The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened

Trista - December 16, 2018

George Sodder, born Giorgio Soddu in Sardinia, emigrated to the United States in 1908 with his older brother. He settled down in the area around Fayetteville, West Virginia, which had a thriving Italian community. He opened his own business, which prospered, and he became respected as a prominent middle-class businessman. George married his wife, Jennie, and together, they had ten children between 1923 and 1943. This era was a particularly difficult time, as the Great Depression began in 1929 and was followed by World War II, which started in 1939 (though America did not enter for two years).

Much to the chagrin of the Italian Americans in his community, George Sodder was an outspoken detractor of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who led his country into an alliance with Nazi Germany. He got into some verbal altercations with people over the contentious subject. His unpopular opinions may have alienated him and his family from some of the people in their community. Some people speculate that George’s viewpoints may have led to the family home burning down and the mysterious disappearance of five of the Sodder’s ten children on the night of Christmas Eve, 1945.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
The billboard maintained by the Sodder family with pictures of the five children believed to be missing. Wikipedia.

At about 12:30 am on Christmas Eve night (early morning on Christmas Day), Jennie Sodder heard the phone ring and went downstairs to answer it. She did not recognize the voice of the woman on the other line, but she remembered a strange, cackling laugh. Perhaps the call was nothing more than a wrong number made by someone who had been drinking, but some people believe that it was connected to the fire that began an hour later. Also surprising was the fact that the window curtains had not been drawn, something that the children usually did when they went to bed after their parents.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
A poster about the missing children. Jennie Henthorn/ Smithsonian Magazine.

Jennie claimed that an hour later, she heard something hit the home’s roof, emitting a banging noise, and then rolling down. Minutes later, the house was on fire. The fire was centered in George’s office, around his telephone system. She woke him up, and he hurried to wake up the children. He called up the stairs, and the groggy family began rushing down the stairs to escape the burning house. However, when they were outside, standing together in the cold and watching their house burn, they realized that only five of the children were out.

One of the older children rushed to a neighbor’s home to call the fire department, but the call wouldn’t go through. She called one of the firefighters, who placed a call to the others until the force was alerted and a team had assembled to put out the fire. In the meantime, George was trying to get back into the house to rescue his children. He broke through a window and slashed the skin off of his arm in an effort to get into the burning house. However, once inside, he couldn’t see anything because the smoke and flames were extremely thick.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
Jennie Sodder holding her first child, John. Jennie Henthorn/ Smithsonian Magazine.

The Disappearance of the Sodder Children

George Sodder had no choice but to return outside and stand helpless as he and his family watched their home burn down, presumably with five of the children trapped inside. When the fire department finally arrived, it was eight in the morning on Christmas Day. The two-story timber-frame house had been reduced to nothing but a pile of ashes darkening a vast white field of snow. When the fire marshal began his investigation, he could not find any remains of the five children. He immediately concluded that the fire had burned so hotly and strongly that their bodies must have been cremated by it.

He asked that the family not disturb the site in any way while an investigation into the cause of the fire was conducted. However, just a couple of days later, the overwhelming grief was so intense that George plowed over the pile of ashes to turn the burned-down home into a memorial for his five lost children. He and his wife couldn’t believe that their five children could just disappear in a fire with no remains left. The conclusion about the cause of the fire was that it was caused by faulty wiring.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
George and Jennie Sodder. NPR.

The funeral was about two weeks later, but the parents were too grief-stricken to attend. The surviving children attended, along with many members of the community. It wasn’t long until the bereaved parents began to question the official account of the story and started to consider the possibility that their children were still alive somewhere. One reason was that they found a hard, green object near the home. It looked like a pineapple grenade that had already exploded. It might explain the banging noise on the roof that Jennie heard a few minutes before the fire began.

The fire likely wasn’t caused by faulty wiring, as the fire marshal claimed. After all, the Christmas lights strung outside the home stayed on until after the fire had already begun. If the fire was caused by arson, then perhaps someone had kidnapped the children. Another indication lay in the mysterious phone call that had come an hour before the blaze. But the most substantial evidence was in the fact that there were no bodies. Bodies have to burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours for them to be cremated, far longer and hotter than the Sodder house fire.

Other things that began to happen over the next year, 1946, helped to solidify George and Jennie’s belief that their children were alive. One neighbor claimed to have seen the children in a passing car while the Sodder home burned. Others claimed to have seen the children at various places, including a diner. The Sodders began an earnest quest into finding what had honestly happened to the five missing children. They erected signs and distributed flyers to anyone who would take them, in the hope that they would find information that would lead to their children’s whereabouts.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
A picture believed to be of Louis Sodder. Jennie Henthorn/ Smithsonian Magazine.

The Search for the Children

George and Jennie became convinced that their children were alive and began scouring publications, looking for any information that they could find. In 1949, George saw a picture in a magazine of a female ballerina. Believing that the girl looked like his daughter Betty, he drove all the way from West Virginia to New York. However, he wasn’t allowed to see her. He wrote to the FBI, which declined to help, but a pathologist in Washington, DC agreed to do a thorough review of the house. He uncovered some pieces of vertebrae, but analysis revealed that they could not have belonged to the missing children.

The local authorities continued to hold to the official story that the fire marshal had constructed, that the fire had been caused by faulty wiring and the children’s bodies had been cremated due to the intensity of the flames. George and Jennie were unfazed and continued the search for their children. They hired a private investigator, C. C. Tinsley, to look into the cause of the fire and try to learn what had become of their missing children. He investigated threats that an insurance man had made against George and rumors that had circulated throughout the community in the time since the fire.

The Sodder Children Vanished Christmas Eve 1945, and the Police Still Have No Idea what Happened
Billboard about the Sodder children, who went missing on Christmas Eve, 1945. Smithsonian Magazine.

The first reward that the Sodders offered for information that would lead to the safe return of even just one of their missing children was $5,000, a fortune in the 1945 post-war economy. They soon doubled that amount to $10,000. Reports continued to come in of sightings of the children. A local hotel worker reported seeing them with a couple of Italian adults, who seemed to be very hostile. However, the police did not consider many of the stories by supposed witnesses to be credible, including the story about them appearing at a hotel.

In 1967 came the closest thing to a breakthrough: a letter with no return address from Central City, Kentucky. Inside was a picture of a man in his 30s and a note from someone who claimed to be Louis Sodder, who would be in his thirties by that time. George and Jennie hired a new private detective to go to Central City to try to find Louis, or at least find who had sent the letter. However, the detective soon disappeared. The Sodders added the updated picture of Louis to their signs and flyers advertising for information about their missing children.

The rest of George’s and Jennie’s lives were dedicated to finding their five missing children who disappeared on Christmas Eve night in 1945. George died in 1969, two years after the letter with the picture arrived. Jennie wore black and tended the children’s memorial garden for the rest of her life. When she died in 1989, her family took the worn and weathered sign down from in front of their house. Today, the surviving children and their descendants continue to look for information that might help them find out what happened to the five missing Sodder children.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Children Who Went Up In Smoke,” by Karen Abbott. December 25, 2012.

“Sodder children disappearance.” Wikipedia.