It’s been a while since I’ve revisited the Monday Mysteries series. This installment tells the story of the Sodder family, the house fire that claimed their home, and the mystery surrounding the fate of five of their children.
Prelude (1895-December 23rd, 1945)
George Sodder (Giorgio Soddu) was born in 1895. An Italian, he emigrated to the United States at age 13. Entering through Ellis Island, he said goodbye to his brother who turned straight for home. He quickly found work on the railroads in Pennsylvania and eventually married Jennie Cipriani (a fellow Italian-American) and settled in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
The couple lived in a two-storey timber frame house alongside many other Italian-Americans. George’s business prospered around the time the first of ten of their children were born, and soon the Sodder’s were one of the most respected families in the neighbourhood. However, by the time the last of their children were born in 1943 (Sylvia), George had become known for his outspoken views, especially against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, often leading to arguments with other immigrants. His eldest son Joe was already fighting among the allied forces in Europe. A year later, Il Duce was dead, but the tension was still very much alive in Fayetteville.
On more than one occasion this came to the fore. A visiting life assurance salesman warned him that “your house will go up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed”. On a separate occasion, a man seeking work went round to the back of the house and pointed to a pair of fuse boxes, warning George they’d “cause a fire someday” (though the house had been recently rewired and checked).
Weeks before the incident, his older sons had also noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town, its occupants watching the younger Sodder children as they returned from school.
Christmas Eve, 1945
The Sodders celebrated Christmas Eve at home, missing only two of their children-Joe, who was at the front in Europe, and Marion (their eldest daughter), who was working a shift at a dime store downtown. When she did arrive home, she brought gifts to surprise three of her younger sisters (Martha, 12, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 6). Delighted with their new toys, the children asked could they stay up later than their bedtime. At 10:00 p.m., Jennie told the children they could stay up a little later, as long as the two oldest boys still awake (14-year-old Maurice and 10-year-old Louis), remembered to attend to the animals outside. George and the two oldest boys, John, 23 and George Jr., 16, tired from work all day, were already fast asleep. Jennie then took Sylvia (2) in her arms and went to bed.
At 12:30 a.m., the telephone rang. Jennie woke and went downstairs to answer. She didn’t recognise the voice on the other end of the line, a woman asking for a name she was not familiar with. In the background, Jennie heard the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. She assured the caller she must have dialed the wrong number. Later, she recalled the woman’s weird laugh on the telephone. She hung up and decided to return to bed. As she did, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn, two things the children should have attended to. Her daughter Marion had fallen asleep on the living room couch, so she assumed the other children had gone back up to the attic where they slept. Jennie closed the curtains, outed the lights, and trudged back upstairs.
She awoke an hour later to the sound of something hitting the roof. A loud bang, followed by a rolling noise. She listened for a moment, and when she heard nothing further, drifted back to sleep. At 1.30am, she woke to the smell of smoke. When she investigated, she found George’s office ablaze, fire ringed round the telephone line and the fuse box. She quickly roused her husband and their eldest sons.
George, Jennie, Marion, Sylvia and her two eldest brothers, who all slept on the second floor, escaped the house. They shouted to the children upstairs in the attic but heard no response. The stairs to the third floor were consumed by flame. John Sodder later said in a police interview that he went up to the attic to alert his siblings, though he then changed his story to say that he only called up and did not actually see them.
Outside, George and his wife struggled to rescue the children still trapped inside. They tried to contact the fire brigade but their phone wasn’t operating. Running to a neighbour’s house, Marion was met with the same ill-luck. Nearby, a driver who had seen the fire couldn’t reach an operator from the phone in a tavern.
George climbed the wall of the house and broke an attic window, slashing open his arm as he did so. He sent his sons to fetch the ladder they kept at the side of the house, but it was nowhere to be found. They tried to use a water barrel to extinguish the fire. Its contents were frozen solid. In a last desperate attempt to reach the attic, George tried to pull both of his business trucks up to the house to climb up to the window. Despite having worked fine only the day before, neither truck would start.
Over the next hour, the Sodders watched their family home burn to the ground. Low on manpower due to the war, the fire department did not respond until later that morning. By 10 a.m., the Sodder home lay in ruin.
Morris, a firefighter and Jennie’s brother, helped search through the wreckage.
A few hours later, he told his sister the news. There were no bones in the ashes.
A few days after the fire, George bulldozed the site of their home, the family intent on making a memorial garden. The chief of the fire department wanted to conduct a more thorough investigation, but the Sodders could not bare the sight of their ruined home any longer.
An inquest into the fire the next day determined it was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Among the jurors was the insurance salesman who had threatened George two months previously.
Though death certs were issued for the five children who were presumed to have died in the fire, the Sodders still had questions. They argued the blaze could not have been as a result of an electrical fault, as the Christmas lights remained operational early on in the fire. They also found their ladder at the bottom of an embankment some distance from their house. On top of that, it was discovered that their telephone lines had been cut, not burned by the fire. A man was arrested in relation to this, though he maintains he meant to cut a power line. His identity remains unknown. George Sodder argued he may have also tampered with his trucks.
Jennie Sodder, on the other hand, wanted to follow up on the call placed to the house shortly before the fire. The placer of the call was eventually traced, though when questioned she maintains it was a simple case of wrong-number.
In 1946, her recollection of events received a boost from a local bus driver, who passing by the house that night had seen unidentified men throwing “balls of fire” at the house. When Sylvia found a green rubber ball a few months later, George postulated the noise his wife had heard was a form of grenade being thrown at the house, and that the fire had started on the roof.
Other witnesses claimed to have seen the children themselves. A woman who watched the fire from the road said she had seen some of them in a passing car. Another woman said she had served them breakfast the next morning at a rest-stop.
Over the following years, the Sodders never gave up hope, offering a reward for information about the surviving children and erecting a billboard on U.S. route 19. This was met with a flurry of sightings and tips, all of which ultimately led to nothing. The most notable was the following photo, sent to the Sodders in 1967. Jennie found the letter, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. The picture inside was of a young man with features resembling Louis’s, who would have been in his 30s at the time if he was alive. On the back was written:
Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35
The Sodders hired a P.I. to follow up on the letter, but no contact was ever received again.
Today, Sylvia is the last surviving member of the Christmas Eve fire. Only two at the time, she maintains it was her earliest memory, and that her siblings survived.
Whether they did or not, we’ll likely never know.