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.
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.