After George Sodder moved from Italy to the United States in 1895, it seemed as though he was living the American dream. As well as starting a thriving business, after all, he tied the knot with fellow Italian-American Jennie. And the couple subsequently welcomed a total of ten children, starting with their firstborn, John, in 1923.
But sadly, the perfect life that the Sodders had built was about to go up in flames. That’s because on Christmas Eve 1945 their family home suddenly burned to the ground. And amid the blaze, five of the ten children vanished without a trace. Not getting the answers that they needed from police, George and Jennie hired a private investigator – and the chilling mystery continues to haunt people to this day.
Between 1880 and 1914 around 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States in search of the opportunities promised there. One such hopeful was 13-year-old Giorgio Soddu – later, George Sodder – who arrived in 1895 from Sardinia, Italy, with his brother. But straight after young George made it through customs at Ellis Island, his sibling apparently turned around and traveled back home.
All on his own, then, George stayed in America – but it’s said that he rarely divulged to anyone why he had decided to leave Italy. Instead, he found employment within the railroad industry, bringing provisions to the laborers on the tracks. The Italian later moved to Smithers, West Virginia, where he found a job as a driver.
With this experience under his belt, George went on to found a trucking business of his own in West Virginia. He would transport dirt to construction sites for the sake of filling, or he’d carry coal from regional mines. And it seems that the business eventually prospered.
Meanwhile, George’s life in West Virginia also brought him his future wife. In Smithers he met Jennie Cipriani, who, as a child, had also moved from Italy to the U.S. After Jennie and George married, they moved into a two-storey house just outside of Fayetteville, West Virginia – a town that had a sizable number of Italian inhabitants.
In Fayetteville, the newly affluent Sodders started to add to their brood. The couple welcomed their first child, John, in 1923 – followed by no less than nine more: Joe, Marion, George Jr., Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, Betty and Sylvia. According to Smithsonian, a local magistrate once described the Sodders as “one of the most respected middle-class families around.”
But December 24, 1945, would change the Sodder family forever. On this particular Christmas Eve, nine of the ten children gathered at their parents’ house to celebrate the holiday. And 17-year-old Marion apparently couldn’t wait until the next day to surprise her little siblings with toys that she had picked up from her job at a Fayetteville dime shop.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Martha, eight-year-old Jennie and five-year-old Betty reportedly begged their mom to let them stay up later than normal in order to play with their new gifts. Jennie obliged, but her permission came with two caveats: her younger sons, 14-year-old Maurice and nine-year-old Louis, had to put the cows in their barn and feed the family’s chickens before bed.
You see, George and his older sons John and George, Jr. – who were 23 and 16 years old, respectively – were usually tasked with these chores, but they had already dozed off. Then at 10:00 p.m. Jennie reportedly went to bed herself, bringing her youngest daughter, two-year-old Sylvia, with her.
Less than three hours later, a ringing telephone cut through the silence of the Sodder family home. Jennie answered and heard glasses clinking together and people laughing on the other end. A woman whose voice she didn’t recognize asked to speak with somebody she didn’t know. And so, the mom alerted the caller that they’d dialed the incorrect number.
After this, Jennie headed upstairs to bed once again. But as she slipped quietly through the house of sleeping children, she noticed that the lights downstairs had remained on as her eldest daughter Marion snoozed on the couch. Jennie shut them off and closed the curtains. And she made sure to secure the front door.
Finally, Jennie went back to bed, but another noise soon disrupted her rest. This time, she allegedly heard a loud thud on the roof of her family’s house. Then, it sounded as though whatever had landed there was now rolling. Jennie eventually fell back to sleep – but she would shortly wake up to a real-life nightmare.
Around an hour after the banging sound had echoed off the roof, Jennie woke up for a third time. On this occasion, though, the Sodder family matriarch smelled something strange before seeing smoke wafting into her bedroom. She subsequently found a fire blazing in her husband’s home office, so she woke him frantically. The parents started shouting and running through the house, desperately trying to wake up all of their kids.
Five children – Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty – had all slept in the attic that night. But Jennie and George couldn’t climb up there to wake them, as flames had already engulfed the stairs. Things got even worse, though, when the father tried to call the fire department: the phone had stopped working.
Unable to get upstairs, then, George and Jennie had no choice but to get out of the burning house. The older children who’d been home that night – George, John and Marion – escaped, too, as did toddler Sylvia. Meanwhile, a panicked George tried once again to reach the five children he thought were trapped upstairs.
First, George ran to the side of his house, where he normally kept a ladder. The father apparently intended to climb up to the top floor and bring down the kids he believed were stuck there. There was one problem, though: someone had seemingly moved the ladder from its regular spot. Later, after the fire died down, they would find it in a ditch.
Refusing to give up, George came up with another plan. He got into his car, planning to drive it up alongside the house so that he could climb atop and try to get into the attic that way. But when George put his key in the ignition, the engine apparently wouldn’t start. And neither, it’s said, would the family’s second truck.
Frantic for a solution, George tried to use water from a nearby barrel to subdue the flames – but he discovered that it had turned to ice. Marion, meanwhile, ran to a neighboring house, where she implored its inhabitants to phone for the fire brigade. And while they tried, they couldn’t get through.
In fact, another neighbor also saw the flames and tried calling the fire department’s operator – but to no avail. That person grew tired of the lack of response and drove to find Fayetteville’s fire chief, F.J. Morris. But the official couldn’t pull a fire alarm in any literal sense. Instead, he started calling firefighters, who in turn called other members of the crew.
It may seem like such a phone chain would rally the troops quickly, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the crew arrived at 8:00 a.m. – a whopping seven hours after Jennie awoke to smells of smoke. And perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time the firefighters got there, they had nothing to save: the house had burned to the ground.
Of course, the Sodders initially had to assume the worst: that they had lost their five children in the blaze. But bizarrely, when firefighters searched the scene, they found nothing. That’s to say, there were no human remains discovered within the ash. Fire Chief Morris, however, explained that the temperature of the flames might have been high enough to fully incinerate the children.
But this left the Sodders unconvinced. Jennie, for one, couldn’t understand how there weren’t any bones at all in the ashes after five children had supposedly died. In fact, she started undertaking her own research, burning animals bones to see what would happen. And every time, the bones scorched – but remained intact.
What’s more, a crematorium worker informed Jennie that bone fragments do indeed remain after bodies burn – even after exposure to extremely high temperatures for prolonged periods. But the Sodders’ house had burned up in less than an hour. And as more evidence mounted, the surviving family members couldn’t help but wonder if something even more sinister had occurred on that Christmas Eve.
For one thing, officials conducted an inquest into the fire and attributed its cause to faulty electrical wiring. But George suspected that this couldn’t have been the case. He remembered, you see, watching the family’s Christmas lights still twinkling as the house burned to the ground. And this suggested that the electricity hadn’t shorted out because of a fault.
And if this weren’t strange enough, there was the fact that the phone hadn’t worked on the night of the fire. Apparently, a repairman claimed that someone had deliberately interfered with the line – a feat that would have forced the culprit to climb a 14-foot pole. This led George to believe that someone had also meddled with his trucks, which wouldn’t start after the fire ignited.
What’s more, the Sodders made an unsettling discovery when on one occasion they returned to the site of their former home. And as two-year-old Sylvia played in the grass, she found something strange: a green ball with a hard exterior. Jennie thought it may have been the object that she had supposedly hit the roof before the fire broke out. George, however, identified it as a pineapple bomb – a type of explosive.
Things got even stranger, though, when individuals started coming forward and claiming that they had seen the five missing Sodder children. For instance, one woman thought she’d spotted the kids peeking out from a passing car during the time of the fire. Another, meanwhile, claimed that on the morning after the fire, she had presented breakfast to the quintet in Charleston, West Virginia.
Plus, according to Smithsonian, another woman claimed to have seen all but one of the Sodders’ missing offspring in a Charleston hotel a week after the blaze. “The children were accompanied by two women and two men – all of Italian extraction,” she said in a statement. “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,” the woman’s statement continued. “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.”
But why would someone want to hurt or kidnap the Sodder children? Well, there were some interesting theories. For one thing, George had reportedly ruffled some feathers in the Fayetteville Italian immigrant community. It’s said, you see, that the business owner had previously made it clear that he didn’t support his home country’s then-dictator Benito Mussolini.
Plus, some of his fellow Italian immigrants had reportedly thrown threats in George’s direction. But one in particular stuck out. An insurance salesman, who was apparently upset that George had refused a contract with him, is rumored to have told the father-of-ten, “The house will go up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed.” And it’s said that this threat derived from George’s anti-Mussolini remarks.
Adding fuel to the Sodders’ suspicions, meanwhile, they remembered that something strange had happened a number of months prior the blaze. George Jr. and John had noticed a vehicle parked outside of their little siblings’ school. And people inside of the vehicle appeared to be spying on the children who would later vanish.
For George, then, the reason for his children’s disappearance became patently clear. He believed that the Italian mafia had arranged the kidnapping as well as the arson that would conceal the group’s tracks. As such, he and Jennie set their sights high on who they could involve to investigate the case.
Yes, the couple went directly to the FBI with their fears. And J. Edgar Hoover, who was head of the organization at the time, responded to their written request. He explained that while he’d like to help with the investigation, the fire was considered a local matter. That said, if Hoover was granted permission by the Fayetteville authorities, he would look into it. But both the local police and fire units turned down his offer to help.
With the FBI failing them, the Sodders decided to go with their next-best option: hiring a private investigator. A man named C.C. Tinsley was up for the job, and he reportedly found that the insurance salesman who had issued the Mussolini-related threat had in fact served on the coroner’s jury. And this meant that he’d helped to determine that the Sodder house fire had ignited accidentally.
A local minister, meanwhile, told Tinsley that Fire Chief Morris had unearthed a heart within the embers of the Sodder family’s home. But it turned out that the organ was actually a beef liver – and Morris had supposedly left it on the scene himself. Apparently, he hoped that the heart would convince the Sodders of their children’s fate so that the investigation would come to an end.
After this, the Sodders were convinced that their children had somehow survived the fire. The family even funded an advertising board on Route 16 in West Virginia that propositioned cash rewards for clues. And tips rolled in, including a story that Martha was in a convent and a claim that all five children were residing in Florida. However, none of the leads panned out. George himself drove to many suggested locations but discovered nothing.
The mysterious story doesn’t end there, however. More than two decades after the devastating blaze, Jennie claimed that she had received a strange letter in the mail. Apparently, it included a picture of a young man with writing on the back of it that alleged that the image featured her son Louis. This individual did indeed seem to possess some of Louis’ signature features, such as his titled left eyebrow. But they found out nothing else about the mystery man.
Tragically, when George passed away in 1967, he died without knowing what had happened to his children. The same went for Jennie, who wore black and remained in mourning until her last days in 1989. Nowadays, Sylvia is the only Sodder child left alive. She still believes that her siblings survived – but no one really knows the truth.