A drive to Fayetteville, West Virginia is nothing short of inspiring. Winding roads pass dark groves of sycamore and ash that cling to the ridged steps of the Appalachian Mountains. Around one bend, near the community of Hawk’s Nest, is a kitschy relic of roadside Americana, the . Entering Fayetteville itself, you cross the impressive , a 3,030-foot steel arch that spans the cool waters of the New River.
But for decades, travelers coming into Fayetteville were treated to a far more somber site: a billboard depicting the photos of five children and a plaintive plea from their parents seeking news about their fates.
The official explanation of the disappearance of the Sodder children—Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty, aged 5 to 14—is that they died in a fire that consumed the Sodder family house on Christmas Eve 1945. The alternative explanation entertained by the Sodder parents, the Sodder children who survived the blaze, and an active network of amateur sleuths, is that the children were kidnapped from the burning home as retribution against the family.
George and Jennie Sodder were both Italian immigrants, although only George, who immigrated when he was 13, spent an appreciable amount of time in his home country. The couple was a shining example of the American dream; George went from working railroads in Pennsylvania to owning a small trucking company in West Virginia. He and his wife had 10 children and lived in a two-story home just north of Fayetteville, where many Italian immigrants and their descendants had settled.
George was many things—a hard worker, a dedicated family man—but he never shied away from sharing his beliefs. He frequently discussed his disapproval of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was seen by some pre-World War II Italian Americans as a model of strength who had made Italy great again. Arguments with other Italian Americans were common, and the family claimed that during the war years, George was the subject of threats.
On Christmas Eve 1945, the family was celebrating with nine of their 10 children. War was over, which meant that eldest son Joe would soon return from the army. Daughter Marion had bought presents for the youngest Sodder siblings with income from a new job. At night, five of the Sodder children retired to the upstairs attic for bed.
In the middle of night, around 1 a.m., Jennie Sodder awoke to a bang on the roof followed by a rolling noise. She drifted back to sleep, but awoke 30 minutes later to the smell of smoke. It wasn’t long before she discovered a fire burning from a fuse box in George’s office. The Christmas lights still twinkled in the living room downstairs, and the children were still asleep in the attic.
George, Jennie, Marion, two-year-old Sylvia, and two of the older Sodder boys escaped the house; one of these boys, John Sodder, initially claimed that he went upstairs to wake his siblings. He later changed his account, saying he had only called up to them.
The fire could not have occurred at a more disastrous time. It was Christmas and the middle of the night; the town of Fayetteville was shut down. Many local men were still in the military, and the fire department was barely staffed.
In addition, a series of mysterious misfortunes made rescue impossible. A high ladder, usually stored against an external wall, had vanished. The water in the water barrel was frozen and the phone line was down. George Sodder tried to start his trucks, so he could park below the attic window, climb upon the roof and rescue the children. But the engines wouldn’t start, despite working fine earlier that week. Desperately, George climbed the walls and broke open an attic window, cutting his arm in the process. Even still, he could not reach the upstairs bedroom.
Heartbroken, the Sodder family watched as their house and, they assumed, their five children burned through the night.
The fire department didn’t arrive until eight o’clock the following morning. One reason for the lateness? Fayetteville’s fire chief F.J. Morris, who could not drive his own department’s fire truck. A cursory two-hour examination ensued, even though fire investigations often lasted days, or even weeks. No bones were found, and the Sodders were told their children must have burned away completely. Later, George Sodder, unable to endure the sight of his ruined home, used a bulldozer to bury what remained under five feet of dirt.
In the coming weeks, the Sodders came to believe their children had, in fact, been kidnapped—perhaps by Mafia members, who resented George’s anti-Mussolini rants. The missing house ladder was found tossed into a nearby ravine. Investigators concluded the fire was the result of faulty wiring, even though George recently had an electrician rewire the house and the Christmas lights remained on as the fire burned. A nearby hotel owner claimed to have hosted strange lodgers traveling with a set of children. After chatting with a local crematorium employee, Jennie Sodder determined there was no way the children’s bones could have been incinerated.
The Sodders hired a private investigator, who soon unearthed a shocking lead. Fayetteville’s fire chief F.J. Morris had apparently found a heart among the ashes of the house. He secretly packed the heart into a box and then buried it. The tip was initially confessed to a minister, who confirmed the account to George Sodder.
When confronted with the accusation, Morris admitted to the story. He took Sodder to the spot where he buried the remains. Indeed, a box was buried in the ground with some flesh inside, but a local funeral director declared it was fresh beef liver that had never been exposed to extreme heat.
Many point to this bizarre twist as evidence that Morris was indeed trying to convince the Sodders that their children had died in the fire, throwing them off of the youngsters’ true fate. In a sense, the theory may be true—Morris may have been trying to convince the Sodders that their children died that night. But it wasn’t because he was covering up a kidnapping. Rather, he was covering up his own incompetence.
By the chief’s own admission, he could not drive his department’s fire truck. The short two-hour investigation on Christmas morning was hardly adequate. And George Sodder may well have buried the Sodder children’s remains too deeply when he bulldozed dirt over the smoldering ruins of the house.
The Sodders themselves never abandoned the theory that their children had been kidnapped. Billboards and advertisements asked after their fates. In 1967, a photo was sent to the Sodders, claiming to portray a now grown little Louis, although this may have been a cruel trick played on a family whose tragic story had by then become national news. Although multiple follow-ups on various tips have yielded little to no substantive developments, the kidnapping theory lingers to this day.
Special thanks to reader Jessica Smith, who tipped us off to this fascinating case. Thanks for reaching out, Jessica!
All photos: Wikimedia Commons