One of the most enduring legends of the Appalachian mountains happened with the five missing West Virginia children from the Sodder Family sometimes known as the “Sodder Five”. On Christmas Day 1945, there was a house fire in the Sodder home. During the rescue attempt to free the children from the house, five of them were missing. Their bodies were not found among the ashes and no trace of them was ever found.
There have been many sightings of people who have been thought to be one of these children. Which has led to many investigations and theories as to what happened early on that Christmas morning. Even though the fire investigators of the time ruled the house fire was due to “faulty wiring”, there were many strange events and happenings that have led others to believe that this was not a mere accident.
Were they kidnapped, were they burned in the fire, or did something more sinister happen to the children? Come with us as we delve into the mystery of what might have happened to the Sodder five children on Christmas Day 1945.
The Sodder Family
George and Jennie Sodder were an Italian-American couple that lived in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The couple had a reputation for being respectable, hard-working, and upstanding in the community.
George Sodder was born Giorgio Soddu in 1895. He traveled with one of his older brothers to Ellis Island where the two separated. The older brother returned to Italy and George stayed in the United States.
George was a thirteen-year-old immigrant from Tula, Sardinia in 1908 and changed his name from Giorgio Soddu to George Sodder to better fit in with his new life in his new county. He would never disclose his reasons for leaving his homeland at such a young age.
Sodder went to work on the railroads in Pennsylvania as a water boy for the workers. He later went to Smithers, West Virginia where he went to work as a driver hauling dirt and later coal. At the age of 50, Sodder would go on to own a truck-hauling business.
Jennie Cipriani was also an immigrant from Italy at a young age. Her father became a storekeeper in Smithers, West Virginia, where she would meet and marry George Sodder.
The members of the family were: George and Jennie Sodder. Their children all but one who was in the house at the time of the fire were: John, George Jr., Marion, Slyvia, Joseph or Joe (who was away in the Army), Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty.
Sodder’s Political Views
This is one of the few times when we will discuss someone’s political leanings. Sodder’s views on World War II and the fall of Benito Mussolini have always been a point that all of the stories of this case lead from.
On April 28, 1945, in Giuliano, Italy, Benito Mussolini died as a result of being executed by an Italian partisan. World War II ended on December 2, 1945. These two events would deeply divide the Italian-American population of the United States.
Sodder had very strong antifascist views about Mussolini and was very outspoken about it. This made Sodder enemies and sowed bitter distrust and many arguments among the other Italian immigrants who were in his community.
Strange Visitors to the Sodder Home
Several months before the fire happened a man approached Sodder at his home to ask for employment. After stating that he was not hiring at the moment for his truck-hauling business, the man did not immediately leave. Instead, the man looked at the fuse box which was located on the porch, and said that it could cause a fire one day. The remark was odd as Sodder had the electrical wires inspected by the power company just prior to the visit.
A few weeks before the fire, another man approached Sodder trying to sell him life insurance. George refused the insurance. Upon the rejection, the man threatened that the Sodder house was going to burn for George’s statements about Mussolini.
A few days before the fire, the older Sodder children witnessed a suspicious car parked on Highway 21. The man inside the car was watching the Sodder children for several days in a row.
Events Before the Fire
The night before the fire was very cold. Marion had worked at the dime store and had brought the younger children toys with her paycheck. Jennie allowed the children to stay up later than usual to play with their new toys.
At about this same time Jennie also reminded Maurice and Louis of their chores to shut the chicken coop and feed the cows before they bedded down for the night.
At midnight a strange call came to the Sodder house. The lady on the phone asked for a strange name, then laughed weirdly while glasses were being toasted in the background. Jennie told the lady she had the wrong number and hung up the phone.
Before retiring to bed, Jennie had noticed that the doors were unlocked and the curtains were still open. She thought that the older children had forgotten to do this because of the holiday excitement. So she locked the doors, closed the shades, and went to bed.
Thirty minutes later, Jennie was awakened to a loud thump was heard on the roof and it rolled down and hit the ground with a thud. After thinking nothing of it, she went back to sleep.
Fire Breaks Out
Thirty minutes later and the smell of smoke began to fill the air of the Sodder home. With the majority of the children in the attic, the staircase had caught ablaze. Only George, Jennie, the baby, and Marion had been able to escape the flames safely without harm. George Jr. and John had also been sleeping in the attic and were able to escape although their hair had been singed because of the fire. No other children were heard from or seen in the blaze.
Rescue Attempt and Call For Help
John had stated that he had gone up to the attic to alert the other children to the fire but later retracted that statement. His new version was that he only yelled at them from the bottom of the steps.
Several strange things prevented the rescue of the children. One strange event was that Marion had tried to call the fire department but the phone was out. She ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help but even then the operator didn’t pick up the phone.
Eventually, a motorist driving by saw the flames and got in touch with the fire department for help from a nearby tavern.
Another strange event was that there was a ladder that was affixed to the side of the house to help clean out the gutters and for roof repairs. That night the ladder was missing but was later found in a ditch 75 feet away from the house.
Sodder had another idea of running one of his trucks to the side of the house to get his children out safely. However, the trucks would not start that night. Even though the day before the trucks had been running fine. There was a water barrel that could have been used to help extinguish the fire but it was frozen solid.
The Oddities Continued After the Fire
The house burned to the ground in only 45 minutes despite efforts to try to save it. Even though the fire department was called to the scene earlier, they arrived at the site at 7 am that morning. By that time, the house was nothing but cinders. A four-hour search was conducted for the children and at 11 am the search was called off.
The reason given behind the slow response was that the fire department was low on manpower due to the War and because the Fire Chief could not operate the firetruck and had to wait on a driver to arrive.
There are reports given that bones and other evidence of the children were found in the basement but it was thought best not to reveal the findings to the family. Morris suggested that the fire had claimed the life of the five children but that the fire was not hot enough to burn them completely. This was later disputed as the evidence in question later turned out to be bovine parts.
The West Virginia State Police came on the scene and deemed the fire to be caused by “faulty wiring”. But later withdrew that conclusion. It was upheld later by the Fayetteville Fire Chief FJ Morris who led the fire investigation. No children or bodies were ever found.
Several days after the fire an inquest was conducted. One of the men sitting on the jury was the same man that threatened Sodder and his children with a house fire. The jury upheld the findings of the Fire Chief and ruled the fire was due to “faulty wiring”.
A death certificate for all five children was issued on December 30, 1945. A funeral was conducted for the children on January 2, 1946, but the parents did not attend the ceremony and the remaining children did attend the services.
The Sodders disagreed with these findings. George had re-wired the house to install a new stove and had the wiring inspected. Also, during the fire, the lights had been on and they could not find their way if it had not been for the house lights.
“You can’t tell me five children could burn up in a little old house like that and something wouldn’t be left. No, I’ll never believe it. Somebody stole them, that’s what. It’s been a long time but maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see them someday.” Jennie Sodder (Mysterious Disappearance of the Five Sodder Children see link below).
Other Oddities and Facts About That Night
It was later discovered by a telephone repairman that the wires to the house phone had been cut and not burned. This was the reason that Marion could not call out for the fire department.
There had been a man spotted that night with block and tackle that was later arrested for cutting the phone lines. The man stated that he was trying to cut the powerlines but cut the wrong wires. There is nothing about this man, his arrest, or what happened to him that was placed on the public record.
A bus driver passing by the house would make a statement that he had seen people throwing “balls of fire” at the house. It was thought that it could have been a “pineapple bomb” hand grenade or other possible devices that were thrown at the house.
Sightings of the Sodder Five
One witness claimed to have seen the children in the back of a car driving away from the scene. Another witness claimed to have seen the children at a hotel outside of Fayetteville fifty miles away the next day.
At a hotel in Charleston, a woman reported seeing the children with two male and two female Italian adults check-in. When questioned she was angrily told that she could not speak to the children.
A missionary in Cortez, Floria claimed to have seen the children at a house there. When investigators arrived the children and the adults were gone. However, there were five other witnesses in the area who also reported seeing them.
The Mystery of Louis Sodder
In 1968, the Sodders received a letter from Central City, Kentucky. In this letter, there was a picture of a young man who it was claimed to be their son, Louis. There was no return address. This letter has been disregarded as a hoax. However, there were many more letters, pictures, and anecdotes to arrive over the years.
Several people have looked into the case of Louis Sodder and none have been able to prove or disprove that this was in fact him or not.
From 1952 until the death of Jeannie in 1989, the family placed a billboard on Route 16. This billboard had pictures of the Sodder five along with a $10,000 reward. For 37 years the Sodders held out hope of retrieving the missing children. George Sodder would die in 1969 and Jennie would die in 1989. After the death of Jennie Sodder, the billboard was taken down. However, the surviving children still try to keep the story alive.
What happened to the Sodder Five? Did they die in the fire? Were they kidnapped and taken to different families around the country? Were they kept together and taken to Italy? If they lived, why were they not used for ransom money? Was the Sicilian Mob involved? Did the fire happen because of George’s political statements?
These are just some of the questions that still linger about the case of the missing Sodder children. We leave it up to our viewers and readers to make up their own minds about what happened to them. But it is a Weird Appalachia case that remains unsolved to this day.
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Mysterious Disappearance of the Five Sodder Children
by Adam Lyman
Sodder children disappearance
Missing Sodder Children in West Virginia
The weird disappearance of the Sodder Children in West Virginia
Virginia, Unexplained disappearance
The Children Who Went Up In Smoke
A tragic Christmas mystery remains unsolved more than 60 years after the disappearance of five young siblings
December 25, 2012
Historic American Newspapers.
Library of Congress.
The Daily Alaska empire. [volume] (Juneau, Alaska), 26 Dec. 1945.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 26 Dec. 1945.
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When we forget our past and who we are as a people, then we become who “they” say we are. ~~ David Sergent
I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.