On December 24 1945, one of the most mysterious disappearances in history took place in West Virginia, United States, at the Sodder residence. At the time of the disappearance, the house was occupied by George Sodder, his wife Jennie, and nine of their ten children. During the night, a fire ravaged the house, with four children escaping. The other five children have never been found. The cause was deemed accidental, with a belief that the five children perished. Yet the family contested this belief, and pursued alternate theories. In this article, we review the entire disappearance of the Sodder children – one of the most remarkable disappearances of all time. This article is also this week’s Sunday Read.
George and Jennie Sodder lived in Fayetville, West Virginia, USA. The duo had ten children, and were a respected family in the local area. Nine of the ten children were living at the house at the time of the fire, with the other child serving with the US military. George Sodder was well-known for his outspoken criticism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Two months prior to the fire, George was warned by a life insurance salesman that his house would ‘go up in smoke, with your children destroyed’, due to his remarks regarding Mussolini. Another person warned George a fuse box would ’cause a fire someday’. George had just finished rewiring the house, which caused him confusion. The final mysterious event in the build up to the fire was the regular appearance of a car near where the Sodder children attended school.
Moving to the night of the fire, the mother Jennie went to sleep, having told her children to complete chores before sleeping – the family had been celebrating Christmas Eve. At 12:30am, a phone call woke up Jennie. The call was from a woman Jennie didn’t recognise, and the caller asked for someone who wasn’t present at the house. Jennie hung up, but remembered the distinctive ‘weird laugh’ of the woman. Upon returning to bed, she noticed that the lights downstairs had unusually been left on. Upon investigating, she saw one child had fell asleep. Jennie presumed the other five children she had left before sleeping had themselves’ gone up to sleep in the attic.
At 1am, Jennie woke again. This time, she heard the ‘thud’ sound of an object hitting the roof of the house. It was followed by a rolling noise, before silence. Jennie thought nothing more of it, and returned to sleep. Yet she was awoken a third time, when she smelled smoke. She discovered that one of the rooms in the house was on fire, near the telephone line and fuse box. Jennie awoke some family members, and promptly escaped. Those that escaped outside yelled desperately to the children ostensibly in the attic, with the stairway being inaccessible due to the fire.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the family struggled to contact the emergency services. George scaled the house and tried to break the attic window, in an attempt to try and rescue the children. The aim had to be to use a ladder, however it had mysteriously been moved from its normal position. Trucks that had been used by George the previous day wouldn’t start, further hampering the rescue efforts. The family subsequently had the agony of watching the house burn down and collapse.
The Fire service arrived and hastily came to the conclusion there were no survivors, and that the missing five children had been completely burned. A different account states that some bone fragments were found. In the aftermath, the house was bulldozed, with the eventual intention of the site being turned into a memorial garden. An inquest found that the fire had been caused accidentally by ‘faulty wiring’, and death certificates were issued. Funerals for the five children were held.
However, the Sodder family disputed the findings of the inquest. First, they noted how it would be unlikely that the cause of the fire was electrical – as their Christmas tree lights had worked perfectly during the fire. Secondly, they eventually found their missing ladder around 75ft away – with no one having known how it got there. Third, their home phone line wasn’t burned in the fire, and had actually been intentionally cut. This was eventually worked out to be a man that was arrested. He had admitted a theft from the property, but stated he played no role in the fire.
The family also disputed the suggestion that all trace of the children’s bodies would have been burned in the fire. Many appliances had been left recognisable at the climax of the fire. Scietific and evidence based on precedent suggested the bodies would have needed to have been engulfed for much longer to have been totally burned. The fact that the trucks didn’t start were also questioned, as was the strange phone call received around an hour before the start of the fire. This was subsequently traced, with the matter simply having been a wrong number call.
This combination of evidence led the Sodder family to believe that the five children had been kidnapped. A grenade-like device was found near the house – which could’ve easily been the ‘thud’ heard by Jennie Sodder on the night of the fire. A bus driver came forward to suggest he had seen some people throwing ‘balls of fire’ at the house on the night in question. They therefore thought that the fire was started deliberately, and that the children were still alive, having been kidnapped.
Several witnesses came forward to suggest they had seen the children. One suggested they saw the children in a passing car on the night of the fire, when they peered out at the burning house. Another suggested she served the children breakfast the next morning, having noticed that the couple they were with held Florida License Plates. These sightings were investigated, though nothing concrete was learned. The family pushed on with their theory, and hired a private investigator to take control.
The investigator found that the person who had threatened a fire at the Sodder residence was on the jury at the original inquest – where an accidental verdict was secured. This raised more questions. The investigator also questioned the conduct of the Fire Service, and a full excavation was ordered. Yet the excavation yielded no results. The investigator eventually hit a brick wall. The family struggled to gain support from the State and the FBI to conduct a kidnapping investigation. Yet the Sodders continued to search – offering a monetary reward, distributing flyers, and putting up two billboards to try and raise awareness.
The billboards led to other supposed sightings, though none were deemed credible. In 1967, a letter was sent to Jennie Sodder. The letter included a photograph of a man who strongly resembled one of the children. He also fit the age range. Further investigations were carried out, but to no avail. As the years passed by, hope was eventually extinguished, with no new leads emanating.
So what did happen? The most plausible theory suggests that the five children died in the fire, and were burned completely. However, there are many, many signs that suggest a kidnapping. The five children were all downstairs together, and no one heard them go to the attic. The fire spread rapidly, and surely would’ve awoken at least one of the five, who surely would’ve alerted the others. The trucks didn’t start, the ladder had been moved, and it seems the verdict of an accidental electrical fire has its flaws. Yet if they were kidnapped, it seems surprising that no concrete links were found. And as the children grew older, they would’ve surely realised they were Sodder children. Or perhaps they were kidnapped, and eventually killed. Unfortunately, this mysterious disappearance is unlikely to ever be solved.
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George Sodder died in 1969, with his wife Jennie passing away in 1989. In her final years, Jennie continuously wore black in mourning. Jennie tended to the memorial garden. The surviving Sodder children and their offspring continued searching, but to no avail. As of 2018, only one of the surviving children is still alive. Even if the five children did survive the night of the fire and subsequent years, the chances are they would be in the closing stages of their lives, it means this mysterious and tragic disappearance will surely be left permanently unanswered.