What happened to the five Sodder children?
AS WITH in most loving families, Christmas was a busy time for the Sodder family.
Nine of the prominent West Virginia family's 10 children were at home for the celebration, and eldest sister Marion, 17, had just surprised her three younger sisters with toys she'd brought home for them from her dime store job. It was 10pm on Christmas Eve, 1945, and the young children negotiated a later bedtime so they could continue playing with these new acquisitions.
Their mother Jennie Sodder told them they could stay up, as long as their brothers, Maurice, 14 and nine-year-old Louis were still awake. And so, as father George Sodder and his two elder sons, John, 23, and George Jr, 16, slept soundly upstairs, wiped out from a day of hard labour on the family farm, the younger kids stayed up and played. Jennie Sodder reminded Maurice and Louis they still needed to bring the cows in and feed the chooks, then retired to bed with two-year-old Sylvia.
Jennie was woken at 12.30am by a prank call.
The caller asked for someone who didn't live at the house, laughed in a way Jennie would later recall as "weird" and was drowned out by the clinking of glasses and background laughter. Probably a drunken Christmas party. Annoyed, she hung up and returned to bed. Half an hour later she was again woken to a loud thud; an object landed on their roof, then noisily rolled down the side. She ignored it.
She woke for a third time about 1am. This time she could smell smoke.
THE FAMILY HOME BURNS DOWN
George Sodder's home office was on fire. Panicked, Jennie ran in their bedroom to wake him, and the pair dashed around the large house waking their children. Those who stayed awake late were upstairs in the attic, access blocked by a burning staircase. George grabbed the phone to call the fire department, but it wasn't working.
The two parents, the three eldest siblings, George, John and Marion, and two-year-old Sylvia escaped the burning house. One of the children ran to the neighbours to call the fire department, while George ran around the side to grab his ladder in order to climb to the attic and rescue the remaining kids.
The ladder wasn't in its usual position - resting against the side of the house - and was later found thrown in a ditch. George then tried to start one of his trucks to drive to the side of the house. It wouldn't start. He tried the other, with the same result. Both trucks were working fine the previous day. Meanwhile, the fire brigade was severely understaffed due to both the time of the year and the fact most firefighters were serving overseas in the war. The fire chief, who was the only man working that night, could not drive the truck, and had to ring around to find another fireman.
Sodder family members were forced to stand around for close to an hour, as their house burned to the ground with five members of their family trapped inside. In the light of day, as the fire marshalls sifted through the ashes, they were unable to find any trace of the five children: no bodies, no bones. It was as if they had completely disappeared.
Over the coming months, as more curious details emerged and the family thought back to the broken trucks, the faulty phone, the missing ladder, the weird phone call, the Sodders started to question whether the children were even in the house at the time of the fire.
THINGS TURN SUSPICIOUS
Four days after the fire, George Sodder bulldozed soil over the ashes of his burned family home, intending to construct a memorial garden to his deceased children. Although the fire chief had instructed him to leave the site alone so the fire marshall's office could investigate the ruins further, George and Jennie couldn't stand the sight of their destroyed home and ignored this request.
The next day, a hastily conducted inquest found the fire was caused by faulty wiring. This immediately struck George as odd. He recalled the Christmas lights on the outside of the house had remained on for a while as they stood and watched the building burn. An electrical fault would have instantly cut all power. One of the jury members who served on the inquest had a previous run-in with George that sparked further suspicion. He was a life insurance salesman who became annoyed when George rejected his business. "The house will go up in smoke", he warned, "and your children are going to be destroyed."
More suspicious evidence mounted up to suggest this was a case of arson: a telephone repairman inspected a hanging phone line that was connected to the house and ascertained that it had been deliberately cut, which would require someone to climb a 4.3m telegraph pole and reach a further 60cm to reach the wire. In other words, it was quite a mission. With this in mind, George suspected the two trucks were most likely tampered with as well.
The missing ladder was found thrown down an embankment 20m from the house and, as the case gained media attention, a bus driver who serviced the route that passed the Sodder house told police he had seen a group of people throwing "balls of fire" at the house. Jennie Sodder recalled being woken by a thud on the roof and months later, as the snow melted, two-year-old Sylvia was playing in the yard when she found a hard green rubber ball. George Sodder had seen these before. It was a pineapple bomb.
As Jennie Sodder was sifting through the remains of her life, she found kitchen appliances that kept their shape. Yet the family were told by the fire department that the fire was hot enough to burn their children to a point where no bones remained. She contacted a local crematorium to inquire about this and was told a two-hour fire burning at 1100C would still leave human bones in tact. The Sodder house burned at a lower temperature and for less than an hour.
The Sodder family suspected arson. They also suspected their five children were still alive. Then the sightings began.
SIGHTINGS OF THE KIDS AND A MAFIA CONNECTION
The earliest supposed sighting of the Sodder children came as the house was burning. A woman claimed to have witnessed the fire and saw the children in a passing car, sticking their heads out the window.
Then, the morning after the fire, they were spotted at a rest stop 80km from their house. "I served them breakfast," a witness said, mentioning a Florida number plate on the vehicle she assumed they arrived in.
A woman working in a hotel an hour from the Sodder house saw the children's photographs in a paper and recognised them as the family she served a week after the fire.
"The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction," she told police in a statement. "I do not remember the exact date. However, the entire party did register at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered about midnight.
"I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children … One of the men looked at me in a hostile manner; he turned around and began talking rapidly in Italian. Immediately, the whole party stopped talking to me. I sensed that I was being frozen out and so I said nothing more. They left early the next morning."
That the four adults accompanying the children were "of Italian extraction" was an important detail.
The Sodder family lived in Fayetteville, West Virginia, an area with a large population of Italian immigrants. Both George and Jennie were themselves born in Italy, but George had made many local enemies due to his outspoken, angry views on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini - no doubt fuelled by the fact the eldest Sodder son was serving America in the war. His fierce opposition to Mussolini was disliked in the immigrant community and many threats had been made against him. In fact, the life insurance salesman's prior warning to George about his children being destroyed in a fire was attributed to "the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini".
A few months before the fire, George Jr and John Sodder had spotted a car parked alongside the school; its occupants were spying on the younger Sodder children as they left the school building and walked along the main highway.
George Sodder became convinced that his children were still alive, that the Italian Mafia was responsible for their disappearance and that the house fire was clearly intended to cover up the kidnappings.
HOOVER AND A HEART IN A BOX
Two years after the fire, George and Jennie Sodder sent their suspicions straight to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They felt their case was solid and, surprisingly, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover agreed, sending a personalised reply that offered to help, if the local authorities would allow it. "Although I would like to be of service," the letter read, "the matter related appears to be of local character and does not come within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau." The Sodder family was thrilled, but the Fayetteville police and fire department refused to allow the FBI to investigate. This further convinced them of a cover-up. It was time to hire their own investigator.
Enter CC Tinsley, private investigator. Tinsley was the one who discovered that the insurance salesman who warned Sodder the house would burn was also on the jury who found it was a wiring fault. He also discovered something far more confusing. A priest confided in Tinsley that the Fayetteville fire chief FJ Morris had confessed to discovering a human heart in the ashes. He hid it inside a metal box and buried it at the scene.
After some prodding, Tinsley convinced Morris to lead him to the area where he buried the heart, and sure enough, there it was. However, it was discovered the heart was actually a beef liver. The organ wasn't even charred, suggesting it wasn't in the fire at all.
Mystified by this act, Tinsey questioned Morris, who confessed to setting up the hoax in the hope that the family would see the discovery of a heart as proof their children perished in the fire and stop the investigation. Of course, this answer only raised further questions. Why the metal box? Why did Morris want the investigation to end?
In 1949, close to four years after the fire, the Sodders hired a pathologist from Washington and ordered a more forensic excavation of the fire scene. His findings were striking: several small shards of human vertebrae.
The bones were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for analysis, which reported that the four lumbar vertebrae belonged to one person. However, the "transverse recesses" were fused, which means the body would have belonged to someone between 17 and 22.
"On this basis, the bones show greater skeletal maturation than one would expect for a 14-year-old boy," the report read. The eldest missing Sodder child was 14-year-old Maurice. The report also noted the bones showed no signs of being exposed to a flame, and that given the house burned for less than an hour, "one would expect to find the full skeletons of the five children, rather than only four vertebrae".
It was concluded that the bones were most likely in the soil George used to create the memorial garden.
A MYSTERIOUS PHOTO, A HAUNTING BILLBOARD AND A CONFESSION
Over the following years, the Sodder family was plagued with supposed sightings of their children, and George travelled around the country chasing these leads, to no end.
A woman in St Louis claimed Martha was living in a convent; a Texas bartender overheard two people bragging around the fire and kidnapping. George himself saw a photo of a young ballet dancer from New York that he was convinced was his daughter Betty. He drove there but wasn't allowed to see the girl. He also saw photos of a distant relative of Jennie's own children, who bore a resemblance to his own. He travelled to Florida, demanded proof they weren't his children, and took some convincing before he was satisfied.
A Houston woman wrote to George, saying that a man she knew got drunk one night and confessed he was Louis Sodder, who was nine at the time of the fire. He claimed he was living there with his brother Maurice. George and his son-in-law Grover Paxton travelled there in great hope but could no longer find the woman with the initial tip-off. Local police recognised her descriptions of the man, and helped them locate them. However, he denied both that the conversation took place and that he was Louis Sodder. Paxton later said George wasn't completely convinced by the denial and carried this doubt to his deathbed.
In 1952, the family erected a billboard on the side of the freeway with photos of the children and offers of a $10,000 reward for information that could lead to any one of them. The unsettling billboard became a morose local landmark, and helped cement the case in the minds of locals and those who passed through the town for decades. Yet, it never garnered any substantial leads.
In 1967, Jennie Sodder received a letter, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky. Inside was a photograph of a man around the age of 30, who bore a striking resemblance to Louis. The back of the photograph read: "Louis Sodder, I love brother Frankie, Ilil boys, A90132."
The message made little sense and a private investigator they hired to decode it and track down this man fled with their money and was never seen again. There was no Sodder boy named Frankie and the other messages were unbreakable. Given the billboard's prominence over the past 15 years, it's likely this was just a cruel prank but the Sodder family nevertheless added the photo to the billboard and put an enlarged version of it over their fireplace.
It was the final lead they would ever receive.
In 1968, George Sodder spoke to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, admitting "we can't go any further" with the search. "Time is running out for us," he said. "But we only want to know. If they did die in the fire, we want to be convinced. Otherwise, we want to know what happened to them".
The following year, George Sodder died.
Grief stricken, Jennie dressed in black for the remainder of her life and spent her days tending the memorial garden at the site of the fire. When she died in 1989, the remaining Sodder children finally removed the battered billboard from the side of the highway.
After 37 years of being a constant presence on Route 60, the Sodder children quietly disappeared, once again.
Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history, true crime and true romance. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjolly