In this article:
- The Sodder children vanished without a trace at 1:00 AM on December 26, 1945, after a fire broke out in the family home that set the entire first floor of the house ablaze.
- Four of the Sodder children living in the house at the time managed to escape and call for help while their father tried to evacuate their younger siblings.
- No remains were found after the fire, leading the Sodder couple to suspect a kidnapping and/or foul play after recalling that an insurance salesman had previously threatened the lives of their children, specifically claiming that the house would go up in flames.
- Much to the remaining family members’ frustration, inconsistencies in the investigation seemed to point to a conspiracy to keep them from learning the truth.
The disappearance of the Sodder children remains one of the most head-scratching missing person cases in true crime history because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding it. While most missing person cases typically have victims that disappear after losing contact with family and friends, the Sodder children vanished during a house fire.
At 1:00 AM on December 26, 1945, George Sodder woke up only to realize that his house was on fire. He woke his wife and ran upstairs to evacuate his young children while the older kids and their mother escaped the burning building.
By the time the fire subsided, his children were gone without so much as a bone left in the ashes.
George Sodder Was Told That His House Would “Go up in Smoke” Before the Fire Happened
It was probably only after the fire that George Sodder remembered the ominous signs and threats he received about his house burning. A few months before the fire, a stranger turned up in their house to ask if the family needed someone to do hard labor.
He seemed poor, maybe even desperate to George who took pity and entertained the man, walking with him as he circled the house.
The stranger stopped at the back of the house and pointed to the fuse boxes on the wall before warning George that it was faulty or, to be more specific, that it would “cause a fire someday.”
Later, an insurance salesman stopped by and tried to convince George to get family insurance. The man was aggressive which George thought was just a sign that he really needed to make the sale. He was a family man himself, he understood.
That was until the salesman told him, “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”
Mussolini was the dictator of Italy at the time and he was fairly popular among the Italian immigrants living in Fayetteville, West Virginia, the location of the Sodder children’s disappearance.
It was public knowledge to the Italian community in the area that Mr. Sodder wasn’t a big fan of Mussolini. George held staunch views about his disdain for Mussolini and for the fascist government in Italy to the point that he would often get into arguments with other Italian immigrants.
But in George’s mind, and to anyone relatively sane, it shouldn’t have been enough of a reason to set his house on fire. George’s views aside, the Sodders were a well-known family in the area which isn’t much considering that Fayetteville is a small town.
Still, they were recognized as decent, hardworking people who were respected by their neighbors. One county magistrate even called them: “One of the most respected middle-class families around.”
George wasn’t the only one to notice odd things happening in the house. His wife, Jennie, had received a call in the morning of December 25th from an unknown woman who asked her if she was the person she was looking for.
Confused, Jennie said she knew no one by that name and that the woman had the wrong number but instead of a polite thank you, she heard laughter in the background.
As if they were laughing at her.
George and Jennie’s older sons also noticed that a car always seemed to be parked along the path that the younger Sodder children took on their way home from school.
But none of them thought much of these odd events until five of the Sodder children went missing.
5 of the Sodder Children Disappear in the 1945 House Fire
Nine of the ten Sodder siblings were living with their parents when the house caught fire. Their older brother, Joe, was serving as a soldier in World War 2, sparing him from the tragedy of his siblings’ disappearance. His other siblings were not as lucky.
Marion, John, and George Jr. slept in one of the rooms on the second floor of the house. Their youngest sister, then 2-year-old Sylvia, was in bed with George and Jennie Sodder. Meanwhile, Maurice, Martha, Louise, Betty, and Jennie, named after her mother, were sleeping in another room on the second floor that was located at the end of the hallway.
The locations of the first two groups made it easier for them to escape from the burning house. Marion, John, and George Jr. were nearer to the stairs so they were easily able to join their mother and Sylvia downstairs before exiting the house.
As the three older children ran down, their hair singeing in the heat, their father George pushed past them to find the younger children.
The eldest among them, Maurice, was only 14 years old, and the youngest, Betty, was only 5. Left to fend for themselves without the help of older siblings, George realized they were likely frozen in fear and cowering in their room.
But the fire had grown too fast. Before he could get to the end of the hallway, his path was blocked by burning debris.
George ran out in search of the ladder that he always kept propped up against the house, thinking that he could climb into the Sodder children’s room with it and help them down.
To his surprise, the ladder was gone.
A lot of reports about the family describe George as a smart man and his intelligence wasn’t about to fail him now. He remembered that he had two coal trucks from his trucking business parked on the property. He was planning to drive up to the house and use the trucks as a makeshift ladder.
But the trucks, which were working perfectly just hours ago, wouldn’t start.
By now, the fire was a burning beacon that drew the attention of horrified neighbors. One of them decided to call Fire Chief F.J Morris who then started a “phone tree” where he would call a fireman and that fireman would call another fireman and so on.
Note that the Sodder children disappeared in a time before automatic telephones. In the 1940s, you still needed an operator to connect you to the person you were calling which would have taken more time had the fire chief done it on his own.
At 8:00 AM all firemen in the area were present at the Sodder residence. But this was seven hours after the fire had started and the house was practically stripped to its foundations. Only a fool, or a parent in denial, would have thought that the remaining Sodder children survived.
Jennie Sodder, however, wasn’t just in denial. An intelligent woman herself, she quickly noticed that there were no bones left inside the house.
Jennie and George Sodder Begin to Suspect Foul Play
Jennie Sodder knows something is wrong at this point. Though she couldn’t hope for her children to still be alive, she knew that there should at least be bones for her to bury. And yet there were none.
Suspecting that the Sodder children hadn’t actually died on the property, Jennie took bones from livestock and set them on fire, trying to recreate the conditions that resulted in her children’s “death”.
No matter how many times she tried it or how she lit the fire, not once did the bones turn to ash. Confused, she calls a friend who works at a mortuary. That friend told her it would take around 2 hours and over 1832 °F for bones to be reduced to ash.
Seized by desperation and a glimmer of hope, Jennie and George Sodder looked for any clue as to what happened to the remaining Sodder children. They kept in touch with investigators, spoke with strangers who claimed to have seen the Sodder children all over the U.S., and put up a billboard on Route 16, Ansted, West Virginia.
The billboard promised 10,000 USD to anyone who could find the missing Sodder children.
The Search for the Missing Sodder Children Is Riddled With Inconsistencies
Jennie and George Sodder had a second suspicion aside from the Sodder children being alive: they were convinced that the police and fire departments were engaged in a conspiracy to hide their missing children from them.
Remember the insurance salesman who told George Sodder that his house would burn and something terrible would happen to the Sodder children? A private investigator found that he was part of the coroner’s jury that concluded the fire was an accident.
That same coroner’s jury insisted that faulty electrical wiring was the cause of the fire — even though George had the house’s wiring checked because of the ominous threats he was receiving.
To make matters worse, the Sodders later heard rumors that the fire department found bones at the Sodder residence but hid them from Jennie and George. When the couple confronted them, Fire Chief Morris finally showed them to a spot on the property where he said he had buried the bones and a heart that was found after the fire.
Jennie and George had the heart and bones tested by a lab. Results showed that not only were the bones too old to be any of the Sodder children’s bones but the heart wasn’t even a heart.
It was beef liver.
In 1947, the desperate couple penned a frantic appeal to J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, begging him to take over the investigation.
Moved by the couple, and maybe interested in the mystery of the Sodder children’s disappearance, Hoover personally wrote a reply saying that he would be happy to help but that he didn’t have jurisdiction.
Hoover explained that if the Sodders could get local authorities to agree to let the FBI handle the search for the Sodder children, they would immediately start their investigation.
Both the police and the fire department of Fayetteville said no.
Was the Sicilian Mafia Behind the Disappearance of the Sodder Children?
Like the case of the Axeman of New Orleans, the Sodder children’s disappearance had Italian immigrant victims, leading authorities to suspect that George Sodder had crossed the Sicilian Mafia.
Whether they had a problem with his views on Mussolini or they were planning to compete against his coal business, we’ll never know. George didn’t have any known criminal ties and yet police focused on the theory that the Mafia did it.
The Sodder children have been sighted everywhere since their disappearance in 1945. Some said that Martha had joined a convent in St. Louis, one claimed that the children were taken in by Jennie’s distant relatives, and another sent the Sodder couple a photo of a man they claimed was Louis Sodder.
At one point, George drove to New York in search of a girl who he saw in a photo. She looked so much like Betty that he tried to meet her, though the girl’s parents refused.
George and Jennie’s youngest child, Sylvia Sodder Paxton, continued to search for her siblings for the rest of her life until her death on April 21, 2021 at the age of 79.
Among the children she left behind was Jennie Paxton Henthorn, a namesake of her mother and one of the missing Sodder children.