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True crime. Casually done.

Up in Smoke: The Sodder Children’s Disappearance

On Christmas Eve 1945, the Sodder family of Fayetteville, West Virginia were getting ready to turn in for the night. That was no mean feat for parents George and Jennie, had a comically large family: 10 children, one of whom was grown and off with the US Army. After dinner, 17-year-old Marion handed out presents to the little kids, from the dime store where she worked.

At around 10pm, the two oldest boys, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr, went up to bed on the second floor. Their parents were next to turn in, taking 2-year old Sylvia up to her crib in their first-floor room. The rest of the kids pleaded with them to stay up late, and they were allowed to, so long as they fed the cows and closed up the chicken coop before bed. As George and Jennie kissed their kids goodnight, and closed the bedroom door, they had no idea this would be the last time they ever saw them. 

At 1am, little Sylvia awoke to her mother snatching her out of her crib. Thick ribbons of smoke were rising from under the door, and beyond it, a fire was raging throughout the bottom floor of the house, from George’s first-floor study. The parents managed to carry their youngest outside to safety, shaking Marion awake as the went, and started screaming for the others to hurry outside. A few tense moments passed, before two figures appeared through the smoke-filled: the two oldest boys burst outside, with their hair singed from bolting down the flaming stairway.

George and Jennie looked up in horror as the fire began spreading to the attic, where the rest of the bedrooms were. None of their five other kids had made it out yet, and they couldn’t even see them at the windows. Thinking fast, George scaled the side of the house and punched out the glass of a window, cutting a deep gash down his forearm. He tried to climb inside, but the smoke and heat were unbearable. 

Little Sylvia watched on, confused and terrified, as her dad and brothers frantically tried to save the rest of the family. They ran to fetch a ladder around the back of the house, but somehow it was missing. Amid the desperation, a stroke of genius: they would reverse one of their coal trucks against the house, and climb up it. But when George and the boys hopped into the cabs, neither of the trucks would start.

Meanwhile, Marion was sprinting off to a neighbour’s house to call the fire department. But the call just rang out without an answer. Another neighbour saw the fire burning in the distance, and called it in from a nearby bar. Again, no response. So this Good Samaritan drove all the way into town to speak to fire chief FJ Morris directly. 

Time was running out, and the family were running out of ideas. In a last-ditch effort, George tried to collect water from a well in a futile attempt to combat the blaze, but it was frozen over. So all the survivors could do was scream the children’s names while the top floor collapsed into smoke and flames. Any hope of saving the five kids trapped inside was long gone.

Despite only being two at the time, the sight of her childhood home collapsing in flames would stick with Sylvia for the rest of her life. As would the mystery of what exactly happened to her five siblings that terrible day…

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Picking Through the Wreckage

See, although the Sodders were convinced at the time that they had just helplessly watched five of their children perish, they soon weren’t so sure. Some things just didn’t quite add up, like how none of the kids came to the bedroom windows when they shouted. In fact, it almost seemed like the five of them weren’t even in the house at the time at all.

These doubts first began to materialise after the fire crew arrived (gloriously late). After the neighbour tracked down the fire chief, it took ages for him to ready his crew, because they relied on an old-school relay system — each member calling the house phone of the next. Still, you’d think they could’ve managed the 2.5 mile drive from the fire station to the house a bit faster than the 7 hour response time. I’ve had Amazon packages arrive faster. 

By the time they arrived at 8am, the house had collapsed into a smouldering pile of wreckage. The fire crew spent the saddest Christmas Day imaginable, sorting through what remained for the remains of the kids who never made it out. But somehow, there weren’t any — no bones, teeth, nothing.  the five missing children — Betty, 5; Jennie, 8; Louis, 9; Martha 12; and Maurice, 14 —not a single trace was found. It’s not the sort of thing you want to spend too much time picturing, but rest assured there should have been quite a lot to find. That would explain the fact that nobody could smell burning flesh during the ordeal.

Chief Morris speculated that their remains had been completely incinerated, but that’s not what usually happens during a standard house fire. Within the next few days, a fire inspector from the state police determined the tragedy was caused by faulty wiring. Further investigations were planned, but within a week George Sodder decided he couldn’t bear the sight of the smoking pit of rubble any longer, and filled in the basement with five feet of dirt. He intended to plant a memorial garden on top. On a side note: if your home ever becomes a potential crime scene, literally burying all of the evidence is the last thing you should do. 

Around the same time, death certificates were issued for the five Sodder children, listing their cause of death as “fire or suffocation”. But the fact that there were no remains to lay to rest meant that George and Jennie couldn’t quite accept the verdict. All grieving parents probably go through some level of denial, but as the Sodders began to run over the months leading up to the fire in their heads, some strange little episodes seemed to confirm their suspicions: the children never actually died that day.

five Sodder children,
five Sodder children,

For one, why was the ladder missing? And why, when the two coal trucks — property of George Sodder’s hauling company — had worked the day before, did both fail to start that night? It was almost as if someone had set it up so that nobody would access the second floor. A few months prior, George recalled receiving a visit from a stranger, applying for a job at his firm, who commented that the two fuse boxes at the back of their house were “going to cause a fire someday”. This struck him as strange, seeing as he had the house’s wiring safety checked just a few weeks before, after installing an electric stove.

Stranger than that though, was the visit from a man referred to only as FJ. He was an insurance salesman, who visited the Sodders on a cold call in October. George had once worked for this man, and their relationship ended on bad terms back in 1943. He was also co-signer on their home insurance, which he previously bumped up without their knowledge, and was now asking them to take out a life insurance policy on their children. 

When the couple refused (because insuring the life of a 2-year-old is morbid as hell) FJ kicked off: “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed,” he told them, “You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”

Sounds like he went a bit too heavy on the ‘hard sell’. If you’re confused about the namecheck for a deceased Italian dictator, it makes a lot more sense when you know a little about the background of George Sodder. That wasn’t actually his original name at all: he was born Giorgio Soddu in Sardinia, Italy. 

Giorgio emigrated to the states at the age of 13 with his older brother, but soon found himself alone in NYC. He spent his teens and twenties working on the railroads, before meeting Jennie Cipriani, herself an immigrant from the old country. 

The Appalachian town of Fayetteville had an active community of Italians, which drew the couple there in the 1920s, and they started amassing that army of offspring. A few years later, George founded his own trucking company, and the couple were able to afford a nice house for their family. A county magistrate called them “one of the most respected middle-class families around.”

But not everyone was a fan of the Sodders. The patriarch George was an outspoken critic of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini throughout the war, and this rubbed some in the community the wrong way. Could the fire have been an act of comeuppance from some Mussolini loyalists in town? Judging by the insurance broker’s threat, it sure seems so.

That might be a clue for the “why”. As for the “how”, Jennie Sodder recalled a strange little detail from the night of the fire. At about half past midnight, the house phone rang, and she rushed out of the bedroom to answer it. On the other end of the line was a woman, with the sounds of a party in the background. She asked for someone that never lived there, and Jenny told her she had the wrong number. The woman just laughed, and hung up.

As Jennie went back to the bedroom, she spotted Marion sleeping on the couch. The kids had left the lights on in the kitchen and living room, forgotten to lock the door, and left the curtains open. That was unlike them, but she didn’t make much of it at the time. She just did it all herself, and went back to bed. A few minutes after settling back in, she heard a sharp thud coming from above, followed by the sound of something rolling down the roof. 

Again, Jennie ignored it, and fell back asleep. The next time she woke up, was when the smoke filling her lungs jolted her awake…

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The Witness Reports

Things were strange enough already, and they only got more interesting as various witness reports started trickling in. First, after seeing the report in the papers, a local woman reported that she had spotted the kids passing by in a car, while the fire was burning. 

Then a waitress at a rest stop around 50 miles out of town claimed she served breakfast to a group of five kids that looked just like the missing Sodder offspring. She also noted a car in the parking lot at the time, with Florida license plates. (Everything always comes back to Florida Man)

Then, someone came forward to report seeing a man leaving the scene of the fire, carrying a “block and tackle” pulley system, often used to remove engines from vehicles (as you’ll remember, George’s trucks failed to start). But most promising of all was the report from a bus driver, who claimed to have seen a man throwing “balls of fire” on the roof as he passed by in the night. 

Jennie remembered the sound of the thud on the rooftop, and became convinced that was the source of the blaze. After the snow thawed in 1946, the family went back to the site to do some more digging around. Little Sylvia was wandering around her old garden, when she stumbled across a “hard rubber object, military green in colour, and hollow with a twist-off cap”. When she brought it to her father, he said it resembled a used “pineapple bomb”: a kind of napalm-filled incendiary grenade used during the war. 

Then, when an electronics technician inspected their phone lines, he told them that it appeared they had been cut on the night of the fire, rather than burning up. And it struck the couple that, if the fire really was caused by faulty wiring, then the fuses for their entire house would surely have blown. But as they left the house, the Christmas tree lights were still on.

Conclusive proof of arson, or just grasping at straws? Confirmation bias is a hell of a thing, and Jennie in particular had already been hard at work, trying to cast doubt on the official version of events. She read in a magazine about a similar case, in which three mostly-intact skeletons were recovered, and a crematorium employee told her that it takes two hours at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, to fully dispose of a body, and even then some fragments remain. 

The Sodder house collapsed after a mere 45 minutes. And curiously, the remains of household appliances were found in the pile of rubble that had collapsed into the basement — would they not have been burned up as well?

So she started experimenting herself. Rather than set fire to someone else’s home (in the name of justice and science), she ran her tests with food leftovers, burning the bones of chickens, beef, and pigs to see if they would be reduced to ash under conditions similar to the house fire. Every time, the bones were charred but intact.

It was becoming increasingly likely that this fire was no accident; someone had intentionally started it, and kidnapped the children, while making it appear that they died in the fire…

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On the Trail

If an alternative version of events were possible, it soon got buried under George and Jennie’s very public campaign to recover their lost children. In 1947, they went direct to the FBI, eliciting a personal response from J Edgar Hoover himself. He told them: “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.” 

To get involved, they needed the blessing of the local cops and fire department, who declined their offer of help. As far as they were concerned, the Sodders were just a desperate pair of parents, clinging onto lost hope. However, if you’re of a conspiratorial mindset (and I know a lot of you are), a few things happened which suggested the town officials might have had an ulterior motive for smothering the Sodders’ investigation in the crib. 

Without the FBI, the couple decided to look elsewhere for help. George and Jennie hired a PI with a top-class detective novel name, CC Tinsley. He did some digging into some of the stranger aspects of the case, including the shady insurance salesman from before. As it turned out, the man who warned the house would burn down because of George’s anti-Mussolini stance, was also a member of the coroner’s jury which determined the fire was accidental. 

To add to the whiff of small-town conspiracy, Tinsley uncovered a strange rumour from a minister in town. A lot of notable people came to his holiness to confess their sins, and he recalled a strange claim from fire chief FJ Morris, several weeks back. Aside from seeking forgiveness for the deadly delay, he also told the minister that, despite claiming to have found no remains, he actually uncovered a human heart from the wreckage. Not wanting to distress the family, he kept it a secret, and buried it in a dynamite box on the grounds. 

First of all: a heart? Despite all of the bones, teeth, and generally fire-resistant parts of the bodies burning to ash, somehow a whole heart survived intact? It was a pretty unlikely story, but when George and the PI dug up at the spot mentioned, sure enough they found a box there, and sure enough, there was a lump of red flesh inside.

They took it to a funeral home in the town of Montgomery, to get help verifying the remains. The funeral director there told them they had unearthed what appeared to be a hunk of fresh beef liver. No closer to solving the mystery, but hey, at least they had something for dinner.

They confronted the fire chief for burying butcher’s off-cuts around their property, and he confessed to making the whole thing up. Unfortunately he had the scientific knowledge and deception skills of a toddler, and thought burying a box of offal was better than scattering some actual bones.

But of course, he was doing it altruistically; Morris was so sure he was that the children died in the fire, that he just wanted to give the family closure. He thought that if they could find any sign of their missing kids, they could finally give up the hunt, and find peace. That’s one way to frame it, but on the other hand, the guy hid a piece of food and told two distraught parents that it was their deceased kid’s heart.

Hardly the best way to help them process their grief, my man. But perhaps that wasn’t his goal anyway. After all, it was his organisation that failed to answer the emergency call that night. And he claimed he couldn’t bring the fire engine over by himself, despite it being so frustratingly close to the Sodder house that he could have pushed it over by hand in under 7 hours. Did he perhaps have another motive for wanting the Sodders to drop their investigation?

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If there really was a conspiracy to part George and Jennie from their kids, then it seemed to have worked. Years passed without many developments of note, and no word from the children. This was strange, seeing as the oldest kid Maurice was 14 at the time of the disappearance: would he not have tried to contact his parents, if he were still alive?

Regardless, the Sodders held out hope that he was — along with their four other kids — alive and well. Every time they saw a kid in the paper that looked a bit like them, or a news story about abductions flashed up on TV, they thought they might finally catch a break.

The first came just two years after the fire. George was convinced he spotted one of the missing kids in the newspaper, in a picture of school kids in New York City. One girl in the photo was a dead ringer for his Betty. So he travelled to NYC to find her, but the girl’s parents refused to let him see her. I mean, if he was wrong, I fully understand. If some crazy stranger came to your doorstep saying your daughter was actually his, you probably wouldn’t invite him in for tea and biscuits either. 

Most of the tips which came in over those early years ended in that same disappointment. So, in an attempt to conclusively prove to the world that they weren’t losing their minds, the Sodders commissioned a fresh excavation of the fire site in the summer of 1949. See, there had long been a theory floated around that the remains really were in the rubble, but George’s hastiness in covering the scene with dirt prevented them being properly accounted for. 

To put those ideas to bed, they enlisted the help of Oscar Hunter, a pathologist out of DC. He and his team managed to uncover all kinds of relics from the worst day of the family’s lives: half-burned books, charred coins, pieces of furniture buried in ash. And among all of this miscellanea, the most significant discovery yet: some shards of human vertebrae.

To the local authorities, this was the final proof necessary. But nothing could be said conclusively until the pieces were examined. The family sent the shards to the Smithsonian Institution, who presented their findings at the state capital building several weeks later. Strangely, the bones never showed any sign of fire damage.

They also managed to determine a rough age range for the remains: 17 to 22. Apparently the vertebrae fuse as we mature through puberty, and these samples showed a level of fusing that meant they probably did not belong to Maurice, who at 14 was the oldest child missing. Not impossible, just very unlikely. So whose spine did they find then!? That’s not the sort of thing you just keep lying around the house.

Well, the report also mentioned that, since the fire didn’t even burn for an hour, a lot more than some vertebrae should have been left behind. So the theory goes that these bones were actually already present in the dirt which George bulldozed over the smouldering basement. A while later, CC Tinsley reportedly matched the samples to a graveyard in nearby Mount Hope. Which for me raises all sorts of questions in and of itself, like why was George’s company hauling around graveyard soil? That’s just asking to be cursed.  

At any rate, it has no bearing on the main mystery of the day. As to that, the state governor and police superintendent rounded off the hearing by telling the Sodders their mission to find their children was, and always had been, hopeless. The case remained closed…

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One Billboard Outside Fayetteville, West Virginia

Despite running into dead ends everywhere they went, the family were adamant that their children were still out there, somewhere. Abandoned by the authorities, they decided to appeal directly to the public for leads. In 1952, they raised a billboard at the site of the fire, along Route 16, with pictures of their missing children and their names underneath.

In a thick black font along the top, were painted the words: “What was their fate, kidnapped, murdered, or are they still alive?” Alongside this was the promise of a $5,000 dollar reward. At the same time, they launched a flyer campaign, advertising the cash reward. When the first wave of tips proved underwhelming, they upped the bounty to a whopping ten grand (over $90,000 in today’s money).

The funny thing about 90-grand paydays is that they tend to get people’s tongues wagging, even when they have nothing useful to say. As you can imagine, this spurred on the reports, and sightings trickled in from around the country. One letter claimed that Martha was living as a nun in St Louis. Another claimed the kids were in Florida, raised by a distant relative of Jennie. In 1953, a motel manager named Ida Crutchfield reported seeing the kids pass through in the week after the fire — four out of the five, at least.

She claimed they were in the company of two men of “Italian extraction”. As she said: “[T]he 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.”

George had hopped all around the country investigating each and every lead that came in, but this one seemed like the strongest so far. It spurred speculation that some shady characters might have had it out for him and his family. See, nobody quite knew why George had decided to move to America in the first place.

With his backstory pretty much blank, people took the chance to fill it with all kinds of theories. Perhaps he or his family had angered the Sicilian Mafia, or better yet, perhaps they were mafia, and George had to flee to the States after something bad went down in Sardinia. 

He did change his name, after all: probably to fit in and avoid discrimination, but maybe also to hide from his past. Could this kidnapping have been their revenge for whatever caused him to leave Italy? If that were the case, maybe the mystery job hunter from before was scouting out the place, making sure they’d found the right guy.

Only George himself could know that for sure. Whatever the case, the tips continually led to nothing. George and Jennie remained obsessed with the idea that their children were still out there, and the public — out of good will or the sake of the reward — were all too happy to keep their hopes alive. As one police report put it: “The Sodder family are being kept in constant turmoil by unscrupulous persons, in efforts to procure what money they can from the family.”

Whether their kids were alive or not, any chance at closure was probably lost within that whirl of speculation and exploitation.

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What was their fate, kidnapped, murdered, or are they still alive?

So that’s the majority of the significant evidence in this case; let’s have a crack at that key question from the Sodders’ billboard — what was the fate of their children?

Cover-up

The first thing to address is the likelihood of some grand conspiracy amongst town officials. This was the angle taken by the family themselves, who felt obstructed and cheated at every turn. The text on the last version of their billboard ended with: “What was the motive of the law officers involved? […] Why did they lie and force us to accept the lies?”

That’s a pretty big accusation, and must have captured the imaginations of a lot of people that drove by it. But honestly, it’s probably one of the least credible takes. For one, the fire crew response time wasn’t exactly unheard of: their numbers were severely depleted from a little old thing called World War Two, and Christmas Eve was bound to be one of the toughest times to get through to them anyway. And the fact that the insurance salesman was on the fire jury can be explained by the fact that he was… an insurance salesman. It’s kind of his job to know about this stuff, and Fayetteville is a small town of under 3,000 people. 

From the authorities’ perspective, they were convinced that the Sodders were just driven to mad desperation by grief, and were clutching at straws. In that light, their attempts to shut down the case, even when the FBI got involved, look more practical than nefarious. If we go with that angle, then even fire chief Morris and his box of beef was a painfully tone-deaf attempt to give them some much-needed closure. 

Mussolini and the Mafia

Closure wouldn’t come easy though. George Sodder remained convinced throughout his entire life that someone had taken his kids. To explain why they never tried to get in touch, he told the papers: “They could have been shown a picture of the burned house and told everyone was killed. […] The younger ones might not know us but we would know them anywhere.”

So who was feeding them these lies? The Mussolini lovers? Well, that angle seems pretty thin too. Yes, that insurance salesman did seem to predict the fire, but consider this: what if it was just a completely unrelated comment — just some fiery Italian guy throwing out insults because George pissed him off again. Because, if he and the rest of the pro-Mussolini townsfolk were plotting the arson attack, then it’d be daft to announce it directly to the victim’s face. That’s some heavy-handed foreshadowing. 

So there’s a solid chance that it was just an off-the-cuff remark, which later turned out to be a horrifically incriminating prophecy. Also, by December 1945, the bodies of Il Duce and his mistress had already been turned into loose sacks of goop by an angry crowd in Milan, so it seems strange that his supporters in a distant land would still be willing to go so far for his memory.

As for the mafia connection… there isn’t really a mafia connection. Seriously, as far as I’ve found, people just took the fact that George and Jennie were Italian and filled in the blanks with their number one ethnic stereotype. George’s trucking business could have put him on the wrong end of an extortion attempt, or perhaps a job offer that he rejected. But without any evidence, all of that is baseless speculation. 

Likewise, the so-called ‘pineapple bomb’: never actually verified by the authorities. In fact, the fire started from George’s study, where the fuse box and telephone lines were hooked up. Why would a firebomb thrown at the roof start a fire there? 

It all seems a bit thin. The hotel manager who apparently spotted four Italian looking kids with two shady Italian men is one of the strongest bits of evidence for this theory, but odds are she probably just saw a completely different Italian family passing through. As it transpired, she had actually seen the kids after the fire…  in the papers. It’s probably she was mixing up her memories, or simply going for the cash reward.

There remains the idea though, that the Sodder kids could have been abducted by someone else entirely. Perhaps someone they knew and trusted, or a stranger who set the fire then herded them out of the house to what they thought was safety. If that were the case, then we don’t know if they made it through the night alive, or where they eventually ended up…

The Official Verdict Was Correct

However, if you’re holding out hope for a happy ending, brace yourself, because currently the most likely scenario is also the most tragic. In 2005, Stacy Horn of NPR conducted a pretty thorough investigation for her radio show, and leans towards the conclusion that the children really did die in the fire. Everything that came after was just a cocktail of denial, grief, and survivor’s guilt.

Her take on the strange behaviour of the fire chief was that he actually did find some remains on the day of the fire, and concealed the information from the family. As Horn put it: “A brief, informal search takes place but instead of the skeletons they expect to find, there are just a few bones and pieces of internal organs’. But because the family were never informed right away, they — and generations of followers of the story — were utterly convinced that nothing was really found.

Bit of a dick move from the fire chief, but perhaps wanted to save them the trauma on Christmas (not as if it was going to be very merry anyway). Maybe he thought he could kick that unpleasant can down the road to the fire marshal’s investigation team, scheduled to come by in the new year. Of course, the marshal never got his chance, so burying the liver was Chief Morris’ way of making amends without admitting his fault directly. 

If so, then what actually happened to those real remains? Well, Horn’s piece contains a few bombshells which weren’t included in many of the popular versions of the story over the years. Chief among them: heaps and heaps of gasoline. George Sodder used his basement as a garage space for working on his truck engines, and reports state that he had several 55-gallon drums of gasoline down there. How the hell people never thought to mention that before, I do not know.

The combination of this and the layer of dirt on top might have turned the basement into a super high-temperature pressure cooker, which could have completely incinerated the remains of the children more thoroughly than even a conventional funerary incinerator. That added heat explains why the firemen only found assorted fragments, which later disintegrated underground. The main fire lasted under an hour, but it smouldered on for far longer, and could continue to do so even with limited oxygen underground, provided there was enough fuel.

Then there was the testimony of the oldest son, John. Shortly after the fire, he gave a statement saying that he actually saw the missing siblings after the fire started. He claimed to have run into their rooms and shaken them awake during his escape. He later changed his story, saying he only called out to them through the doorway, but could that have been his own memory clouding the facts, to protect him from the crushing guilt of having left his siblings behind? 

The fact that nobody else saw them trying to escape is easily explained by some of the more unsettling features of house fires. Without smoke alarms, victims can be rendered unconscious by smoke inhalation before they even wake up. And even if they do, young ones are prone to panicking. Fire Marshall Sterling Lewis told NPR: We find them under beds. We find them in closets. We find them curled up in the bathtubs.” The instinct is to run and hide, which tragically almost always results in death.

Add to this the fact that in 2013, one of George Sodder’s son-in-laws believed that he and the boys might have merely flooded the engines on the trucks that night, since they were in such a rush to start them. The idea that someone tampered with them was of course never proven, probably because there was no proof — the trucks just… didn’t start. Just like the fire crew just didn’t arrive, and the children didn’t escape. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially if it’s your own family, but it may well be the reality.

The more we hear this side of the story, the more it seems like all of the puzzle pieces from before were seized by the traumatised family, in an attempt to explain away a painful truth: Betty, Jennie, Louis, Martha, and Maurice were gone; there was no kidnapping plot, and no conspiracy; the children had died that night, as the rest of the family looked on, powerless to save them.

I’d take an imaginary kidnapping plot over that any day.

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Two Strange Messages

Although it may have all been a hopeless, grief-fuelled fantasy, George Sodder lived with the belief he would oneday find his kids until the day he died. In fact, he thought he genuinely might have seen one of them, back in 1967. More than twenty years after the fire, with the billboard faded and peeling, the Sodders received a tip from down in Texas.

A woman in a bar claimed she spoke with a man, drunkenly rambling about a fire in West Virginia. She was amazed to hear the guy say that he was one of the kids that went missing that day: Louis. George did a bit of digging, and discovered the man had a brother — potentially the older boy Maurice! He drove all the way down to Houston to meet the man he believed was his missing kid.

There certainly was a resemblance — twenty years on, there was no knowing what little Louis might look like now, but George was convinced it was him. However, when the man and his brother met with him, he told George that he never even claimed to be his son. Someone must have misunderstood him, or made up the rumour.

Still, George never could shake the feeling that his little boy was right there in front of him, but for some reason — maybe he didn’t remember, maybe someone was stopping him — he couldn’t tell his father what he needed to hear.

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The second and final chance George ever got at seeing his son came in 1968. For the thousands of people who drove past the Sodder children’s fading faces on the billboard day after day, they would have noticed something different — a new picture, to replace the childhood photo of little Louis. It showed a young man, who had an undeniable resemblance to the little boy in the old image. 

In this new picture, he was in his late twenties, with dark curly hair, and the same straight nose as his father. The Sodders had received this image in the mail a few weeks prior. Jennie went to the mailbox and found a letter inside, addressed to her. Although there was no return address, the postmark showed it came from Kentucky. On the back of the photo was a message: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” 

Not knowing what to make of the cryptic note, the Sodders sent a PI to the town in Kentucky to investigate. They never heard from him again. The family were worried that, if this really was their boy, then whoever took him might do him harm if they publicised the discovery. So they did the only thing they could do — added the picture to the billboard, hung an enlarged copy over their fireplace, and prayed that someone would come forward with more information.

But nobody ever did. 

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Wrap-up

George Sodder died one year after the message, in 1969. Jennie, who only wore black from the day of the fire to her last day on earth, kept the billboard up until she passed in 1989. Before her kids had it taken down, they changed the message stencilled at the top — one last push for information, in memory of their parents. It now read: “After thirty years, it is not too late to investigate.”

Well, now we’re past 75 years, and I’m sorry to say the case is probably a little past its expiry date now. The last surviving member of the Sodder family house fire, little Sylvia, passed away earlier this year. Throughout her old age, she still carried on the mission, raising the profile of the case on web forums in the hope that the age of information would offer up some new clues. 

In retrospect though, it seems like this one was solved a long time ago. The way that a tragic house fire spiralled out into such a famous unsolved mystery is nothing more than a sad fable about the power of hope and grief. It can sometimes be easier to lose yourself in a web of imaginative intrigue than accept a terrible truth.

That’s my take, but as always, you’re welcome to disagree: mafia conspiracy, Mussolini fanboys, alien abduction — whatever takes your fancy.

Dismembered Appendices

1. According to a local paper, the man spotted stealing the block and tackle was tracked down and admitted to the crime in 1968. He even claimed that he did actually cut the telephone lines, thinking they were the power lines (but nobody really believed he had managed to scale the telephone pole and pull this off). He kind of just fades into obscurity after that, so there’s no way to verify who he was, or if he even definitely existed.

2. If you want a little more gasoline on the speculative fire, you’ll enjoy the fact that the cryptic string of digits on the back of the alleged photo of Louis — 90132 — was actually the postal code of Palermo, Sicily. Now, the mafia theory was already well-trodden by then, so this could have been part of a sick hoax. After all, anyone could see Louis’ childhood picture on the billboard, and choose an adult lookalike. We’ll call it ‘grief catfishing’ — probably one of the most disgusting ‘pranks’ possible.

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