A Terrible Christmas Tragedy, or Was it Murder?

 The Jon Benet Ramsey case pops into most of our minds when we are asked to relay the most terrible Christmas story we know, but seventy-eight years ago in 1945 in Fayetteville, West Virginia, the Sodder family lost five of their ten children in a house fire on Christmas Eve. Was it a tragedy, a murder, or a kidnapping? Until their deaths, George and Jennie Sodder believed their five children survived the fire, but if so, where did they go?

George Sodder was born with the name Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia, Italy, in 1895. When he was thirteen years old, he immigrated to the United States and changed his name to George Sodder. He never spoke to anyone about his childhood in Italy. Sodder worked on the railroads in Pennsylvania and then as a truck driver in Smithers, West Virginia. He later started his own trucking company, hauling dirt to construction sites or transporting coal mined in the region. He met Jennie Cipriani, the daughter of a shop owner, who had immigrated from Italy when she was three, and the two soon married and moved to Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Fayetteville had a small but active Italian immigrant population, and the growing Sodder clan was a well-respected middle-class family. However, not everyone liked George Sodder. He had strong opinions about nearly everything and wasn’t afraid to tell people what he thought. He loudly opposed the late Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who remained popular among many Italian Americans in Fayetteville.

The Sodders had ten children between 1923 and 1943, ranging in age from twenty-three to three. Their second-oldest son was in the military and had not returned home from Europe by Christmas 1945, but the other nine children lived in the house with their parents.

On Christmas Eve, 1945, the children opened a few presents and asked their mother if they could stay up past bedtime and play with their new toys. Their mother allowed them to stay up a few minutes later than usual, and then she took the youngest child, Sylvia, to sleep in a crib in the bedroom she shared with George on the first floor. At 12:30 a.m., the ringing telephone awakened Jennie, and she rushed to answer it. The caller was a woman she didn’t recognize, asking for someone Jennie didn’t know. When Jennie told the woman she’d dialed the wrong number, the woman replied with what Jennie would later call a “weird laugh.” Jennie said she heard loud laughter and the clinking of glasses in the background. Jennie disconnected and began to return to her room when she noticed that the downstairs lights were still on, the curtains were open, and the front door was unlocked. The kids were usually good about closing up the house before they went to bed. Marion had fallen asleep on the couch, and since she saw no sign of the younger children, Jennie assumed they were upstairs in their bedrooms.

Jennie fell back asleep and was again awakened at 1:00 a.m., this time by an object hitting the roof with a loud bang, followed by a rolling noise. When she heard no other noises, she drifted back asleep. A half-hour later, the smell of smoke startled her awake. She investigated and found George’s office fully engulfed in flames. She awoke her husband, and he alerted the oldest two sons in the house, John (22) and George Jr. (16). George, Jennie, John, George Jr., Marion, and Sylvia escaped the house. John and George had a bedroom on the second floor, Marion was asleep on the couch in the living room, and little Sylvia slept in a crib in her parents’ room. The remaining five children slept in two bedrooms, one on either side of the stairway, on the top floor.

George, Jennie, John, George Jr., and Marion called frantically to the children on the top floor, but they did not respond. The elder Sodders could not go up the stairs because they were already aflame.

George raced toward the side of the house, where he kept a ladder, but the ladder was gone. He then attempted to climb the outside wall of the house with his bare feet. He broke a window and badly cut his arm. He began to feel frantic but then thought about his two large trucks. If he parked one next to the house, he could possibly reach the upstairs window by standing on top of the truck. Unfortunately, neither of his trucks would start despite functioning perfectly the previous day. George thought of dousing the flames with water from the water barrel, but the water was frozen solid from the frigid temperatures.

Jennie tried to phone the fire department before exiting the home, but the phone was dead. She told Marion to run to a neighbor’s house to call the Fayetteville Fire Department, but the operator did not answer. Another neighbor attempted to contact the Fire Department from a nearby tavern but also received no response. Finally, the neighbor Marion had approached drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris. Fayetteville did not have a fire siren but instead used a “phone tree” system to mobilize its volunteer fire department. The chief called one firefighter, who in turn alerted the next fireman, who called the next firefighter on the list. The system was inefficient and slow, but still could not explain why it took seven hours to respond to a fire burning two-and-one-half miles from town. When the fire truck finally arrived, the Sodder’s home was a smoldering pile of ashes.

The house burned to the ground in only forty-five minutes, and George, Jennie, and the four children who had escaped could only watch in horror. George and Jennie initially believed that the five children sleeping on the top floor died in the blaze, but they saw no sign of their remains in the ashes. Chief Morris told them he thought the blaze was probably hot enough to cremate the bodies of the young children. He told George and Jennie to leave the site undisturbed until the state fire marshal could examine it. However, the Sodders could not bear the sight of their burned-down house, and four days after the fire, George bulldozed five feet of dirt over the site. He and Jennie decided to convert the area into a memorial garden for their lost children.

The day after Christmas, the local coroner convened an inquest. One of the jurors for the inquest was C.G. Janutolo, a banker who had recently threatened George when George refused to buy life insurance from him. Janutolo told George his house would be burned down and his children destroyed in retribution for his anti-Mussolini remarks. The coroner’s inquest found that the fire was an accident caused by faulty wiring. The coroner’s office quickly issued five death certificates for the missing children. According to the death certificates, the children died from smoke inhalation – a finding that would have been impossible to determine without the children’s bodies.

The Sodders followed through with their plan to plant a memorial garden, and Jennie carefully tended it for the remainder of her life. However, as the days passed, the family began to piece together the strange events surrounding the fire. The more they thought about it, the more they felt sure someone had set the fire, and they began to wonder if their younger children were even in the house when the blaze started.

George did not believe faulty wiring started the blaze because he remembered some of the house lights were still on as the house burned. George and Jennie recalled a stranger who had come to their house a few months earlier to ask about the possibility of a job with George’s trucking company. The man wandered to the back of the Sodder house and pointed to two separate fuse boxes.  He said, “This is going to cause a fire someday.” George dismissed the remark because he had recently asked an inspector from the local power company to check the wiring, and he had given the wiring a passing grade. George also remembered Janutolo telling him that his house would go up in smoke.

The older Sodder sons reported seeing a man parked in a car along U.S. Highway 21 just before Christmas. They said he intently watched the younger kids as they walked home from school. Why was he so interested in the children? Was he planning to kidnap them?

Jennie recalled the strange phone call in the early morning hours of the fire. She also remembered the loud bang on the roof and the sound of something rolling. A telephone repair man told the Sodders their telephone lines had been cut, not burned.

A witness came forward and said he saw a man steal a block and tackle for removing car engines from the Sodder’s property around the time the fire started. The witness identified the man, and he confessed to the theft. He also admitted to cutting the phone line, but he said he thought it was the power line. The thief insisted he had nothing to do with the fire. There is no police record regarding the theft of the block and tackle, and the individual was never charged with the crime. It was also never explained why the thief needed to cut the utility lines to the house to steal the block and tackle.

Jennie did not believe that the fire had consumed the bodies of her children. She’d read news articles about others dying in house fires, and their skeletal remains were found in the ashes. Many of the household appliances were still recognizable in the blaze’s aftermath. How could the fire have erased any remaining trace of her children? She decided to conduct an experiment by burning chicken bones, beef joints, and pork chop bones to see if a fire would consume them. Each time, she ended up with charred bones. She contacted an employee of a local crematorium, and he told her that they cremate a body for two hours at two thousand degrees, and some of the bones remain even after the bodies are burned. He said they must grind the bones before they place the ashes in an urn. The Sodder house burned in only forty-five minutes. Why were there no human remains in the ashes?

One day, when the family was visiting the site of their burned home, Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard. Jennie wondered if this was what made the thud on the roof and the rolling sound. George said it looked like a napalm “pineapple bomb,” similar to the type used in warfare. Did someone throw the bomb on the roof to start the fire?

When newspapers ran accounts of the tragic fire at the Sodder residence, witnesses came forward to say they’d seen the missing children. One woman claimed she was watching the fire from the road when a car passed by, and she saw the missing children peering from the car windows, staring at their house while it burned. A woman who worked at a restaurant between Fayetteville and Charleston, fifty miles west of the Sodder home, said she saw the children the morning after the fire. “I served them breakfast,” she told the police. She said she saw a car with a Florida license plate in the parking lot.

Seven years after the fire, a woman working at a Charleston hotel saw the children’s photos in a recent newspaper article recalling the event, and she claimed she saw four of the five children a week after the fire. She said, “The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction.” She said, “The entire party registered at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered at 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 morning.”

The Sodders hired a private investigator, C.C. Tinsley, to investigate the inconsistencies surrounding the fire and their missing children. A Fayetteville minister told Tinsley a strange story about F.J. Morris, the fire chief. He said the chief told him that although he’d said he’d found no human remains in the fire, he had actually discovered a human heart in the ashes, placed it inside a dynamite box, and buried it at the scene.

Tinsley confronted Morris and persuaded him to point out the spot where he’d buried the box. After recovering the box, Tinsley and Morris took it to the local funeral director, who opened it and examined it. He told the men the organ was a beef liver, and it had not been in a fire. Morris had reportedly confessed to others that he had not found the organ in the fire but had buried the beef liver in the ashes, hoping it would placate the family enough to stop their investigation. If this was his plan, it makes no sense. Why would the Sodders think an organ buried in a box belonged to one of their children? Why would the fire consume the children’s bones but not an internal organ?

In August 1949, the Sodders decided to excavate the fire scene and thoroughly search the ashes. George convinced the Washington, D.C., pathologist Oscar Hunter to supervise the search. The thorough search uncovered several small objects, including coins, a partly burned dictionary, and several shards of vertebrae. Hunter sent the shards 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 age of 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 report said the vertebrae showed no evidence that they had been exposed to fire, 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 about half an hour, it said, “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.

In 1968, twenty-three years after the fire, Jennie received an envelope addressed only to her. It was postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. Inside, she found the photo of a young man in his mid-twenties. A handwritten note on the back of the photo read, “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. lill Boys. A90132 or 35.”

Jennie and George thought the photo looked like their son, Louis, who was only nine at the time of the fire. Like Louis, the man in the photo had dark curly hair, brown eyes, a strong, straight nose, and the same upward tilt of the left eyebrow. The note on the back of the photo made no sense to the Sodders. Louis did not have a brother named Frankie.

The Sodders hired another private investigator to travel to Central City, Kentucky, to hunt for the man in the photo. They never heard from the private investigator again.

George Sodder died in 1969, but Jennie lived until 1989, hoping until her dying day that her missing children would return. Their children and grandchildren continued investigating the missing Sodder children, but the case remains a mystery. Sylvia, the youngest of the Sodder siblings, died in 2021.

Did the Sodder children die in the fire, their skeletons entirely consumed by the blaze, or did someone kidnap them and start the fire? If the children were abducted, why didn’t they contact their parents when they grew older? Their family believes the children never reconnected with their parents because they wanted to protect them. The missing Sodder siblings would be in their 80s or 90s if they are still alive.