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.

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

11 Famous People Who Once Had Paper Routes

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fillyfolly, iStock

As publications evolve, so do their methods of distribution. Between the rise of suburbs and the fall of afternoon daily newspapers, many countries teemed with youthful paperboys and papergirls. But thanks to shifting trends, most print media deliverers are now adults. This year, October 13 is International Newspaper Carrier Day, and we're taking a look at some of the most influential people who’ve ever worked a paper route, including a vice president, an astronaut, a supermodel, and the star of Risky Business. "Read all about 'em!"

1. WALT DISNEY

American animator and producer Walt Disney in 1946.
Keystone, Getty Images

"When I was 9, my brother Roy and I were already businessmen," Walt Disney reminisced of his childhood. In July 1911, their father, Elias, acquired a sizable newspaper delivery route from the Kansas City Star. Although this route officially belonged to Roy, Elias took charge of its operation. Together, Walt, Roy, and Elias Disney were responsible for delivering the Star's afternoon and Sunday editions to over 600 customers. And that was only part of the Disney trio's workload: Every morning, they'd dole out around 700 copies of the Kansas City Times.

Disney kept distributing KC newspapers until he was 15 years old. To hit all the houses on his itinerary before school started, the animator-to-be would wake up at 3:30 a.m. and usually work until 6 a.m. He'd then retrace his steps after classes ended. "During the winter months," Disney noted, "it was always dark and bitter cold [in the morning] … many times, I had to plow through three feet of freshly fallen snow, breaking my own path as I went.”

2. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Martin Luther King, Jr talking with someone.
Reg Lancaster, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, King earned spending money by working as a paperboy for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He landed the gig with some help from his father and frequently used his newspaper funds to purchase books. At age 13, the future Civil Rights hero became the youngest person to assistant manage one of the AJC's delivery stations. Four years later, King—then a sophomore—wrote a passionate letter to the editor of the same publication condemning the historic mistreatment of African Americans. His father would subsequently write that he had "no intimation of [King, Jr.'s] developing greatness" until the publication of said letter, "which received widespread and favorable comment."

3. JOE BIDEN

Joe Biden giving a speech.
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

America's 47th vice president used a childhood paper route to hone his people skills—and work on his speech mechanics. Biden had a noticeable stutter as a boy (some classmates in a prep school Latin course took to calling him "Joe Impedimenta"). In 1955, his family relocated to Mayfield, Delaware, and Biden got himself a paper route shortly thereafter. The job presented him with a lingual challenge at first. "I lived in dread of Saturday mornings when I had to go collect [money] from people I was just getting to know," Biden has said. To make small talk with his assigned subscribers go smoothly, young Biden "learned to anticipate the conversation to come." Then he'd rehearse some sentences that might prove useful in the discussion.

"My next-door neighbor was a big Yankees fan, and I'd always check the Yankee box score, because I knew he'd ask, and I knew I'd have to say something [about the team] without making a fool of myself," Biden recalled in his autobiography. "I had played out the entire conversation before he opened his front door."

4. EARL "THE PEARL" MONROE

Former professional basketball player Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe in 2015.
Mike Coppola, Getty Images

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, Monroe was a prolific scorer who spent 13 seasons in the NBA and helped the New York Knicks win their most recent world championship in 1973. (His number, 15, has been retired by the team and now hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.) A native Philadelphian, Monroe entered the newspaper carrier game with some parental help. "In junior high, I had a paper route that my mother [Rose] and I built up until it was profitable," wrote Monroe in his autobiography. On deliveries, the teen would often be accompanied by his mom. "[She] did everything to help me when I was growing up," Monroe said. "She really didn't want me being out there by myself."

5. KATHY IRELAND

Model Kathy Ireland at a fashion show in 2018.
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images for AHA

Kathy Ireland was one of the most recognizable supermodels of the 1980s, posing for Sports Illustrated on several occasions before launching what turned into a global licensing company valued at $2 billion. Her success in the business world was foreshadowed by a historic newspaper-delivering stint. Ireland was raised in Santa Barbara, California, where—at age 4—she used to sell hand-painted rocks. When she was about 10, an advertisement calling for new paperboys appeared in one of the local newspapers. "Are you the boy for the job?" it asked. Young Ireland responded by writing a pointed letter to the editor. "No, I'm not the boy for the job, I'm the girl for the job, and I can do it just as well as any boy," she declared. "I think I deserve a chance." And she got one: Ireland became Santa Barbara's first-ever papergirl. By the time she retired from that gig, the budding mogul had made 120,000 newspaper deliveries and was voted her district's carrier of the year for three consecutive years.

6. ALAN BEAN

Former astronaut Alan Bean signs his photo in 2006.
David Livingston, Getty Images

As the lunar module pilot of NASA's Apollo 12 mission, the late Alan Bean became the fourth person to walk on the moon in 1969. He also spent 59 days orbiting Earth during a 1973 Skylab excursion and had a celebrated artistic career as well. A Texan by birth, Bean spent much of his youth delivering papers for his hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "My first route was in the early mornings," Bean recalled. "Every day was the same. I pulled myself out of my warm bed and pedaled up and down the dark streets on my bicycle, loaded with folded-up newspapers. It was a lonely job, too—it seemed as if there were no one else in the whole world." Poignant words coming from an astronaut …

7. BOB HOPE

Bob Hope playing golf in England, circa 1965.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Long before he became synonymous with Hollywood road comedies, Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope was helping to support his family as a Cleveland paperboy. He later returned to the job while struggling to break into the entertainment industry. "At 8, I had a paper route. At 12, I worked in my brother's butcher shop. At 18, I was out on the road singing and dancing and at 19, I was back on my paper route," Hope wryly noted.

Selling newspapers from street corners was another revenue stream for the aspiring performer. While working at his stand on 102nd Street in Cleveland, Hope managed to brush shoulders with the highest of high-rollers. "I had one regular customer whose name I didn't know; all I knew was that he snapped his face open and shut like a wrinkled old coin purse," explained the comedian. One day, the mystery patron needed change for a dime, so Hope ran across the street to procure some pennies from a local department store. According to Hope, "When I came back, my customer said, 'Young man, I’m going to give you some advice. If you want to succeed in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep the change on hand. That way, you won't miss any customers while you're going for it."

A few moments later, a passing inspector came up to the stand and asked, "Do you know who that man was?" "No," replied Hope. "He's only the richest man in the world,'" announced the inspector. "That's John D. Rockefeller, Senior."

8. JAMES A. MICHENER

James Michener wearing a flower necklace.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The author of over 40 books which together sold upwards of 75 million copies, Michener is best remembered for Tales of the South Pacific. Inspired by his service in the United States Navy, the novel won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. But long before his travels, a young Michener was an enthusiastic paperboy from seventh through twelfth grade. Working in his childhood home of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Michener distributed various Philadelphia-based newspapers along five different routes. "I can still remember the residents of certain entire streets that I had served the longest," he wrote in 1992. "My paper routes gave me an insight into the complexity of life in a small town that not many boys acquired."

9. TOM CRUISE

Tom Cruise leaning against a wall.
Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Raised in a less-than-affluent household, Cruise turned to newspaper-carrying as a means of picking up extra cash. (He also raked lawns and put in some time at an ice cream parlor.) "When I was 13," the actor told Sports Illustrated, "I had a paper route and paid $50 for my first go-cart, $75 for my first motorcycle." To help meet his delivery schedule, Cruise enlisted the aid of his younger sister, Cass. "I always told her I'd pay her back. I bought her a car after Risky Business."

10. WARREN BUFFETT

Warren Buffett giving a talk.
Paul Morigi, Getty Images for Fortune/Time Inc

He's the third-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $91.5 billion, and Buffett's remarkable investment acumen has earned the Nebraskan the nickname "Oracle of Omaha." But the self-made billionaire got his start distributing newspapers on behalf of the Washington Post and other publications. "You had to deliver [them] every day, including Christmas Day," Buffett has said, adding that on Christmas morning, his "family would have to wait until I had done my paper route" before the festivities could start. At age 14, Buffett filed his first tax return, which reported that in 1944 he'd earned the equivalent of $8221 in modern U.S. dollars. And, given the nature of his job, the youngster knew he was able to write off the cost of his watch and various bicycle repairs as business expenses.

11. DAVID LYNCH

David Lynch seated in a large yellow chair.
TIZIANA FABI, AFP/Getty Images

Auteur director David Lynch was so low on personal funds during the production of Eraserhead (1977) that he needed a couple of side hustles to make ends meet. In addition to working a part-time plumbing job, Lynch delivered copies of The Wall Street Journal. "I built three sheds in my back yard during that period," he claims. "They were made out of wood I found on my paper route. My route took me through two different trash areas. On trash nights, my route would take two hours instead of one because I stopped and sorted through the garbage." Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

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