The Sodder Children

George Sodder immigrated from Italy to the United States of America in 1908. He worked on the railroads outside in Pennslyvania, but eventually found more permanent work as a truck driver in Smithers, West Virginia. After a few years, George started his own truck company and went on to marry Jennie Cipriani, who was also an Italian immigrant.

George and Jennie went on to have ten children, and they settled just outside of Fayetteville, North Virginia. George’s business was thriving, and a local official described the family as “one of the most respected middle-class families around.”

However, George was a man who had very strong opinions about several different subjects, and he was not shy about letting people know about them. He was very opposed to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and this caused George to fall out with other members of the Italian community.

On Christmas Eve 1945, the Sodder family were celebrating at their home. Marion, the eldest daughter, had surprised her three younger sisters: Martha (12), Jennie (8), and Betty (5), with new toys as gifts for them. The children were so excited that they asked their mother if they could stay up a little later.

At 10pm, Jennie (the mother) told the girls that they could stay up a little longer, as long as their brothers Maurice (14), and Louis (9), remembered to put the cows in and feed the chickens before going to bed themselves.

George, and the two eldest sons John (23) and George Jr (16), had spent the day working together and were already asleep. After reminding the children of the chores, Jennie and Sylvia (2), went upstairs to bed.

At 12:30am, the telephone rang and awoke Jennie. She went downstairs to answer the phone and said that on the other end of the line was a woman whose voice was not familiar to her. Jennie said the woman asked for a name that she didn’t recognise, and heard the sound of laughter and glasses clinking in the background. Jennie told the woman that she had the wrong number and hung up.

Before heading up to bed, Jennie noticed that the lights had been left on and the curtains hadn’t been drawn, something that the children would normally do before going to bed. Marion had fallen asleep on the sofa, so Jennie assumed the other children must have got tired and gone to bed, forgetting to draw the curtains and switch off the lights. Jennie drew the curtains, switched off the lights, and went back up to bed.

At 1am, Jennie was awoken again. This time, she heard an object hitting the house’s roof with a loud bang, and then a rolling noise. After waiting for a while, Jennie heard no other noises and fell back asleep.

After thirty minutes had passed, Jennie was awoken yet again – this time from the smell of smoke. After getting out of bed, Jennie found that the room George used as an office was on fire. She then rushed to wake up George, who then woke up the two eldest sons – John and George Jr.

Jennie, George, John, George Jr, Marion and Sylvia managed to escape the burning house. They yelled and shouted to the other children who were presumably sleeping in the attic, but they never got any response. They were unable to go up to the attic, as the stairway to the attic was already on fire.

The Five Sodder Children who were stuck inside. Credit: The Mirror

The phone in the Sodder’s house didn’t work, so Marion had to run to use a neighbours phone to call the fire department. A motorist on a nearby road also saw the flames and went into a nearby tavern to call the fire department as well.

Back at the Sodder home, George climbed the house’s walls and broke open an attic window. He and his sons were planning to use a ladder to rescue the other children, but the ladder had been moved from its usual resting spot, and could not be found anywhere close by. A water barrel that could have been used to put out the fire had been frozen solid.

In a final attempt to rescue the children, George tried to pull both of his trucks up to the house and use them to climb through the attic window. Despite working perfectly through the day, George was unable to get either of the trucks to start up.

The firefighters did not respond to the fire until later that morning, partly due to the fact they were low on manpower because of the war. Fire Cheif F.J. Morris said that another reason the response time was so delayed was due to the fact he was unable to drive the fire truck, so they had to wait until someone who could drive the fire truck was available.

After sifting through the ashes that were left in the basement of the house, Cheif Morris told the Sodder’s that they hadn’t found any bones, which would have been expected if the other children were inside of the house when it burnt down and told the family that despite this he still believes that the other children died in the fire, suggesting that the fire had been hot enough to burn their bodies completely.

It has been said by modern-day fire professionals that the search of the ashes was hasty, and not thorough, so it is possible that they may have missed bone fragments or any other evidence that the children died in the fire. To add to this, a different report at the time suggested that the firefighters did find bone fragments and internal organs, but chose not to tell the family of their discovery.

Cheif Morris told George to leave the building as it was so that the state fire marshall’s office could conduct a more thorough investigation of the fire. However, after four days, George and Jennie could no longer bear to look at the site of their once-home and decided to bulldoze over it with dirt, with the intention of making it into a memorial garden for their children.

The local coroner held an inquest the next day, and they concluded that the fire was an accident, and started due to “faulty wiring.” The family wondered why this had been the verdict, as the family’s Christmas Lights had remained on and functional during the early stages of the fire. To add to this, George had recently had the house inspected by a local electric company that deemed the house safe.

One of the members of the jury who concluded that the fire was started accidentally was a man who had recently threatened George with the remarks: “Your house (George’s) will be going up in smoke” and “Your children will be destroyed.” These remarks were in retaliation to the remarks George had made about Italian dictator Mussolini.

On December 30th, death certificates were issued for the five children who were presumed to have died in the fire.

On the 2nd of January, 1946, a funeral was held in memorial of the children. George and Jennie were too distraught to attend, but their remaining children were in attendance.

In the months after, when the family were trying to rebuild their lives, questions about the fire started to cross their mind.

They eventually found the ladder they were going to use the night of the fire at the bottom of an embankment, 75 feet (23m) away from the house.

A telephone repairman also discovered that their phone line had not been burned through in the fire, but instead had been cut by someone who was able to climb the 14 feet (4.3m) pole and reach 2 feet (61cm) away to do so. Thankfully, a man who had been seen stealing a pulley system from the property at around the same time as the fire was identified and arrested. The man admitted to the theft, and he said that he had cut the phone line thinking it was the fire line, but denied having any involvement with the fire.

However, no record of this suspect exists, and the reason why he wanted to cut the powerline after stealing a pulley system remains unknown.

Jennie also had serious doubts about Cheif Morris’s claims that the fire was hot enough to remove all evidence of the five childrens’ bodies. Jennie spoke to an employee at the local crematorium, who told her that human bones remain even when human bodies have been burnt at 2,000 °F (1,090 °C) for two hours. This is far hotter and far longer than the fire at the Sodder’s home ever burnt for.

George was also convinced that the trucks they tried to start to reach the attic had been tampered with, as they had been working perfectly throughout the daytime. In 2013, one of George’s sons-in-law spoke to the Charleston Gazette-Mail and said that he had come to believe that George and his sons, in their rush to start the trucks, may have flooded the engines.

The unusual phone call that Jennie received on the night of the fire was also suspected to be connected with the fire, but police did manage to locate the woman who admitted that it was just a wrong number on her part.

Evidence emerged in early 1946 that the fire had been set deliberately, rather than an accidental electrical fire.

A bus driver who was driving past the house late Christmas Eve said that he saw some people throwing “balls of fire” at the Sodders house. To add to this, in the spring, Slyvia found a small, hard, dark-green, rubber-ball like object in the bushes. Recalling the “loud thump” Jennie heard on the roof just half an hour before the fire started, George said it looked like a “pineapple bomb” hand grenade, or some other weapon used to start fires.

From this, George and Jennie believed that the fire was started at the roof of the building, however, it was too late to be able to prove this theory as the house had already been covered in dirt.

The missing poster. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Other reports of people seeing the five missing children after the fire started being reported.

One woman who was watching the fire from the side of the road said that she saw the children peer out of a car whilst it was burning, and a different woman said that she served the children breakfast that morning at a rest stop between Fayetteville and Charleston, and noted that a car with Florida license plates was in the parking lot.

The Sodder’s eventually hired private investigator C.C. Tinsley to look into the case for them. Tinsley confirmed to George that the man who threatened him months prior to the fire was on the jury that concluded the fire was accidental.

Tinsley also heard rumours that Fire Cheif Morris had found a heart among the ashes of the fire, and had put it in a metal box and buried it. Morris had confided this information to a local minister, who in turn told George.

George and Tinsley confronted Morris over this, and Morris took them to the metal box and handed it over to them. Tinsley then took the contents to the local funeral director, who told them that it was not a heart, and instead fresh beef liver which had never been near a fire.

Morris admitted later on that it had never been from the fire, and he placed it there with the hopes that the Sodder’s would find it and accept it as proof that their children died in the fire.

In August 1949, George convinced Oscar Hunter, a pathologist from Washington D.C, to oversee a new search through the dirt at the site where the house used to be. After a very thorough search, several items belonging to the children including some coins and a dictionary. Several bone fragments were also discovered, which were later confirmed to be human vertebrae.

Marshall T. Newman, a specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, revealed that they were lumbar vertebrae, all from the same person. Newman said the age of the individual at the time of death was between 16-17 years old, a maximum of 22 years old. The bones also showed no sign of being exposed to fire.

The eldest of the five missing kids was 14 years old, and Newman himself said that it was “very strange” that these bones were found, and that the skeletal remains of all five children should have been left behind.

Because of this, it was concluded that the bones had actually come from the dirt used to cover the old house site. Tinsley later confirmed that the bones had actually come from a nearby cemetery in Mount Hope, but he’s never explained why they had been taken from the cemetery or how they ended up on the dirt covering the old house site.

In 1952, the family placed a billboard at the site of the house, and another billboard that would become a landmark for traffic along U.S Route 19 (today it is known as State Route 16).

The billboard placed by the Sodder family. Credit: Wikipedia

One day in 1967, Jennie found a letter addressed to her, postmarked from Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. Inside the envelope was a picture of a man in his 30s, with features that strongly resembled Louis Sodder, one of the five missing children who would have been in his 30s had he survived the fire.

On the back of the photo, there was writing. It read:

Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil boys. A90132(or 35).

The image Jennie received strongly resembles Louis Sodder. Credit: Wikipedia

This new image gave the family so much hope, and they even hired a new private investigator to look into the letter and to go to Central City, but the investigator never reported back to the family and they were unable to locate him after that.

The family placed an enlarged copy of the photo on top of their fireplace.

Sadly, George Sodder passed away in 1969. Jennie, and the remaining children, continued to seek out answers to the other children’s fate.

John Sodder, the eldest son, did not seek out answers. Instead, he refused to speak about the fire and said that the family should just accept what happened and move on.

For the rest of her days, Jennie wore black and tended to the memorial garden. She passed away in 1989. After Jennie had passed away, the family decided to take the billboard down.

The Sodder children, and their own children, continue to publicise the case, hoping to get answers. They believe, along with older Fayetteville residents, that the Sicilian Mafia was trying to extort money from George, and the children were potentially taken by someone who knew about the planned fire, telling them it would be safer outside. There is also a possibility that the children could have been taken back to Italy.

As of today, there have been no new leads or discoveries in the case. Although the case is widely publicised and theorised, many believe that the five children died in the fire – despite their remains never being found.

The Five Sodder Children. Credit: The Mirror


Missing, Unsolved, Missing Children, USA, True Crime, Investigation, Mystery

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