A Very Sad Tale
The year is 1945 and it is Christmas Eve. A family is enjoying the holiday festivities in Fayetteville, West Virginia. What is about to happen to the Sodder children remains one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in the United States.
George Bragg, a local writer and author of West Virginia Unsolved Murders, tells the story of that night’s events: “Jennie woke up. She heard a noise. Somebody had thrown something on the roof. She got up and checked that out, and went back to bed. She woke up about a half-hour later, and she smelled smoke. She got up and realized one of the rooms where their office was located was on fire. She screamed for her husband and woke him up, and they both hollered upstairs where two of the boys were.”
The parents and four of their children escaped the fire that totally destroyed the home. Five Sodder children were never seen or heard from again. Some strange facts surrounding this fire:
- The family received a prank call earlier in the evening from a woman laughing into the phone.
- Phone wires were cut.
- The children had reported a strange man watching them days earlier.
- A ladder belonging to the family was found tossed down an embankment.
- An insurance salesman had an argument with the Sodders and warned them that their house would burn.
- People reported seeing fireballs tossed at the house.
- Neighbors reported the fire at 1 a.m. to Chief F.J. Morris but the fire department did not arrive until 8 a.m.
- The delay in the arrival at the home was explained away as each fired fighter needing to be contacted individually by the operator.
- The family was never told that anything (remains) were found.
- The family was told to leave the site untouched and that because it was Christmas, the site would be inspected at a later date.
- George Sodder, one week later, bulldozed five feet of dirt onto what remained of his property and the family members planted flowers as a memorial.
- A mysterious box containing beef liver was dug up at the site. It was initially reported as a human flesh but later disproved. It is believed this was planted to convince the Sodders that the children had died in the fire.
- The local coroner declared all five children killed in the house fire.
This billboard stood at the site of the Sodder home fire for twenty years as a constant reminder of the disappearance of the children. A $5,000 reward was offered at the time. The billboard was taken down after the death of Mrs. Sodder in 1988.
This is an account written in 1968 by the oldest sister of the missing children, Mary Ann:
The following is the story of the tragedy which occurred twenty three years ago. The injustice and unfairness of this crime remains to this day. Please be kind enough to read the following account of the events concerning this tragedy. On Christmas Eve night during the year of 1945, our home was set afire. There were nine children in the house at the time, four escaped from the burning building. My parents also escaped. I ran to a neighbour’s house to have her call the fire department. She said the operator did not answer when she tried to put the call through to the fire department. A passing motorist called the Fayetteville Fire Department. Fayetteville is the nearest small town to our former residence. The Fire Chief answered the telephone. When he was told that our house was burning, he said, “We know it.” This was at two o’clock A.M. He and the rest of the fire department arrived at the scene of the fire at 8 o’clock A.M., that same morning. The fire dept in the town of Fayetteville is located only two and one half miles away. That same morning the Fire Chief and eight other men searched the ashes remaining. The fire had burned out completely hours before. We asked the Fire Chief if there were any traces left of the bodies of the children presumably still in the remains of the burned house. He said, “We searched as if with a fine tooth comb and we could not find a thing.” However a few days later he produced a piece of flesh saying that it was a part of a human body. We could not understand how this soft piece of flesh could have survived the fire, yet there was no trace of bones or teeth. Another thing that puzzled us was that there was no scent of burning flesh during the time the house was burning, nor was there any scent in the ashes afterward. I was there and all I could smell was the scent of burning wood. We had the spot where the house had been, covered over with soil thinking that since it was impossible to find any trace of the bodies, we would make it into a burial spot. In this place, the Fire Chief buried the piece of flesh he claimed was part of a human body. Later when we recovered enough from the shock to be more rational, we began to doubt the Fire Chief and became suspicious of all the circumstances concerning the fire. The Fire Chief had never shown this piece of flesh to the Coroner. –Why? We decided to check this item out with the local Mortician. We had this object removed (from the place where it had been buried), by excavation. The Mortician swears on an affidavit that this object was a large piece of beef liver and had never been touched by fire. There was nothing of this kind in our home at the time of the fire. We asked the Prosecuting Attorney to call in some people who were considered suspects in this case. He said he could not question these people because they were personal friends of his. At another time he said, “Today they burned your house, but tomorrow they may burn mine and I have children too.” The telephone wires had been cut during the fire. The person who cut the wires had stolen during the time the house was burning, a pair of chain blocks. These are used to hoist automobiles or motors, etc. to be repaired. They were attached to the ceiling of the garage. To steal them and carry them away would have required advance planning. Since they had to be taken down from the ceiling of the garage it would have to started (the process of removing them) either before or during the fire. Also the person who stole them had a taxi cab waiting to haul them away. Evidently this person either set the house afire himself or knew someone else was supposed to do so. He was supposed to appear in court. He never appeared. They fined him a small amount of money and forgot the whole thing. I, being the oldest daughter, usually saw that the children went upstairs to bed, before going to sleep myself. The night of the fire I fell asleep downstairs and the last time I saw the children they were still up playing. It is our belief that they were kidnapped before the fire or possibly at the beginning of the fire. Mrs Ida Crutchfield of Charleston, West Virginia, owner of the Alderson Hotel, claims to have seen four of the children at her hotel three or four nights after the fire. She has signed an affidavit to this fact. We asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for help. They said they would step in if they could get the permission of the county authorities to investigate the case. The local authorities refused to sign anything giving their permission. They certainly did not do anything themselves to solve this crime, why then do they refuse help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Is it because some of them may be involved in this crime? We have written to each president in turn. Each one refers the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (The Justice Dept), then the Federal Bureau requires the permission of the local authorities. They refuse permission, so it has become a useless cycle, leaving this crime unsolved for the last twenty-three years. My father has hired private detectives and they have turned up some very good evidence that this whole thing was planned. But what is the use? They are warned by certain people to stay off the case. Even some of the state police have admitted that “their hands are tied.” If this had not happened to my family, I would have said that such a heinous crime as this, could not have been committed in the United States of America, without some justice being done. But here it is and it almost seems fantastic. If you wish to print this, you have my parents’ permission. If you wish to communicate with them, their address is (Mr and Mrs George Sodder, Route 2, Fayetteville, West Virginia). Their telephone number is 1-304-574-1678. Perhaps publicity on this case would cause some interest in someone who would try to help solve this crime.
What do you think happened? Leave me a comment.