Case of the Month: the Sodder Children from Fayetteville in West Virginia. They went missing on Dec 24, 1945 after a fire destroyed their family’s house.
The case is well-known so I will not summarize it. You can find more about this case below in the resource section. I will point out though what I miss when I read articles about this case.
First, the basics: missing are Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5). Either these children did or did not die in the fire that consumed their home.
The Sodder Children who survived the fire: Sylvia (2), George, Jr (16), Marion (17), and John (23). Note that the age between brackets indicates the children’s age at the time of the fire.
The parents, George and Jennie, had one other son Joe who was not at home at the time of the fire as he was serving in the army. Where was Joe serving? Do we have an established alibi for Joe? I am not accusing him of anything but I do like to be sure that we are not overlooking something. More about this below. Just bear with me.
From the Smithsonian Magazine: “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 eyebrow. Once again they hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky. They never heard from him again.”
With all the modern technology that we have now, why do we stay mystified by the mysterious Kentucky photograph of an adult man who might be Louis? Take the correct photograph of Louis at age 9 and let computer age progression programs show us what Louis would look like at various ages. And then compare that to the Kentucky picture. I have not been able to find anything like this. All searches mention some photography but none can be found online. Even the Doe Project does not have age progression photography. Some refer to age progression shown in documentaries but no photography is available online and it can be so simple. Going backwards by trying to compare an adult man in a less than sharp photograph to a nine-year old boy does not make sense to me.
FBI? You were willing to help in the 40s. Can you make five age progressions series with the available photography of these five missing children? It will be interesting to see what these children would have looked like in their 20s, 30s, etc.
The gist of the Sodder case comes down to this:
- Was the fire accidental or arson?
- Were all the children inside the house when the fire started and
- if so (and this depends on the accuracy of John’s memory because he stated to police that the children were in their beds but it is unclear whether he called out to them from the bedroom door opening or that he touched/shook each child to wake them up) why did their remains disappear, or
- if not, how could five children disappear from a house were an older sister slept on the sofa in the living room where the front door was located? We know from the mother that the door (I assume the front door) was unlocked (how do you see that from a distance?). But why did Marion not wake up? Not accusing her either so bear with me.
To answer these four questions we need:
1: a map of the house detailing each floor, room, attic, exterior doors, build-in closets, and windows. I have not been able to find this online. If you know where to find one, please contact me.
2: the police reports with John and Marion’s statements to check who saw what at what time to prove a time line. I have not been able to find copies of these police reports online or an exact and detailed time line.
3: to check on the oldest son Joe who was not in the house at the time of the fire. He was serving in the army. I am not accusing Joe of anything but a confirmed alibi would help as well as a list of possible enemies that he might have had at that time. If we are to truly understand this case then we must learn about the enemies of all the people in this case and not just focus on the father’s. I have not found anything about Joe Sodder.
4: the exact place of origin of the fire. In some articles the fire started on the tar/wood roof and in other articles it started in the office next to the master bedroom where the mother saw that one of the fuse boxes was on fire or smoking. The fuse box in the office was where the telephone and power entered the house.
5: a schedule detailing who shared a room with who and on which floor. In some articles the bedrooms are on the second floor and in some Jennie called to John and George who came down from the attic. That implies they were not on the second floor. Knowing where everyone was makes it easier to track how each child could enter and leave the house, seen or unseen.
6: the exact usual site of the ladder that was normally propped up against the house. Was it near a window? Which room? Which children were in that room?
7: details why George’s brother did accompany him to the USA only to abandon him. Who was he and what was his alibi for this fire? Do we know why George left Italy?
8: to know why the Fayetteville Police and Fire Departments declined the help from the FBI.
9: to know whether C.C. Tinsley, the Private Investigator hired by the parents (who was sent to Kentucky and then disappeared) was ever found. Were his files/office ever searched? What was his full name?
11: more about the mother’s actions after she hung up on the weird laughing woman. Not to accuse her but to get details right.
- She saw lights on in the living room (yet Marion remained asleep), the shades were open, and doors were unlocked. How did she see from a distance that the doors were unlocked? Were they visibly open or closed?
- One article stated that the mother locked the doors. Did she just turn a lock or also close the door? What type of locks did they have on their doors?
- Is it just the front door or was there another exterior door in the living room because some articles use door and others use the plural.
- Also, if the door was not well closed was there a draft cold enough to wake Marion? Did Marion wake up when her mother started closing shades and doors?
- Where exactly was the sofa in the living room? Could anyone sneak passed Marion without waking her up?
- When the mother walked through the living room did she see any presents around that the children wanted to play with so badly?
12: to determine if at the time that Jennie saw these unfinished chores, the five children were already out of the house. If so, this means that John didn’t wake each child by shaking/touching them. Most likely, he yelled from the door opening for them to get up and get out the house. In his own haste to get out he didn’t look back to see if they were actually following him.
13: to settle why Marion is also named Marian, Maria, or even Mary Ann. In some articles, Sylvia was 2 and in others she was three at the time of the fire. These details matter as it points to how precise the reporting was (or not) and how reliable that information is if we want to retrace our steps in this case.
14: to know the blind spots in the house. Getting the five Sodder Children out of the house with John and George, Jr in the attic, the parents and a baby sister in the master’s, and Marion in the living room does not leave a lot of room for a stranger to maneuver. Were the children unconscious and then somehow someone slipped them down the ladder which then got tossed aside, and then they were taken away by some sort of vehicle? It would take at least one person to climb that ladder and one person to hold the ladder steady and watch over the children who were brought down. Whoever did this probably sedated one child at a time but how did they do this without alarming the others in the same bedroom? This does not sound like a one-person job. It also sound pretty complicated so we need to know if t is possible that the five children slipped out themselves and were then taken away.
15: to look at this: “As the night grew later George retired for the night to bed followed shortly after by his sons John (23) and George Jr. (16). When Jennie decided it was time for the rest of the children to go to bed, they pleaded with her to stay up and play with their toys that their older sister, Marian (17), had gotten for them. After her children promised her that they would get a few chores done before bed, Jennie agreed to let them continue playing and then took her youngest child, Sylvia (3) to bed with her.”
So the Sodder Children who pleaded to stay up later are the ones who disappeared. Is it possible that as soon as they were sure that everyone else was asleep that they snug out the door all by themselves? Did they meet anyone on the days before Christmas Eve? Was anyone close enough to these children, someone all five trusted, that when asked to come outside they would obey? Maybe lured by more presents?
Concerning the fire: was it accidental or arson? It was detected around 1-130am. It lasted probably about 30-45min and apparently it consumed the house fast. Based on other debris that was found, the blaze never reached the temperatures of 1400-1800 F and it didn’t last for the 2-2½ hours needed for full body cremation. In other words, the fire was not hot enough and did not stay hot long enough to consume five bodies.
I wish we still had the bone from the Smithsonian tests to check its DNA.
The story with the fire department remains odd no matter how much slack you cut them for being a small department in the 40s. I understand that a phone tree is slow but according to some articles, Fire Chief F.J. Morris later claimed that he could not drive the fire truck and that he had to wait for someone else to drive it. A Fire Chief who cannot drive or who cannot drive the fire truck? Do we have evidence that he never drove the fire truck at all?
Was the fire department always this slow to complete their phone tree and to show up at any scene? What was their average arrival time? If this late arrival was an exception we have to ask ourselves, why? Did the fire department call the police department? At what time did the police arrive? Was there a delay too?
I think that the case of month for February about the Sodder Children can be made a lot less mysterious if we start from different angles:
- explore the house maps,
- find dead corners,
- check for enemies from other people in the family and not just the father,
- launch an age progression of all five children, and
- compare the age progression from Louis with the Kentucky picture.
I do not think that these five children died in the fire. I believe they exited the house on their own.
Incapacitating them one by one seems not practical. The other four would have noticed an absence. Poisoning the entire family through food or water is not realistic either. And I think that whoever was behind that knew that too. This was carefully orchestrated.
Someone made contact with the children who disappeared. They were promised something if they came outside on Christmas Eve to get something, see something, or eat something special. And then somehow they were grabbed and taken away.
I don’t know. I just know that a family that size has more angles and enemies than discussed in most articles and forums. I like to be able to definitely say “no” to one angle before I focus 100% on another.
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, more information can be found online and in newspaper archives.
The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are cold does not mean that we can forget about them.
If you have any thoughts about the Sodder Children’s case I urge you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. Every time we mention their names online we enhance their digital footprint.
We must make sure that the Sodder Children keep their web presence if we ever wish to find answers in their cases. You can help by linking to or sharing this post. If you do, the post will show up in new news feeds, reach new circles and networks with new connections. And who knows. We may reach someone who can help advance the case.