The night before Christmas in 1945, Fayetteville, West Virginia, George Sodder and Jennie Sodder along with their nine children were sound asleep when a fire started in their house at around one o’clock in the morning. The parents along with four of their children managed to escape out of the burning house. Seeing that five of their children; Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty who shared two bedrooms upstairs between them, did not make it out safely, George Sodder broke back in to the house in a desperate attempt to save his five children who were stuck in the fire. Once he was back inside the burning house, he realized that the staircase was on fire and rushed out to locate his ladder in order to get to the top floor but his ladder was not in its usual spot. The two coal trucks he owned, which he thought of parking outside and climbing on top of to get to the upper floor were strangely not starting too.
One of the children who escaped out of the burning house ran over to their neighboring houses and rang up the fire department but none of them were able to get through to the operator to the fire department. Finally, one neighbor drove all the way up to the fire department themselves and even though the fire department was only about 2.5 miles away from the burning home, the fire fighters were only able to get to the house at eight o’clock in the morning; bizarrely seven hours after the fire had started. The house was literally burned into ash by the time they had arrived.
When the authorities scavenged the ashes of the fire looking for remains of the five children who could not get out of the burning house, nothing was found and they were presumed dead due to the fire. The chief suggested that the fire was so hot that it cremated the children’s bodies, including their bones and therefore that was the reason why traces of them were not found in the remains. This theory sounds reasonable but is not entirely accurate either because typically when flesh is burned away the bones or even fragments of them are left behind. It was also peculiar because remnants of other house hold appliances were found in the leftovers of the fire. There was also no smell of burning flesh reported during or after the fire. The cause of the fire was deemed to be bad wiring in the house.
George covered the basement, which was the only remaining part of the house that wasn’t destroyed by the fire, with five feet of dirt intending to preserve the sight as a memorial. A week after the incident, death certificates were issued for the five Sodder children. George and Jennie suspected that their children did not die in the fire but were kidnapped, believing that the fire was set as a diversion and not the result of faulty wiring, as George had checked the wiring of his house earlier that fall by a power company that assured the wiring was in safe condition. It was also strange because when Jennie woke up to answer a phone call late that night of the fire, she was sure that the lights were switched on and working fine in the house and she even proceeded to switch them off before going back to bed. They realized that if the fire had been electrical, by a result of “faulty wiring,” as the official report stated, then the power would have been dead, so how can one explain the lit rooms downstairs ? A witness even stated that they saw the lights of the house switched on as the fire was burning.
George Sodder had immigrated from Italy and was known for being vocal about his disdain for Mussolini, sparking a few heated debates in the small local Italian immigrant community in Fayetteville. Many believed that this could have been a reason for the unfortunate event that occurred at the Sodder residency. Another curious occurrence that had happened before the fire that supports the view of this being a kidnapping was when a life insurance salesman came to the house, realized that his sale was not going to be successful, became infuriated and yelled at George “your goddam house is going up in smokes and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini”. The older Sodder sons also recalled something peculiar: Just before Christmas, they noticed a man parked along the highway, intently watching the younger kids as they came home from school.
Reported sightings of the children, one which was on the night of the fire claiming that a woman saw the children being driven in a car while the fire was raging, a second report on the day after the fire by a woman who claimed that she served breakfast to the children in a town about 15 miles west to their home and another report about a week after the fire mentions that the children were seen in a town accompanied by two men and two women, all of Italian extraction, made the Sodders even more suspicious that this incident could’ve been a kidnapping.
George and Jennie tried in many ways to find the truth about their children. They tried getting the FBI involved, hiring a private investigator and even a pathologist to reexamine the remnants of the burnt house, all which gave little to absolutely no leads on the case and often left them at a dead end. Finally, the governor of West Virginia officially declared the Sodder case closed.
Regardless, the Sodders continued to believe that this incident was more than just a house which caught on fire. They even put up a billboard on route 16 about this incident which stood there for over 40 years. After the passing of George, Jennie and the rest of the Sodder children that survived, Sylvia Sodders (the youngest of the Sodder children) daughter, still works on solving this case. Many people have had many theories with regards to this strange event. Even after 75 years, the question still remains unanswered, what really happened to the Sodder children that night?
– Rtr Anjalee Wanduragala
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