If you were a regular traveler along State Route 16 in West Virginia in the second half of the 20th century, you would be very familiar with this billboard. The sign had become something of a famous landmark after it went up in the 1950s, and stayed there for the next 40 years.

It served as a desperate plea from a family that suffered an unspeakable tragedy. One that they were never able to make sense of. 5 children gone missing following a fire that consumed their home, one that was set by an arsonist, on Christmas Eve, no less.

But did they die in the fire, as the police officials suggest? Or was it possible that they were kidnapped – by the arsonist who set the fire?

The family never stopped believing that they were kidnapped, which might sound like wishful thinking but as time went on, many clues pointed to the possibility that they were still alive. Reports of seeing the kids in other states, rumors of police corruption, even a photo of one of the kids years later, older but recognizable.

It’s become an enduring mystery with hot debates on all sides of it. So today let’s talk about the Sodder Children Mystery.

Before I jump into this, let me start by saying that this video is about a tragedy involving children, so there’s some pretty heavy stuff in this one. Obviously I will cover it with as much tact and respect as possible, and this won’t get gory but I wanted to give you a warning. This might be difficult subject matter for some of you.

Also, I might be adjusting some of the wording in this video to keep it from being demonetized – YouTube’s been ridiculous with that lately so you might hear me bleeping out certain things – I’ll tell you how to see it uncensored at the end.

All right, with all that out of the way, let’s set the scene.

The year was 1945 in Fayetteville, West Virginia, and George Sodder was the owner of a fairly successful trucking company that served the coal and freight industries in the area.

He and his wife Jennie had ten children, ranging in age from 2 to 23, all living in their home except for one, who was away in the army.

  • Sylvia (2)
  • Betty (5)
  • Jennie (8)
  • Louis (9)
  • Martha (12)
  • Maurice (14)
  • George Jr. (16)
  • Marion (17)
  • Joe (21) (away)
  • John (23)

They were Catholic if that helps explain the family size.

On the night of Christmas Eve, 1945, they all went to bed with dreams of celebrating the holiday the next day. Visions of sugarplums and whatnot.

At 12:30am, the phone rang, and Jennie, the mother, answered it. She claimed to hear a woman’s voice on the other end of the line, a voice she didn’t recognize, and there was background noise that sounded like a party. Thinking it was a wrong number, she hung up the phone.

While she was up, she walked around the house to make sure everything was okay. The lights were on, one child was asleep on the couch, and it looked like the other children had gone to bed.

Jennie did notice that the front door was unlocked, so she locked it and made her way back upstairs to her bedroom.

She was woken up around 1 a.m. by a loud bang on the roof, followed by rolling rolling sound, like something it the roof and then rolled off of it.

An hour later, smoke filled the house.

George and Jennie jumped out of bed and rushed the children outside, but once they got out there, only four of the children were with them – Sylvia (2), George, Jr. (16), Marion (17) and John (23).

The other five were in a room upstairs. George rushed back into the house to try to save them, but by that point the stairs were blocked by fire.

Meanwhile, Marion ran to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department, but he couldn’t get an answer. This was way before 911 and Fayetteville had a volunteer fire department. And it was Christmas Eve.

So the neighbor rushed to his car and drove out to find the fire chief, a guy named F.J. Morris.

With the stairway blocked by fire, George tried to find other ways to get to the room. He and one of he older boys rushed to get a ladder to get up to the seconds story window, but the ladder they always kept on the side of the house was gone.

George then tried to back his truck up to the house, thinking he could stand on it and reach the window, but it wouldn’t start. Actually, two different trucks he tried to start, and neither of them would start.

At this point there wasn’t much for him to do but wait for the fire brigade to show up, which shouldn’t have taken long, the station was only two-and-a-half miles away. But for some reason, the crew didn’t get there until 8:00.

Jennie and George could only sit there, helpless, for seven hours watching their home burn to the ground with their children inside. By the time the crew showed up, the house was reduced to smoke and ash. And the remaining Sodder children were nowhere to be seen.

The fire investigators blamed the fire on faulty wiring and assumed that the kids died in the fire, their bodies cremated. Those children were:

  • Betty (5)
  • Jennie (8)
  • Louis (9)
  • Martha (12)
  • Maurice (14)

The entire event was shrouded with questions and controversy. Why didn’t his trucks start? What happened to their ladder? What was that bang Jennie heard, and why did it take seven hours for the fire department to show up?

All of this was enough to make George and Jennie question – did the children actually die in the fire?

There were a few things that led them to think maybe not. First of all, no remains were ever found of their children. No fire pattern that would indicate a burned body, no scraps of clothes left behind, and no bones. Not a single fragment of bone from five kids.

Also, even though investigators blamed faulty wiring, George had just had his home inspected just a few months before and was told that his wiring was good.

They began to remember other things that happened in the months leading up to the fire that seemed relevant to the situation, like the time a guy threatened to burn down his house and murder his children.

Yeah, apparently an insurance salesman came by and when George refused to buy life insurance from him, he flew into a rage and said:

“Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed.”

  • Insurance salesman, according to George Sodder

That sounds like the most intense insurance salesman ever. And you might just think that was a scare tactic; a warning about what could happen if he doesn’t protect himself with insurance. But there was a second part to that quote, according to George Sodder:

“Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”

Yeah… See, there’s something you need to know about Fayetteville, West Virginia in 1945. It was a little fashey.

There was a huge Italian community in Fayetteville, it was a coal town and attracted a lot of immigrant labor, and immigrants tend to cluster with other people from their home country and for whatever reason, Italians clustered there.

Including George Sodder. He as born Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia, in 1895 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1908.

He started out on the Pennsylvania railroads, then moved to Smithers, West Virginia, and began working as a driver before starting his own trucking company that hauled dirt, freight, and coal.

He met Jennie Cipriani in a local store called the Music Box. She had immigrated to the U.S. when she was three.

They got married, and like many other Italian immigrants in the area, settled in Fayetteville.

But as fascism spread in their home country and Mussolini came to power, many Italians in the US embraced the ideology.

They felt that fascism upheld traditions, rebalanced relationships between men and technology, and restored connections between the people and the government.

Besides, a lot of these immigrants weren’t exactly welcomed when they got over here, you know how people are really cool about immigration.

After years of facing xenophobia and discrimination, this strong “New Italy” that Mussolini offered gave them a sense of pride.

But George wasn’t on board with all this. He never really talked about his life in Italy, so we don’t know if he had a personal reason for this, but he severely disliked Mussolini and wasn’t shy about it.

This often got him into heated arguments with community members, and made him a few enemies. Including that insurance salesman. But George didn’t take his threats seriously.

He also didn’t take it seriously when he saw a stranger sitting in a car on he highway a few days before Christmas and watched the younger Sodder children come home from school. They never figured out who that was or what that was about.

On December 29th, a funeral service was held for the children, but George and Jennie were too upset to attend.

Soon after, George wanted to create a memorial garden where the house was. So he had Jennie’s brother fill in the basement with dirt using a bulldozer.

Over the next couple of years, the Sodder family tried to get on with their lives. They half-heartedly accepted the theory that faulty wiring started the fire.

But then things changed in 1947.

That year, an article published in Look magazine caught George and Jennie’s attention. There was a photo in the story that featured seven children.

To them, one of the children looked almost exactly like their deceased daughter Betty.

The fact that no remains were ever found always left a question mark in their minds, and seeing this photo convinced them that their children might be alive. That maybe this wasn’t a fire – this was a kidnapping. And the fire was just a cover-up.

They hired a private investigator to find the girl in the photo, but he wasn’t able to track her down.

Jennie started doing experiments with chicken and pork chop bones, burning them to see if she could make them reduce to ash. She was never able to repeat what had apparently happened in the fire.

Also, there were some objects and furniture that survived so it seemed like something of the kids would have been found.

She even contacted a crematorium, and an employee told her that bones remain after bodies are burned for two hours at 1,093 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Sodder home burned down in 45 minutes.

And besides all that, stories started coming out of the woodwork of the children being spotted.

One woman said she saw them in a passing car while the fire was happening.

Another woman at a tourist stop about 50 miles west of Fayetteville said she saw them the morning after the fire.

She told police she served them breakfast and there was a car with Florida license plates.

Yet again, another woman said she saw four of the five children at a Charleston hotel a week after the fire.

She said two women and two men of Italian descent were with the children. In a statement, she said:

“I do not remember the exact date. However, the entire party did register at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered about midnight. I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children…. One of the men looked at me in a hostile manner; he turned around and began talking rapidly in Italian. Immediately, the whole party stopped talking to me. I sensed that I was being frozen out and so I said nothing more. They left early the next morning.”

George and Jennie sent a letter to the FBI in 1947 asking for its help. Agents said they would help if the local authorities gave them permission.

The Fayetteville fire and police departments did not give them permission.

So the Sodders hired another private eye, who found out that the angry insurance salesman guy was actually on the coroner’s jury that said the fire was an accident. Yeah, the same guy who threatened to “destroy his children.”

He also found out that there were human remains found, at least according to the fire chief.

Yeah, the chief said he had found a human heart. And to me, this is where things actually get really weird.

He told the family that he didn’t find any remains, and that’s what was on the report. But then told the private eye that he’d found a heart and instead of entering it into evidence or telling anyone about it, he chose to put it in a box and bury it at the scene.

So the private eye asked if he could point out where he buried this box, which of course he wouldn’t be able to because there’s no way that actually happened right? Actually it did.

The fire chief pointed out where he buried it and they dug it up, a little box with… something… inside of it.

They took it to a local funeral director. And, it turned out that the “heart” was nothing more than beef liver.

The chief admitted he did this to placate the family, give them a sense of closure, and stop the investigation.

Okay, so at this point the Sodders were all in on getting to the bottom of this. They began a new search at the fire scene in August 1949.

The report said:

“It is very strange that no other bones were found in the allegedly careful evacuation of the basement of the house. One would expect to find the full skeletons of the five children, rather than only four vertebrae.”

Also, how could every other bone in their body be burned down to ash but these four vertebrae showed no exposure to fire whatsoever?

What they concluded… according to the report… is that the dirt that Jennie’s brother used to fill the basement back when George wanted to create a memorial for the children, that thing? Apparently wherever he got that dirt from, it had human remains in it. Just some random guy.

So that’s like a whole other mystery.

This is when the Sodders put up that billboard on Route 16 with the children’s pictures and offered a $10,000 reward for information.

They received a letter from a woman in St. Louis who said that Martha was in a convent there. Another tip from Florida said the children were staying with one of Jennie’s distant relatives.

George traveled all over the country investigating these tips and always came home with nothing.

Then in 1967, twenty two years after the fire, Jennie received a letter in the mail.

It was addressed to her and had no return address but it was postmarked in Kentucky.

Inside the envelope was this photo. A handwritten note on the back of the photo said:

“Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”

They excavated the basement and searched through the dirt with a fine toothed comb, looking for anything that might be their kids.

They found some damaged coins, a burned dictionary, and several shards of vertebrae, which they sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

When the report came back, it showed that it belonged to someone 16 to 17 years old. But the oldest Sodder child to burn in the fire was 14 years old.

But the real kicker was that none of the bones had been exposed to fire.

Louis was the name of one of the boys who died in the fire. He was nine at the time and… the picture does bear a striking resemblance.

Like I’ve gotta be honest if someone showed me these two pictures and said it was the same guy 20 years apart, with no other context, I wouldn’t think twice about it. I’d totally believe it.

Of course, Louis didn’t have a brother named Frank or Frankie, and the rest of the note on the photo never made any sense to the Sodders, but they did think it could be him, so they hired another guy to track him down, and this private eye just took their money and didn’t do anything – he was never heard from again.

George died in 1969. And Jennie help the billboard up and her hope alive for another 20 years before she died in 1989. Their children and grandchildren have continued the investigation.

Which has never really been solved.

There’s really two main questions here, who started the fire, and did the kids die in the fire?

As for the first question, it could have just been an accident. It was officially blamed on faulty wiring, that could be the case. Yes, they just had the house inspected but inspectors aren’t perfect. Plus it was Christmas so they may have had a lot of electrical lights plugged in, maybe some candles burning and whatnot.

Actually there’s a documented spike in house fires during the holidays for this reason. This might have just been one of those.

But George did make some enemies. And some of those Italian immigrants in Fayetteville were known to be part of the Sicilian mob. So some have suspected that they were involved.

If it was a person who set the fire, maybe they threw an incendiary device on the roof, which would explain the noise Jennie heard before the fire started.

The phone call might have been someone checking to make sure they were home. Or it might have just been a wrong number.

The fact that the insurance salesman who threatened them was also on the board that found no foul play was involved is pretty sketchy. And the police and fire departments seemed unwilling to investigate further. Might hint at some corruption there.

As for the kids, the big question is whether that house fire could have completely cremated their bodies, and the answer is… possibly.

George and Jennie said that the house burned down in 45 minutes. But it smoldered for another 7 hours before the fire crew showed up. And according to the experts in my research anyway, that could actually fully cremate the body.

And there were reports that George kept coal in his basement. If so, I mean… That would do it.

As for the trucks not starting, at least one of George’s trucks was notorious for flooding the engine if you tried to start it too quickly. And I’m sure he was trying to start that thing as quickly as possible that night.

Why the fire crew took 7 hours to show up is another big one. It’s easy to see collusion in that but also, it was Christmas Eve. And it was a volunteer fire department. In 1945. They could have just been really shitty at their jobs.

As for the reports that came in of sightings of the children with Italian immigrants, well, there were a lot of Italian immigrants around there. And they had lots of kids.

There is a question around why none of the kids ever contacted their parents if they were kidnapped. Some have suggested that they may have been told it would bring harm to their families if they talked to them. Or maybe something worse happened.

That photo of Louis is pretty weird though. It could have been a hoax, people can be cruel.

Anyway, there’s still endless debate about the fate of the Sodder Children. As you know, I tend to think the most mundane answer is usually the right one. So we might just be looking at an extremely tragic Christmas fire, and heartbroken parents who couldn’t cope with the loss.

But there’s plenty of room for doubt, so what do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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