A Fire or a Kidnapping? The Mysterious Case of the Sodder Children

In the early hours of Christmas 1945, a terrible fire devastated the Sodder home. Six of the eleven family members managed to escape, while five of the children couldn’t be rescued. The deaths were obviously a tragic loss for the family, and, to make matters worse, they couldn’t give them a proper burial since their bodies were burnt to ashes… or so they say.

George and Jennie Sodder posing in front of a large poster offering a reward / A wanted poster offering a $5000 reward for any information

Source: Twitter / Tumblr

Shortly after the shock of losing their five kids, George and Jennie looked back at the events of that evening and realized that there were many unanswered questions. The whole story didn’t add up, and the family started to believe that the children were abducted. There is evidence supporting the kidnapping story, and it looks like the fire was just a diversion and possible cover-up. Because of all the clues pointing to a possible abduction, the case remains a mystery.

Here is everything we know about the case of the Sodder Children.

A Fateful Christmas

The year was 1945, and it was the night before Christmas. George and Jennie Sodder were asleep, along with their nine children, when a fire started in their home at around 1:00 am. George and Jenny escaped with four of the kids: Sylvia (2), Marion (17), John (23), and George Jr. (16). The children that were left inside the home were Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5).

A Christmas tree with lights strung around a snowy front yard

Illustrative photograph. Source: 123rf / Drago Ilisinovic

The five of them shared two bedrooms, both on the second floor of the house. George ran back into the home to save the rest of his children, but the staircase was on fire. Not only that but when he went to get a ladder, it was missing. Furthermore, both of his coal trucks that he wanted to climb on to rescue the kids wouldn’t start.

Seven Hours Later

Marion, one of the children who escaped, went to the neighbor’s house to call the fire department, but the operator didn’t pick up. And when another neighbor tried to call, once again, there was no response. That same neighbor decided to drive into town and found the fire chief in person, F.J. Morris.

A house in the woods with a broken front porch and windows

The Sodder house. Source: Pinterest

Despite the fire department only being 2.5 miles from the house, the firefighters strangely didn’t arrive there until 8:00 am – 7 hours after the fire began. Unsurprisingly, the house was literally ash once they finally got there. The five children were tragically ruled dead due to the fire. The fire chief concluded that the fire was so hot that it cremated the kids’ bodies… including their bones.

Ruled Dead

If that seems like a bizarre conclusion, it’s because it’s not very accurate. Even in horrific fires, when people are burned, their bones are typically left behind. Plus, there were absolutely no reports of burning flesh before or after the fire. The cause of the fire was deemed to be bad wiring in the house.

The site where the house used to stand with trees around

The land where the Sodder house used to stand. Source: Twitter

One week after, death certificates were issued for the four Sodder children who didn’t make it out of the house. The only thing left of the home was the basement. George used a bulldozer to cover it up and kept it as a memorial for his kids.

Accident? Or Kidnapping?

Once the shock began to wear off, George and Jenny suspected that their kids hadn’t died in the fire and were, instead, kidnapped. They believed the fire was set as a cover-up. They thought that the fire was a diversion and couldn’t have been caused by faulty wiring. The power company actually came to check the wires a couple of months prior.

Photographs of the five Sodder children who were taken

The five missing Sodder children. Source: Twitter

The wiring was fine. Someone in the Coroner’s office just blamed it on the wires… but we’ll get to why he might have done that later. Before we get into all the kidnapping theories, here is a quick background of George Sodder to put things into context and perspective.

Some Sodder Family History

George and Jennie Sodder were Italian immigrants who came to the United States (separately) as young kids. George had his own trucking company in West Virginia, and they were a respected middle-class family. However, that didn’t mean they were loved by all.

A portrait of Jennie Sodder holding her eldest son, John

Jennie Sodder holding John, her eldest son. Source: Flickr

George, in particular, had strong political opinions and wasn’t shy about sharing them. Needless to say, some people didn’t appreciate that- especially in their immigrant community. He strongly opposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Furthermore, George never told anybody why he left Italy, causing people to suspect he was involved in some sketchy business over there. Either of these reasons could have led to the kidnapping of George’s children.

Earlier That Evening

Now, keeping this in mind, let’s backtrack to unusual events that occurred earlier that night, before the tragic fire that would drastically change the Sodder family’s life forever. A little earlier that night, at 12:30, am, Jennie Sodder woke up to a phone call.

Nine out of the ten Sodder children posing in the yard

The Sodder children. Source: Pinterest

When she answered, the voice on the other end of the line was a woman she didn’t recognize asking for someone Jennie wasn’t familiar with. She heard other people and clinking glasses in the background, along with “weird laughter.” After getting off the phone, Jennie immediately checked on the kids. She allowed them to stay up a little late to play with their new toys.

Lights On

She noticed that the lights were on, and the curtains were closed. Usually, the last person to go to bed would turn everything off. She found one of the kids (Marion) sleeping on the couch. Jennie brought her into bed and assumed the other kids were in the attic and had forgotten to turn off the lights.

A house on fire in a woodsy area

Illustrative photograph. Source: 123rf / Adrei Iakovlev

At 1:00 am, Jennie woke up again. This time, it was to the sound of “an object hitting the house’s roof with a loud bang, then a rolling noise.” She didn’t think much of it and went back to sleep. Then at 1:30, Jennie woke up for the last time that night. She smelled smoke, and when she got up, she noticed a fire in George’s office.

HELP! FIRE!

His office happened to be in the same room as the fuse box and telephone wires. That’s when George and Jennie got out of there. The family yelled and assumed their screams would wake up the other kids, who went to sleep later than the rest of the family. Remember, she thought they went to sleep without shutting off the lights.

An old firehouse

Illustrative photograph. Source: Flickr

George, of course, did everything in his power to get back into the home and save his kids. Unfortunately, with the missing ladder and the cars not starting, George couldn’t get back inside. Additionally, the firefighters took way too long to arrive- so there was no saving the kids.

Holes in the Story

Once things started to calm down, the family started to question what really went down. Their Christmas lights were still on when the fire began, as well as other lights in the house. This wouldn’t have been possible if the fire was truly caused by electric wiring. Things didn’t add up. George also remembered how the family ladder was moved, which prevented him from getting upstairs and saving the kids.

A newer billboard with the photographs of the missing Sodder children with information about the night of the fire and conspiracies

Source: Twitter

Things quickly went from weird to suspicious. Someone at the telephone company said that someone had crawled up a phone pole and cut the phone line leading to the Sodder house. But there were more bizarre things concluded about this case that didn’t really add up.

Burned to Ashes

We mentioned how it is highly unlikely for the kids to have been burned to complete ash. At the very least, bones should have been left behind. While going through her crumbled home, Jennie found some kitchen appliances intact. There is no way that the fire burned human bones to ash and didn’t even damage other items.

A house burned to ashes

Illustrative photograph. Source: 123rf / Sergejs Kuznecovs

George, on the other hand, was confused as to why his trucks (which had been previously working) wouldn’t move that night. Clearly, things weren’t making much sense and the Sodder parents wanted answers. As any parent would if five of their children vanished, especially under such unsettling circumstances.

A Mother’s Intuition

For Jennie, it was almost easier to believe that her children were dead than that they had been kidnapped. However, she truly felt like they were out there, scared and alone. You know what they say about a mother’s intuition.

A wanted poster offering a $5000 reward for any information

Source: Tumblr

Jenny started experimenting with burning animal bones to see what would happen. If they burned to ash, it would be easier for her to believe that her children’s bones had too. However, they all left remains. She spoke to a crematorium employee who told her that bones were left behind even when they were burned at 2000 degrees for two hours. The Sodder home burned for only 45 minutes.

The Roof Is on Fire

A local bus driver stated that as he passed through Fayetteville late Christmas eve, he witnessed people throwing “balls of fire” at the Sodder house before the fire. After the snow melted a few months later, Sylvia (the youngest Sodder child) found a small, hard, green rubber ball-like object in the bushes nearby.

Investigators looking at items that they picked up excavating the Sodder house

Investigators at the Sodder house. Source: Flickr

George recalled his wife’s account of hearing a loud noise on the roof before the fire and said it looked like a “pineapple bomb,” like the ones used in war at the time. The family concluded that the fire started on the roof, which was contrary to the marshal’s conclusion. Unfortunately, there was no way for them to prove it.

Possibly Alive

There were also sightings of the children. One witness claimed she saw the children in a car that night while the fire was still burning. Another woman said she saw the missing kids in the car the next morning. “I served them breakfast,” she reported. “There was a car with Florida License plates at the tourist court, too.”

Photographs of Jennie Sodder and Maurice Antonio Sodder around the time of their disappearance

Jennie and Maurice Antonio Sodder. Source: Twitter

Of course, witness statements aren’t 100% reliable. However, there is plenty of reasonable doubt surrounding the case. There should have been an investigation launched. I mean, these are little kids we are talking about here. That wasn’t the only sighting either.

Another Sighting

Another woman claimed to have seen the children at the Charleston hotel. She said that she saw the kids about a week later but said: “I do not remember the exact date.” She also revealed that the children arrived at around midnight with two men and two women who appeared to her to be “of Italian extraction.”

Betty Jean Sodder around the time they went missing

Betty Jean Sodder. Source: Pinterest

She went on to explain what happened when she tried to speak with the kids: “I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children… I sensed that I was being frozen out, and so I said nothing more.” They left the next morning.

Remains Found

The site of the house fire was excavated in 1949, and that’s when human vertebrae were found. However, an expert who evaluated the bones said they came from a human between the ages of 16 and 23, and there was no evidence that they were exposed to fire.

Men performing an excavation on the Sodder house remains

The Sodder home excavation. Source: Tumblr

This didn’t help much, considering the oldest missing child was 14 years old at the time. It couldn’t have been him. The experts also mentioned that it was “very strange” that no more bones were found because they shouldn’t have been burnt to ashes in that situation.

Eerie Letter

In 1967 (23 years after the fire), Jennie Sodder received an eerie photo in the mail. It was of a man resembling Louis Sodder, one of her missing children. On the back of the photo, it said: “Louis Sodder, I love brother Frankie, llil boys, A90132 or 35.”

The photograph that the family was sent of Louis next to the childhood photograph of him

Louis Sodder next to the photograph the family received of him. Source: Tumblr

They sent a private investigator to Kentucky to see what he could find, but, strangely, the detective was never heard from again. Wow, I can’t even imagine how the parents felt. Not only did they lose their kids in a fire, but they were haunted by the fact that they might be alive. With no closure on the events of that night, they lived with unanswered questions and horrific suspicions.

Suspect Number One

In October 1945, about two months before the fire, a traveling life insurance salesman tried to sell George a life insurance policy. When he declined, the salesman told him his house would go “up in smoke… and your children are going to be destroyed.” Yikes! That sounds eerily specific.

A black and white portrait of Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini. Photo by Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

The salesman didn’t make the threats against Sodder because he didn’t get his business. It was because of “the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” Remember the coroner who said the fire was due to faulty wiring? That coroner is the salesman who threatened George and his family. Who approved this jury?!

Unlikely Suspect

Someone in town was looking for work and asked George Sodder if he would pay him to fix his fuse boxes. He warned George that they needed to be fixed, or else they would catch fire. However, since George had recently had the house rewired and it was deemed safe by the electric company, he decided not to hire him.

An electrical wire on fire while plugged in

Illustrative photograph. Source: 123rf / chontocha

Since the wires were recently fixed, the faulty wire explanation made even less sense. People have suspected that maybe the man was angry that George didn’t give him work and wanted revenge. However, this sounds like an extreme response to not getting a job. The coroner/ insurance salesman seems way more likely.

Investigating

A few years later, George saw a picture in the newspaper of New York City children. One of the girls had an uncanny resemblance to his missing daughter Betty. George drove all the way to New York to investigate, but once he tracked down the child’s parents, they refused to speak with him.

Young girls doing ballet

Illustrative photograph. Photo by Cci / Shutterstock

Two years after the fire, George and Jennie wanted to get the FBI involved. They agreed. However, the police and fire department declined to work with them. That’s when George and Jennie called a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley. He was the one who discovered that the member of the coroner’s jury was the same man who had threatened George a few months earlier.

Chopped Liver

Tinsley discovered something else that was quite interesting. The town minister told him a rumor that F.J. Morris, the fire chief, had been telling people that he found a heart at the sight of the burnt family home. He said that he hid it in a box and buried it where the house once stood.

An old, buried box sticking out of the dirt

Illustrative photograph. Source: 123rf / Sergei Koltovich

Tinsley convinced the fire chief to tell him where it was, but when they dug it up, it was just beef liver, which had never been in a fire. Apparently, the chief did this to provide some kind of closure for the family. To me, it seems like he was trying to cover something up. Especially after it took his fire department 7 hours to get to a house only 2.5 miles away.

A Mystery

In the month of that fateful fire (December 1945), the Sodder children reportedly noticed two people in a car who watched them on their way home from school. I guess they didn’t think too much into it, but under these strange circumstances, it might be a clue.

Martha Lee Sodder around the time she went missing

Martha Lee Sodder. Source: Pinterest

Needless to say, the family didn’t believe that their children died in the fire. There is evidence to suggest a kidnapping, and that’s exactly what George and Jennie thought happened. They, as well as other town residents, believed the Sicilian Mafia may have taken the kids and started the fire in an attempt to get money. However, no one reached out to them with a ransom demand or anything like that.

The Billboard

After the children were ruled dead, West Virginia Governor Okey L. Patterson called a hearing and officially closed the Sodder case. He went on to tell George and Jennie that their search was “hopeless.” That’s when the family decided to set up a billboard on Route 16 advertising their missing children. The billboard remained there for the next four decades.

George and Jennie Sodder posing in front of a large billboard offering a reward

Jennie and George Sodder. Source: Twitter

The billboard helped keep the story alive. It included details about the case that didn’t add up and argued that the kids had been abducted. The sign also accused law enforcement of covering up what had really happened.

Many Theories

People around town had theories of their own. Some people believed that the mafia was involved, but others believed they might have been sold to an orphanage in Italy. A woman in St. Louis sent a letter to the family claiming that their oldest daughter Martha was in a convent there.

The missing Sodder children photographed together

The missing Sodder children. Source: Pinterest

Someone in Florida alleged that the kids were living in Florida with Jennie’s distant relatives. That one seems a little far-fetched. Either way, George Sodder investigated every single one of these tips but came up empty.

Unsolved

George Sodder died in 1969, and Jennie passed away twenty years later, in 1989. Sylvia was two at the time and is the only Sodder child still alive. She maintains that her siblings didn’t die in the fire that night. Sylvia’s daughter, Jennie Henthorn, asked for people to post any information they might have on websleuths.com

Sylvia Sodder sitting at a table with photographs of her missing siblings next to a photograph of her from around the time of the fire

Sylvia Sodder now and then. Source: Charleston Gazette / Twitter

“My mom promised my grandmother that she would never let the story die. That’s what my brother and I are doing now.” After all these years, they’re still so many unanswered questions, and the mystery of what really happened to the Sodder children is still unsolved. Do you think it was truly a result of a house fire, or were the children actually kidnapped? We may never know.

This isn’t the only mysterious kidnapping story. Imagine posing as a missing child and being reunited with his family. That’s precisely what happened with the Nicholas Barclay case.

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