The Sodder Family Mystery: A Tale of Intrigue and Heartache

On Christmas Eve in 1945, a fire broke out in the home of George and Jennie Sodder in Fayetteville, West Virginia, resulting in one of the most enduring and perplexing mysteries in American history.

What happened to the five Sodder children who seemingly vanished that night remains a topic of intense speculation and intrigue.

A Quiet Christmas Eve

George Sodder was a successful businessman, originally from Italy, who owned a trucking company. He and his wife, Jennie, had ten children. On the night of December 24, 1945, nine of their children were home (one son was away in the army). The family celebrated Christmas Eve together, with some of the children staying up later than usual to play with new toys and finish their chores. Around midnight, Jennie sent the younger children to bed and went to sleep herself.

Shortly after midnight, Jennie was awakened by a strange phone call. A woman on the other end asked for a name Jennie didn’t recognize, and there was laughter and clinking glasses in the background. Jennie told the caller they had the wrong number and hung up. As she went back to bed, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains open, which was unusual. She also heard a loud bang on the roof, followed by a rolling noise, but thought little of it at the time and went back to sleep.

The Fire

Around 1:00 AM, Jennie woke up again, this time to the smell of smoke. She found that George’s office, which housed a fuse box and telephone line, was on fire. She woke George, and together, they managed to get four of their children out of the house. The remaining five children—Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5)—were asleep in the attic.

George and Jennie tried to rescue the children but were thwarted at every turn. The ladder usually kept beside the house was missing, their trucks wouldn’t start, and the phone line was dead. Desperate, George tried to climb the house using a barrel, but it collapsed. Neighbours called the fire department, but due to a series of miscommunications and the holiday, the firefighters didn’t arrive until morning, by which time the house was reduced to ashes.

The Investigation

The initial investigation concluded that the fire was caused by faulty wiring. However, George and Jennie were not convinced. They began to notice strange and suspicious occurrences. The ladder that was always propped up against the house was found at the bottom of an embankment 75 feet away. The telephone repairman told the family that the phone line had not been burned through but cut. A witness came forward claiming he had seen a man at the fire scene taking a block and tackle used for removing car engines. Furthermore, neighbours reported seeing the missing children in a car that drove away from the house while it was still burning.

The Sodders began to suspect foul play. George recalled a visit from a life insurance salesman a few months prior who, after being refused, had warned that their house would “go up in smoke” and their children “would be destroyed” in retribution for George’s outspoken criticism of Mussolini and the Italian government. Additionally, there were reports of sightings of the children, alive, in various places. A woman claimed to have seen them at a Charleston hotel a week after the fire, and another woman in St. Louis said she saw four of the children in the company of two men and two women.

The Billboard

Frustrated by the lack of progress and convinced that their children were alive, George and Jennie erected a billboard along Route 16, offering a $5,000 reward (later increased to $10,000) for information leading to the recovery of their children. The billboard remained in place for decades, becoming a landmark and a testament to the Sodders’ enduring hope.

The family also hired private investigators to follow up on leads. One investigator reported seeing a photograph of a young girl in a New York City magazine who resembled Betty. George traveled to New York to investigate but was denied access to the child. Another investigator claimed to have found a pair of glasses similar to those worn by one of the children in a burnt-out house, but this lead, too, went nowhere.

The Letter

In 1968, over two decades after the fire, Jennie received a letter postmarked from Kentucky with no return address. Inside was a photograph of a young man in his twenties with striking similarities to their missing son, Louis. On the back of the photo was a handwritten note: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” The family hired another private detective to follow up on this lead, but he vanished and was never heard from again. Despite the cryptic nature of the message and the lack of further evidence, the Sodders remained convinced it was their son.

Enduring Mystery

George Sodder died in 1969, and Jennie passed away in 1989. They never stopped searching for their children. After Jennie’s death, the billboard was taken down. The remaining Sodder children and their descendants continue to search for answers, but the mystery endures.

Over the years, numerous theories have emerged. Some suggest the children were kidnapped by an Italian mafia in retaliation for George’s political views. Others believe it was a case of human trafficking or an orchestrated plan to extort money from the family. Despite extensive investigations, no conclusive evidence has ever been found to explain what happened to the Sodder children.

The Sodder family mystery remains one of the most enduring and heartbreaking unsolved cases in American history. It is a story of tragedy, hope, and the relentless pursuit of truth in the face of overwhelming odds. As time goes on, the likelihood of uncovering the truth diminishes, but the legacy of George and Jennie’s love and determination lives on in their surviving children and grandchildren, who continue to seek answers to this day.

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