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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Historical Mystery: The Missing Sodder Children

I'm combining historical and crime tidbits today with a historical mystery. Anyone ever heard of the vanished Sodder children? It's actually a very tragic tale.

On Christmas Eve, 1945, the home of George and Jennie Sodder burnt to the ground. The Sodders lived near Fayette, West Virginia and had ten children, nine of whom were under their roof that night for the holidays. The only one missing was one of older boys who was serving in the army. 

The fire started in the middle of the night and, sadly, only four of the nine children made it out of the house. The oldest son and Mr. Sodder did everything they could to get back inside. The staircase leading to the second level where the other five children had been sleeping was engulfed in flames. Mr. Sodder kept a ladder by the side of the house. Always. But when he went to retrieve it, it was gone. The water sources around the house were frozen solid with the cold weather. In desperation, they tried to start their trucks, hoping to bring them to he side of the house and stand on them to reach the second level. The trucks, though they'd run just fine hours before, refused to start.

The house burnt to ashes in less than 45 minutes. The small town police department didn't arrive until dawn. 

Then the true oddities of the situation began to emerge. In the crematoriums of the time, it took 2 hours at 2000 degrees to incinerate bone. It's impossible to gauge the temperature of the fire, but it burnt out in less than an hour, which means five skeletons should have been found in the aftermath. Not a single one was.

The family began a search for the missing children, but were blocked at every turn. The police work was shoddy, and may have even contained cover-ups, though admittedly they had more to do with wanting to put the investigation to bed quickly than with anything sinister. Yet, the Sodders pieced together a timeline of strange events leading up to and during the fire.

Months before, an insurance salesman had visited the Sodders. When George wouldn't buy from him, the salesman became irate. He shouted that George would pay for his very public anti-Mussolini stance (the Sodders were Italian immigrants) and was heard to use the words, "Your g**d*** house is going to go up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed." This same man was on the coroner's jury which ruled the fire an accident.

Around that same time, another stranger visited the house, asking about hauling work. Unprompted, he approached the Sodder's fuse box, looked at the wiring, and told Mr. Sodder there would be a fire. Mr. Sodder thought it strange because he'd had the wiring checked only days before by the local power company and it was found to be in perfect condition. Faulty wiring was considered as a cause of the fire, but Mrs. Sodder woke not long before the fire began and found most of the lights in the house on and running normally. If the wiring had been bad, especially in 1945, they should not have had power.

Only days before the fire, a strange man was seen watching the house when the children got home from school. He was also spotted several times sitting in his car beside the highway, not far from the Sodder home. To this day, no one knows who this man was or what his relevance to the case was.

The night of the fire, the children opened a few presents and then everyone went to sleep. Around 12:30 am, the phone rang, and Mrs. Sodder jumped up to answer it. A strange female voice asked for an unfamiliar name. Mrs. Sodder could hear laughter and the clinking of dishes in the background. She told the caller they had the wrong number and hung up. It was then that she noticed many of the house lights were still on. One of the children had fallen asleep on the couch, and she assumed the others were in bed. She turned out the lights, closed the still-open curtains, and locked the door. All this was strange because the children usually took care of the curtains, the lights, and locked the door before heading upstairs to bed. Not thinking anything of it, Mrs. Stodder returned to bed where her three-year-old had curled up with her. Not long after, she heard a loud thud on the roof, followed by the sound of something rolling. She didn't know what it was, but when she heard nothing else, she went back to sleep. The next time she awakened, it was to the smell of acrid smoke.

Other facts:

While the fire was raging, a man was found trying to steal items from the Stodder's property. Oddly, he was never suspected of arson. He was charged a fine for his actions, but nothing more is known of him. 

Billboard that stood at site of fire until after
Jennie Sodder's death in 1989. Source
Witnesses came forward. One reported seeing an unfamiliar man leaving the scene of the fire with a block and tackle--the reason the trucks wouldn't start, perhaps? A bus driver claimed he saw "fire balls" being thrown onto the roof not long before the fire began in earnest. In the wreckage was found a round, green object, determined to be some variation on a napalm bomb. The thud and roll Mrs. Stodder heard on the roof?

Some bones were found in the wreckage, but only bits and pieces. They were determined to be that of a 16-22 year old man, and hadn't been touched by fire. The oldest missing boy was fourteen. It was believed the bones were buried near the house long before the fire took place and had no relevance to the incident.

The five missing children were never heard from again, despite all the Stodders' efforts, including a nation-wide search, offering an award for information, and posting a billboard with their children's pictures that remained in place in Fayette until after Mrs. Sodder's death in 1989.

Alleged 'older' picture of Louis Sodder
In 1968, more than twenty years after the fire, a local paper ran an article on the mystery, which led to one more bizarre chapter in the story. Shortly after the article ran, Mrs. Stoddard received a picture, post-marked from Kentucky, of what looked remarkably like what her son Louis might look like if he'd lived. Though of course, they couldn't be sure because he was only 9 when the fire happened. On back of the photo was written a cryptic message. “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35”. In a flurry, the Sodders hired a P.I. and sent him to Kentucky. He was never heard from again.

George and Jennie Sodder died, not knowing what happened to five of their ten children, but Mrs. Sodder especially believed them to be alive somewhere in the world. 

Some theories:

--Some believed it had something to do with the Italian mafia. Sodder was an outspoken critic of Mussolini, and he refused to talk about his youth in Italy or what happened to make him want to leave.
--Others think the children were taken by someone they knew, who burst into the house and got them out before the fire took hold. If they promised the children safety, the children probably would have gone with them, expecting the rest of the family to follow.

The youngest Sodder child, just three years old at the time of the fire, is in her seventies now, and does not believe her siblings perished in the flames that night. Her earliest memories are of the horror of the fire, though she's never come close to understanding what really happened.

What do you think of this tragic mystery? What do you think most likely happened to the four Sodder children?


  1. What a strange mystery, especially when the guy was on the jury.

  2. Was IT EVER CONFIRMED THAT THE ELDEST SON WAS ACCOUNTED FOR BY THE ARMY? We all know that "you never really know someone" or "you don't really know what happens in a family behind closed doors". Could the parents have been abusive and the eldest son went home and, under cover of the house fire< rescued his siblings? It is very intriguing and, I agree that it was very questionable to have that insurance man on the jury but it was probably a very small community and not everyone was literate then so the community didn't have a lot of men to pick from that was able to be on the jury. Mob is out, they would have gone after the father, if they had started the fire, would have made sure he didn't survive and been waiting out side for him. Still, a highly intriguing mystery and I can really feel for the mom.

  3. With DNA testing being done all over the world by regular people (23andme), have any of the childrens children surfaced? I hope these babies were able to live out their days. I agree with possible abuse and rescuing the children scenario... 10 children is a lot to care for.