(Charleston Gazette Mailer newspaper)
Fayetteville, West Virginia became home to a great mystery on Christmas Eve in 1945. George and Jeanie Sodder celebrated the holiday season with 9 of their children – a tenth (Joe) was away serving in the military. George went to bed first that evening – followed by his sons John (23 years old) and George Jr. (16). Meanwhile, Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (10), Jennie (8) and Betty (6) begged their mother to allow them to stay up a little longer and play with the toys their sister Marian (17) had bought for them that day. Their mother consented, but took Sylvia (3) up to bed with her.
At midnight the phone rang, a woman asked Jeanie for a man whose name she did not recognize – after Jeanie told her she must have the wrong number, the woman let out a weird laugh and hung up. Jeanie noted that the lights were still on in the house and the doors had not been locked – two things her children wouldn’t have normally left unattended before bed. As she attempted to fall back to sleep, Jeanie heard a strange thump on the roof and the sound of something rolling, she dismissed this and dozed off.
About a half hour later, smoke started to pour into her bedroom, and being semi-awake already, Jeanie was the first to notice. She opened the door and was horrified to find flames engulfing the next room. She called for her husband to wake up and her daughter Marian grabbed little Sylvia and took off outside. She then called to the attic where her children were thought to be sleeping – her two oldest sons ran down.
George ran outside barefoot into the snow and realized five of his children were apparently still in the house. Mr. Sodder smashed a window to try and gain entry and sliced his arm in the process. Inside all he could see was smoke and flames engulfing the lower house quarters. He ran to the rain barrel to grab a pail of water and found the water frozen. Next he looked for his ladder that was always placed in the same location – and found no ladder there, much to his bewilderment. Desperate, George attempted to climb the exterior of the inflamed house by hand and failed to make any progress. Finally he and his sons tried to start the family’s trucks in order to pull them up to the house to attempt to gain entry – but the engines wouldn’t start on this bitterly cold night.
Meanwhile one of the kids ran to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department and the phone operator couldn’t be reached. Eventually the fire department was reached but since this was a small operation, each fire fighter had to be roused individually from their home and help didn’t arrive until the morning despite the fact that the fire station was only two and a half miles away from the Sodder house. George and Jeannie had to watch helplessly as the fire collapsed their entire home into the shell of the basement within 45 minutes.
The missing kids:
Bizarre rumors and happenings:
A man was discovered stealing from the Sodder’s garage as the fire was unfolding, and he had also apparently stolen the family’s ladder in order to try and cut their power lines, but he cut the phone line instead by mistake. Oddly enough, the man was never considered a serious suspect for arson. He paid a fine for his actions and that was the end of that.
The fire department finally arrived in the daylight and sprayed down the still smoldering ash where the Sodder house once stood. A mere two hour investigation was done – the police determined the fire was started via faulty wiring – George argued that couldn’t be as he had recently had the wiring redone and the lights remained on during the fire. Months later the police rescinded their stance.
John Sodder told police that morning that he had shaken his now missing siblings awake, before running from his attic bedroom. His parents eventually came to believe that he lied about doing so out of guilt for not having saved his siblings from their fiery end. Over the years, John was the one survivor of that night who just wanted his family to let it go and move along – survivor’s guilt?
A few bones and internal organs were supposedly found by the investigators, but the family was supposedly never told – even though years later Jeanie’s brother would claim to have witnessed them himself. After a very brief search, the authorities told the Sodders that it was Christmas and that they would come back to investigate more thoroughly at a later date. When they did not return for several days, a grief stricken George bulldozed several feet of dirt onto the ashes and planned on planting flowers there as a shrine to his apparently dead children.
Months later, George was told by the fire chief that they had found internal organs and that the chief had personally buried them in a box at the fire site. George and a private investigator went to the site with the chief, who dug up a box which contained a liver. They took it to a coroner, who told them it was a relatively fresh beef liver. Covering up for shoddy police work?
Over the next few months and years, the family started to hear reports that their five missing kids may have not perished in the fire:
A report came in that people had witnessed several kids in a taxi cab on the road next to the fire – eventually it was determined that a local bar’s patrons had heard of the fire and requested a ride over to the site in order to watch the mayhem unfold. So that story was debunked.
Not so easily debunked was a bus driver who witnessed “fire balls” being thrown onto the roof of the house prior to the fire starting. Further credence to his sighting came that Spring when young Sylvia found a hard green rubber “shell” near the house site. The family asked a military friend of theirs and he felt it was an explosive device, similar to a napalm bomb.
The strange midnight phone call was looked into, with some speculating it was somebody who knew that an arson was about to be attempted and wanted to wake the family. The woman was eventually found and it was determined to simply be a wrong number.
Another bizarre aspect to the case was an insurance agent who stopped by months before to attempt to sell life insurance to the Sodders. He was told the family wasn’t interested and then angrily warned George about his political leanings by saying “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” George was very vocal within the local Italian community over his dislike of the Italian ruler. (George was an immigrant from Italy.) The same man who offered these threats was on the coroner’s jury which ruled the Sodder house fire to be accidental.
A stranger to the area also paid the Sodders a visit a few months before the fire. Initially he was inquiring about some hauling work and then oddly enough made his way to the Sodders fuse box unprompted and started looking at the wiring and told Mr. Sodder that there will be a fire.
A few days before the fire, an unknown man was seen watching the kids from his car as they arrived home from school. The man and his car were reported to have been seen several times sitting along the nearby highway. His identity or relevance to the case remain unknown.
With all the questions surrounding the case and the authority’s lackluster search for remains in the immediate aftermath of fire led to the family requesting and receiving an excavation of the house site in 1949, in order to attempt to find bones and settle once and for all if the kids died in the fire or were somehow kidnapped beforehand. The excavation search was led by Oscar Hunter, a well-regarded pathologist. Hunter said that he expected to find large bones and thus the crew did not “screen” the soil. His expert opinion was that the fire was not intense enough to have incinerated bones thoroughly. Hunter was successful at locating some vertebrae at the house site but the bones were determined to belong to a person between 16-22 years old and the bones showed no exposure to fire! The oldest missing child was only 14 years old. It is believed that the vertebrae found were brought in to the scene accidentally when George hauled the dirt in to bury the house a few days after the fire. What unfortunate soul would up in a dirt mound is also unknown. A letter did come into the local detective agency months later that claimed a grave was dug up in a nearby cemetery to supply the bones.
Mama Sodder did her own experiments with pork and chicken bones in the family’s stove and could never incinerate them. She also read a report of another local house that burnt to the ground and seven full skeletons were found in the remains – a fact that bothered her greatly and fueled her suspicions of foul play further.
The family became so compelled to find the truth and perhaps blinded by grief that even their own relatives came under suspicion. The Sodders had Jeanie’s brother investigated in Florida and he had to prove that his children were actually his own. The family also investigated reports of the children being seen in a Mexican border town and George made a trip to New York after seeing a picture in a magazine of a girl in a ballet class that he felt looked like one of his missing daughters. He was not allowed access to the girl.
Two years after the fire, a hotel owner named Ida Crutchfield heard of the missing kids via a newspaper article and five years after that finally contacted the family to tell them she believed the children were at her motel shortly after the fire, accompanied by two Italian men. Most consider her story to be not credible enough to warrant serious consideration.