Case of the Month for February 2015 comes from Fayetteville, West Virginia: the Sodder Children. 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. 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 cross off all questions.
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 the modern technology we have today, 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 could be this 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 said to police 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) how did their remains disappear, or
- if not, how could five children disappear from a house were an entire family was asleep?
To get a better understanding of the case, this would be helpful:
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 build 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. If you have a confirmed alibi it helps to reduce the list of possibilities so you can concentrate on what is left.
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: 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?
7: more details to combat vague reporting:
- The mother 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?
- One article stated that the mother locked the 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.
- Did Marion wake up when her mother started closing shades and doors?
- Could anyone sneak passed Marion without waking her up?
8: to determine if at the time that Jennie saw 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.
9: 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.
10: 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. It seems impossible to do that quietly.
Concerning the fire: was it accidental or arson? It was detected around 1-130am. Reporting about the fire’s duration and intensity is not clear. Some say 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. That would mean the fire was not hot enough and did not stay hot long enough to consume five bodies. However, other articles said it lasted for hours and did reach a sufficiently hot temperature.
I wish we still had the bone from the Smithsonian tests to check for DNA.
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.
Thank you for remembering the Sodder Children with us.