A Christmas Eve Mystery: What Happened to the Sodder Children?

By: Kate Morgan  | 
The Sodder family erected this billboard in 1952 near Ansted, West Virginia, to seek information about the children they believed to be missing. It displayed photographs of the children and offered a $5,000 reward for information. Public domain

The mystery of the Sodder family began Christmas Eve, 1945. George and Jennie Sodder were raising their family in a house in Fayetteville, West Virginia, near what's now New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. They lived, by all accounts, a typical small-town life; but what happened that night was unusual, deeply tragic and remains a mystery to this day.

A fire, started under suspicious circumstances, burned the family's home to the ground. While George and Jennie escaped along with four of their children, five others never made it out of the house. At least, that was the official story. For more than 70 years, doubts have persisted about the actual fate of the five Sodder children.


The Night of the Sodder Family Fire

George and Jennie — like many of their Fayetteville neighbors — had both emigrated from Italy as children. The Sodders owned a trucking company and hauled coal from the region's mines. On the night of the fire, they were at home with nine of their 10 children (the second-eldest, Joe, was away with the Army, serving in World War II). George and the two oldest boys were already in bed. Jennie took the youngest, two-year-old Sylvia, to bed with her around 10 p.m.

At 19, Marion was the oldest Sodder daughter. She and five of the younger children — Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty — stayed up a bit later. At 12:30 a.m., a phone call roused Jennie, the mother, who went downstairs to answer it. She told the caller, a woman with a "weird laugh," that she had the wrong number. Then she hung up and went back up to bed, noticing on her way that Marion had fallen asleep on the couch.


An hour later, Jennie Sodder woke again, this time to the smell of smoke. She rushed into George's office, which was full of flames. She and George carried Sylvia out of the house, and the three oldest children — John, Marion and George Jr. — escaped too. The stairs to the attic, where the younger children slept and where the family assumed they were trapped, were already engulfed in fire.

The Sodder's phone didn't work, so Marion ran to a neighbor's house where she tried to call the local fire department. Meanwhile, George tried frantically to reach the attic from outside the house. He rushed for a ladder that was usually stored against the side of the house, but it was missing. He tried to pull one of his coal-hauling trucks to the house so he could climb on top of it and reach the second story. Neither would start, though they'd just been driven the day before.

In the end, all the surviving Sodders could do was watch helplessly as their house burned and collapsed. When the fire department finally arrived hours later, there was nothing left but embers and ash. Everyone assumed the five young Sodders were dead.


Where Were the Bodies of Five of the Children?

Soon, though, questions arose. The first search turned up no sign of human remains. The fire chief's explanation for why it took hours for help to arrive seemed suspicious.

There were rumors about threats George Sodder had received in the weeks and months leading up to the fire. It was all enough to fan the spark of doubt, and the Sodders began to insist that their five missing children were still alive — kidnapped before the fire even started. In 1952, they erected a massive billboard along State Route 16 in Ansted, West Virginia, near the house. It featured photos of the children and read, in bold letters, "What was their fate?" It also offered a reward of $5,000.


"I grew up driving by their sign for many years," says Lewis A. Cook, the official town historian of Fayetteville, in an email interview. In fact, it became a kind of landmark in the area, and even those who didn't know the details of the 1945 fire knew about the mystery.

The five Sodder children who disappeared the night of the fire (from left to right), Jennie, Martha, Maurice, Betty and Louis.
Public domain

The Sodder family spent the rest of their lives running down leads about their missing children all over the country. They tried to involve the FBI; though J. Edgar Hoover himself responded to George Sodder's letters, the bureau declined to take the case.

Goerge Sodder died in 1969 after pursuing leads for the rest of his life. The billboard on Route 16 stood until 1989, when Jennie Sodder died and her remaining children took the old faded and weathered sign down. Eventually, as the people involved passed away, the story became more local lore than cold case waiting to be reopened.


The Mystery Lives on Today

"I am sorry to say that I have little to add to the story of the Sodder family," says Cook. "Most of the people I knew who were firefighters or others living during the time are long gone," adds Fayetteville mayor Sharon Cruikshank.

The story of the Sodder children, however, lives on. A local author named George Bragg wrote about it in his 2012 book "West Virginia Unsolved Murders." It's been the subject of a segment on National Public Radio and an episode of the History Channel's "History's Greatest Mysteries." It's frequently discussed in online forums dedicated to unsolved crimes and murders. Cook feels most of the retellings exist purely for entertainment value.


"I have seen multiple accounts of the story that have been produced," he says. "The story, as it is told in the multiple TV productions, appears to be over-dramatized but with a certain aspect of believability. I suppose all human communities have such intrigue."

For his part, Cook says he "could accept, given my impression of the incident, that it could have happened as presented." In other words, it's plausible that the children simply perished in the fire, and the investigation that failed to find any remains was just too cursory. That's the conclusion most others who've examined the story in recent years have come to, as well. Still, the "genuine weirdness" around it all, as NPR reporter Stacy Horn put it, makes the Sodder children's fate an enduring — and intriguing — mystery.