Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mysterious Christmas Eve Tragedy of 1945, family distraught over SIX missing children Fayetteville, West Va

The billboard that stood for decades in Fayetteville.
The Appalachian Project

Mysterious Christmas Eve Tragedy 1945
Fayetteville, West Va

One of the all time great mysteries in Appalachian history comes from the little town of Fayetteville, WV. The story of the Sodder family is one that has drawn massive scrutiny yet has bamboozled investigators and researchers for almost 70 years now.

It is the story of what began as a simple Christmas that turned into a never-ending nightmare for a family of Italian immigrants.

George and Jennie Sodder along with nine of their children (only a son in the military was absent) went to bed on Christmas Eve, 1944. At approximately 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, Jennie Sodder awoke to find that their house had caught on fire. Jennie frantically roused her husband and together they attempted to round up their children to get to safety. George, Jennie and four of their children made it out then George went back in to save the other five missing children when he couldn't find them outside.

George charged back into the house where he was met with a cloud of flames and smoke. Knowing the children were likely upstairs, George went back out to where he kept a ladder...but it was missing. He then decided to use one of his two coal trucks to back them up the upstairs window...but neither would start despite firing up the day before. He even tried to get water from a rain barrel to throw on the fire...but the water was frozen solid.

The house was now engulfed by a billowing cloud of smoke with, presumably, the missing Sodder children inside. The Sodder's oldest daughter ran to a neighbor's house to call the fire department but there was no operator. Another neighbor who saw the flames also tried to call about the fire but to no avail. Despite the fire station being only 2 1/2 miles away, it was 8 a.m. on Christmas Day before the fire truck made it to the Sodder's home some 7 hours after the fire began.
At this point, George and Jeannie Sodder were despondent thinking that five of their children had perished in the fire. The Fire Chief, F.J. Morris, told them the fire hadn't been so hot that it would completely incinerate the children's bodies but an initial search turned up no remains. The cause of the fire was deemed to be faulty electrical wiring. The local authorities looked to close the books on the case quickly as it appeared to have just been a tragic accident.

After the initial shock began to pass, the Sodders started to doubt that their children had actually died in the fire. They began to piece together all of the loose ends that had occurred before the fire. A series of odd events had preceded the fire that the Sodders began to question:

* A few months before the fire, an stranger had come to their home looking for work as a coal hauler for the Sodders trucking company. Looking at their fuse box, he remarked, "This is going to cause a fire someday." It struck the Sodders as odd because their system had just satisfactorily passed an inspection by the power company.
* During that same time frame an insurance agent had attempted to persuade them to buy life insurance. When they declined, the agent angrily declared that their house "is going to go up in smoke" and "your children are going to be destroyed" for George Sodders outspoken criticism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Fayetteville had a strong Italian community at the time and George Sodder's harsh comments didn't make him popular in the neighborhood.
* Just a few days before the fire, the older Sodder boys had spotted a strange man sitting in a car watching the children come home after school.
* An odd phone call had come through just after midnight shortly before the fire broke out . It apparently turned out to be a wrong number as a female voice asked to speak with someone Jennie had never heard of. Jennie was struck by the sound of laughter and commotion in the background of the call.
* Soon after getting in bed from the phone call, Jennie heard a loud thud on the roof followed by the sound of something rolling off. It wasn't long after this noise that Jennie discovered the smoke in the house.

All of these strange events made strong doubts creep into the minds of the Sodders about the fate of their children. A series of curious happenings continued following the fire:
* No trace of the five missing children would be found in the rubble.
* A follow-up inspection led a telephone repairman to tell the Sodders that it appeared the wiring had been cut and not burned. They began to realize that the power should have been off throughout their house if it had been faulty wiring yet that wasn't the case.
* The Sodders discovered a strange object made of rubber in their yard in the days after the fire. George strongly suspicioned that it was the encasement for an explosive device used to start the fire.
Soon after, reported sightings began to pour in:
* A witness claimed to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the fire with a block and tackle device that is used to remove engines from vehicles. Just the kind of device that could have disabled the two coal trucks from starting.
* A witness stated she saw the missing children in a car that passed by while the fire was burning.
* Another lady claimed to have spotted the children at a location around 50 miles west of Fayetteville in the company of two men and two women - all Italian.

The Sodders became more and more desperate to get answers to what became of their children. They chased every lead and hired a private investigator to assist in the search. They wrote a letter to the FBI but were unable to secure assistance reportedly due to a lack of cooperation from the Fayetteville police and fire departments. The Sodders had the site of the fire excavated and once again went through the debris looking for any sign of the children - but nothing turned up. George and Jennie Sodder offered a reward of $5,000 for information and went so far as to have a billboard erected along Route 16 that stood for years.

The last major development occurred in 1968 when a letter postmarked in Kentucky was sent to Jennie Sodder with just a picture inside. The back of the photo read simply, "Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35." The photo bore an uncanny resemblance to their son Louis who was 9 at the time of the fire. The Sodders once again hired a private investigator to follow up on the letter to see if anything would come of it. They once again came up empty-handed.

George Sodder passed away not long after the letter was received leaving behind Jennie and unresolved questions about his children. For her part, Jennie became more and more withdrawn as she secluded herself inside their home wearing only black. She kept the billboard up until she finally passed away in 1989. The remaining Sodder children and grandchildren continued to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire after her death. The mystery continues to this day as questions about what really happened still far outweigh answers.

Theories abound as many think the children perished in the fire and that their remains were completely incinerated. Several people think the children were kidnapped by someone they knew which is why they didn't put up a struggle. Some think the Sodders were victims of arson and that the children were taken to Italy or sold into slavery - perhaps by someone with ties to the mafia. The real truth may never be known but one sad truth cannot be changed - George and Jennie Sodder both left this world without ever having closure about the fate of their five precious children. The torment and nightmare of their lives following the fire is an unspeakable tragedy that no one should ever have to face. - Shane

What do you think happened?

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