The Missing Sodder Children

When I was doing my research on the case of Amy and Scott Fandel I came across this case and it sounded quite interesting.  The truth is that this case, may or may not even be a crime.  It really is unknown what happened to five of George and Jennie Sodder's ten children.  The difference in this case, as opposed to the Fandel case, there does seem to be more options, although many believe they are not reasonable ones.  While in the Fandel case, their mother came home to find a few odd things and the children simply gone, in this case there was a fire at the Sodder home in the middle of the night and no one ever saw five of the children again, at least not officially.  Keep in mind that it appears this case has almost become an urban legend in a sense so some of the facts are difficult to determine a bit, although admittedly I think they are easier than some of the other older cases I have covered, especially those in the yellow journalism era.

In the middle of the night of Christmas Eve, leading into Christmas Day, 1945 in the Appalachian town of Fayetteville West Virginia a fire broke out in the home of George and Jennie Sodder.  The things that transpired next were either very suspicious or made them the most unlucky people you will ever hear about.  It appears that Jennie Sodder may have been the first to discover the fire as the entire family, minus one son, Joe who was in the Army, slept inside the home.  This was sometime between 1 and 1:30 am.  As the family got outside a "head count" was done.  There was George and Jennie, their youngest child Sylvia, who was two and had slept in their room, their daughter Marion, who was 17 and had been asleep on the front room sofa, their oldest son, twenty-three year old John and sixteen year old George Jr. Missing were fourteen year old Maurice, twelve year old Martha, nine year old Louis, eight year old Jennie and five year old Betty.  The five missing children, along with John and George Jr. had been sleeping upstairs.  George Sr's first thought was to get back inside and get them out.  He ran back towards the house and broke out a window.  In the process he cut his arm but he knew there was no way to get in as the whole bottom floor of the home was engulfed in flames.  His next thought was to get buckets of water from the well but seeing as it was the middle of winter the water was frozen.  Next he ran to the side of the house where he kept a ladder and found that it was missing.  His final thought was to have his son's help him bring one of his two coal trucks near the house.  They would reach the upper level.  Neither of the two trucks would start.  So while Marion ran to a neighbors house to attempt to call the fire department the remaining survivors were left to simply watch their home burn, probably with five family members inside, or so they believed at the time.  

This was a time before 9-1-1, direct calling, or even established full fledged fire departments.  So this means that when Marion got to the neighbors house to call to report the fire, she first had to obtain an operator to connect her.  Apparently this did not happen very quickly or at least on the first try.  Some reports say that she eventually got through to the operator who contacted the fire chief, who in turn contacted the remaining volunteer firefighters.  Other reports say that a different neighbor saw the fire and tried to call it in and that they too could not get an operator response and that they went to town to inform the fire chief.  All reports agree that while the fire did start somewhere between 1 and 1:30 am, burning for approximately 30-45 minutes that the fire department did not arrive until 8 am, long after the fire had gone out on it's own and the home was destroyed.  Obviously distraught in grief George and Jennie were surprised when they heard from the people sifting through the ashes of the house that no sign of any of the children's bodies were found.  This was the first of many things that the Sodder parents found suspicious.  Soon after a coroner's jury was conducted, as they were in those days, and it was officially determined that the fire had started by faulty wiring and that the five missing children had perished in the fire.  Death certificates were issued for the children.

George and Jennie failed to believe this.  They spent the rest of their lives searching for their children and believing that their children had been kidnapped from their home and had not died in that fire in 1945.  Were they simply overly distraught parents who were looking for anything and everything they could to prove that their children had not died in that fire or was their evidence that what they believed was entirely possible?

Fayetteville West Virginia was largely an Italian immigrant town in 1945.  Both George and Jennie had originally been born in Italy themselves.  Jennie immigrated as a small child but apparently George did so around the age of 18 or 19.  Jennie had come with her family whereas George initially came with a brother but apparently the brother almost immediately returned to Italy.  Eventually George and Jennie would meet, marry and have ten children between the years of 1923 and 1943.  George had also established a trucking company of sorts.  He first began simply hauling dirt for construction but later he expanded to carry freight and coal trucking.  Most reports state that they were well respected in their town and were considered upper middle class at the time, although seeing as this was Appalachian country I am unsure just how "middle class" they were and what that meant in the area.  The area is more known for the economic poor and poor living conditions, even in that time period than it is for prospering.  I also question the fact that he was considered to be "well respected" as many reports stated that George had issues with other residents of the area because he was rather brash and forward about his distasteful feelings about Italian dictator Mussolini.  This seemed to have caused some issues between him and some of the other Italian immigrants in the area.  

So what were some of the reasons that George and Jennie did not believe that their children died in the fire?  Well, first off, as I mentioned earlier, there seemed to be no remains or bones found at the scene of the fire.  Most reports, even at the time, claim that in order for bones to burn a fire must burn at a rather large temperature for a period of at least two hours. This fire burned for less than half of that time. Jennie was said to have conducted her own experiments over the years using animal bones and every time there were visible bones left. There were also rumors that another fire in the area claimed the lives of the residents but that bones had remained to prove this. Secondly, the fire was reportedly caused by faulty wiring. George disputed this for a few reasons.  For one, a few months prior to the fire the wiring had been re-done and inspected by the local power company and said to be fine. Another reason he disputed this was because there were reports that there were some lights still burning in the house at the time of the fire.  I am not completely sure of this account and will get into that in a bit. 

It also came out that a few strange things had occurred leading up to the fire.  Both  George and Jennie claimed that just after the wiring had been done and inspected, a few months prior to the fire,  a stranger had come to the home looking for hauling work. At some point the man had supposedly walked around to the back of the house and pointed to two fuse boxes and said "this is going to cause a fire some day."  Because of the recent inspection George apparently did not take the thought seriously.  Also near this same time a man came to the home selling life insurance.  The story was that the man became angry when George declined buying any and commented that the "house would go up in smoke" and that his children would be "destroyed."  He also supposedly indicated that this would be payback or Karma for the way George felt and spoke about Mussolini.  The older children also claimed that in the weeks prior to the fire they had seen a man sitting in a car on the highway near their home watching as the younger children returned from school.  Jennie then claimed that on the night of the fire, just after midnight she had been awakened by the telephone ringing.  She claimed that when she answered it that someone she did not know, asked for someone else she did not know. She said she informed the caller that they had the wrong number and that she then heard laughing and noise in the background as the caller hung up.  She said that as she headed back to bed she noticed that lights were still on, the curtains were open and the door was unlocked.  Supposedly she found this odd because she said her children were good about closing things up and shutting things off as they went to bed but none the less she supposedly did these things and then went back to bed. This is where I become a bit confused.  Almost all reports say that Jennie shut off all the lights and locked the door before heading back to bed but yet later reports state that George claimed that there were lights (some report lights from the Christmas tree) still on as the fire burnt, disputing the claim of electrical.  I find it very odd for a few reasons.  First I would believe that if the lights were left on as Jeannie claimed that she would have shut them off, and I believe she would have shut them all off, including any Christmas lights.  We're talking 1945, just a few years past The Depression and people of that era had learned to be very frugal and it became ingrained into them.  To leave lights on while every slept would not seem to be normal.  I also kind of question the locked door issue too. Although I could be very wrong, again, this was a time and era where people, especially those who did not live in "town" like the Sodders were not necessarily in the habit of locking doors religiously, if at all.  But, either way, these were the claims.  Jennie then claims that just as she began drifting off to sleep it sounded as if something it and then rolled on the roof but she thought nothing more of it and went to sleep.  It was just sometime after that she awoke to smoke and discovered the house on fire.  It should also be noted that it was later reported that one of the men on the coroner's jury that quickly determined that the fire was caused by faulty wiring and that the children perished in the fire was the same man who had previously attempted to sell George life insurance and had made strange remarks.

Before I go any further, let's touch on the strange things that occurred during the fire and George's attempted rescue. It was later said that a witness saw a man rummaging through the Sodder garage while the fire was still going on and apparently stealing some items, quite possibly even the ladder that George later went to attempt to use. The ladder was later found a distance from the house in a ditch of some sort.  The story is that the man that was seen in the garage was caught and fined for stealing but that no investigation looked further into him as to if he could have been involved with the fire, or the disappearance of the children.  There really was little information on this person so I was unable to determine if the man was responsible for the moving of the ladder or even possibly be responsible for the coal trucks not starting.  Then again we have to remember this was apparently a very cold winter night and the fact that the trucks would not start could possibly be as simple as the weather causing it.  Apparently the authorities saw this as an open and shut case and did not see any reason to look into the man further.  In fact, I was unable to determine just who this man was.  Was he a nearby neighbor who had stopped with others watching as the fire burned?  Had he simply been driving by (out in the country) at 1:30 in the morning and stopped?  Without knowing for sure who he was, or where he came from there is always the possibility that he did not show up after the fire, but had been there before, but this is something we will never know. 

In 1947 George and Jennie sent a letter to the FBI and supposedly J. Edgar Hoover personally replied stating that the investigation would be at the local level and that while they would help if asked so by local authorities they had no authorization or cause to start their own investigation.  The local authorities declined the offer. So, knowing apparently that they were not going to get any help from the local authorities George and Jennie decided that it was up to them to solve the mystery of their children and follow all leads. The spring after the fire they went back to the scene and while there they discovered a strange looking item.  George recovered it and reportedly took it to a friend of his who described it as a napalm "pineapple bomb."  Jennie came to believe that this was likely what she heard hit and then roll on the roof before being awakened to smoke. They had also spoken to a man who worked for the telephone company who reported that the line to the telephone had been cut, not burnt.  This would indicate that this happened just prior to the fire but after Jennie had received the strange phone call.

Almost immediately after the fire George had apparently leveled the area and had filled the nearly five foot hole using fill dirt and one of his trucks. He was determined to make some sort of memorial.  Supposedly the fire department discouraged this but I am unsure that is accurate seeing as many reports claim they had no intention of pursuing anything regarding the fire and many were quoted as stating that the parents needed to move forward.  In August of 1949 they decided the site should be searched again and called in a pathologist from Washington D.C.  They apparently completely dug out the area that had once been the basement and had reportedly gone through it very meticulously.  They discovered some coins, partly burned books and apparently some shards of vertebrae bones.  These bones were sent to be tested and found that they showed no evidence of being exposed to fire and the fact that these were the only bones found in the very careful search it was pretty much determined that they likely came from the fill dirt that George had placed in the area after the fire.  Most agreed that considering the fire did not burn for very long and so full skeletons should have been found.   It was after this search that two hearings were held but the Governor and the State Police Supervisor stated that a search was "hopeless" and once again declared the case closed.

At some point the Sodders, apparently after running after leads and "sightings" on their own hired a private detective named C.C. Tinsley to look at the case.  It was Tinsley who had discovered that the insurance man had been on the coroner's jury. He had also spoken to the fire chief, F.J. Morris who claimed to him (apparently the first it was heard) that he had found "a heart" in the ashes but that he had buried them at the scene in order to not add to the Sodder's grief (Yeah, this did not make much sense).  Tinsley got Morris to show him where he buried this and when it was found it was sent to a funeral director to be examined.  According to the director, it was not a heart but a "beef liver" that not only seemed untouched by fire, but also fairly fresh. George and Jennie would later claim that Morris stated to people that he had planted that item hoping that the family would end their investigation.  Of course it is unknown if this statement was true.  

In 1952 George and Jennie erected a billboard near the site of the fire.  There were the pictures of the five missing children as well as information on what happened on the night of December 24, 1945.  A $5,000 reward was offered, it was soon raised to $10,000.  Of course leads came in and apparently between George, Jennie, and Tinsley they were followed but nothing seemed to pan out.  The billboard apparently remained standing until Jennie's death in 1989 (I could not find an exact date but most reports say 1989 while a few state she died in 1988).  

Then in 1968 Jennie went to her mailbox one day to find an envelope addressed only to her.  There was a postmark from Kentucky but there was no return address.  Inside the envelope was the picture of a young man who looked to be in his 20's.  On the back was written "Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. ilil Boys A90132" (or it could have been A90135).  George and Jennie were so convinced that this had to be their son Louis that it gave them more hope yet they were confused by the writing on the back.  First they did not have a son named Frankie. Over the years there became the idea that since 90132 was the mailing code for Sicily Italy that was some sort of code or clue.  No one could definitively figure out just what the back of the picture meant. But, true to every other lead this one was followed and C.C. Tinsley supposedly went to Kentucky to investigate.  The strange thing is that all reports say that he was never heard from again and that he disappeared himself.  This just adds one more to the list of conspiracy theories that have developed over the years (some of which I will delve into in a bit).  It was said that a copy of this picture was added to the billboard that had been erected. George and Jennie both claimed that not only did he look like their son, who was nine at the time of the fire, but resembled other family members giving them more belief that it was in fact Louis.  

Since that time though very little seems to have been determined or at least proven. It has been said that George and Jennie's children and grandchildren (specifically youngest child Sylvia who was two at the time of the fire) have taken up the search to find the truth.  Of course with all cases of this type there were many "sightings" throughout the years, but more specifically reported around the time the reward was offered but had occurred not long around the time of the fire. One witness claimed to have seen the children in a car riding away from the scene as the fire burned. Another woman who worked at tourist stop about 50 miles away from the home claimed she saw the children the next morning at a diner and served them breakfast.  She claims they left in a vehicle with Florida plates.  Another woman claimed that she worked in a Charleston Hotel and about a week after the fire (although she could not say what date) that she saw four of the five children and that they were with two men and two women who were of Italian decent.  She claimed they checked in around around midnight and left early the next morning.  She went on to say that she had attempted to speak to the children but that the adults were very brash, spoke to the children in Italian and then no one in the party spoke to her again.  This latter account at least has been largely believed to not be true.  

And then of course comes the conspiracy theories and some of them are wild.  One of the most believed or elaborate I should say involved the Mafia.  While I do not know that I buy into this theory it does bare mentioning.  First as we know the area was populated by Italian immigrants.  It was said that the Mafia also was involved in the area when it came to coal... whether it be mining, hauling, distributing... I cannot say.  But, the fact that George Sodder was also involved in the hauling of coal has apparently given this theory wings.  Then when the picture arrived with the supposed mailing code to Sicily it also led some to believe the Mafia theory.  Other theories involve things such as revenge for George's apparent distaste for Mussolini as well as that the children were kidnapped for a some sort of adoption ring akin to the Georgia Tann case.  There are always those that think there are no coincidences and that with all of the things that went wrong from the beginning while George tried to rescue his children, the fact the fire department was first hard to get in touch with and later very late to the scene, the incidences with the strangers prior to the fire, the fact that C.C. Tinsley disappeared and even the picture arriving that it all added up to something sinister, which is all but what George and Jeannie believed until the days they died, he in 1969 and she twenty years later.  And then of course there are those who believe there was nothing sinister that occurred and that the fire was simply a terrible accident in which five children died.

What do I think?  I cannot say for sure. I will say that I find it suspicious that no bodies were found, but I have to wonder if this was from a bad investigation or something more.  I admit that I also find it suspicious that town, where the fire equipment was located was less than three miles from the home yet it took them over 6 hours to arrive at the scene. I find the account of the fire chief very strange after he supposedly admitted to finding a "heart" at the scene. That whole story just does not seem to add up for me.  I fear that as a parent I would have likely been like George and Jennie.  It was said that they would have accepted the fact that their children died in the fire if it could be proven.  In the end they went to their graves believing their children were kidnapped... but for what reason? That is where I have a problem. With all the theories that were out there, there never seemed to be a clear motive as to why the fire would have been intentionally set or the children taken.  Let's look at the Mafia theory.  If in fact they were involved in any way, first one of two things would have happened.  Either George and Jennie would have shut their mouths out of fear and just accepted what they were told... or, out of anger they would have announced they suspected the Mafia, of which I never heard as a theory from them.  The Mafia rarely just did stuff without clear warning beforehand and if George was this adamant about finding out the truth of what happened he would have told someone.. anyone... that he was having issues with them.  If the Mafia was a possible option in George's opinion, I just do not see him pursuing the fight for as long and as vigorously as he did.  It kept them in the spotlight, something that someone who has been attacked by the Mafia would not do.  I also do not see a lot when it comes to the "kidnapping/adoption" ring theory.  Sure stuff like that happened back then but those things happened to unwed mothers, or lower class people who could not properly care for their children for the most part.  They did not (or at least to any knowledge that I know) go to homes and risks lives in this manner.  On top of this most of the children that were taken in those sorts of things were babies or toddlers, children who would not know the difference or be able to tell.  The youngest of these children was five and the oldest was fourteen.  So yeah, that theory just does not seem plausible to me at all.  I could say that a plausible motive for the fire was George's outwardly distaste for Mussolini in an area in surrounded by other Italian immigrants who did not appreciate him speaking bad of the leader of their home country but then I am left with, where were the bodies.  Was the investigation so shoddy that the could not find them? Well, that does not make sense either.  The fire did not burn hot enough or long enough to get rid of five bodies completely, especially when you consider there were other items (manufactured ones) in the home that while charred could be identified.  Although I dd not mention it as at the time it did not seem worthy to do so, and even not I only do so to make another point, there was a theory that George and Jennie could have in fact killed their own children.  But again, we are left with all the time and lots of money that they spent on the search for their children.  Why do that when everyone else, including authorities are telling you to give it up if you have murdered your own children? I would think it would have been difficult to do with all the other children in the home at the time and why stop with five when you have four more there and only one of those surviving was too young to remember a whole lot.  All of this comes down to common sense to me.  I think in the end it is likely that the children did likely die in that fire, although admittedly I question the cause of the fire, and for whatever reason it was the bodies were not found.  They could have been huddled together for all we know and all five sets of bones were isolated in an area that somehow did not get searched.  For me that is the only true logical explanation. That would have me to conclude that the picture sent to Jennie in 1968 was not in fact Louis but someone who may have looked like he may have grown up to look like and the sender was a hoax.

Comments

  1. Its horrible !!! Its nice to read this story. Thanks for sharing Susan Skinner

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