Mysterious: The Sodder Family Fire (1945)

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Up next on Crime blog, we have the mysterious disappearance of the 5 Sodder Family children that took place in 1945.

Christmas Eve, 1945, a fire broke out in the Sodder Family home in Fayetteville, West Virginia. At the time, the house was occupied by George and Jennie Sodder, along with 9 of his 10 children, but only 4 of the 9 escaped the fire. The bodies of the other five children have never been found, the family believed for the rest of their lives that 5 missing children survived.

The Sodders never rebuilt the house but instead converting the lot into a memorial garden for their lost children. During the 1950’s, as they came to doubt that the children had died, the family put up a billboard at the site along State Route 16 with pictures of the five children, and also offering a reward for any information that would bring closure to the case. It remained up until after the Jennie died in 1989.

The Sodders celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. The oldest daughter had been working at a dime store in downtown Fayetteville and surprised 3 of her younger sisters with new toys she had bought as gifts. The children were so excited that they asked their mom if they could stay up later than usual.

At around 10:00 pm, Jennie told they could stay up later as longa s the oldest boys who were still awake remembered to put to the cows in and feed the chickens before going to bed. George and the 2 oldest boys who had spent the day working with their father were already asleep. After reminding the children of the remaining children, she took the youngest upstairs with her when they went to bed.

The phone range at 12:30 am and it awoke Jennie, and she went to answer the phone downstairs. The caller was a woman who voice she did not recognize, and she was asking for a name she was not familiar but Jennie could hear clinking glasses and laughter in the background, Jennie told the caller she had the wrong number and later recalling the woman’s weird laugh. So Jennie hung up and went to bed. As she did noticed the lights were still on and the curtains had not been pulled sure 2 things the children always did when they stayed up later than their parents. Jennie just assumed the other children who was up late had gone back to bed as one of the children was on the couch asleep, so she closed the curtains and turned out the lights and headed back upstairs to bed.

At 1:00 AM she was abruptly awake by something hitting her roof with a loud bang and then rolling. After hearing nothing else, so she went back to sleep, but just 30 mins later she was awake again but this time, smelling smoke. When she got up again she found the office that George used was on fire and it was surrounding the telephone line and fuse box. Jennie then woke up George and he woke up his older sons.

Both parents and 4 children escaped the house. They frantically yelled to the children who were supposedly upstairs but heard no response and they couldn’t go up there as the stairway was already in flames.

It was unexpectedly complicated to find air and rescue the children as the phone did not work so one of the children ran to a neighbors house to call the fire department but there was no answer. What do you mean there was no answer? What? How does that even work? A driver on the road nearby attempted to call also and there was no answer. Finally they were able to get through after 3 or 4 times.

Frustrated because the truck had been moved and was not in the usual spot the Sodders who escaped had no choice but to watch their house burn to the ground for the next 45 mins and let me tell you, the fire department was 2.4 miles away. It took them almost 7 hours to get to the Sodder house as they were low on manpower.

The firefighters could do little but look through the ashes as that was all that was left of the house. By 10:00 AM Morris told the Sodder’s that they had no found any bones they believed the children had died in the fire.

The local coroner convened and ruled that the fire was an accident due to faulty wiring. Death certificates for the five children were issued December 30. But the local newspaper contradicted itself stating that all the bodies had been found but then later in the same story reporting only part of one body was recovered. George and Jennie were an emotional mess that they could not attend the funeral but the siblings did on January 2nd.

Not long after as they began to rebuild their lives, the family started to question all the official findings. They wondered if it was electrical then why was the Christmas lights on. They also found the ladder that had been missing was at the bottom of an embankment 75 feet away.

A telephone repair told the family that the fire did not destroy the phone line but that it was cut by someone who had to climb 14 feet up a pole and reach 2 feet away. A man who neighbors had seen stealing from properties admitted to theft and he admitted to cut the phone line but had nothing to do with the fire.

Further developments in early 1946 reinforced the family’s belief that the children they believed was dead in fact might be alive somewhere.

Evidence supported their belief that the fire was not due to electrical fault but instead set deliberately. After the snow had melted, they found small, hard dark green rubber ball like objects in the brush nearby, which would account for what Jennie heard the night of the fire.

George however did not wait for reports of sightings to come in after they hired the private investigator, he tried to interest the FBI into investigating what he believed was kidnapping, but the FBI did not have interest.

In August 1949. George was able to get a pathologist to supervise a new search through the dirt at the house lot, and after a very thorough search, artifacts including a dictionary and some coins were found, along with several small bone fragments determined to have been a human vertebrae.

The bone fragments were sent to the Smithsonian institution. They confirmed to a lumbar vertebrae from the same person, the determined age of the bone would have been between 16-17 . The top limit should be about 22 and given the age range it was not very likely that the bones found were from any of the 5 children missing as the oldest at the time was 14.

With all official efforts closed off in 1952. The Sodder’s did not give up hope. They printed up flyers and offering a $5,000 reward for information that could have settled the case for one of the children. In 1952 they put up a billboard at the site of the house with the same information and it would became a landmark for traffic through Fayetteville.

George Sodder died in 1969 with no clear leads to where his children were. Jennie and her surviving children continued to seek answers. But in 1989 Jennie Sodder died.

The last of the Sodder family died this year and now the case will just remain unsolved and labeled as a cold case. Its been 74 years since this happened with still no leads on the children that are missing.

Sources:

Sodder children disappearance – Wikipedia

The Children Who Went Up In Smoke | History | Smithsonian Magazine

Mysterious Disappearance of the Five Sodder Children | Historic Mysteries

Sodder Family | Unsolved Mysteries Wiki | Fandom

The True Story Of The Disappearance Of The Sodder Children (grunge.com)

The Enduring Mystery of the Sodder Children’s Christmas Disappearance | Mental Floss