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Christmas Eve tragedy

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The name Sylvia Paxton may not ring a bell. Her face is probably unfamiliar.

But if you lived in Fayette County or traveled U.S. 19 in the nearly 40-year span of the early-1950s through the late 1980s, you probably recognize her maiden name -- Sodder. The solemn faces of her five siblings, frozen in time, may haunt your dreams.

Paxton, née Sodder, is the last known living survivor of the house fire that destroyed her family's home on Christmas Eve, 1945.

Today is the 68th anniversary of the solitary event that defined her earliest memories and colored the rest of her life.

Paxton has worked quietly behind the scenes for many years trying to solve the mystery of her siblings' disappearance. She prefers to remain out of the spotlight, usually refusing photos and even declining to have her voice recorded for an NPR story, but her shyness hasn't deterred her sense of purpose or tireless searching.

Paxton described her first memory ... scenes from that night. Her father's arms, bloodied from his failed attempts to rescue her siblings.

"I remember standing there watching our house burn. My dad was inconsolable."

She was 3 at the time of the fire. She was asleep in her parents' room on the ground floor and was carried to safety by her mother and oldest sister.

It was presumed that five of her nine siblings died in the blaze. However, over the next few years, that presumption morphed into suspicion.

Were the children in their beds?

Genial West Virginia author George Bragg's entire demeanor changes when he speaks of the Sodder children. The billboard with the Sodder children's faces that stood along U.S. 19 outside Fayetteville for nearly 40 years takes up most of the back cover of his 2012 book "West Virginia's Unsolved Murders."

After an intense study of the case and interviews with some of the original investigators, Bragg described the events of Dec 24, 1945, as such:

"There were nine children at home and two parents that night. The eldest brother was away in the service. The parents had taken the youngest child, Sylvia, and gone to bed early. It was Christmas Eve, so the rest of the children stayed up later than normal. The two older sons went to bed shortly after their parents and the remaining children went to bed sometime before midnight, except for the eldest daughter, Maria, who fell asleep on the couch."

Around midnight, Jennie Sodder, the mother, was awakened by the telephone. The phone was in the office next to their bedroom, but it was a wrong number. She went back to bed and drifted off to sleep only to be awakened a second time by a thudding noise. She later recalled the noise sounded like a rock being thrown on the roof.

"She drifted back to sleep and, in just a short while, woke up a third time smelling smoke. She got out of bed and went back to the office to look. Where the telephone was, where the phone line and power came into the house, the fuse box was on fire."

She ran back to the bedroom and woke her husband, George. He jumped out of bed and went to investigate. The fire had spread to the point where he could not enter the office to investigate.

Jennie woke Maria, gave her the baby and sent them outside. Then she ran to the bottom of the stairs, already on fire, and called up to her children. Her two oldest sons answered her and got out of bed to rouse the others.

It is at this point in the story that Bragg said the accounts became murky. According to Bragg, in the very first police report of the fire, John Sodder, 23, said he and George Jr., 16, ran into the other children's room and shook them awake. In subsequent interviews John would say he only called to the other children, but that he did hear them answer.

Bragg thinks this detail is possibly the hinge pin of the entire mystery.  According to John's account, the other five children -- ages 5 to 14 -- were in their beds.

A lovingly tended plot

Fire consumed the two-story house quickly. By all reports, the house was reduced to a smoldering pile of debris within 30 minutes of Jennie detecting the fire. By the time the Fayetteville Fire Department arrived on the scene around 8 a.m. the next morning, the Dec 26, 1945, edition of The State Sentinel newspaper in Fayetteville reports, "...the entire structure, with the burned bodies of the victims, was a heap of rubbish in the basement."

The same article states, "Tin roofing and other material was removed and part of one body was found."

These facts, as well as the tardiness of the first responders, would soon be drawn into question. But in the aftermath of those first few heart-wrenching days, George and Jennie Sodder sought only to ease their grief, never considering the possibility their children had not been in the fire.

According to a first-hand account of the funeral, published Jan. 2, 1946, in The State Sentinel, a makeshift graveyard had been erected on the house site. After the largest parts of the fire debris were removed, George Sodder filled the basement with dirt to bury what he believed to be the bodies of five of his children.

The article describes parents so disabled by their grief they were unable to even attend the community graveside service. Paxton was there, held in the arms of her oldest brother, Joe.

Paxton recalled that her mother would lovingly tend that plot as a flowering memorial to her children for the rest of her days.

Suspicions arise

From the start of the fire, it seemed as if fate were conspiring against the Sodder family. Some reports say the telephone lines had been cut; others speculate the fire damaged the lines. Either way, the family could not call for help and eventually sent the eldest daughter running to the neighbors to phone in the fire.

George and the two older boys began futile attempts to fight the fire but were thwarted at every turn. The ladder always left leaning against the building was missing. George Sr. and John attempted to start the two large trucks they kept on the property, but neither would turn over.

Son-in-law Grover Paxton now believes that in their anxiety to rescue the children, the men flooded the engines of the vehicles. But interviews with George shortly before his death indicate that he believed the vehicles had been tampered with.

When the fire department was finally reached from a neighbor's phone, they did not respond to the scene until the next morning. Later, in subsequent interviews, Fire Chief Morris stated he was unable to drive the fire truck and had to wait for someone who could.

That was not the only bit of odd behavior from the fire chief. Rumors had begun to arise in the town that the fire chief had found an unidentified body part among the ashes and that he had secretly buried it at the site.

All of these strange events and reports of alleged sightings of the children from around the county plagued the Sodders over the next few years.

In February 1949, the Charleston Gazette reported that national interest had been roused in the case, and by August of that year an excavation of the site was underway. Outside investigators and experts were brought in to search for and analyze evidence.

Despite the fact that the house was consumed in roughly 30 minutes, only four small segments of vertebrae were recovered in the excavation. These fragments were sent for analysis to the Smithsonian Institution.

According to the National Funeral Directors website, the ideal conditions for cremation are a temperature between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for two to two and a half hours, but bone fragments will remain. Based on the other debris found at the fire site, the blaze never reached those temperatures nor did the house burn for the length of time needed to consume five bodies.

A copy of the correspondence and final report of the findings regarding the bone fragments were provided by the Smithsonian Institute Archives. In the specimen report made by Marshall T. Newman in September 1949, it states, "The vertebrae show no evidence that they had been exposed to fire. In view of this, it is very strange that no other bones were found in the allegedly careful excavation of the basement of the house."

Newman goes on to speculate that if five children did indeed burn to death in such a short period of time, whole skeletons should have been unearthed. He also states that although the bone fragments could possibly belong to an extremely physically mature 14-year-old (the age of Maurice, the oldest child to disappear in the fire) that it was "not probable."

The Smithsonian also provided a copy of the shipping invoice, signed by George Sodder on Sept. 20, 1949, transferring custody of the bones back to him. What became of those fragments is still a mystery.

'I wish I could help you'

Paxton is now 71 and quick to point out her next closest sibling, Betty, would only be 73. She still speaks of her siblings in the present tense: "I am the youngest, but Betty is only 2 years and a day older than me. I hope she's still alive."

Paxton and her husband and their daughter firmly believe the siblings were kidnapped. They speculate endlessly about the mechanics of how it was carried out and why. They also speculate on the fate of the children, especially the older boys, after their kidnapping. But at the end of the day, the three agree it is only speculation and there is no way to determine the children's fate without new evidence.

Paxton feels that time is running short to get answers. Most of the people involved in the case have since passed on, evidence has been lost or destroyed and firsthand accounts get scarcer by the day.

She said she would like to see the case resolved, and would like to finally find closure for the six decades of heartache she's lived through. She would like to give her parents' unending nightmare a final, concrete conclusion.

"I was the last one of the kids to leave home. At night my dad would be up pacing the floor and we would talk. He'd share stories of the children and we'd talk about what might have happened. I experienced their grief for a long time."

Her husband, Grover Paxton, recalled a particularly poignant vignette of just how George and Jennie continued to search, continued to hope for their children's return and continued to be disappointed:

In 1967 the Sodders received a letter from a woman in Houston. She said that one of the missing boys, Louis, had too much to drink one night and spilled an intriguing story of his true identity.

"She said the two oldest boys were living in Texas, so Mr. Sodder wanted to go," recalled Grover Paxton. "He [George Sodder] was really excited to get down there. We drove straight down."

But the trip turned into another effort in futility for the still grieving man. The woman who had written the letter was unavailable to speak with Mr. Sodder and his son-in-law. They spoke to local authorities who pointed them in the direction of the men in question, but they would never know her motive for writing the letter.

"I took him down there. We found the men and the oldest one especially looked like the family. They were the right age. The one that would have been Maurice's age was friendly, but said 'I wish I could help you but you have the wrong people.'"

The two men went on to insist to Mr. Paxton and Mr. Sodder that their families lived nearby.

Grover Paxton spoke of his father-in-law's disappointment in the fruitless trip: "I think there was always some doubt in his mind. He died shortly thereafter, in 1969, and I think he always wondered if those were his boys and if he'd made a mistake, leaving so quickly."

Retelling and false memory

George Bragg has a different opinion of the fate of the Sodder children. "It is still a mystery. We will probably never know exactly what happened. Logic tells you they probably did burn up in the fire, but you can't always go by logic."

Bragg bases that logic on the initial police report taken from older brother John, where he claimed to have entered the other bedroom and shook the children. Bragg believes a person's first testimony is usually the most accurate and becomes clouded based on retelling and false memory.

He thinks John probably did see the children in their beds and assumed they would get up and follow him out of the house. At that point they may have already succumbed to smoke inhalation. But Bragg cannot speculate as to what became of the children's remains.

One thing that both the Paxtons and Bragg agree on is, if the fragments of bone sent to the Smithsonian in 1949 could be located, at least one piece of the puzzle could be solved and possibly the entire mystery. A DNA test of the bone could at least confirm if it belonged to a relative of Sylvia's, or if it came in with the dirt used to make the Sodders' unofficial cemetery.

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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