This billboard stood for many years at a home outside Fayetteville. Erected by George Sodder, it offered a reward to anyone with information regarding the missing Sodder children.

The Sodder children were excited on Christmas Eve 1945. After all, their 17-year old sister, Marian, had just given them new toys from her dime-store job.

Three of her sisters, Martha Lee, 12, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 6, and two of their brothers, Maurice, 14, and Louis, 10, didn’t want to go to bed. They begged their mother, Jeannie, to let them stay up a little longer and play with their new toys. It was already 10 p.m.

Their mother told them they could, but she reminded Louis and Maurice to feed the cows and close the chicken coop before they settled in for the night.

Her oldest boys, John, 23, and George Jr., 16, had already gone to their beds in the attic. They had worked hard that day with their father, George, a 50-year-old Italian immigrant who ran a small coal trucking business near the family’s home just outside Fayetteville. He had retired early that night, too.

Jeannie Sodder told her children good night, scooped up 2-year-old Sylvia and took her to bed with her. It’s likely the mother fell asleep peacefully that Christmas Eve, thankful for so much: It looked like they had made the right decision moving from Italy to the United States. They’d built a fine home for themselves and their 10 children, and George’s young businesses were doing well. Even the war had ended. Peace had been declared.

But the rest of the night would prove to be far from peaceful. Three hours later, flames would engulf the house, and two horrified parents would wonder what had become of five of their 10 children.

Fire consumes house

Jeannie Sodder woke for the first time that night shortly after midnight when the phone in her husband’s downstairs office rang. It was a woman with the wrong number. She walked back to the bedroom, climbed back into bed with her husband and drifted back to sleep. Thirty minutes later, she was awakened again by something that sounded like a thump on the roof. She listened for it to happen again, but when it did not, she went back to sleep.

Another half hour later, Jeannie Sodder woke a third time — this time because she smelled smoke.

She ran from the room in search of the source and found flames spreading from a corner of her husband’s office. The fire prevented her from reaching the telephone.

She ran back toward the bedroom, calling to her husband. She woke Marian, who had fallen asleep on the downstairs couch, and told her to get Sylvia out of the house. Then she went to the stairway and shouted to wake the rest of the family.

Only George and John, the two oldest boys, came down. John had yelled toward the next room, where the other children would have normally been, and he thought he heard them answer. He and George started helping their father battle the fire, and Jeannie, Marion and young Sylvia stood helplessly outside, watching the blaze spread quickly throughout their home.

Flames encircled the foot of the stairway, making it impossible for anyone to go back up the stairs to see why the other children had not come down.

George and his boys ran outside, desperate to reach the children upstairs. He tried to scale the wall. They broke a window and went to get the ladder they always kept leaning against the house. It wasn’t there.

They ran to the truck, planning to back it up to the house, climb on top of it and reach the children upstairs through the broken window. The truck, which had worked fine only a day sooner, wouldn’t start. Neither would a second one.

As her father and brothers tried in vain to battle the flames, Marian ran to a neighbor’s house and asked them to phone the Fayetteville Fire Department. The neighbor was not able to get the operator on the line.

By 1 a.m., another neighbor passing by spotted the fire. He drove to a nearby tavern and tried, unsuccessfully, to reach the fire department. The phone at the tavern was out of order. He drove to Fayetteville, where he finally reached the fire chief by phone.

The chief was no help.

Not only had the staff of the town fire department been depleted by the war, the chief admitted the next day he could not drive the fire truck and had to wait for someone who could. The fire department did not reach the scene until after sunup — some reports say 7 a.m., others say 9 a.m.

It may not have mattered. It took only 30 minutes for the home to be reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes.

On Christmas Day, grief-stricken and injured by the fire, George Sodder and his two oldest sons, also injured, joined firefighters and neighbors in a search for any sign of the five children. At 10 a.m., the fire chief informed the Sodders there were no remains of the children, that the fire had consumed their bodies completely.

On Dec. 29, four days after the fire, the Sodders used bulldozers to fill in the area. They planned to fence in the lot and plant flowers as a memorial to the children they believed rested there.

By Dec. 30, death certificates for the five children were filed at the Fayette County Courthouse. A coroner’s inquest had been held, and the fire had been ruled accidental as the result of faulty wiring.

A mystery develops

But in the days that followed, questions arose.

n There were no bones, no remains. Experts later told the Sodders the short fire never burned hot enough to completely destroy bone. Even some household items suffered damage, but remained identifiable.

n A telephone repairman who came to fix the lines told the Sodders the lines had been cut, not burned. Besides, electrical Christmas lights in the home had continued to shine even as the fire consumed the house. Would they have done so if the fire had been electrical in origin?

n Then there was the man who witnesses at the fire said they saw take from the scene a block and tackle used for removing car engines. Later, that same man would plead guilty to stealing the block and tackle, but he said he knew nothing of the fire. He did admit, however, to cutting wires to the house, believing them to be power lines. Yet the telephone lines had been cut 14 feet above the ground and two feet from the utility pole.

n The ladder was discovered down an embankment more than 75 feet away from its usual resting place.

n A late-night bus driver reported seeing “balls of fire” being tossed onto the roof of the Sodder home.

n Young Sylvia, three months after the fire, found a dark green, hard rubber object near the burned home. Some believed it to be a sort of bomb. The Sodders would later find the fire had started on the roof.

n A Charleston resident reported seeing the four youngest of the missing children with four Italian-speaking adults a week after the fire.

n A motel operator halfway between Fayetteville and Charleston said he saw the children the morning after the fire.

n C.C. Tinsley, a private detective from Gauley Bridge who was hired when the Sodders began to suspect their children had been kidnapped from the house before the fire, found that about two months before the fire, the Sodders had an argument with another Fayetteville resident because they refused to buy life insurance from him. The man told them their house would go up in smoke and their children would be destroyed because of the “dirty remarks” Mr. Sodder had made about Mussolini. That same man was a member of the coroner’s jury which ruled the fire accidental.

n In 1947, a local minister told the family the fire chief had told other residents he had found a heart in the debris of the fire. When the minister approached the chief, the chief said it was true that he had placed the heart in a box and buried it at the scene, but he would not say why he never told the Sodders of his find. When the Sodders asked the chief to help them locate the box, he was reluctant to do so but finally agreed to come. When family members, the private detective and others dug up a sealed dynamite box the chief identified as the one he had used to contain heart, they had the contents examined by a funeral director in Montgomery. He identified the contents as a beef liver, a fresh one that had never been exposed to fire.

n A second search of the scene in 1949 uncovered a partly burned dictionary that had been kept in the children’s bedroom and small section of human vertebrae. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., determined those bones showed no evidence of being exposed to fire and that they belonged to a man between 19 and 22. The Sodders and their detective later found the bones had been taken from a grave in Mount Hope.

“Since the house was stated to have burned for half an hour or so, one would expect to find the full skeletons of five children, rather than only four vertebrae,” the Smithsonian doctor wrote in his report.

n Twenty years after the tragedy, the Sodders received mail containing a picture of a young man they believed to be Louis. In fact, the back of the photograph said, “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” They were certain it was a picture of Louis Sodder, who was supposed to have died in the fire at the age of 9. But they never found him

Hope lives on

There were many other questions and oddities surrounding the case.

Many dismissed the family’s claims as evidence of their refusal to accept the loss of their children. Local authorities considered the case closed after the inquest. And the FBI, after many requests from the Sodders, took the case in 1950, based on the strange evidence from the Smithsonian report. They withdrew from the case, a kidnapping investigation, in 1952, having followed multiple leads with no success.

In the early ’50s, the State Police and several detective agencies tried their hands at solving the mystery. Every lead came to a dead end. But Jeannie and George Sodder never gave up trying to find the truth. He died in 1969; she passed away in the 1980s.

For decades, the mystery lived on throughout the region, fueled by the large billboard fence the Sodders placed near Fayetteville. It offered $10,000 for information leading to the five children. The weathered sign has since been torn down, but the mystery did not die with it.

The popularity of the Internet has led a number of sleuths to try their hands at finding out what became of the Sodder children.

“My personal interest stems from seeing the Sodder billboard as a child. An image was etched in my mind that to this day remains with me, and just as strong, the desire to know what really happened to this family,” said Nancy Rust, a retired law enforcement officer who resides in Greenbrier County and participates in an Internet forum on the topic. “I believe the main thing that draws people to this particular case is the pure mystery of it, and also as with me, many saw the billboard and it just stayed with them.”

Rust is a member of, where forums allow many hobbyist detectives to post their theories on a variety of unsolved events. Their theories on the Sodder case range from a fire caused by an angry World War II veteran seeking revenge on an Italian to the possibility that some of the children started the fire and fled. Some theorize about a vengeful kidnapping followed by a community-wide cover-up, not unheard of in the days of coal wars.

But none of them knows what happened to the children.

Neither does Sylvia (Sodder) Paxton, 64, who resides in St. Albans.

“We are touched deeply to know that people still care about the fate of our family after so many years,” she said. “Our parents hoped that some day their efforts would bring a resolution, even if it came after their lifetimes.”

Her daughter, Jennie Henthorn of St. Albans, the granddaughter of Jeannie and George Sodder, still has hope answers can be found. She has also posted on

“It was always a part of my life growing up,” she said. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was something more of a regional mystery and not just a family thing.”

Henthorn said the revival of the mystery among Internet sleuths has meant a great deal to her mother.

“She promised my grandparents she wouldn’t let the story die, that she would do everything she could,” Henthorn said.

Still, despite the sleuths’ collective resources, the family has seen no fruits from their efforts.

“It honestly is just a mystery still, for everyone,” Henthorn said. “Just to have some resolution for my mom would be a good thing.”

Rust, for one, has hope that could happen.

“Myself and fellow armchair sleuths have more than hope, we have determination and strong belief that if we continue to push on, and continue to get people ... getting this story back in the spotlight we will find the answers that the family has searched for 61 years to find,” she said.

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(Editor’s note: For more information on the mystery of the Sodder children, read “West Virginia Unsolved Murders,” a book by George and Melody Bragg.)

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