Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I am excited to present a guest post by Doug MacGowan. Doug lives on the San Francisco Peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading. Be sure to check out his novella on the Sodder children case: Sodder Family Tragedy: The Mystery of Five Missing Children.
Note: This article first appeared on the terrific Historic Mysteries website.
Enjoy the guest post! ~ Christine
It was a normal Christmas Eve in 1945 for the Sodder family of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Except for the eldest son being away in the Army, all nine of his siblings were enjoying the holidays at home with their parents, George and Jennie.
When it was time for the children to go to bed, five of the children — Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (10), Jennie (8), and Betty (6) — asked for special permission to stay up later. Jennie told them they could stay up a little while longer, but they had to remember to take care of the farm animals, turn out the lights, close the curtains, and lock the front door before going to bed. George and Jennie and four of their other children then went to bed, with the eldest daughter falling asleep on the couch.
The missing Sodder children
Later, in the early hours of the 25th, the phone rang. Jennie left the first-floor bedroom she shared with George and the baby and went into the hall to answer it. A woman was on the other end of the line and it sounded like there were several people talking in the background. The woman asked Jennie for someone Jennie didn’t know. Jennie told the woman that she had the wrong number. The woman laughed strangely and quickly hung up. Jennie may have puzzled momentarily about this strange call in the middle of the night, but her focus quickly shifted to the fact that the house was quiet but that all of the lights were still on, the drapes were open, and the front door was unlocked. Jennie just presumed that the five children who had stayed up late had forgotten. She closed up the house and returned to the bedroom.
Back in bed, Jennie was drifting back into sleep when she heard what sounded like an object landing on the roof and then rolling down along the side of the house. And then she smelled smoke. It was approximately 1:30am on Christmas Day.
She shook George awake and ran to the door of the bedroom. The hallway was filled with smoke and flames covered the stairway leading up to the children’s bedrooms. George and Jennie shouted up the stairs for everyone to get out of the house quickly.
Once out front, a headcount showed that the five children who had stayed up late were not outside with the rest of the family.
The flames grew quickly and blocked George from going back into the house. Thinking the only way to get the five children out would be to get them out through a top-floor window, he raced around to the side of the house where a ladder always stood.
The ladder was gone.
Panicking, George then thought that if he could move one of his trucks next to the side of the house he could stand on the top and help the five children out the window. He ran to first one truck and then to the other only to find that they wouldn’t start, although they had both been working perfectly the previous day.
All George and Jennie and the four children who had managed to flee the house could do was to watch the fire ravage the house. The fire was brutal and reduced the house to ashes in less than an hour. Nothing was left but charred timbers, rubble, and the basement.
Allegedly because the fire chief could not drive the fire truck, and because it was a holiday, it wasn’t until 8am — hours after the fire had burnt itself out — that the fire truck appeared.
Local police followed the firemen to the scene and did a cursory investigation. The coroner was consulted and it was determined that the five children had undoubtedly perished in the fire and that the fire had been caused by faulty wiring.
Sodder family home in ruins
But George and Jennie were not satisfied with that explanation. They wanted an in-depth investigation to thoroughly explain how, among other things, faulty wiring could have caused the fire when several lights were working perfectly during the actual fire. They suspected that there was something more to be discovered and they demanded answers.
And the answers that started trickling in supported George and Jennie’s suspicions.
First and foremost, there were no human remains found anywhere in the rubble and nobody had noticed the distinct smell of burning flesh during the fire or afterwards. Sifting through all of the ashes produced no skeletons. Jennie would later find out from a local crematorium that it took at least two hours at a temperature much higher than that of a house fire for a skeleton to disintegrate. But the fire at the Sodder home burned for less than an hour. There should have been five skeletons amongst the ashes.
It just didn’t make sense. George and Jennie began collecting bits of strange evidence that pointed away from the explanation the authorities had given them.
They came across a bus driver who stated that he had seen what he described as “fireballs” being thrown onto the roof of the house. Could this have been the noise Jennie heard?
A woman, somewhat familiar with the Sodder family, stated to have clearly seen the five children go by in a strange car while the fire was blazing.
At a diner fifty miles west of Fayetteville, a waitress would later say that she had served breakfast to the five children on Christmas morning, but she couldn’t recall how many adults were with them.
As word spread and photographs of the children were shown in the vicinity, a woman said that she saw four of the children (where was the fifth?) in the company of four adults at a hotel in South Carolina.
These glimpses gave George and Jennie hope and caused them to pursue their own investigations and forensic experiments. Jennie burned chicken bones in an oven to see if they could be completely destroyed by the fire in 45 minutes. The bones remained intact. George heard of another house that had burned to the ground that clearly featured complete skeletons amongst the debris.
Armed with these facts, George and Jennie went back to the police and demanded to have the fire further investigated. But the police refused, claiming that the coroner’s inquiry determined that no crime had been committed.
So George and Jennie continued alone in trying to find answers.
George would repeatedly dig through the ruins looking for some kind of clue, and eventually there appeared to be the first trace of evidence: a few bones and what seemed to be some kind of inner organ. Tests showed that the “organ” was a cow’s liver and that the bones came from a person older than any of the five missing children — and the bones showed no sign of damage by or exposure to fire.
George and Jennie would not quit. They erected a billboard near the site of their former home which featured photos of the five children and announced a $10,000 reward for the safe return of their children, whom they now thoroughly believed to be alive and taken from the house while the fire was deliberately set to cover the tracks of some kind of abduction.
Sodder children wanted poster
Time passed and George and Jennie and their surviving children continued their search.
Then, in 1968, twenty-three years after the fire, Jennie got an envelope in the mail. It had been mailed from a city in Kentucky. There was no return address, just the postmark. Inside was a photograph of a young man. On the back was written:
I love brother Frankie
A90132 (or possibly A90135)
Authorities thought it was some kind of cruel hoax, but George and Jennie thought the photograph looked exactly how Louis would have looked as an adult. There were multiple similarities. Once again hopeful, they hired a private investigator to go to the city in Kentucky to track down the photo’s sender and/or the young man himself. The investigator left West Virginia, with his fee, and was never heard from again.
The 1968 photo was the last possible evidence that ever came to light. George would die in 1969 and Jennie would die twenty years later. They never believed that their five beloved children died in that fire early one Christmas morning.
It’s hard to begin sorting out the many mysteries contained in this story. Some questions are:
* Who was the woman on the phone? Was she in some way connected to the fire?
* Who moved the ladder?
* Who threw the “fireballs” at the Sodder’s home that night?
* Whose bones were found at the site years after the fire and how did those bones get there?
* Who sent the photo in 1968 and who is the young man in the photo?
* Where did the private investigator disappear to?
* Who put the cow’s liver at the site and why?
One of the most puzzling questions is how the actual alleged abduction took place. How did the kidnapper(s) get the five children out of the house, considering that the eldest sister was asleep on the sofa in the living room and the parents were asleep in a bedroom less than 20 feet away? Surely at least one of the children would have made some noise had a stranger (or even someone known to the family) come into the house and taken them away. There is at least one scenario that may have happened that would solve this specific puzzle. One of the chores the two boys were told to do was to attend to the family’s handful of farm animals. It is possible that all five of the children left the house to perform this chore (the three girls went along to watch) and were taken once they were outside and away from the house.
The whole story is still studied by amateur sleuths trying to get to the bottom of this puzzling disappearance. There are even sites on the internet devoted to this mysterious tale. Although, as time goes by, the chances of finding a definite conclusion grows remoter with each passing year.
“What Was the Fate of the Five Sodder Children?” Historic Horrors website, pulled 2-7-15.
“The Children Who Went Up In Smoke.” Smithsonian Magazine website, pulled 2-7-15.
“The Missing Sodder Children.” The Paranormal Guide, pulled 2-7-15.