A WV Christmas Mystery
On Christmas Eve 1945 George and Jennie Sodder were sleeping in their bed after celebrating with 9 of their ten children. They assumed that all their children were tucked safely in their beds and that their house was safe and secure for the night. Unfortunately, they were wrong, and that night was just the beginning of a haunting unsolved WV mystery.
George Sodder was an Italian immigrant with a successful trucking company and was mostly well respected in his community. He immigrated to America where he met his wife Jennie, also an Italian immigrant and they moved to Fayetteville WV where there was a community of Italian immigrants and began to raise a family. George had arrived at Ellis Island with his brother, who immediately returned to Italy and George would never discuss why he chose to come to America. George was well known to have strong political beliefs and was often heard speaking out against the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
At 1230 am that fateful night, Jennie was awakened by the phone ringing. It was a woman asking for a name Jennie had never heard before, and in the background, she heard loud laughter and the clinking of glasses. After she hung up the phone, she found Marion asleep on the couch, and she assumed all the other children were sleeping in their beds. At 1 am she was back in bed and was startled by the sound of an object hitting the roof and rolling, and at 130am she discovered a fire in Georges office. She immediately roused George, and they began gathering the children. They couldn’t get up the stairwell to where Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty were sleeping; it was already engulfed in flames. George, Jennie, Marion, Sylvia, John, George Jr escaped. The oldest brother Frankie was away in the military. The phone was not working so Marion ran to the neighbors and called the fire department, remember this was at approx. 145 am, the fire trucks didn’t arrive till 8 am, the fire chief said he was waiting for someone who could drive the truck. George ran looking for the ladder that he kept leaning against the house; it was nowhere to be found. He ran to his trucks to drive them up to the house to stand on, neither of those would start, and they were both in good working order earlier in the day. He tried to scale the house but was unable, and he sustained some minor injuries. The distraught family had no choice but to stand and watch the house burn, believing that 5 of their ten children were burning up as well.
When the fire chief, F.J Morris, arrived at 8 am, the house was smoldering. After a cursory exam of the smoldering wreck, he stated that it was the fault of faulty wiring. The Sodders testified that the lights were still on when the exited the house. No bones were ever found, and there was no smell of burning flesh. The fire chief stated that they had been cremated, but experts the Sodders consulted said that the fire didn’t burn long or hot enough to completely burn the bones to ash, a lot of the furniture and appliances in the home were still recognizable.
Several things came to light right after the fire. George Sodder remembered a man who had come to the door to try and sell him some life insurance. When George refused, he became angry and told George that he would be sorry when his house went up in flames and his children were destroyed because of his “dirty remarks” about Mussolini. At the coroner’s inquest, a few days after the fire death certificates were issued for the five children. Later when the Sodders hired a private detective, he discovered that the insurance salesman who had threatened George was on the coroner’s jury.
Later on, the day of the fire George found his ladder hidden in an embankment 75 feet away from the house. A lineman from the phone company said that the phone lines had been cut at the pole, the only way that could have happened was for someone to climb the pole and do it. A local bus driver stated that he saw someone throwing balls of fire at the Sodder house that night, it blows my mind that he didn’t call the police. Other residents who were outside watching the fire claimed to have seen the Sodder children being driven off in a car. Later that week a woman in Charleston claims to have waited on a group of children with several Italian looking men, she states that the men glowered at the children and that they were reticent. Rumors started going around town about the Sicilian Mafia and how this was retribution for things George had done before he left Italy and for speaking out against Mussolini.
The remaining children told their parents that someone in a car was watching them for a few weeks before the fire. The Sodders hired a PI and offered a reward for the children’s return. They swore that they would not stop looking. Fire Chief Morris went to a local pastor and tearfully confessed that he had indeed found one of the children’s hearts all those years ago in the fire. He states that he put it in a lock box and buried it. He says that he was trying to keep from causing the Sodders more grief. When the box was dug up, it was found to have a piece of FRESH liver in it that had never been exposed to fire. I have no idea what excuse he gave for that.
In 1967 Jennie received a photo in the mail that looked very much like one of her children, it said on the back “Louis Sodder age 23. I love brother Frankie”. The immediately hired another PI who went to the area where the letter was postmarked to look for the children. The PI never returned and was NEVER SEEN AGAIN.
What happened to the Sodder children will likely now always remain a mystery. Their parents are dead, and their siblings are elderly now. I believe that there were probably plenty of people who knew what happened but would not speak out for fear of reprisal from the kidnappers. I find it hard to believe that five children died in a fire and not a trace was found. A small piece of human vertebrae was found at the site several months later, but the pathologist said that it had not been exposed to fire. A lot of people took this secret to their graves.