The  Sodder fire

Like many Italian immigrants of the early 20th century, George and Jennie Sodder settled in the sleepy town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, with their 10 children. Their home, enveloped by the Appalachian Mountains, would soon be enveloped in flames. In the quiet midnight hour of Christmas Eve in 1945, five of the Sodders’ children disappeared. Some believe they perished in the wild blaze, but the family insists they vanished into the winter air. That night was the first chapter in a decades-long mystery that continues to enrapture West Virginia and the nation.

The Sodder family celebrated a merry Christmas Eve. George went into the trucking business for himself two years earlier and could finally provide exciting gifts to his family. As the younger children eagerly ripped open their toys, the older children chatted about their 21-year-old brother Joe and the adventures he must be having in the Army. Around 10 o’clock, George and Jennie retired to their first-floor bedroom with their two-year-old daughter Sylvia. The other children listened to the radio before meandering to bed.

Jennie Sodder was disturbed from her sleep three times that night. Around 12:30 a.m., the telephone rang. Mrs. Sodder rushed to answer, but it was a wrong number. She went back to bed, observing that the door was unlocked, the lights were on, and her oldest daughter Marion was asleep on the couch. Minutes later, Mrs. Sodder was awakened again by a bang on the roof followed by a rolling noise. Dismissing it as a dream, Mrs. Sodder fell asleep one last time.

When her eyes snapped open again around 1 a.m., smoke had filled the room. She shook her husband and toddler awake and fled the bedroom. Marion roused at the sound of her mother shouting up the stairs. “Fire!” Mrs. Sodder called. “John, George! Wake your brothers and sisters!” Mr. and Mrs. Sodder, Marion, and Sylvia escaped the burning home. They observed a swath of flames between the telephone and the door in the kitchen. John and George appeared shortly. The Sodders soon realized that the five other children were trapped inside. Mr. Sodder instinctively ran for a ladder that he kept propped against the house, desperate to reach the second floor bedrooms. The ladder was mysteriously gone. He and his sons tried in vain to start their truck.

The family flagged down a late-night passerby. One Good Samaritan drove into town to alert the Fayetteville Fire Department “Are you going to go to the fire?” the Good Samaritan asked. “I don’t know,” Fire Chief Morris allegedly replied. At the fire, a spectator exclaimed that she saw a tiny face among the flames in an upstairs window. The crowd of neighbors grew, some more helpful than others. One man, Lonnie Johnson, was later arrested for stealing a tool from the debris.

The house was fully consumed in 30-40 minutes. Firefighters did not arrive until 8 a.m. The holiday and the loss of young men to the war meant that the fire department was short-staffed. Steve Cruikshank, a firefighter in Fayetteville since 1967, confirms why the effort took so long. “Back then, there was very little training,” he notes. “Everyone was volunteer, and they didn’t have much equipment.”

Firefighters began combing through the ashes for remains, but they found none. Cruikshank has experienced many scenes like that of the Sodder house. “I’ve sifted through the debris of a home where six people were trapped inside, and I didn’t find as much as a single tooth,” he explains.

A State Police inspector attributed the fire to faulty wiring in the home, but that claim never proved conclusive. George Sodder remembered that the local power company inspected his wiring a few weeks earlier. A telephone repairman told the Sodders that their telephone line had been intentionally severed, but the wire could only be reached by ladder. Lonnie Johnson, the man who stole Mr. Sodder’s tools, would later admit to that crime. The fire department finished its search and instructed the Sodders not to touch the scene of the fire. Even so, the grieving family bulldozed the site and covered it with dirt to memorialize their lost children.

According to Cruikshank, the house had time to burn itself out. George Sodder used his basement as a makeshift garage. Police reports indicate that he kept 55-gallon drums of gasoline and motors there. Cruikshank says that the fuel would intensify the heat of the fire, making it even more possible to completely incinerate the children. When the Sodders covered the embers with dirt, they inadvertently created an oven that would advance the cremation process.

For two years, the Sodder family resigned themselves to the fact that their children had perished. While looking through a magazine in late 1947, Mrs. Sodder noticed a child in a photograph who appeared similar to 6-year-old Betty, who died in the fire. According to police files, Mr. Sodder traveled to the New York school where the photo was taken to inquire information about the girl. He was denied entrance because he lacked identification, and he took the objection as proof that his children were alive.

The family hired numerous private investigators to track down the whereabouts of the five missing children, most of which promised surprising answers for large sums of money. Sightings came pouring in. One woman claimed to have seen the children in a car on the night of the fire. Another said she saw them at a tourist stop the day after, and they drove off in a car with Florida license plates. An employee of a hotel in Charleston stated that the children were with two men and two women who acted hostile and spoke in Italian.

Desperate for answers, the Sodders brought awareness to the situation. They erected a massive billboard on Beckwith Road in Fayetteville and handed out hundreds of pamphlets, offering a reward for any information. “The Sodder family are being kept in constant turmoil by unsorupolous (sic) persons, in efforts to procure what money they can from the family,” one police report concluded.

After hearing a rumor in 1947 that Fire Chief Morris found a human heart in the ashes, the Sodders confronted him. They discovered a box containing the supposed heart upon a search of the property. The Sodders sent the mass to a local funeral director who confirmed that it was a beef liver. Before the Sodders’ private investigator could retrieve the box, it mysteriously disappeared. The police determined that the Sodders were “misled” by “wild dreams and fantasies.”

In 1949, the Sodders commissioned a pathologist from the Smithsonian to excavate the site of the fire. Four bones were found, “definitely identified as human,” in the basement area. The pathologist theorized that they belonged to a teenaged child. The bones showed no evidence of charring, which was possible because of the protective layers of human skin. George Sodder claimed to have found a pineapple bomb in the rubble, as well.

The sightings and searches led to various theories about what happened to the children. Many witnesses mentioned links to Florida. Jennie Sodder had a brother named Frank Cipriani in the state, and she entertained the possibility that he had taken the children. Police in Miami combed through birth and school records to prove that each child in Cipriani’s care was his own. The family also believed that the Italian mafia might have kidnapped the children as revenge for George Sodder’s criticism of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, but there was no evidence to substantiate that theory. A young neighbor (who police later deemed a “mental case”) told the Sodders that the children had been murdered and dumped into a nearby well. In the 1960s, a friend even drew a connection between the missing Sodders and the Mad Butcher killings of the time. "It could very easily be the same person,” he said.

The most promising theory involved F.J.*, a prominent Fayetteville community member. George Sodder had worked for F.J. until 1943 when they angrily parted ways. F.J. was the cosigner of the Sodders’ $1,500 home insurance and increased that amount to $1,750 without their knowledge. Sixty days before the fire, F.J urged Mr. and Mrs. Sodder to take out life insurance on their children, but they refused. “Your god damn house is going up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed,” he reportedly told them. “You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”

The police never questioned F.J. According to the Sodders, the Fayetteville prosecuting attorney did not want to bring a case “against people with whom he had to live and eat.” F.J. served as chairman of the coroner’s inquest of the fire on December 26, 1945. The committee deemed the fire accidental. When Lonnie Johnson was questioned by the Sodders’ private investigator about his theft, he allegedly responded that he was “getting damn tired of taking the rap for those people at Fayetteville.” He later denied the statement. Could Johnson have been working for F.J.?

In 1950, the police dropped the case due to lack of evidence and Mr. Sodder’s “frame of mind.” “Every effort, precaution and means have been taken to bring about a solution … The investigation has gone as far as possible,” they said.

However, mysterious clues kept coming. In 1967, the family received a letter from a woman in Houston, Texas, who said that a drunken young man claimed to be Louis Sodder. George Sodder, failing in his health and accompanied by his son-in-law, drove to Texas. The woman who wrote the letter refused to talk to them. When Mr. Sodder tracked down the man and his brother, they were friendly but unhelpful. “I think there was always some doubt in his mind,” daughter Sylvia reflected in a 2013 interview with The Charleston Gazette. “I think he always wondered if those were his boys and if he'd made a mistake, leaving so quickly.”

One year later, Mrs. Sodder received an envelope addressed only to her. It was postmarked Kentucky with no return address. A photo of a young man was inside. On the back was written: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” Louis was nine years old when he disappeared, and he bore a strong resemblance to the man. The Sodders sent a private investigator to Kentucky, whom they never heard from again.

Today, the Sodder family still wants answers. Sylvia is the last of the children who escaped the fire that night. Both she and her daughter Jennie believe that the five children did not perish. “The main thing my mother did

was listen,” Jennie explains. “Being the youngest, she grew up in the house with it. She shared her parents’ frustrations.”

Jennie believes that the Sodder mystery is powerful because it pulls at the heartstrings. “As humans, we’re storytellers,” she says. “Our heredity is very important to us, and the familiarity of

that billboard is what has made the story so haunting.” Jennie explains that anyone with a family can relate to the tragedy. She stresses that Mr. and Mrs. Sodder were wonderful, loving people who were heartbroken but not destroyed. “They didn’t do it for fame or attention,” she insists. “They did it for the love of their children.”

Jennie encourages anyone with information to submit a post on “My mom promised my grandmother that she would never let the story die,” Jennie says. “That’s what my brother and I are doing now.” In a 1951 letter to the West Virginia State Police, Mr. and Mrs. Sodder summed up the most crucial part of the family’s search even today. “The only things we cannot tell you is who did it or where they took our children,” they wrote. “Please, can't you help us now?”

*Name changed to protect a potentially innocent family.

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