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The Mystey of the Missing Lighthouse Keepers
The Mystery of the Sodder Children - Unsolved Mysteries
82    Dibyendu Banerjee    24/11/2021   

Born Giorgio Soddu in 1895 in Tula, located about 170 kilometres north of Cagliary in Italy, George Sodder immigrated to the United States, when he was only 13. He was accompanied by an older brother, who returned home immediately after they had cleared customs at Ellis Island, leaving him alone in an unknown country. Eventually, George found a job on the Pennsylvania railroads, carrying water and supplies to the labourers and after a few years, moved to Smithers, West Virginia, where he found a permanent job as a driver in a truck company.

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Soon after, he launched his own trucking company, at first hauling fill dirt to construction sites and later freight and coal.

One day Geogio casually walked into a local store called the Music Box, where he met the owners’ daughter, Jennie Cipriani, who had also immigrated from Italy in her childhood. Soon they married and the couple settled in a two storey timber frame house in Fayetteville, West Virginia, an Appalachian town with a sizable population of active Italian immigrant community.

the mystery of the sodder children

Between 1923 and 1943, the couple had 10 children, George's business prospered and they were reckoned as one of the most respected middle-class families around. But he never explained to anybody the reasons for leaving his country. However, George held strong opinions about many subjects, never refrained to express them in public and his strong and harsh criticism of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had irked some members of the community that led to some strong and bitter arguments with them.

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Even, in October 1945, a man trying to sell family life insurance became irate, when George declined and warned him that he will have to face the consequences for his dirty comments about Mussolini, his house would go up in smoke, and his children would be destroyed. Needless to say, the family did not take the man’s threats seriously. By that time, the second-oldest son of the family, Joe had left home to serve in the military during World War II and Mussolini was deposed and executed. Strangely, in the weeks before Christmas in 1945, George's older sons had noticed an unknown person parked along US highway 21, intently watching the younger Sodder children as they were returning from school.

the mystery of the sodder children
Nine out of ten Sodder children

Nevertheless, the family celebrated Christmas Eve as usual, and by 10 pm, Jennie found George and the two oldest boys, John and George Jr, were already asleep. While the younger children, namely Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty were playing with some of the new toys they had received as Christmas gifts, the oldest sister, Marion, was attending to the younger siblings before going to sleep. Jennie then took Sylvia with her and they went to bed together. But just after midnight, when the entire family was asleep, the telephone rang at 12:30 in George's office rang, waking up Jennie.

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As she went downstairs to answer the call, an unknown woman’s voice from the other end asked for a name she did not know, with the sound of strange laughter and clinking glasses in the background. Jennie replied that she had reached a wrong number, hung up and while returning to bed, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn. As these things are normally attended by the children when they stay up later than their parents, Jennie presumed that they probably missed it before leaving for the attic, where they sleep. Nevertheless, she closed the curtains, turned out the lights, and returned to bed, only to wake up again at about 1:00 am, by the sudden sound of a thud on the roof and then rolling off. As nothing more happened after that, she went back to sleep, but woke up again in panic half an hour later, smelling smoke. As she found that George’s office on the first floor was on fire, she woke her husband, who immediately ran to wake his older sons. Within no time, Jennie, Sylvia, George, John, George Jr., and Marion all escaped, except the five younger children, Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty, who were in their bedroom upstairs. As the fire had engulfed the staircase, they frantically yelled to the children, but heard no response. George always kept a ladder propped against the side of the house, so that he could climb through a top-floor window, in case of emergency. But to his utter surprise, George found, it had simply vanished. He then desperately tried to pull his coal trucks next to the house and use them to climb to the attic window, but could do nothing, as both the trucks refused to take a start, despite they worked perfectly during the previous day. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel, but found it frozen solid.

the mystery of the sodder children

As their phone was not working, Marion had to sprint to a neighbour’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department, but failed to get any response. One of their neighbours, who noticed the blaze, also tried to make a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. In frantic desperation, he drove into town, tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated a laborious version of a fire alarm, known as a phone tree system, whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another. However, despite everything, the crew took hours to arrive at the spot at 8:00 am, although the fire department was only two and a half miles away from the site of the incident. By that time, the home of the Sodder family had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash. Since the brisk search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of human remains, the Fire Chief Morris indicated that in all probability, the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. The next day, the local coroner inquest held that the fire was an accident caused by faulty wiring. The death certificates of the children, issued just before the New Year, indicated the causes of death to fire or suffocation.

the mystery of the sodder children

But, somehow, George and Jennie had their doubts and they began to wonder if their children were still alive. As they began to rebuild their lives, they began to investigate the matter in their own way. Since many of the household appliances had been found in recognisable condition in the ash, Jennie had trouble accepting that all the remains of all the children's bodies were completely burned in the fire. After burning small piles of chicken bones and beef joints several times, she found that they were not entirely consumed by fire and something always remained. On enquiry, she was informed by an employee of a local crematorium that human bones remain, even after the bodies are burned for two hours at 2000° F (1,090 °C), which is by far more than their house fire, the fire that destroyed their house in 45 minutes.

In the meantime, George hired a private investigator, who informed him the man who had threatened George that his house would be burned down and his children destroyed, was one among the jurors of the coroner that established the fire as an accident caused by faulty wiring. George was convinced that the fire was not caused by faulty wiring, as the Christmas lights of the family remained on throughout the early stage of the fire, when the power should have gone out. Moreover, as Jennie pointed out, in case of a power cut, they could never make it out of the house. While the missing ladder from the side of the house was recovered from the bottom of an embankment around 75 feet (23 m) away, a telephone repairman told them that their phone line had not been burned through in the fire, but cut by someone who had to climb 14 feet (4.3 m) up the pole and reach around 2 feet away from it to do the job. When a man for the alleged crime was identified and arrested, he admitted that for stealing a block and tackle from the property safely, he cut the phone line, as he thought it was a power line, but denied having anything to do with the fire. But why he would have wanted to cut any utility line of the house while stealing the block and tackle, has never been explained.

the mystery of the sodder children
The missing children

Supporting their conviction that the fire had not started in the electrical fault and was instead set deliberately, the driver of a bus passing through Fayetteville late Christmas Eve reported that he noticed some people throwing balls of fire at the house. A few months later, when Sylvia discovered a hard, rubber ball-like unknown object in the bush nearby, George recalled his wife's account of a loud thump on the roof before the fire. Immediately he deduced that the fire had started on the roof, which was contrary to the conclusion of the fire marshal, although by then there was no way to prove it.

Although in 1947, George and Jennie appealed directly to the director of the FBI to investigate the matter, they were informed that the case is not within their investigative jurisdiction. However, they proposed to assist the local authorities in the matter, if they needed, but the proposal was refused by the Fayetteville police and fire departments. In the meantime, a woman operating a tourist stop, between Fayetteville and Charleston, reported to the police that in the morning after the fire, she served breakfast to the children and there was a car with Florida license plates at the tourist court. It was reported by another woman at a Charleston hotel that she saw the children’s photos in a newspaper and a week after the fire, she had seen four of the five children in her own eyes, accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian origin.A letter from someone also informed them that young Martha was in a convent in St. Louis.George never failed to follow up leads in person, travelling to the areas from where tips had come, but found nothing. Even, a photo of schoolchildren, published in New York City,also attracted George’s attention and he became convinced that one of them was his daughter Betty. He immediately drove to Manhattan to locate the child, but her parents refused to speak to him.

the mystery of the sodder children

In August 1949, George decided to mount a new search at the fire scene and persuade Oscar Hunter, a Washington, D.C. pathologist, to supervise the excavation. After a very thorough search, several small objects like damaged coins, a partly burned dictionary and several bone fragments were unearthed. Hunter sent the bones to the Smithsonian Institution, which reported that the bones belonged to a person of about 16 or 17 years with the top age limit of about 22. It was quite evident that these bones were not from any of the five missing children, since the oldest, Maurice, had been 14 at the time. The report also added that the bones showed no sign of exposure to flame and probably included the dirt that George had bulldozed over the site to fill in the basement.

the mystery of the sodder children

However, as a copy of the Smithsonian report was mailed to the authorities, two hearings were arranged at the Capitol in Charleston, where Governor Okey Patterson and State Police Superintendent Burchett informed the Sodders that their search was hopeless and declared the case closed.

the mystery of the sodder children

However, the Sodders did not give up hope, despite the end of official efforts to resolve the case of their missing children. They placed a billboard at the site of the house along Route 60 near Ansted in West Virginia, offering a cash reward of US$ 5000 for any information leading to the children's whereabouts and soon the amount increased to $ 10,000. After that, one day in 1968 Jennie found in the mail a letter addressed to her, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. Inside was a picture of a young man of around 30 with features strongly resembling Louis and on its back, a handwritten note read: Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.The family again hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky, but he never reported back.

Though the billboard has long gone and only one Sodder child, Sylvia is still alive, the disappearance of the Sodder children is likely to remain a mystery forever.

the mystery of the sodder children
The Mystey of the Missing Lighthouse Keepers
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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