As a kid growing up in Fayette County, I knew of the story of the Sodder kids and I had seen the billboard in Fayetteville that stood for many years. Nowadays, if you pass the same spot where that old billboard once stood, you would not even know that something sinister occurred there as the sign has been taken down.
December 24, 1945, a fire ripped through the Sodder home, located just on the edge of Fayetteville, WV. George Sodder, his wife Jennie and their nine children were living there at the time. George, Jennie and four of the siblings escaped the fire. What happened to the other five remains a mystery to this day. No remains were ever found. It is as if they vanished into thin air. The family has always believed that the five survived. But, if they did, where are they? What happened to them?
The house had been located on Rt 16 and the Sodders did not rebuild, opting to create a memorial garden instead. In the 1950s they started to speak out about their belief that the five other children survived and were out there, somewhere. The erected a billboard on the property which could be seen from Rt 166. The sign had pictures of the missing children and offered a reward for information that could bring closure to the family and the mystery. That billboard remained in place until Jennie Sodder passed away around 1989.
So, why would the Sodders doubt the demise of the children? George would cite that there was no way it could be an electrical fire, as was the noted cause according the fire department’s findings. He had recently had the entire house rewired and it had passed inspection. George believed that the blaze was arson and pointed to the Mafia because of his outspoken criticism of Mussolini and Italy, where he had been born. The state would later determine that there was no additional information in respect to the fire department’s determination. At some point in the 1960s, the family received a photograph of an adult male that the believe was one of the missing boys.
Below are a number of clippings I was able to find in the newspaper archives regarding the case and the various twists and turns.
Five of the 10 children of Mr and Mrs George Sodder were burned to death today when a fire destroyed their two-story frame home two miles north of Fayetteville, State Trooper F.E. Springer Reported.
The victims, ranging in age from six to 15 years, were trapped on the top floor of their home despite the frantic efforts of their parents and other brothers and sisters to rescue them.
5 CHILDREN DIE IN CHRISTMAS MORNING FIRE
Fayetteville, WVA, Dec 26 – Five children anxiously awaiting the moment when they could open their Christmas presents, were killed here yesterday when fire swept the home of their parents Mr. and Mrs George Sodder.
The parents and five other children fled to safety in their night clothes while the flames leveled their two-story frame home. Sodder was treated in a hospital here for lacerations suffered in an unsuccessful attempt to save the victims who were trapped on the second floor.
Fayette County Prosecutor Carl Vickers said he would start an investigation today into their deaths.
State policeman F.S. Springer identified the dead as Maurice, 15; Martha Lee, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 6. He said that another brother in the Army was not in the home.
27 Dec 1946, Page 12 of the Beckley Post-Herald
Wreaths Placed On Fire Victim’s Grave
OAK HILL, Dec. 26 — Mr. Mrs. George Sodder have placed five wreaths on the common burial place in the basement of their home, which was destroyed by fire last Christmas Eve resulting in the death of five of their children.
The fire which occurred about 1 o’clock last Christmas Eve, completely destroyed the house. Workers were unable to remove the bodies of the five children and the basement was made a burial place.
The wreaths. which nave been placed on easels and are lighted, will remain there for several days .
In a 18 Aug 1949, in the local Raleigh Register, there was an article noting the George had brought in a bulldozer to uncover the burn area of the home in an attempt to look for clues, or remains. A state pathologist found bones within the debris that “could be” human. The Sodder family remained unconvinced.
09 Sep 1949, Page 2 of the Beckley Post-Herald
Sodder Case Is Dropped By Charleston Detective
Fayetteville, Sept 8 – Detective George Swain, of Charleston, announced yesterday his retirement from the case of the five Sodder children, supposedly killed in the fire which destroyed their home Christmas morning, 1945.
“It has come to my attention that Mr and Mrs George Sodder, of Fayetteville, the distressed parents of five children who supposedly persidhed in a fire that destroyed the Sodder home..are to pursue investigation of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the tragic event,” he said.
“I therefore wish to inform the public that neither I, nor any member of the American Detective Agency I represent, are taking part in pursuing this matter further.”
The detective was hired by the Fayetteville father to look for clues which would disclose the whereabouts of the children after the local authorities said there was not sufficient evidence to warrant a re-examination of the circumstances involving the alleged deaths. He had worked on the case for about three years.
Swain said 22-year old Frank Hill, a member of the same agency whore recently was assigned to study the facts connected with the occurrence, also would withdraw from the case.
“Since the basement of the home was excavated August 18 of this year, under the supervision of a competent pathologist from Washington DC (Dr Benwood Hunter, Jr) who has reported the remain found were human bones, it becomes my duty to accept these findings,” Swain continued.
“My three years work on this mystery leaves the matter unsolved in spite of the fact I worked diligently in probing every known lead in the face of utter frustration met at every turn. Many mysterious circumstances will puzzle me forever. My efforts in a large measure were prompted by sumpathy for the bereaved parents, and I regret that I was unable to bring them even a crumb of solace in the breavement.
“My heart goes out to the Sodder family, but I must say that any further investigation is not being done by any one connected with this agency or in conjunction with me personally. Throughout my investigation I have been guided by advice from some of the nation’s most noted experts, on arson, pathologists and criminoligists, and I feel that many of the mysteries surrounding the fire never will be solved. I believe it is utterly foolish to spend any more money on a search that is bound to prove fruitless.
“As I see it now, the question is not whether the children perished in the flames, but what became of the bones following the fire?”
Dr Hunter, said, following his investigation of the fire ruins on August 18, that four of the bones found belonged to the skeleton of a 14 or 15-year-old child. Prior to that time no positive evidence of human remains had been discovered in the ruins.
The lost Sodder Children were from five to 14 years of age.
11 Sep 1953, Page 11 pf the Beckley Post-Herald
Search For Sodder Children Renewed; Billboard Erected At Scene Of Fire
FAYETTEVILLE, Sept 10 – “What was the fate of our children?” is still the uppermost question in the minds of Mr and Mrs George Sodder of Fayetteville, after seven and one-half years.
The five children pictured on a billboard which Sodder has had erected at the scene of the fire, were supposedly burned to death when fire destroyed their home on Christmas Eve, 1945.
Work was completed on the billboard today. On it is asked, “What Was The Fate Of Our Children. Kidnapped, Murdered or Burned?” Also printed on the board are a few of the facts concerning the case, according to Sodder, and a notice of a $5,000 reward for information leading to the location of anyone or all of the children.
Both Mr and Mrs Sodder feel sure there is still some unsolved mystery connected with the fire and both believe their children were kidnapped and the house set afire. They point to the fact that no bones or other remains whatsoever were found by firemen who searched the ashes. Also an unknown rider on the Alloy work bus which passed the Sodder home shortly after midnight, reported that he had seen balls of fire thrown on the roof of the home as the bus passed. Sodder stated that to the best of their knowledge, they discovered the fire about 1:30 A.M. He and his wife and four of their children managed to get clear but did not have time to help the other five, if they were in the house.
Sodder had the basement, containing the ashes, covered over and decided to make it a small cemetery but later, after hearing of other instances where large homes had burned and remains of victims easily found, he decided to have the dirt removed and make another search. This time a piece of flesh was found and sent to a mortician in Montgomery. According to Sodder the mortician sent him a signed statement in which he described the meat as raw beef liver. This liver later disappeared in Montgomery.
Also among evidence he reports having is a statement made, signed and notarized in Charleston in which a woman states that the children spent the night in a hotel in Charleston and were seen the next day with two women and two men.
Later a missionary in Cortez, Fla., saw a picture of the children in a paper and reported that he had seen them in a home in Cortez. An investigator was hired in Florida and he notified the family that there was no doubt that the children had been there but were gone.
Sodder states that he cannot understand the lack of interest shown by authorities in the case. He has had to pay for and push what investigating has been done. However the family has pledged itself to do all in their power to solve this mystery. All statements and other evidence had been turned over to a special investigator in Charleston.
The family is not particularly interested in punishing anyone, if there was foul play. They state that they would be glad to waive charges or to sign any kind of release asked for if they could only regain their children or learn what had happened to them.
12 Jan 1963, Page Four of the Beckley Post-Herald
Yesterday and Today –
Sodders Still Seek 5 Children They Lost
By: SHIRLEY DONNELLY
Regarding those buried in the Arthur cemetery between Fayetteville and Beckwith who had come to a tragic end, described here recently, other stories of like nature have taken place in the general community where the graveyard is located. Near the little cemetery is the Marrs place. Where the Judge W. R . Bennett homestead is, was the Levi Jones place of Civil War times. It was in the Marrs family a pathetic thing happened which influenced the Marrs family to move to Texas.
After moving to the Lone Star state one of the Marrs family achieved no little distinction as a leader in the field of education. He was Stanley M. Marrs who was elected state superintendent of public schools of Texas for some 16 or 18 terms in a row.
The tragedy in the Marrs family when they lived on a farm close to the J. W. Arthur and the Levi Jones places was in the summer time, during the harvest season. The head of the Marrs family was in the wheat field cradling grain. The scythe of the wheat cradle was razor-like in sharpness. There was a toddler child in the Marrs family who moseyed out to where the’ father was reaping.
Unbeknown to the father, the child approached him as he swung the sharp-scythed cradle around to his left. At this juncture the needle-sharp edge of the scythe struck the Marrs child in the neck and severed the jugular vein. Before the flow of blood could be staunched the child bled to death. This filled the family with such remorse that they pulled up stakes and went to Texas in the effort to get away from the scene of the grim, stark tragedy. Only last summer one of the Marrs family was in the Fayetteville area and called to see me.
THE WORST TRAGEDY to children in Fayette County occurred on Christmas Eve. 1945, when the house of Mr. and Mrs. George Sodder, diagonally across Route 21 from the Arthur cemetery was destroyed by fire. Either in “the conflagration, or by kidnapping, the five Sodder children vanished completely.
They were Maurice. Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty Sodder. While the authorities believe the five children were burned to death, Mr. and Mrs. Sodder have never accepted that decision. They believe their five children were stolen and carried away. Bones found in the ruins of the burned home were analyzed by the Smithsonian Institution people and were pronounced to be the bones of human beings. The Sodder parents did not concur in this.
GEORGE SODDER had erected on the knoll by his present dwelling a big billboard with pictures of his children. Also, on the billboard are inscriptions which speak of tragedy, pathos, lament, and doleful bitterness, thusly!
“These children were kidnapped on Christmas Eve, 1945, and the house set on fire to cover the crime.” $10,000.00 reward is offered by Mr. and Mrs. George Sodder. “An affidavit has been signed by a person that he saw four of the children in Charleston at her hotel two or three days later. They left the next morning with two men and two women. Although later five different people saw the same children in Cortez, Florida. These children disappeared on Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 1945, when the home was destroyed by fire.
“A COMPLETE investigation of the burned premises failed to produce evidence of flesh or human bones. It is inconceivable to the intelligent mind that these children burned in that fire. Only a few who are interested in not having the crime solved persist in saying the children died in the fire. We would welcome, at any time, an opportunity to have an open discussion. However, they seem to prefer to ignore the issue. If by any chance, some of the ex-officials hurriedly come to the erroneous conclusion that the children died in the fire, and sincerely believe in the protection of helpless children, we would appreciate it if they would re-examine their consciences and lend a helping hand where it is badly needed. Respectable citizens who believe in the administration of justice and equality for all and the protection of innocent minors, have you any suggestions as to what we can do about it?”
The children are pictured with their current ages: Maurice, now 29; Martha, now 27; Louis, mm- 24; Jennie, now 22; Betty, now 20.
A NUMBER OF TIMES milady and I have stopped at the scene of the Sodder sorrow and talked a time with them. Once Sodder paid a visit to my church in a service there after he had read an observation or so on the subject which I had made. Quite often the subject is reviewed in my thinking and some thoughts on the tragedy will be stated in this column Monday. In the summer season, Mrs. Sodder grows many flowers on the grounds near the spot where they suffered the quintuple loss 17 years ago.
28 Jan 1963, Page Four of The Beckley Post-Herald
Yesterday And Today-
Sodder Corrects Detail On 1945 Tragedy By: SHIRLEY DONNELLY
Following columns here on the loss of the children of Mr. and Mrs. George Sodder in connection with the fire that destroyed their home the night before Christmas years ago, my old friend called me to talk about the matter. Soon as it can be arranged a trip is going to be made to see Mr. and Mrs. Sodder to hear their story in full.
In my article, based on stories in the newspapers, it was stated that there were ashes found in the ruins of the fire and that these were the ashes of human bones. Sodder says this is entirely wrong. This column is glad to correct any statement if and when it is in error.
One source of information on the subject of the bones is to the effect that they were apparently human bones but there was absolutely no conclusive evidence they were the bones of the ill- fated children of the Sodder couple. I gathered from our conversation over the telephone that it is suspected by some that such bones might have been placed in the ruins caused by the conflagration that Christmas Eve night of 1945. Since there were no ash remains from the burning of bones found in the fire, the Sodders believe that those children may have been kidnapped or carried away.
But where? By whom? There’s the mystery.
IT IS INCONCEIVABLE to me that a fire no more extensive than the small Sodder home could have made could completely destroy all parts of the bodies and bones of so many children as perished in it.
Periodically this subject comes up. Some years ago it was dwelt upon at length by a writer in a Charleston paper, as I recall it. Did the press of the area and state give fair and impartial reports on. the disaster? Did the county and state authorities look carefully into the matter to determine if a crime had been committed?
That was the year I returned from the war and as the matter is remembered there was general sympathy for the distraught parents. If those children were carried away alive, as the belief of some persists, some fiend or fiends were the perpetrators of an outrageous crime. Death could have removed such evil actors from earth in the 17 years since the tragedy. What would be the frame of mind of such characters?
ONE OF THESE DAYS someone is likely to write a novel, a historic novel, in part, on this tragedy. In it the writer would outline in full the theory, belief, and feeling of the bereaved couple. If alive, what would the children, all now grown, be doing? Where would they be?
With so many elements of doubt and mystery, maybe an increase in the reward offered for a solution of it would step up action. If this would solve it, I, for one, would like to contribute to such reward.
As one whose children are dead, the desolation of facing old age childless is not unknown. Time does little to efface the marks of grief made on the heart of one who has been heavily bereaved.
WHILE WE WERE TALKING the other evening, George Sodder told me he was of Italian descent and that he was born on the island of Sardinia. Our conversation served to recall that August night in 1945 when the convoy in which I sailed en route to the invasion of Southern France passed through the strait between Sardinia and Corsica, home of Napoleon, you know.
Sodder is a miner today, working a “punch mine,” he said, in which the coal is some 30 inches high. I think he told me Mrs. Sodder came from Foggia in Italy, a place where I visited a number times while stationed in Italy.
There is quite a colony of Italians at Fayetteville, or at least there used to be a’ lot of them. Some of them were stone masons but these are mostly gone now.
IF THE STORIES of the disappearance of those Sodder children, stories such as I have written here on another occasion or two, would result in the formation of an organization to pursue the tragedy to a solution to the complete satisfaction of the parents in particular and the doubting members of the public, it would be gratifying indeed.
George passed away in August 1969, never fully knowing what happened to his five children.
I have often thought while working on DNA data from genealogy websites – wouldn’t it have been interesting to have had this technology back in the 60s and what it might have helped find for the Sodder family?
In any event, my heart aches for a family that looses not one but five young children on a Christmas eve. I could not imagine the aftermath of emotions for an event of that magnitude.