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The Sodder Family Mystery

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:

   Louis Sodder

   I love brother Frankie

   Ilil Boys

   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.

SOURCES:

MacGowan, Douglas. “Sodder Family Tragedy,” Quarrier Press, 2016.

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Snail
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Snail

Please fix “pore” to “pour” in the second to last paragraph!

Marc Rettus
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Marc Rettus

Pore—be absorbed in the reading or study of.

Rob Minteer
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Rob Minteer

There’s nothing to fix–pore is correct!

Stacie Goodrum
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Stacie Goodrum

Omg this is so freaky… I don’t even know what to think? Why would someone kidnap them and THEN set the house on fire? What would be the point? To kill the parents? So many questions…

Amy Howell
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Amy Howell

Hmmm are they sure the parents are not involved? Why would someone abduct so many kids?

Dee
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Dee

Here’s my theory…the kids, for whatever reason, decided to run away. Or were lured away by someone who offered to help them run away. The ladder was removed because the kids climbed from the attic and then tossed the ladder into the ditch. The noise the mother heard on the roof was the kids leaving through the window. The kids may’ve even started the fire. I believe it’s highly likely they did, or at least the older ones did. It was interesting it started in the dad’s office, anyway. Then the five kids fled the area and went with the person(s) who offered to assist their flight. I believe that the kids then started new lives wither willingly or by coercion and that the photo the family received in ’68 was in fact one of the children, grown. Remember, this happened in a time where there were no computers and very little traceability. People could flee their own lives and start new ones with very little effort.

Rick
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Rick

Sorry, no. Do you truly believe children are capable of fleeing off into the night, Christmas Eve of all nights, with nary a trace? While there are children of outstanding intelligence, there would be evidence or statements supporting their rebellious streaks. One of the remaining children would of cracked and revealed any domestic issues that’d support your theory, but this has not happened as far as we know. The majority of your theory underestimates the intelligence of investigators and overestimate the capabilities of children. Though, I most certainly agree they were likely whisked off into the night to start a new life but not of their own volition or cognizance.

An interesting point you remarked upon is concerning the father, as he did in fact bulldoze the ruins of their family home but strangely enough, our dear author forgot to mention all of George’s enemies among his fellow Italian expats due to his stance and remarks against Mussolini. While family should always be the most likely suspects, he and his wife continued this effort for years. This would draw the attentions of experts, authorities and amateur sleuths alike. It’s conceivable, but not likely in this case considering he never gave up on this tireless search. He even plead his case to the big man on campus, J. Edgar Hoover, who unfortunately found himself unable to intervene given that the Fayetteville PD had no interest in pursuing this case with the FBI’s assistance.

From all of this information, again that the author of this post neglected to share, George Sodder himself was made to suffer ,coinciding perfectly with an earlier threat made against him, as we can not truly comment on the welfare of the children themselves. Fayetteville PD seemed to be working against George Sodder in this case and given the size of the community at that time, it’s likely his enemies would have had enough clout to disrupt the case and block any immediate efforts to uncover further clues.

If I were to posit a guess, the children ,in their naivety, heard a clatter upon the rooftop and rushed out to see if jolly Old St. Nick came bearing gifts only to find 2-3 people waiting for them. Without a tracker to have investigated the scene thoroughly or even care, it’s possible the fourteen year old struggled against their captors but 5 children against 3 prepared adults… lol, the odds are too stacked. I believe the children were forcibly adopted into a barren enemy’s family.

In summation, his continued outcries for assistance from the FBI and other authorities is enough to say the man lived in constant desperation after that fateful Christmas eve. The odds were stacked against him, even now as people continue to assume he is the culprit, without anyone from the outside ever closely examining the Italian immigrants of Fayetteville and it’s outlying communities.

Kate
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Kate

Didn’t George Sodder have some difficulties with the Italian population he lived within during that time, due to his political leanings before he and his family settled in Fayetteville? I have always felt this may have been one theory as to why the fire started and the children were never seen again.

Rick
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Rick

Exactly. And the fact remains, Fayetteville PD refused even J. Edgar Hoover’s and the FBI’s assistance, so experts and amateur sleuths alike should be looking closely upon the Italian expat community members with enough clout to obstruct any efforts of outside investigations being conducted.

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