Douglas MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published eight books in the genre of historic true crime. You can check out his book on the mysterious disappearance of the Sodder children case here.
There was nothing extraordinary about Christmas Eve, 1945, for the Sodder household in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The tree was decorated and presents for the nine Sodder siblings were waiting for the following day.
Still too excited to sleep, five of the middle children asked permission to stay up late to play with some of the presents that they had been allowed to open on the 24th. Mother Jennie agreed with the understanding that before they went to bed, they had to turn off the lights in the house and lock the front door. The children readily agreed.
After a couple of hours, the phone rang and Jennie got up to go answer it. The caller was a woman who asked for a person Jennie didn’t know. Jennie told the woman that she had the wrong number. Jennie would later state that the woman then laughed strangely and hung up.
Before going back to bed, Jennie noticed that the lights were still on in the house and that the front door was unlocked. She thought at the time that the five children had forgotten to close up the house. She turned off the lights and locked the door and went back to bed.
Before she could fall asleep, however, she heard a noise that she later claimed sounded like something hitting the roof and then rolling down and onto the ground. Feeling too tired, she did not investigate and attempted to go back to sleep.
But before she could drift off, she smelled smoke. She quickly woke her husband George and ran out of the room only to find the hallway in flames. She shouted over the growing sounds of the fire – calling for the children to get out of the house and run into the front yard. Two of the older boys did so, but there was no sign of the five who had stayed up late.
Thinking that the five children were trapped in their upstairs rooms, George went for the ladder that was always near the house only to find it missing. George then thought that he could drive one of his trucks up to the side of the house, stand on the top of it, and get the children out through a window. But mysteriously, neither truck would start.
Horrified, the family members who had made it out of the house, two daughters and two older sons and the parents, could do nothing but hope that the children would soon run out the front door and to safety.
But the house burned to the ground without any sight of the five children.
Once the firemen and police arrived, hours after the house had completely burned to ashes, they did a quick inspection and declared that the five children had undoubtedly died in the fire that was most likely caused by faulty wiring.
But George and Jennie didn’t believe that conclusion. They distinctly remembered the lights being on in the house while the building was burning. How was that possible if faulty wiring had been the cause?
Also, there were no human remains to be found in the house, and neither had anyone detected the distinctive stench of human flesh burning.
Unsatisfied with the official conclusions, George and Jennie decided to investigate on their own.
Unfortunately, one of the first things George did in the days following the catastrophe was to cover the house’s remains with dirt, stating that he couldn’t stand seeing the rubble of the fire. This destroyed a lot of possible evidence that would help determine the cause and consequences of the fire.
But slowly, over time, evidence started to show that went against the official statements as to the cause and results of the fire.
First off was the lack of those skeletons. Jennie discussed the situation with a local crematorium and discovered that a body had to burn for at least two hours at a very high temperature to completely burn up human bones. Jennie puzzled over this, as the fire of her home burned for less than an hour at a much lower temperature than was needed to cremate a body. It was then obvious to George and Jennie that there should have been skeletons in the rubble. Other similar house fires had left complete skeletons within the wreckage.
Various witnesses eventually came forward who claimed to have seen someone throwing “fireballs” at the house in the early morning of Christmas Day, had seen the children in a car driving away from the house while the fire burned, or had seen the children in the company of several adults in distant towns.
George and Jennie thought that all of this pointed to the fact that the children had not died but had been kidnapped. But the legal authorities didn’t believe them, much to their frustration – so they continued on with their own investigation.
They went through all of the remains of the house and eventually found what they thought was evidence that the authorities were right – a few bones and what seemed to be an inner organ. Surprisingly, after being tested, the bones turned out to be from a person older than any of the lost children and the organ was a cow’s liver.
Thinking that somebody of the area must have seen something, they fashioned a billboard near their house with photos of the missing five children and offering a reward for the return of the children.
Nobody would ever attempt to claim that reward.
Years went by but George and Jennie refused to give up their search.
Their investigation went nowhere until 1968, when Jennie received an anonymous envelope that contained a photo of a man. On the back was written:
I love brother Frankie
A90132 (or possibly A90135)
The authorities were skeptical, but George and Jennie were convinced that the young man in the photo was their missing son Louis.
That photograph was, in many ways, the conclusion of the entire story. George and Jennie eventually passed away, never knowing answers to questions such as: who moved the ladder? – and why had neither of George’s trucks worked, despite the fact that they were in perfect order the day before the fire? – and where did those bones found later at the site and the cow’s liver come from?
There are currently many websites on the Internet that feature the “solutions” to and discussions about the puzzling story. Amateur sleuths pore over the known facts in attempts to solve the crime – and still debate whether it was kidnapping or murder.
The reward no longer stands and the chances of coming up with the true story of this bizarre story at this late date is very slim indeed.
MacGowan, Douglas. “Sodder Family Tragedy,” Quarrier Press, 2016.