Yeah.

McCarthy: How often are they having encounters like this? I mean, are they common?

Long: A lot of people in the village have had them, but they don’t happen every day or anything like that. They may happen, to each person, maybe a few times in their life.

McCarthy: And what do they say to Western science’s belief that sasquatch isn’t real?

Long: They understand that a lot of people don’t think that they’re real, or they don’t believe them when they say they’ve seen them with their own eyes, and their response to that is “well, you know, we don’t need some Western scientist telling me whether they exist or not. I’ve seen them,” or, “Elders in our community have seen them and I believe what they say,” or, “Our stories over generations and generations all talk about them, so how can they not exist?”

McCarthy: And one thing that I thought was really interesting about your piece is that I think you went back to one of the elders, and you asked him, right, and he said, “Just because we haven’t found a skeleton or bones or anything doesn’t mean anything—I’ve never found a bear skeleton in the woods either.”

Long: Exactly.

McCarthy: Which is a pretty good point.

Long: Yeah. Yeah. It really makes you think. We know a lot about what’s out in the forest, but there’s a lot that we don’t know, and so … we’ll just kind of have to leave that where it is.

McCarthy: So TR was a pretty practical dude, and he was not really given to flights of fancy. So how did he explain what happened here?

Long: TR wrote that Bauman was of German ancestry, and must have heard “all kinds of ghost and goblin lore, so that many fearsome superstitions were latent in his mind.”

He also said that Bauman had heard tales from the Native American medicine men of “snow-walkers … spectres, and the formless evil beings that haunt the forest depths.”

TR says that Bauman “must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

McCarthy: Have any scientists thought about what the animal actually was?

Long: I don’t think any real scientists have looked into this because from a scientific investigation point of view, there aren’t many specific clues to go on, and no physical evidence that could be tested for, like, sasquatch DNA or they don’t have any material to test for stable isotopes, which can show where an animal has been or what it’s eaten, or that kind of thing.

McCarthy: Besides the walking on two feet thing, it almost sounds like it could be a mountain lion—people say that a cougar screaming sounds like “a woman screaming for her life.” TR himself once said that “No man could well listen to a stranger and wilder sound.”

Long: What I was thinking is that maybe a cougar was attacking a bear that was walking upright, which would cover all the bases.

McCarthy: Yes, that was definitely it. That was definitely, definitely it. Well, I guess this is just one of those mysteries that we are never going to solve.

Thanks to Kat Long for joining us, and thanks for listening to this special bonus episode of History Vs. We’ll be back with another bonus episode in a few weeks.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

Subscribe to History Vs. Apple Podcasts here.

10 Surprising Facts About Malcolm X

Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was profoundly influential during the middle of the 20th century. From his birth on May 19, 1925 to February 21, 1965, the day he was assassinated at a New York City rally, he rose to the national scene as a leading voice advocating for black self-determinism, self-defense, and pan-Africanism. His fiery rhetoric is often spoken of in tandem with (really, in contrast to) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement, but X was far more complex than his historical image as a firebrand suggests.

1. Malcolm X’s parents were harassed into moving by racists more than once.

Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl, were devotees of pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder Marcus Garvey. A Baptist preacher, Earl was a leader in their local UNIA chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, and Louise acted as secretary, tasked with inter-chapter communication. Their activities caught the ire of Ku Klux Klan members, whose threats sent the family packing for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan, by the time Malcolm was a year old. There, it was the white supremacist group Black Legion that regularly harassed the Littles. Their family home burned when Malcolm was 4 (his father blamed the Black Legion), and his father was killed in what was ruled a streetcar accident when Malcolm was 6 years old (his mother also blamed the Black Legion).

2. Malcolm X grew up in foster homes.

When Malcolm was 13, his mother entered Kalamazoo State Hospital following a nervous breakdown, sending Malcolm and his seven siblings to various foster families, boarding houses, and state-run institutions. He entered a detention home in Mason, Michigan, after being expelled for putting a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. While there, he noted that the white couple who ran it and white politicians who visited treated him kindly, but not like he was a fellow human being.

3. Malcolm X dropped out of school after discouragement from his teacher.

Malcolm was a strong student who aspired to one day become a lawyer, but he dropped out after eighth grade when a teacher told him that his dream job was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” He both diminished and recognized the power of the encounter as an adult, noting that he wouldn’t be accepted as a black man regardless of how smart or talented he was. At the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he’d famously say, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

4. Malcolm X worked with Redd Foxx at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.

Before Malcolm became a national civil rights speaker and John Sanford became a nationally beloved comedian, they were known respectively as Detroit Red and Chicago Red because of their red hair. In 1943, they worked as dishwashers at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem and committed petty crimes together. Sanford, whose stage name was Redd Foxx, went on to become one of the first black performers to play to white audiences in Las Vegas, put out several hit comedy albums, and become an icon, starring in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.

5. Malcolm X converted to the Nation Of Islam while he was in jail.

In 1946, Malcolm’s larcenies caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served seven before earning parole). While incarcerated, his brother Reginald urged him to convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Malcolm soon started studying and then corresponding with its founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached black self-reliance. He visited Muhammad in Chicago after getting out of prison in 1952, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization as an assistant minister with his impressive oratory and ability to attract new members. The NOI went from 500 members in 1952 to 30,000 in a little over a decade.

6. The X in Malcolm X’s adopted name symbolizes a surname he’d never know.

Like many black Americans, Malcolm’s roots were obscured by the slave trade that stripped him of his true ancestral last name. In 1950, he started signing his name as Malcolm X, viewing the surname “Little” as another tool of oppression. In his autobiography he wrote, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”

7. The FBI created a file for Malcolm X after he wrote to President Truman.

While still in prison, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman denouncing the Korean War and declaring himself a Communist. The FBI created a file on him for his Communist affiliation but would later surveil him because of his affiliation and ascendancy within NOI. They continued to track him and record his phone conversations until his assassination, listening in on death threats made against him.

8. Malcolm X inspired Muhammad Ali to join Noi.

On February 25, 1964, the boxer known as Cassius Clay bested Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The next day, he proclaimed at a press conference he’d be henceforth known as Cassius X, and a few months later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the coming out of a spiritual change that had already taken place, guided by Malcolm after the two met in 1962 and cultivated a friendship. Ali was impressed by Malcolm’s speech at a NOI event and the latter became a mentor figure for the up-and-coming fighter.

9. Malcolm X was once opposed to integration.

As Ali’s star was rising as a sports star and NOI member, Malcolm already had one foot out the door of the organization. But during his time in NOI, Malcolm promoted the concept of separation from white society and opposed the mainstream Civil Rights movement for its emphasis on integration. In a speech to the NAACP at Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm said, “The white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders ... Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy. You control your own politics.”

10. Malcolm X’s Hajj profoundly transformed him.

Malcolm butted heads with NOI leadership multiple times by 1964 and was viewed by NOI members as a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership because of his celebrity. In March, he publicly left the organization to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity before converting to Sunni Islam and making Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). A state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, the experience of praying, living, and eating with fellow Muslims of all skin colors shifted his thinking completely. Going forward, he viewed Islam as a means of overcoming racial disunity.

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