Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1:30am, a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.
George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing his arm on the way in. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom. 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up there, cowering in two bedrooms on either end of the hallway, separated by a staircase that was now engulfed in flames.
He raced back outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows, but the ladder he always kept propped against the house was strangely missing.
He got the idea to drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they’d functioned perfectly the day before, neither would start now. He ransacked his mind for another option. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but found it frozen solid.
His daughter Marion sprinted to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator response. A neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. The neighbor then drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree” system whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another. The fire department was only two and a half miles away but the crew didn’t arrive until 8 a.m., by which point the Sodders’ home had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
George and Jeannie assumed that five of their children were dead, but a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt, intending to preserve the site as a memorial. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates just before the new year, attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
Around 12:30 Christmas morning, after the children had opened a few presents and everyone had gone to sleep, the shrill ring of the telephone broke the quiet. Jennie rushed to answer it. An unfamiliar female voice asked for an unfamiliar name. There was raucous laughter and glasses clinking in the background. Jennie said, “You have the wrong number,” and hung up. Tiptoeing back to bed, she noticed that all of the downstairs lights were still on and the curtains open. The front door was unlocked. She saw Marion asleep on the sofa in the living room and assumed that the other kids were upstairs in bed. She turned out the lights, closed the curtains, locked the door and returned to her room. She had just begun to doze when she heard one sharp, loud bang on the roof, and then a rolling noise. An hour later she was roused once again, this time by heavy smoke curling into her room.
Jennie couldn’t understand how five children could perish in a fire and leave no bones, no flesh, nothing. She conducted a private experiment, burning animal bones—chicken bones, beef joints, pork chop bones—to see if the fire consumed them. Each time she was left with a heap of charred bones. She knew that remnants of various household appliances had been found in the burned-out basement, still identifiable. An employee at a crematorium informed her that bones remain after bodies are burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees. Their house was destroyed in 45 minutes.
The collection of odd moments grew. A telephone repair man told the Sodders that their lines appeared to have been cut, not burned. They realized that if the fire had been electrical—the result of “faulty wiring,” as the official reported stated—then the power would have been dead, so how to explain the lighted downstairs rooms? A witness came forward claiming he saw a man at the fire scene taking a block and tackle used for removing car engines; could he be the reason George’s trucks refused to start? One day, while the family was visiting the site, Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard. Jennie recalled hearing the hard thud on the roof, the rolling sound. George concluded it was a napalm “pineapple bomb” of the type used in warfare.
Then came the reports of sightings. A woman claimed to have seen the missing children peering from a passing car while the fire was in progress. A woman operating a tourist stop between Fayetteville and Charleston, some 50 miles west, said she saw the children the morning after the fire. “I served them breakfast,” she told police. “There was a car with Florida license plates at the tourist court, too.” A woman at a Charleston hotel saw the children’s photos in a newspaper and said she had seen four of the five a week after the fire. “The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction,” she said in a statement. “I do not remember the exact date. However, the 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…. 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.”
Next the Sodders turned to a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley, who discovered that the insurance salesman who had threatened George was a member of the coroner’s jury that deemed the fire accidental. He also heard a curious story from a Fayetteville minister about F.J. Morris, the fire chief. Although Morris had claimed no remains were found, he supposedly confided that he’d discovered “a heart” in the ashes. He hid it inside a dynamite box and buried it at the scene.
Tinsley persuaded Morris to show them the spot. Together they dug up the box and took it straight to a local funeral director, who poked and prodded the “heart” and concluded it was beef liver, untouched by the fire. Soon afterward, the Sodders heard rumors that the fire chief had told others that the contents of the box had not been found in the fire at all, that he had buried the beef liver in the rubble in the hope that finding any remains would placate the family enough to stop the investigation.
Over the next few years the tips and leads continued to come. George saw a newspaper photo of schoolchildren in New York City and was convinced that one of them was his daughter Betty. He drove to Manhattan in search of the child, but her parents refused to speak to him. In August 1949, the Sodders decided to mount a new search at the fire scene and brought in a Washington, D.C. pathologist named Oscar B. Hunter. The excavation was thorough, uncovering several small objects: damaged coins, a partly burned dictionary and several shards of vertebrae. Hunter sent the bones 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 oldest missing Sodder child). It is however possible, although not probable, for a boy 14 ½ years old to show 16-17 maturation.
The vertebrae showed no evidence that they had been exposed to fire, the report said, 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 only about half an hour or so, it said that “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.