Christmas Eve 1946, Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Giorgio “George” and Jennie Sodder emigrated separately from Italy but found love in Smithers, West Virginia. They had 10 children and built a better life by moving to Fayetteville, settling on Route 16. With their older son serving in the military, the family of 11 (9 kids plus George and Jennie) celebrated Christmas Eve by opening a few gifts and tucking in early. Five of the children slept upstairs in two rooms. The three older children fell asleep downstairs near the Christmas tree. George and Jennie retired to their bedroom with the 2-year-old toddler, Sylvia. Nothing seemed amiss until a fire broke out at 1 am.
Reflecting back, there might have been signs of trouble brewing. George was an outspoken Italian who provided lively commentary about the recent downfall of the Italian monarchy. He was not a fan of “Il Duce,” Benito Mussolini, killed the year prior. Witnesses retold a heated argument George had with a life insurance salesman, who left casting an ominous threat: You will regret not purchasing the policies as your house will burn and your children shall perish. And just that evening, Jennie answered a telephone call shortly after midnight where a female asked to speak with a man who did not reside at the home. Jennie hung up noticing the unlocked front door and the downstairs lights still on. She closed up and returned to bed.
And then there were a series of failures when the fire erupted. George, Jr. (16), Marion (17), and John (23) easily escaped, as did George and Jennie carrying Sylvia. Stories differ as to how many people attempted to contact the fire department. One of the children ran to the neighbor’s house to call. No one answered. Another neighbor may have also tried. Again, no response.
George was desperate to reach the second floor. He couldn’t find the ladder. He devised a plan to drive one of his trucks to the house and then jump into a second story window. Neither truck would start. Panicked, the family watched as the fire blazed for 45 minutes. Still, the fire department had not arrived.
The fire burned itself out by the time the fire department arrived on scene at 8 am—nearly 7 hours after the fire started. The family began to grieve as it seemed obvious that the 5 remaining children perished in the flames.
But had they?
No human remains were found. Theories, however, began to circulate. One neighbor claimed that s/he saw a car carry the children off. As press reports ran about the strange disappearance of Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5), people outside of the area reported seeing them. A motel owner contacted police about a shy Italian family with 5 kids who matched their descriptions. Some pondered whether the mafia was involved. Wondered if the children had been taken back to Italy to live in an orphanage. Police investigated, but no evidence was uncovered. No children were found.
Once the police began a proper investigation, probably too late to be of value, they discovered that the telephone line was cut, as were the power lines. Fire Chief F.J. Morris explained the 7-hour delay in arriving. The firemen did not sleep at the station. Instead, a telephone tree was initiated when there were emergencies after hours. It took 6 ½ hours to round up a crew. The final police report listed the 5 children as dying in the fire. Their date of death was Christmas Day, December 25, 1946.
The surviving Sodder family grieved. They hired Private Investigator C.C. Tinsley. He uncovered that the salesman was a member of the coroner’s jury. Tinsley heard a rumor of a box with a human heart dug up during the investigation. He tracked down the source: Fire Chief Morris, who fessed up to burying the box hoping the family could move on in their grief. The organ was dissected; it was a beef liver. Not human.
George brought in fill dirt, and the family created a memorial. The dirt was processed, and a few human bones were discovered. However, it was not hardly enough for one child, let alone 5. Jennie was determined to challenge the police report. She researched the amount of heat required to burn a human body to ash. It became clear that the fire had not been hot enough, nor did it burn long enough. The children’s remains were not there.
In 1952, George and Jennie erected a large billboard offering a $5,000 reward. Over the years, the reward grew to $10,000. The family never had to pay out a reward. The children were never found.
Hope resurfaced in 1968. Jennie received an envelope addressed solely to her. It had a Kentucky postmark. Inside was a photograph of a young man. On the back was scrawled, “Louis Sodder, I love brother Frankie, Ilit boys, A90132 or 35.” The family hired another private investigator, located in Kentucky as not to draw media attention.
The PI took their money and disappeared. No man was found. George and Jennie updated the billboard and added the image. Still, the reward remained unclaimed.
Decades passed; people drove past the billboard retelling the tale of five missing children. George died in 1969; Jennie died in 1989. The surviving children grew up but never stopped searching. The youngest, Sylvia, was the last remaining child. Sadly, she died in 2021 at the age of 79.
Today, the billboard no longer exists. A private Facebook, Sodder Children. What Happened to Them?, (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1517621841830429) was created.
Will this mystery ever be solved? I think it may. With the advancement of DNA processing and more people uploading their samples, the mystery may be resolved. Should a descendent upload his/her DNA, it would be linked to other family members. This premise relies on Sodder ancestors uploading DNA profiles.
This tragic mystery hits close to home. My father’s maternal line was part of the Fayetteville community. When West Virginia was annexed from Virginia, the family was granted land and settled in the area. I have friends and family still in the region. I’m sifting through my DNA matches to see if there are any links to the Sodder family. It is a massive undertaking.
I’m drawn to this tragedy. I pray that the descendants ultimately find out what happened all those years ago.
To hear more about this case and three similar unsolved murders, check out Ghost Education 101 on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/GhostEducation101. I gave a presentation on March 30.