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On Christmas Eve, 1945, a fire erupted in the Sodder family home in Fayetteville, West Virginia and burned it to the ground, but that was only the beginning of a mystery that would burn through the Sodder family line to this very day.
The Sodder family was a large family consisting of George and Jennie Sodder and ten children. On Christmas Eve, 1945, nine of the children were in the home. After the family was in bed, the phone rang a little past midnight. Jennie Sodder answered it and the caller asked for a woman that Jennie had never heard of before. When Mrs. Sodder told the caller that she had the wrong number, the caller laughed and hung up.
Before going back to bed, Jennie noticed that the lights were on in the house; unusual as the children were very responsible about extinguishing them but she shrugged off the oversight and went upstairs.
She had barely laid down when she reported hearing a thump on the roof and something rolling. A half an hour later, she smelled smoke and realized that the house was on fire. At One AM, the Sodder home was an inferno. Jennie, George, and four of their children managed to escape, but despite efforts by George Sodder to re-enter the house and save them, Maurice, age 14; Martha age 12; Louis, age 9; Jennie, age 8; and Betty, age 5 were lost in the tragic blaze. By 8 AM the next morning, the Sodder home was a pile of ashes.
The remaining Sodder family was told that the fire, thought to be caused by faulty wiring, was so hot that the bodies of the children were likely cremated. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt and planted flowers as memorial to his lost children.
As the days wore on, the Sodder family began to stitch together the strange events of the months, weeks, and days leading up to the deadly fire, suspicious that the fire had been no accident. An insurance salesman had, for example, warned them days earlier that their home would burn to their ground due to wiring and seemed to get angry at some negative remarks George made against Italian facist leader, Benito Mussolini.
The children had reported being followed by a man days before the fire. A ladder that was owned by the family was found down in an embankment. Neighbors reported that they had seen “fireballs” being tossed at the house.
After the home burned, a telephone repairman told them that the phone lines to their home had been cut, not burned – strange since they received a phone call only a half hour before they noticed smoke. They realized that, if the fire had indeed been the fault of wiring, the lights in the home would not have been functioning. Soon, the family learned that, to completely burn a human body to ashes, it would have to be exposed to a temperature of 2,000 degrees for two hours… the home had burned down in 45 minutes.
And then, amazingly, a witness stepped forward claiming that she had seen the five lost Sodder children peering at her from a passing car as the fire was in progress. A waitress in a tourist stop between Fayetteville and Charleston claimed that she served the children breakfast. A woman at a Charleston hotel saw the children’s photos in a newspaper and said she had seen four of the five a week after the fire. She said that the children were with two men and two women and that the men spoke with Italian accents, both were reported as hostile and refused to allow anyone to speak to the children.
George and Jennie Sodder pleaded with the FBI and local authorities to reopen the case, but were met with bureaucracy and a strange conspiracy of silence from the local fire and police chief.
The parents erected a billboard on Route 16 displaying the pictures of their missing children, pleading with local authorities to investigate. It stood in that spot almost 40 years.
In 1968, more than 20 years after the fire, Jennie went to get the mail and found an envelope addressed only to her. It was postmarked in Kentucky but had no return address. Inside was a photo of a man in his mid-20s. On its flip side a cryptic handwritten note read: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”
The resemblance was, in the family’s opinion, very striking and they hired a private detective to track down the man they believed to be their son, but they never heard from the man again. The strange message on the back of the photo has never been decrypted.
There were a number of theories. Some postulate that the children were kidnapped by someone they knew, the fire covering their tracks. Others have said that they were taken away by orphanages and sold to wealthy couples who couldn’t have children of their own. Some suggest that George and Jennie Sodder might have been the culprits while others point the finger at the dwindling war overseas. George himself was an Italian immigrant and had been warned by an insurance salesman that his house would be burned because of his negative remarks about Mussolini.
George Sodder died in 1969. Jeanie passed away in 1989 and, upon her death, the billboard bearing the pictures of her children – now amended with the grown up picture of Louis, was taken down.
The last remaining member of the Sodder family was Sylvia, who was only two when the fire began. She and her family continue to search for clues in the disappearance of her brothers and sisters she hardly knew hoping and praying that someday, against all odds, the Sodder family will be reunited once more.