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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

The Disappearance Of The Sodder Children

During the ending days of 1945, the small town of Fayetteville in West Virginia played host to a horrendous tragedy. A huge blaze tore through a local household and it claimed the lives of five young children in the process. But the failure of authorities to locate the remains plus a series of bizarre occurrences in the aftermath of the incident eventually raised the question, "What happened to the Sodder children?"

Going tired from shoveling and sifting through the smoldering ruins, Forrest Judson Morris finally stopped what he was doing and decided it was time for a break. Unbuttoning the heavy overcoats and removing his helmet, he made his way out of the smoldering debris, in search of something to drink. The house had already been completely destroyed by the time that he and Fayetteville's other volunteer firefighters had arrived on the scene. It had taken far too long for the men to assemble and it was unfortunate that the crew's driver had been the last one to arrive, wasting further precious minutes.

Whilst reloading their equipment the night before, they had looked on as the police officers had unsuccessfully attempted to restrain the head of the family nearby. George Sodder's arm was bleeding profusely from where he had smashed a window in a failed effort to save his children from inside the fiery inferno. His face was plastered with grimes and soot, save for the stark tear tracks beneath his eyes, and his voice was completely lost from hours of anguished and unanswered cries.

Of the nine young children who had been asleep in their beds at the time the fire broke out, only four were accounted for. Unsure of how he was meant to proceed in a situation like this, Morris had put a call in to the regional Fire Marshal, who had told him to search the ruins for evidence of how the blaze had started and to recover the remains of the children who had died.

In terms of identifying where and why the Inferno had broken out, Morris had next to nothing to go on. A sobbing Jennifer Sodder had informed the police that she had heard something thrown up onto the roof of the address that is subsequently rolled down along the roofing tiles, with the fire starting near the phone box in her husband's study. The problem was, other than piles of ash and charred timber, the blaze had left little behind to inspect.

Conscious that the fire department's reputation was already in tatters due to the time it had taken them to arrive, Morris was acutely aware that he had to come up with something, and decided to report faulty wiring in and around the phone box as the most likely cause. But the lack of forensic evidence was only one of the problems of the Fayetteville Fire Chief had to solve, as the remains he had managed to recover were barely enough to make up one human being, let alone the five who were missing.

There were a few bone fragments, along with what might have been the remnants of internal organs, but nowhere near what there should have been. For the best part of an hour, Morris debated in his head what the best course of action was. The children were dead, there was no other logical conclusion and to show what he had found to the family would only cause them unnecessary suffering. Gathering the meager remains into an undamaged biscuit tin, he buried them a short distance away, resolving to tell the family that the intensity of the blaze had totally destroyed the children's bodies. It was little more than a small mercy, but the least he could do given such tragic circumstances.

History of the Sodder family

Giorgio Saddu had been just 14 years old when he had walked through the arrivals gate at Ellis Island, possessing little more than the clothes he was wearing. Upon seeing America for the first time, his older brother had elected to return to their home in Europe, but for Giorgio this was indeed the land of opportunity. Westernizing his name to George Sodder, the young migrant immediately set about making a life for himself in his new homeland, working his way up through a series of building companies to the point where he was finally able to set up his own haulage firm.

In time, he met a shopkeeper's daughter named Jennifer Cipriani, who had similarly migrated to the United States as a child from her native Italy and their subsequent marriage would go on to produce 10 children. Though many people would ask through the years what it was that had caused him to leave his Sardinian birthplace behind. George refused to discuss the reasons for the move or indeed offer any detail regarding his childhood. It was only during the rise of the fascist movement during the mid 1920s that he finally began to share his opinions with friends and neighbors.

Sodder was an ardent opponent of Italy's governing fascist regime, and in particular, an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. He did not hold back what he thought should become at the corrupt government and his passionate outpourings soon made him deeply unpopular with some quarters of the Italian migrant population.

Unsettling incidents

During October of 1945, there were a series of unsettling incidents at the Sodder residence. A visiting life insurance salesman became enraged when asked to move on from the premises, angrily declaring that the family would pay for George's previous comments about Mussolini. In another incident, a jobbing tradesmen who services the Sodders refuse to employ, alleged that George's wiring was so shoddy that the whole house would eventually burn down.

In the run-up to the festive season, the family became aware of a strange car that would park up and watch the younger children going to and from school. Then, at 12:30 am on Christmas Eve, the house phone rang unexpectedly. When Jennie answered, a female voice she did not recognize laughed down the line, before the mysterious caller hung up. Half an hour later, Jenny heard what she thought sounded like objects clattering on the roof above her before the fire broke out shortly afterwards. As George desperately battled to stop the inferno and save his family, he found that every method at his disposal had been somehow compromised. A nearby water barrel was completely frozen over, its contents usable. His ladder had somehow disappeared from the backyard and when he tried to start both of his trucks to back them up to the front of the house to climb upon, he found neither would start. It was a mere 45 minutes before the Sodder house suddenly collapsed in on itself, its internal structure completely decimated by the intensity of the searing blaze.

In the aftermath of the incident, it soon became apparent that although their baby and three of their oldest offspring had successfully made their way outside, none of the five younger Sodder children were anywhere to be seen. As they had stood watching Chief Morris sifting through the wreckage of their home the following morning, George and Jenny had already accepted the 14 year old Maurice, 12 year old Martha, 9 year old Louis, eight-year-old Jenny and five year old Betty were dead.

All they could do now was wait for their remains to be recovered, so that they could bury their children in the traditional manner. The couple found themselves accepting Morris's assertion that the blaze had been with such intensity that the bodies had been completely destroyed. Four days later George bulldozed over the debris in order to lay the foundations of a memorial garden to their lost children. But it was not long before the grieving parents began to question certain elements of the official version of events.

In the days that followed, George found that their missing ladder had apparently been hidden by someone at the bottom of an embankment a short distance away. It was also discovered that the phone line into the address had been deliberately cut rather than melted by the fire, presumably by whoever it used and then concealed the missing ladder.

Jenny read a newspaper article about a house fire in which the skeletal remains of the victims had been found huddled together in the ruins. She also discovered that several items of furniture and household appliances have been recovered relatively undamaged from the wreckage, further undermining the fire chief's arguments that all the evidence have been utterly destroyed.

The Conspiracy

George went on to hire a number of private investigators who uncovered further worrying information. The insurance salesman that had threatened the family had been a member of the coroner's jury who had deemed the incident accidental and not malicious. Witnesses emerged stating that they had seen shadowy figures throwing objects at the house on the night of the fire, with others claiming to have seen the missing children being taken away from the scene by strangers. The family became convinced that their children were the victims of some sort of sinister abduction and paid for an advertising billboard alongside a nearby freeway, displaying pictures of the missing children and a cash reward for information of their whereabouts. This attracted a number of inquiries over the years, none of which generated any positive leads, but then in 1968, the family received a mystifying item of correspondence.

A letter arrived address to Jenny, postmarked from Kentucky, but with no forwarding address. Inside was a photo of a handsome man in his mid-20s, on the reverse the name Louis Sodder was written along with "I love brother Frankie. llil boys, A90132 or 35." Believing this to be an attempt by Louis to reconnect with the family, George added the new photo to the billboard and paid for more private investigators to travel to Kentucky.

Sadly George Sodder passed away the following year, after this new development produced no further viable leads. His death caused Jenny to retreat from public life, refusing to engage with Society ever again until her death in 1989. To this day, no definitive traits of the missing five Sodder children has ever been found.

What really happened?

When trying to explore and rationalize the events that took place on that tragic Christmas Eve, back in 1945, it is important to distinguish between the evidence which can be supported by fact, and that which exists purely as opinion or supposition. When law enforcement agencies refused to conduct a professional investigation into the matter, the Sodder family went on to uncover huge amounts of information themselves, much of which was never fully explored or verified to any significant extent. In reality, there are only two real possible explanations for what took place. These are that the children did indeed tragically perish in the blaze or that the family were victims of a much deeper criminal conspiracy.

This means that the most important evidence which needs to be probed and evaluated is that of Fire chief Morris, a body of evidence which sadly falls down before it even reaches the first hurdle. When Jenny Sodder first started to doubt the idea that all trace of her children had been completely burned away by the fire, she started to experiment by burning piles of animal bones, none of which could ever be fully destroyed. She then contacted a local Crematorium who told her that it was not possible to burn human bones to ash unless a fire generating heat in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit was sustained for a two-hour period, far longer than the Sodder house fire had lasted.

Later on in their investigations, George paid for a further search of the scene which did unearth a number of damaged bone fragments. These were analyzed by a state pathologist who confirmed that they were indeed human vertebra, but had come from a human male aged between 17 and 22 years old. Not only did this further points to the fact that nobody had died as a result of the fire, as it was, well outside the age range of the five missing children, but it also completely undermined the report filed by Chief Morris.

George eventually became aware of the rumors that Morris had indeed located human remains, refusing to disclose their existence to the family and instead choosing to bury them. When questioned about this by the police, the Fire chief admitted to doing so and led the family to where he had buried the biscuit tin the morning after the incident. When the contents of the tin were analyzed, it was concluded that they were animal remains and not those of a human being. The hapless Morris was again confronted with the new evidence. And this time claimed he had buried a beef liver he obtained from a local butcher in an attempt to give the family some degree of closure should they inquire about the matter at some future point.

Further evidence came to light when the driver of a bus which had been passing the address on the night of the fire claimed to have seen men throwing burning objects up onto the roof at the Sodder house. Another search of the scene uncovered a spherical object made of thick green rubber which bore more than a passing resemblance to a hand grenade. Given Chief Morris's clear aversion to telling the truth, and Jenny Sodder's insistence that the fire had started up on the roof of the house, it is clear that the blaze was no accident. The stolen ladders, severed phoneline and sabotaged lorries parked nearby indicate that one or more perpetrators ensured the house was damaged to the point where it could not be saved, which in turn brings us back to the issue of the missing children.

Working on the principle that their remains should have been relatively easy to recover but never have been, there is significant weight to the argument that they were somehow removed from the scene without the knowledge of their parents. But what could be the motive for such a carefully orchestrated and sinister criminal conspiracy? And what was the fate of the missing juvenile victims?


As a result of the families billboard appeal, numerous witnesses came forward, claiming to have seen the five children traveling away from Fayetteville in the company of strangers. A woman at a diner en route to Charleston claimed to have seen them traveling in a car with Florida license plates. A hotel Owner in Charleston itself would later come forward claiming the children had stayed there overnight, in the company of two men and two women of Italian extraction, who became aggressive when challenged. The only motive ever considered by George Sodder was that he was being punished by Italian fascists for his opposition to the now deposed government.

Were these innocent American children supposedly removed from the country and taken to Italy either too young to remember their past or too scared to risk the lives of their family by trying to make contact with them? Another theory is that the Sicilian Mafia abducted the youngsters in order to extort money from George and attempts that went badly wrong for all those involved. There are also some who claim that there is a far more Sinister story at the heart of the incident and that the family started the fire themselves in an effort to cover their tracks after somehow killing their own children.

Right up until his death, George Sodder followed every possible lead into their disappearance, however tenuous the information. He visited a convent in St. Louis after an anonymous tip that Martha was being held there against her will. A woman in Houston claimed that a man she had met in a bar claimed to be Louis Sodder after one drink too many. Not one of these leads ever produced any evidence regarding the fate of the Sodder children, their disappearance remains a mystery to this very day. The sadness and tragedy associated with the loss of these youngsters is eclipsed only by the complete absence of any tangible evidence or hypothesis surrounding their disappearance. And, however, unlikely the scenario is, that unknown offenders managed to successfully spirit them away from inside a burning building, without the knowledge of their parents. With the absence of their bodies it is difficult to draw any of the logical conclusion.

Ultimately, whether they were the victims of the carelessness and incompetence of Chief Morris and his investigation, or the machinations of the Italian mafia is irrelevant. These were innocent and helpless children who had never done anything to deserve the terrifying turn of events that would forever separate them from their parents and siblings. All we can hope is that with the lengthy passage of time that has elapsed since the tragedy occurred, advances in both genealogy and social media may one day provide the information needed to solve their disappearance. The story of Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jenny and Betty is far from over and only by keeping their memory alive, can this mystery ever hope to be resolved.


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