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The Mysterious Disappearance of the Sodder Children

Maurice, Louis, Martha, Jennie, and Betty Sodder

Maurice, Louis, Martha, Jennie, and Betty Sodder

The Sodder Family

George Sodder, born Giorgio Soddu on November 23, 1895 in Tula, Sardinia, immigrated to the United States as a teenager. However, it’s unclear why he made this choice, as he never wished to discuss the subject when asked about it later. Soon thereafter, Giorgio adopted a more Americanized version of his name and began working for the railroad in Pennsylvania.

Eventually, George made his way down to West Virginia and ended up marrying a woman named Jennie Cipriani, a fellow Italian immigrant, who was seven years his junior. By 1945, the couple had 10 children together—John, Joseph, Marion, George Jr., Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, Betty, and Sylvia—ranging in age from 3 to 22, nine of whom still lived at home.

The Sodders were doing well financially and lived in a large two-story home approximately two miles north of town. George Sodder owned a successful trucking company called the Dempsey Transfer Company.

Christmas Eve 1945

Christmas Eve started off happily enough for the Sodder family, and the children were excited that Christmas was almost there. Marion, the oldest daughter, arrived home from work that evening with gifts that she had purchased for the children from her place of employment.

George and Jennie went to bed around 10 PM, taking their youngest child, Sylvia, with them. They gave the other children permission to stay up later, as they were excited to play with their new toys and also wanted to listen to the radio. Marion stayed up with them.

The older boys, John and George Jr., went to bed around 11 PM, but could not recall later if any of their siblings had still been awake at the time.

It was typically Marion’s job to get her younger sisters to bed, but she didn’t do so that night because she fell asleep on the sofa while reading a magazine.

At approximately 12:30 AM the phone rang. Jennie woke up and answered it, but she didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line. It was a woman who asked for a man whose name Jennie didn’t recognize. She heard laughter in the background and, believing this was just someone who had dialed the wrong number, hung up the phone.

Jennie then walked around the house briefly, checking to make sure that everything was okay. She saw that Marion was asleep on the couch, but didn’t see any of the other children in the living room. Assuming that everyone else had gone to bed, Jennie did the same.

Jennie was awakened once again at 1 AM by the noise of what sounded like a rock hitting the roof. It was windy that night, so she didn’t think too much about the strange sound and soon drifted off to sleep again.

Just 30 minutes later, Jennie was woken up once more, this time for a far more ominous reason: the bedroom was filling up with smoke. Panicked, she woke up George and the two of them ran out of the room. According to Jennie, the back wall of the den, which was located across the hallway from their bedroom, was already engulfed in flames.

The lights, which had still been on when Jennie was first alerted to the smoke, now went out. George and Jennie yelled for their children, telling them all to get out of the house and then ran out the front door.

Marion woke up and ran to her parents’ bedroom, where she found three-year-old Sylvia and picked her up. They made it out of the burning home and met their parents outside.

John and George Jr. woke up at this point and realized what was happening.

Due to minor discrepancies in the various stories told about the events of that night, it’s impossible to recreate exactly what happened. For example, one account states that John and George Jr. attempted to get the attention of the other children on the second floor merely by yelling to them before running down the stairs themselves. They reportedly heard one of their younger brothers call back to them, but nothing else was ever heard from the five children.

Another account has John shaking the children awake before he and George Jr. made their escape.

What does not seem to be a point of contention, however, is that the boys barely made it down the staircase before it was engulfed in flames. Both sustained minor burns.

George and his two older sons rushed to get a ladder to prop against the home so that the other children could escape. However, the ladder, which was always kept nearby, was mysteriously nowhere to be found.

Desperate to save his children, George attempted to back a truck up the house, but inexplicably neither truck on the property would start. They’d had no previous issues with either vehicle and he was at a loss to figure out why they suddenly wouldn’t start. It has been suggested that George may have unintentionally flooded the engines in his haste to start the trucks.

Marion ran to a neighbor’s house for help. Mrs. Davis attempted to phone the fire department, but was unable to get through to the switchboard operator and there was no way to directly dial the fire department in 1945.

Thomas Smith, another neighbor, had been driving by at around 1 AM and saw that the home was on fire. He turned around and drove back into Fayetteville and was able to reach the fire chief by phone. Unfortunately, the fire department was short-staffed, possibly due to the holiday, and didn’t arrive at the Sodders’ home until several hours later, at 8 AM.

It’s also reported that Fire Chief F.J. Morris explained that the slow response was due partly to having trouble finding someone who could drive the fire truck, which he stated that he himself could not drive.

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Aftermath

While it was said that the home took only 45 minutes to burn down from the time the Sodders first became aware of the blaze, the fire continued to burn for hours after that.

The debris was searched on Christmas morning, though just how thoroughly it was searched and what exactly was found among the rubble would eventually become a point of contention.

George and Jennie were understandably overcome with grief over their devastating loss. However, at least initially, they appeared to accept that five of their children—Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty—had, in fact, perished in the fire.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office advised George not to disturb the scene in any way until they’d had a chance to conduct an investigation themselves. They went on to conclude that the children had died in the fire and opted not to investigate further.

George decided that he wanted to create a memorial garden on the site and on December 29th, just days after the fire, Jennie’s brother Jimmie used a bulldozer to fill the basement with dirt. A funeral service for the five children was held that day at the site, but George and Jennie were too distraught to attend.

A coroner’s inquest was convened the following day and it was concluded that the fire was likely caused by faulty wiring. This seemed an unlikely explanation to the Sodders, however, as they had just recently had the home rewired and inspected.

the-mysterious-disappearance-of-the-sodder-children

Did They Die in the Fire?

For the next two years, the Sodders attempted to get on with their lives. They were still grieving of course, but seemingly didn’t question that five of their children had died.

However, this would change in 1947.

That year, an essay in Look magazine caught their attention. Several children were featured in a photo that accompanied that essay and both George and Jennie felt that one of the children in that photo bore a striking resemblance to their daughter Betty.

Due to this, they became convinced that their children did not die in the fire, bolstered by the fact that no substantial human remains had been recovered during the search that took place in the following days.

They hired the first of several private investigators to help them locate their children. They tried to prove that the girl in the photo was their daughter, but were unable to do so. Despite this, they remained certain that their children had been abducted and that the fire was set to cover up that fact.

It was around this time that they learned that Fire Chief Morris had allegedly found a human heart among the debris and that he had buried it in a box on the property. When asked why he hadn’t notified them of this before, he stated simply that he thought he’d already told them.

Morris went with the couple and pointed out the location of where he had buried the box. They dug it up and, for unknown reasons, George took it directly to the local funeral director to examine. The funeral director believed it to be a beef liver and not a human heart. The box with the organ inside mysteriously vanished shortly thereafter, after it had been placed on the porch steps due to the rancid smell.

Some believed that waste disposal might have picked up the box, but it was never proven one way or the other.

Morris later allegedly admitted that it was, in fact, a beef liver and that he’d claimed to have found it in the rubble in order to convince the Sodders that their children had died in the fire, hoping that this would finally give the couple a sense of closure.

Discrepancies

Several decades later it's difficult, if not impossible, to definitively answer if any remains were found during that initial search.

Some accounts state that no remains whatsoever were recovered initially. However, there are two contemporary accounts which suggest that something was discovered.

According to The State Sentinel on December 26, 1945:

“Tin roofing and other debris was removed and a part of one body was found.”

On January 2, 1946, The Montgomery Herald had this say on the subject:

“No more parts of the bodies were found other than as reported the day following the fire. That small portion of a spinal column apparently that of the little girl, 6, was placed in a container and it in turn placed in the center of the basement into which the others had fallen.”

It must be noted that neither newspaper cited any sources for this information.

Some, including George and Jennie, argued that the fire did not burn hot enough to fully cremate five people and that, because of this, more remains should have been discovered if the children had actually died there. After all, fruit jars, bed springs, toys, a stove, and part of a dictionary had been found among the debris, so not everything was destroyed by the fire.

Jennie Sodder contacted a crematorium and an employee there informed her that even a 2,000 degree (F) fire burning for two hours would still leave human bones intact. She conducted her own experiment, attempting to burn animal bones to ash and was unable to do so.

It’s important to note that the Sodders had coal in their basement and that some have theorized that this would have made the fire burn even hotter.

Several years after the fact, four people—Jimmie Cipriani, Carl B. Vickers, F.J. Morris, and Reverend James F. Frama—would all testify to having found bits of what appeared to be human bones among the debris on December 25, 1945. It’s unclear if George and Jennie were told about this at the time or whether anyone else had been informed.

1949 Excavation

George Sodder had the site of his former home excavated in 1949 and after what was said to be a thorough search was conducted, six small bones were discovered, four of which were human and had come from the same person. These four bones, all lumbar vertebrae, showed no signs of fire damage and came from an individual who was estimated to have been 16 or 17 years old at the time of their death.

Maurice, the oldest of the five children, had only been 14.

It was concluded that the bones had likely come from the dirt that had been used to fill in the basement and were totally unrelated to the fire.

Jennie and George Sodder standing in front of the billboard

Jennie and George Sodder standing in front of the billboard

Continued Efforts to Locate Children

George and Jennie offered up a $5,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of their missing children, a reward that they soon doubled. They also printed flyers with pictures of the children to be distributed as widely as possible and had a billboard erected with their pictures and information on it as well.

The picture that was in an envelope mailed to Jennie Sodder in 1967

The picture that was in an envelope mailed to Jennie Sodder in 1967

1967 Photo

One day in 1967 Jennie received a letter that was postmarked Central City, Kentucky, and which contained a photo of a young man. On the back of the picture was this cryptic message:

“Louis Sodder

I love brother Frankie

L’ill boys, A90132 or 35”

Jennie believed that the young man in the photo strongly resembled their son Louis, who had been less than a week shy of his 10th birthday at the time of the fire. They hired another private detective to investigate this lead, but he took their money and disappeared. George even went to Central City himself, but to no avail.

George followed up several other leads in person, but in each case the investigation went nowhere.

Theories

George and Jennie Sodder believed that their children had been abducted for one of three reasons:

  1. To be sold on the baby black market, which did exist in the United States in the years during and following World War II. No evidence supporting this theory has ever been found though.
  2. To be taken and killed at another location, by a former employer, as an act of revenge.
  3. That they were kidnapped by Jennie’s brother Frank to be taken with him down to Tampa, Florida. This theory was later disproved by one of their private investigators who went down to Florida to investigate.

Regarding the second theory, just days before the fire the Sodders had been visited by an insurance salesman named Fiorenzo Janutolo, who had also previously been George’s employer.

He urged the couple to take out life insurance policies on their children, but they refused. Janutolo reportedly became angry at this point and threatened that their home would “go up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed.”

Naturally, Janutolo seems like a logical suspect if the fire was indeed an act of arson. It was also alleged that Janutolo’s hatred of George Sodder was due to the latter’s outspoken dislike of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Another interesting detail: C.G. Janutolo, Fiorenzo’s cousin, reportedly offered to help the Sodders following the fire, even claiming that he intended to erect a small temporary home for them on their property. It’s unclear if he actually did this, however.

Some have also suggested a possible mafia angle, related to George and Jennie’s Italian roots, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support this.

Additional Details

A local bus driver reported that on the night of December 24, 1945, he had witnessed people throwing what appeared to be “balls of fire” at the Sodder home as he drove his bus past the house.

The following spring, Sylvia found a “small, hard, dark-green, rubber ball-like object" in the brush nearby. George felt it looked like a “pineapple bomb” hand grenade. This, coupled with the noise that Jennie had heard that night, led the family to believe that the fire had started on the roof and that it was intentionally set.

There were a number of unverified sightings of the children following the fire—in a vehicle, at a restaurant, and at a hotel.

The authorities located the woman who called the Sodder home that night and she confirmed that it was just a wrong number call.

The Sodders’ phone lines had been cut that night. The police found and arrested a man who was spotted on the Sodders’ property around the time of the fire, stealing a block and tackle. This man, Lonnie Johnson, claimed that he had meant to cut the power line and had accidentally cut the phone line instead. It’s unknown why he would have wanted to cut either one though. He was charged with theft and it doesn’t appear that he was suspected of anything more sinister than that.

John, who, according to one account, had shaken the children awake that night, was the only member of the family who believed that they had really died in the fire.

the-mysterious-disappearance-of-the-sodder-children

They Never Gave Up

To their dying days, George and Jennie believed that the answers to what had happened to their children were still out there and that they could still be alive.

George Sodder died in a hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1969.

The billboard with the children’s pictures on it remained up until Jennie’s death in 1989. Following her death, it was taken down and the Sodder family’s property was sold. The second home that they built on it is still standing today.

In 2021, Sylvia, the last remaining member of the Sodder family, who had been just three years old when her home burned down, passed away.

Though the family is gone now, there are many out there who still hope to one day have definitive answers about what happened on that fateful night back in 1945.

Sources

"CASE STUDY: The Sodder Family," Mysterious WV, YouTube, April 19, 2022

"Sodder children disappearance," Wikipedia

"35 Puzzling Facts About The Sodder Children Disappearance," Emily Madriga, Thought Catalog, August 26, 2021