eyebrow. Once again they hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky. They
never heard from him again.

The Sodders feared that if they published the letter or the name of the town on the
postmark they might harm their son. Instead, they amended the billboard to include the
updated image of Louis and hung an enlarged version over the fireplace. “Time is
running out for us,” George said in an interview. “But we only want to know. If they
did die in the fire, we want to be convinced. Otherwise, we want to know what
happened to them.”

He died a year later, in 1968, still hoping for a break in the case. Jennie erected a fence
around her property and began adding rooms to her home, building layer after layer
between her and the outside. Since the fire she had worn black exclusively, as a sign of
mourning, and continued to do so until her own death in 1989. The billboard finally
came down. Her children and grandchildren continued the investigation and came up
with theories of their own: The local mafia had tried to recruit him and he declined.
They tried to extort money from him and he refused. The children were kidnapped by
someone they knew—someone who burst into the unlocked front door, told them about
the fire, and offered to take them someplace safe. They might not have survived the
night. If they had, and if they lived for decades—if it really was Louis in that
photograph—they failed to contact their parents only because they wanted to protect

The youngest and last surviving Sodder child, Sylvia, is now 69, and doesn’t believe
her siblings perished in the fire. When time permits, she visits crime sleuthing websites
and engages with people still interested in her family’s mystery. Her very first memories
are of that night in 1945, when she was 2 years old. She will never forget the sight of
her father bleeding or the terrible symphony of everyone’s screams, and she is no
closer now to understanding why.
West Virginia Unsolved Murders
features the story of the Sodder

Available on Amazon. Click


Michael Newton, The Encyclopedia of
Unsolved Crimes. New York: Facts on
File, 2004; Melody Bragg and George
Bragg, West Virginia Unsolved Murders
& Infamous Crimes. Glen Jean, WV:
GEM Publications, 1993; One Room
Schoolin’, A Living History of Central
West Virginia. Hickory, NC: Hometown
Memories Publishing, 2011.
the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive.
What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George
and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the
Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children
escaped, but the other five were never seen again.

George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing a
swath of skin from his arm. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which
had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office,
and his and Jennie’s bedroom. He took frantic stock of what he knew: 2-year-old
Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion
and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs
bedroom they shared, singing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha,
Comments from Our Readers
We've had a disappearance in our family - a cousin (age 54) vanished without a trace
in 2004, just before Christmas. Nothing has even been found, at least that has been
made public except for a few "odd" clues that may have been significant, or not.  We
know she must be dead but how? who? why? No closure for her sister, mother and
sons. Her mother passed away last year, never knowing what happened to her eldest
Marcelle Comeau
I think the children were kidnapped. Why else because no human remains at the site
of the fire; impossible
Jim Kiser
Although many theories have arisen concerning the fire and missing children, some
involving the Mafia and and animosity by some Italian neighbors concerning George's
hatred of Mussolini, I find it hard to believe not one of the missing children ever
contacted their parents over the years if they had lived through the fire. I believe they
perished in the fire even though no remains were left to be identified as human.

This is such a sad story, it had to be hard on the parents and the remaining children.
To offer a reward for information about the missing children. The photo on the right
is thought to be Louis at an older age. There are so many theories as to what
happened to the children but it would seem to me that if the children were alive that at
least one of them would have contacted their parents when they became adults. I
believe they died in the fire even though not many remains were found.
Donna Jolley
I am limited to the information available on the web page. The village authorities seem
to be part of the operation. Refusing the FBI would prevent either kidnappers from
being caught, or abused children from being found. There is no information about
how hard the never heard from investigator's information was searched. Did they call
his office, was he murdered, etc? It sounds like they were waiting for his call, but
never called him to get the report. The younger children, sleeping upstairs, were the
ones missing. Did the older downstairs children feel they were no longer in danger?

Still, quite a shock to the parents. Surprising that no further information was obtained.
Nothing from children or grandchildren.
Arthur Hartwell
I grew up in a small town in the 1960s & ’70s & learned then that police,
judges & other “community leaders” could sweep almost anything under the rug
if they chose, so I’m not surprised that poor George and Jennie Sodder were shut out
so thoroughly in the ultra-conformist 1940s. I’d hope the remaining family would
post their DNA in hope that the lost ones might have a chance to reconnect.
Gus Marsh
I found the page with a search of the terms "missing children photos building
billboard." It was the first hit.
Janice Sellers
I have no idea, but I believe George Sodder was not delusional, nor a conspiracy
theorist. I suspect that there is some truth to his believes about a coverup. However,
given that I am prone to wanting to construct some crazy story involving ballet
dancers and escapes from Russia, I will hold my tongue.
Thanks for the interesting bit of Appalachian history.
Nelsen Spickard
I'm thinking they were really taken. Just my opinion! Great quiz!!!
Debbie Sterbinsky
I have no idea what happened. I think one thing is clear, though: if the fire was set the
objective was murder. The only reason to set a house occupied by sleeping people
burning is to kill. I find it very odd there was nothing left of the five children if they
burned. My parents were cremated and I got the box their "ashes" were
put in. I opened the box and saw there were no ashes. The box contained bone chips.
Even in the intense heat of cremation bones survive, yet nothing at all remained of five
people? Hard to swallow. On the other hand, how does some remove five children,
including teenagers, from a house without making any noise? Whatever the solution
is, we will probably never know.
Tim Bailey
It is sad that the parent went to their graves without knowing where,who,what
happened to the kids. They had positive thoughts that I dont know if I would of had
for that long. I hope one day, the truth will come out. This is sad, but I do thank you
for sharing this with us. I never knew or heard of this. Another lesson learned.
Jackie McCarty
I think the children were kidnapped. Why else because no human remains at the site
of the fire; impossible
Jim Kiser
Very interesting case. I've gone back and forth on what happened to them. Guess
only the good Lord knows for sure.
Kathy Mooney
It puzzles me, too, that none of them have ever come back. The younger ones would
likely have no memory of their original family. The older ones would definitely know
who their parents were and where they came from. Perhaps, as you say, they might
have been threatened. I don't believe that the Mafia necessarily perpetrated the crime,
the Italian name of the family notwithstanding. There are plenty of other criminal
gangs, or even mining interests, that could have done something like this.
Margaret Paxton
Yes, I imagine that most of them didn't survive. Another possibility is that the
youngest ones could have been brainwashed and sent to live with another family. It's
possible they'd never remember their original family. Such a sad story.
Jessica Jolley
I’ve read a lot of accounts of this and although a lot of suspicious actions seem to
have taken place around this event, I wonder about the impact of bulldozing all that
dirt to cover the burn site so early on after the fire. Did they really do a thorough
enough search to determine there were no bones before all that dirt was hauled in?

Comment - I think the following comment is a hoot (referring to an advanced age of
65) “Dec 22, 1968 Sunday Gazette Charleston West Virginia by Niles Jackson “Mrs.
Sodder, a most alert woman even today at age 65,…”
Marcelle Comeau
What a sad story.  It took less than a minute to get results for an amazing story of
injustice to an entire family.
Marjorie Wilser
In a case like this, it is difficult to tell [what happened].  Too much speculation
without facts would be unwise.  I would have to read the original documents to form
a valid and knowledgeable opinion.  I do wonder it the vertebrae that were found at
the site are still preserved and could be DNA tested for a positive ID.  I can also say
that the children in the photo look unhappy and perhaps haunted.  No matter how you
look at it, it's a sad, heart-rending story.
Talea Jurrens
For nearly four decades, anyone driving
down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West
Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the
grainy images of five children, all dark-
haired and solemn-eyed, their names and
ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9;
Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath,
along with speculation about what
happened to them. Fayetteville was and is
a small town, with a main street that
doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards,
and rumors always played a larger role in
If you have a picture you'd like us to feature a picture in a future quiz, please
email it to us at If we use it, you will receive a free analysis of
your picture. You will also receive a free
Forensic Genealogy CD or a 10%
discount towards the purchase of the
Forensic Genealogy book.
If you enjoy our quizzes, don't forget to order our books!
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Quiz #386 Results
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The Children Who Went up in Smoke
Answer to Quiz #386 - February 10, 2013
1. Why was this sign erected?
2.  What is the significance of the last photo on the right?
3. What do you think happened?
Congratulation to Our Winners!

Marcelle Comeau                Donna Jolley
Jessica Jolley                Daniel Jolley
Jackie McCarty                Tim Bailey
Jim Kaiser                Gus Marsh
Margaret Paxton                Kathy Mooney
Debbie Sterbinsky                Nelsen Spickard
Janice Sellers                Arthur Hartwell
Talea Jurrens                Marjorie Wilser
1.  Five children of George and Jennie Sodder disappeared
when their house caught fire on Christmas Eve 1945.
The couple erected the sign to solicit leads on the whereabouts of their children.
2.  In 1968 the couple received the picture in the mail
It had a note on the back indicating the young man was their lost son Louis.
The envelope did not have a return address.
They were not able to confirm the identity of the man.
3.  See below.
Jennie Sodder holding John, her first
child. Courtesy of Jennie Henthorn.
Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up
there, cowering in two bedrooms on
either end of the hallway, separated by a
staircase that was now engulfed in flames.

He raced back outside, hoping to reach
them through the upstairs windows, but
the ladder he always kept propped against
the house was strangely missing. An idea
struck: He would drive one of his two
coal trucks up to the house and climb
atop it to reach the windows. But even
though they’d functioned perfectly the
day before, neither would start now. He
ransacked his mind for another option. He
tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but
found it frozen solid. Five of his children
were stuck somewhere inside those great,
whipping ropes of smoke. He didn’t
notice that his arm was slick with blood,
that his voice hurt from screaming their

His daughter Marion sprinted to a
neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville
Fire Department but couldn’t get any
operator response. A neighbor who saw
the blaze made a call from a nearby
tavern, but again no operator responded.
Exasperated, the neighbor drove into
town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J.
Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s
version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree”
system whereby one firefighter phoned
another, who phoned another. The fire
department was only two and a half miles
away but the crew didn’t arrive until 8
am, by which point the Sodders’ home
had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash.

George and Jeannie assumed that five of
their children were dead, but a brief
search of the grounds on Christmas Day
turned up no trace of remains. Chief
Morris suggested that the blaze had been
hot enough to completely cremate the
bodies. A state police inspector combed
the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty
wiring. George covered the basement
with five feet of dirt, intending to
preserve the site as a memorial. The
coroner’s office issued five death
certificates just before the new year,
attributing the causes to “fire or

But the Sodders had begun to wonder if
their children were still alive.

George Sodder was born Giorgio Soddu
in Tula, Sardinia in 1895, and immigrated
to the United States in 1908, when he was
13. An older brother who had
accompanied him to Ellis Island
immediately returned to Italy, leaving
George on his own. He found work on
the Pennsylvania railroads, carrying water
and supplies to the laborers, and after a
few years moved to Smithers, West
Virginia. Smart and ambitious, he first
worked as a driver and then launched his
own trucking company, hauling dirt for
construction and later freight and coal.
One day he walked into a local store
called the Music Box and met the owners’
daughter, Jennie Cipriani, who had come over from Italy when she was 3

They married and had 10 children between 1923 and 1943, and settled in Fayetteville,
West Virginia, an Appalachian town with a small but active Italian immigrant
community. The Sodders were, said one county magistrate, “one of the most respected
middle-class families around.” George held strong opinions about everything from
business to current events and politics, but was, for some reason, reticent to talk about
his youth. He never explained what had happened back in Italy to make him want to

The Sodders planted flowers across the space where their house had stood and began
to stitch together a series of odd moments leading up to the fire. There was a stranger
who appeared at the home a few months earlier, back
in the fall, asking about hauling work. He meandered to
the back of the house, pointed to two separate fuse
boxes, and said, “This is going to cause a fire
someday.” Strange, George thought, especially since he
had just had the wiring checked by the local power
company, which pronounced it in fine condition.
Around the same time, another man tried to sell the
family life insurance and became irate when George
declined. “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke,”
he warned, “and your children are going to be
destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty
remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”
George was indeed outspoken about his dislike for the
Italian dictator, occasionally engaging in heated
arguments with other members of Fayetteville’s Italian
community, and at the time didn’t take the man’s threats seriously. The older Sodder
sons also recalled something peculiar: Just before Christmas, they noticed a man parked
along U.S. Highway 21, intently watching the younger kids as they came home from

Around 12:30 Christmas morning, after the children had opened a few presents and
everyone had gone to sleep, the shrill ring of the telephone broke the quiet. Jennie
rushed to answer it. An unfamiliar female voice asked for an unfamiliar name. There
was raucous laughter and glasses clinking in the background. Jennie said, “You have
the wrong number,” and hung up. Tiptoeing back to bed, she noticed that all of the
downstairs lights were still on and the curtains open. The front door was unlocked. She
saw Marion asleep on the sofa in the living room and assumed that the other kids were
upstairs in bed. She turned out the lights, closed the curtains, locked the door and
returned to her room. She had just begun to doze when she heard one sharp, loud bang
on the roof, and then a rolling noise. An hour later she was
roused once again, this time by heavy smoke curling into her

Jennie couldn’t understand how five children could perish in a
fire and leave no bones, no flesh, nothing. She conducted a
private experiment, burning animal bones—chicken bones, beef
joints, pork chop bones—to see if the fire consumed them. Each
time she was left with a heap of charred bones. She knew that
remnants of various household appliances had been found in the
burned-out basement, still identifiable. An employee at a
crematorium informed her that bones remain after bodies are
burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees. Their house was
destroyed in 45 minutes.

The collection of odd moments grew. A telephone repair man
told the Sodders that their lines appeared to have been cut, not
burned. They realized that if the fire had been electrical—the
result of “faulty wiring,” as the official reported stated—then the
power would have been dead, so how to explain the lighted
downstairs rooms? A witness came forward claiming he saw a
man at the fire scene taking a block and tackle used for
removing car engines; could he be the reason George’s trucks
refused to start? One day, while the family was visiting the site,
Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard. Jennie recalled
hearing the hard thud on the roof, the rolling sound. George
concluded it was a napalm “pineapple bomb” of the type used in

Then came the reports of sightings. A woman claimed to have
seen the missing children peering from a passing car while the
fire was in progress. A woman operating a tourist stop between
Fayetteville and Charleston, some 50 miles west, said she saw
the children the morning after the fire. “I served them
breakfast,” she told police. “There was a car with Florida license
plates at the tourist court, too.” A woman at a Charleston hotel
saw the children’s photos in a newspaper and said she had seen
four of the five a week after the fire. “The children were
accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian
extraction,” she said in a statement. “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

In 1947, George and Jennie sent a letter about the case to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation and received a reply from J.
Edgar Hoover: “Although I would like to be of service, the
matter related appears to be of local character and does not
come within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau.”
Hoover’s agents said they would assist if they could get
permission from the local authorities, but the Fayetteville police
and fire departments declined the offer.

Next the Sodders turned to a private investigator named C.C.
Tinsley, who discovered that the insurance salesman who had
threatened George was a member of the coroner’s jury that
deemed the fire accidental. He also heard a curious story from a
Fayetteville minister about F.J. Morris, the fire chief. Although
Morris had claimed no remains were found, he supposedly
confided that he’d discovered “a heart” in the ashes. He hid it
inside a dynamite box and buried it at the scene.

Tinsley persuaded Morris to show them the spot. Together they
dug up the box and took it straight to a local funeral director,
who poked and prodded the “heart” and concluded it was beef
liver, untouched by the fire. Soon afterward, the Sodders heard
rumors that the fire chief had told others that the contents of the
box had not been found in the fire at all, that he had buried the
beef liver in the rubble in the hope that finding any remains
would placate the family enough to stop the investigation.

Over the next few years the tips and leads continued to come.
George saw a newspaper photo of schoolchildren in New York
City and was convinced that one of them was his daughter
Betty. He drove to Manhattan in search of the child, but her
parents refused to speak to him. In August 1949, the Sodders
decided to mount a new search at the fire scene and brought in a
Washington, D.C. pathologist named Oscar B. Hunter. The
excavation was thorough, uncovering several small objects:
damaged coins, a partly burned dictionary and several shards of
vertebrae. Hunter sent the bones to the Smithsonian Institution,
which issued the following report:

The human bones consist of four lumbar vertebrae belonging to
one individual. Since the transverse recesses are fused, the age
of this individual at death should have been 16 or 17 years. The
top limit of age should be about 22 since the centra, which
normally fuse at 23, are still unfused. On this basis, the bones
show greater skeletal maturation than one would expect for a 14-
year-old boy (the oldest missing Sodder child). It is however
possible, although not probable, for a boy 14 ½ years old to
show 16-17 maturation.

The vertebrae showed no evidence that they had been exposed
to fire, the report said, and “it is very strange that no other
bones were found in the allegedly careful evacuation of the
basement of the house.” Noting that the house reportedly burned
for only about half an hour or so, it said that “one would expect
to find the full skeletons of the five children, rather than only
four vertebrae.” The bones, the report concluded, were most
likely in the supply of dirt George used to fill in the basement to
create the memorial for his children.

The Smithsonian report prompted two hearings at the Capitol in
Charleston, after which Governor Okey L. Patterson and State
Police Superintendent W.E. Burchett told the Sodders their
search was “hopeless” and declared the case closed. Undeterred,
George and Jennie erected the billboard along Route 16 and
passed out flyers offering a $5,000 reward for information
leading to the recovery of their children. They soon increased
the amount to $10,000. A letter arrived from a woman in St.
Louis saying the oldest girl, Martha, was in a convent there.
Another tip came from Texas, where a patron in a bar overheard
an incriminating conversation about a long-ago Christmas Eve
fire in West Virginia. Someone in Florida claimed the children
were staying with a distant relative of Jennie’s. George traveled
the country to investigate each lead, always returning home
without any answers.

In 1968, more than 20 years after the fire, Jennie went to get the
mail and found an envelope addressed only to her. It was
postmarked in Kentucky but had no return
address. Inside was a photo of a man in
his mid-20s. On its flip side a cryptic
handwritten note read: “Louis Sodder. I
love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or
35.” She and George couldn’t deny the
resemblance to their Louis, who was 9 at
the time of the fire. Beyond the obvious
similarities—dark curly hair, dark brown
eyes—they had the same straight, strong
nose, the same upward tilt of the left
Site of the Sodder house, since rebuilt.
Could the mystery man be Louis Sodder?  

“Missing or Dead?” Greensboro News and Record, November 18, 1984; “Hope of Life
in ’45 Fire Still Burns, Boston Daily Record, December 24, 1960; “The Children Who
Went Up in Smoke,” Inside Detective, February 1968.


Interview with Jennie Henthorn, granddaughter of George and Jennie Sodder and
daughter of Sylvia Sodder Paxton; Smithsonian pathologist report supplied by Jennie
Henthorn; informal statement of Marion Sodder, supplied by Jennie Henthorn.