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The Enduring Mystery of the Sodder Children’s Christmas Disappearance

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When a blaze broke out in the Sodder household in the early hours of Christmas 1945, there was nothing George and Jennie Sodder could do but watch their home collapse into a smoldering heap with five of their nine children presumably trapped inside. It would take hours for the fire department to arrive, but instead of five bodies, they found nothing. No bodies, just questions. Could a house fire completely burn the remains of the five children, or were they the victims of something far more nefarious? With so much unknown, the story of this ill-fated family continues to grip the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, more than 70 years later.

That Christmas Eve was pretty much like any other in the area at the time. George and Jennie Sodder—both Italian immigrants, who built a life in the United States—had gone off to bed with their 2-year-old baby girl, Sylvia. Their younger children—Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5—were allowed to stay up late to play with some of the new toys they had already acquired. The oldest sons, John, 23 and George Jr., 16, were already in bed after spending the entire day working at their father’s coal trucking business. The oldest sister, Marion, was watching her younger siblings before going to sleep.

By midnight, the entire family was in bed. Not long after that, the phone in George's office rang, waking Jennie. When she picked up the phone, she heard a strange laugh and was asked for a name she didn’t know. Obviously a wrong number, she thought. It was then that she noticed the lights in the house were still on and the doors were unlocked, which was hardly alarming given that the kids were preoccupied with their pile of new toys. She turned off the lights, locked all the doors, and went back to bed. It wasn't the last time she'd be awoken that evening.

A bit later, she woke up again, this time to the sound of something landing on the roof of the house and rolling off. Nothing came of it, and she went back to sleep. About a half hour later, at what would have been 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, she woke into a nightmare: The smell of smoke got her out of bed in a panic, and the sight of fire coming from George’s office on the first floor had her scrambling to grab Sylvia and alert her husband.

Jennie, Sylvia, George, John, George Jr., and Marion all escaped, but the fire had engulfed the staircase leading to the bedrooms of the five younger Sodder children.

There was hope, though: George always kept a ladder propped against the side of the house—he could climb through a top-floor window and get his kids out. When he ran to the ladder, though, he saw nothing; it had simply vanished. And when he tried to back one of his coal trucks next to the house to boost himself into a window, the engine wouldn’t start.

The calamities were never-ending: Buckets full of water were frozen over; phones in neighboring homes wouldn’t connect to operators. A perfect storm of misfortune had whipped up on the Sodders this one particular evening, seemingly without explanation.

Eventually a neighbor got in touch with the fire chief, who started a laborious “phone tree” where one firefighter called another who then called another, and so on. The fire department arrived at around 8 a.m. on Christmas morning, seven hours after the fire began, and did a quick search only to find no remains of the five Sodder children. Fire Chief F.J. Morris told the Sodder parents that the blaze—which was said to have been caused by “faulty wiring”—was likely hot enough to completely destroy the bodies. Something didn’t sit quite right with George and Jennie, though. They didn't think that this blaze was an accident, and they believed that their children might still be alive.

George had been threatened with fire before: According to Smithsonian, months before the tragedy, a man attempting to sell Mr. Sodder fire insurance was incensed when his offer was declined. The man also apparently didn’t take well to George’s vocal criticism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke, and your children are going to be destroyed," he reportedly screamed at George. "You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.” A private investigator would later reveal that this same man served on the coroner’s jury that established the fire as an accident.

That’s far from the strangest occurrence around the fire. Apparently the fire department had found some bones and a heart at the scene, but for whatever reason—perhaps to spare the family further grief on Christmas Day—the chief never told the Sodders about it. When the family found out and confronted him years later, the chief led them to the site where the remains had been buried; upon testing the "heart," it was found to be a beef liver. And the bones belonged to someone older than any of the Sodder children.

In 1947, George and Jennie made an appeal directly to J. Edgar Hoover to get the FBI involved in the investigation. They received a personal reply from Hoover, who wrote that, "Although I would like to be of service, the matter related appears to be of local character and does not come within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau." FBI agents said they would be happy to assist if local authorities gave them the go-ahead, but the Fayetteville police and fire departments said no.

As the years went on, rumors about the story extended way beyond West Virginia. Photos poured in from strangers around the country who were convinced they spotted the missing Sodder children, now all grown up. One in particular—allegedly of a much older Louis Sodder—was so convincing to the family that it was hung over the fireplace of their new home.

Alleged 1967 photo of Louis Sodder
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Then there were the anecdotes: a letter from someone saying young Martha was in a convent in St. Louis, the motel operator who saw the children right after the fire, and a picture of a young girl from New York City who looked so much like Betty that George drove to see her but was turned away by the girl’s parents.

George and Jennie’s obsession led to the couple placing a billboard on Route 16 in Ansted, West Virginia, offering a cash reward for any information on their children's whereabouts. With the Sodder children's faces plastered across the sign, the tragedy of that Christmas morning became physically woven into the fabric of the community.

With the accusatory battle cry “After 30 years it is not too late to investigate” emblazoned across the top, the billboard laid out the facts as the family saw them: There were no remains and no smell of burning flesh after the fire. “What was the motive of the law officers involved?” the billboard asked. “What did they have to gain by making us suffer all these years of injustice?”

Though the billboard is long gone now and only one Sodder child is still alive, the questions surrounding the case linger. Why was the family’s ladder found in a nearby embankment instead of being propped up against the house as usual? What was the banging sound that Jennie heard around midnight? What about the threats from the insurance salesman? If the fire was due to faulty wiring, why was the electricity still working during the blaze? And at last: Why no bodies?

For more than 70 years, these questions have stirred the imaginations of people in the Fayetteville community and mystery buffs around the country. Though the Sodder children's disappearance will likely remain a mystery forever, the circumstances surrounding that tragic Christmas in 1945 will ensure they are never forgotten.

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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