Hey y’all. Welcome to this week’s Mystery Monday. I first became aware of this incident from a story in Readers Digest a few years ago.
George Sodder was born in 1895 in Tula, Sardinia. He immigrated to the United States at the age of thirteen. He found work on the Pennsylvania railroads, but eventually moved to West Virginia and started a trucking company. There he met and married Jennie Cipriani, who also from an Italian immigrant family. They moved into a two-story frame home near Fayetteville and had ten children.
While regarded as one of the most respected middle-class families of the area, George was outspoken in his political beliefs, which some people in the immigrant community disliked. He was strongly opposed to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
On Christmas Eve 1945, George and Jennie and nine of their ten children went to bed. Hours later, all that remained of the house was a pile of smoldering rubble.
The Sodders and four of the children escaped. The remaining children were believed to have perished in the fire. But did they?
Let’s look at what happened that night.
- Around twelve-thirty, the phone rang, awakening Jennie Sodder. The caller was a woman whom she did not recognize who asked for someone Jennie did not know. She heard clinking glasses and “weird laughter” in the background.
- After hanging up, she noticed all the downstairs lights were on, the curtains open, and the front door unlocked. Marion was asleep on the sofa, and Jennie assumed the other children were upstairs in bed.
- At 1:00 a.m., the sound of “an object hitting the roof with a loud bang and a rolling noise,” awakened Jennie a second time. She went back to sleep.
- At 1:30, Jennie awakened a third time to the smell of smoke. A fire had broken out in George’s office. One of the four children who escaped ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help.
- Thinking the remaining children were asleep upstairs, George looked for his ladder to reach a second-story window. Although it usually rested beside the house, it was missing.
- He then tried to use his two trucks to drive closer to the house to climb up to the window. Neither would start, although both had been in perfect working order.
- The fire department experienced various delays and did not arrive until later in the morning. The combed through the rubble but did not find any bones or human remains, but the fire chief believed the five children died in the fire. Investigators determined the fire was due to faulty wiring.
Death certificates were issued. Five days later, George Sodder bulldozed what remained of the house, intending to make a memorial garden for the deceased children. But after things calmed down, the Sodders began to question their children’s fate.
An employee of a crematorium informed Jennie Sodder that bones remain after a body has been burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees. Fire destroyed the Sodder home in forty-five minutes. A telephone employee told the family the phone lines appeared cut, not burned.
Strange events had occurred in the weeks and months leading up to the fire.
- A man came to the home asking about work. He wandered to the back of the house, pointed to the fuse boxes, and said. “This is going to cause a fire someday.” George found it strange because the power company had recently deemed the wiring in good condition.
- Another man tried to sell the family life insurance. When George refused, he became irate and said, “Your damn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed.”
- Several months later, while visiting the site, the youngest child found a hard rubber object in the yard. George thought it was a napalm “pineapple bomb.”
Then came reports of sightings. A woman claimed to have seen the missing children in a car at the time of the fire. Another woman in a diner fifty miles away claimed to have served them breakfast the following morning. An employee of a Charleston, West Virginia hotel claimed to have seen four of the five children accompanied by two couples.
In 1947, George sent a letter to the FBI and received a response from Director J. Edgar Hoover. Mr. Hoover said the matter was under the jurisdiction of local authorities but did offer to assist if given permission. The Fayetteville police and fire departments declined.
In 1949, the site was excavated. Human vertebrae bones were found, but an expert said they would have come from someone between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. The oldest missing child was fourteen. The expert also noted it was strange that more bones weren’t discovered.
The Sodders erected a billboard outside Fayetteville offering a reward for information about the children. Over the years, various sightings were reported, but none proved useful. One of the strangest events happened in 1967 when Jennie Sodder received a photo of a man who resembled one of the missing children, Louis. Inscribed on the back was a cryptic message, “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil boys. A90132 or 35.”
George Sodder died in 1969, Jennie in 1989. After her death, the remaining Sodder children had the billboard removed.
Some people believe the fire and disappearance was retaliation from the Sicilian Mafia for George’s outspoken remarks about Mussolini. Others think the children perished in the fire. Whatever the case, it is one of the strangest mysteries in US history.