General News

Tragedy at Brandywine Springs Amusement Park

June 17, 2020

Let's face it, America has never been the land of every immigrant's dreams. For Catherine Bodjaska it proved an utter nightmare. I will offer here my best outline of the tragic events surrounding her short existence in North America. So much was written about this young woman that frankly there are versions upon versions of 'the truth' about her life, murder, and all other subsequent events. Adding to the difficulty in following this complex tale is that the Anglo-Saxon journalists of the day did not feel it was necessary to spell any foreign name the same way twice in their nearly four years of reporting on this case. For the contemporary reader, studying the old news accounts offers as much insight into the character of the countless unnamed reporters (and even named public officials) as it does those directly involved in these tragic events.

The origins of what ultimately became the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park is usually dated to 1886. This is when Richard Crook was brought in to manage it. A hotel and hot springs were already on the property. “With the Wilmington and Western Railroad having been built along the edge of the property in 1872, Crook looked for ways to draw patrons to the hotel. He hit upon the idea of adding small amenities to the hotel grounds, like a picnic grove, tennis courts, and a small merry-go-round. These seemed to do the trick. Before long, Crook noticed that these added attractions were drawing more people than the hotel itself. Being a savvy businessman, he decided to take his success and run with it. Over the next 10-15 years, the site … slowly but steadily added new attractions until it boasted such things as a dance hall, a roller coaster, two theaters, a restaurant, a larger carousel, and a boardwalk. There were many other rides and games, and more were to follow. The park really took off, though, with the 1900 completion of Richard Crook's other venture – the Peoples Trolley (Brandywine Springs Amusement Park).”

In the summer of 1916, Nicholas Nicholas, a Greek immigrant, ran a restaurant in Brandywine Springs Amusement Park. Around 2 AM on July 22, 1916, the restaurant crew had finished cleaning up and arranging the restaurant for the next day. Nicholas along with his son Spiro Nicholas as well as John Alexander, another employee/relative, always slept in the restaurant. Ara Nicholas, wife of Nicholas,

Mary Nicholas, her sixteen-year-old daughter, and twenty-year-old Catherine Bodjaska, the restaurant's waitress and dishwasher, left the building and began walking out of the park to a nearby hotel where they slept. Waiting along the path behind a stand of trees, was Samuel Gangas, a twenty-five-year-old Greek.

“Without uttering a word of warning he drew a revolver from his pocket and opened fire. His bullets were directed at Miss Bodjaska. One struck her in the right eye, another in the left side, another in the abdomen and a fourth in the center of the chest. Gangas then fired at Mrs. Nicholas and the bullet struck her in the right arm near the wrist. It passed through her arm and came out the shoulder. Gangas then fired at her daughter, but she dropped to the ground as if dead and he paid no more attention to her (Morning News (Wilmington DE) July 22, 1916).” Accounts here after are confused about one specific point. Gangas drew a knife and briefly used it on Miss Bodjaska but reports of the actual nature of the injures he inflicted with the blade all conflict with each other.

First upon the murder scene were two other worker-relatives Nicholas Nicholas, restaurant owner, Spiro Nicholas, the Nicholas couple's son, as well as John Alexander, another employee/relative. Gangas had fled but not to escape. Immediately after the murder Gangas “set fire to the restaurant in the Park where the girl was employed causing its destruction and also that of the scenic railway, the photographic studio, the ski-ball game, wheel game, Japanese studio, and other Dreamland [attractions] (Newark Post January 31, 1917; Cecil Whig Elkton (MD) July 29, 1916).”

In point of fact, Gangas set fire to the restaurant twice. Nicholas along with son Spiro and John Alexander had put out the first fire Gangas set in the restaurant. In the ensuing confusion Gangas remained in the general area and when the fire was extinguished he madly reentered the restaurant and spread cooking grease, restarting the fire anew. Thereafter, Gangas made his escape from the Park.

Aside from the two Nicholas women who identified Gangas by sight, attesting that the gunfire illuminated his face, A. C. Davis, a Park watchman, assured police he saw and recognized Gangas that night. Later that same morning police found, arrested, and charged Gangas with the murder, attempted murders, and arson.

Gangas was known to Davis because he used to work at the Park. “Gangas formerly was employed by Nicholas at the park cafe, but he had been dismissed from there because of his conduct toward the Bodjaska girl, with whom he appears to have been madly in love. Later his conduct became such that he was driven from the park and ordered not to return. He continued to annoy the girl, however, and finally she had him arrested and he was sent to the workhouse for three months for his conduct. Gangas was released from the workhouse yesterday (Morning News (Wilmington DE) July 22, 1916).” And as we have read, we know what he immediately did upon release.

Catherine Bodjaska was waked at her father's home 125 Grace street, Chester, Pa. The “funeral services … were observed … at the Ruthenian Catholic Church, Third and Harwick streets, by the Rev. Vladimir Derzyrika (Evening Journal July 26, 1916).”

For nearly the next two full years, trials (with testimony filtered through various Greek interpreters), mental evaluations and further legal wrangling kept this murder before the general public. Reams of newsprint are readily available. Unfortunately, from our perspective in time, the reporters make little effort to spell anyone's name the same way twice, the exact sequence of events frequently changes from one published account to another, and even ‘the facts’ of the sequence of the events change from one published account to another. My take on these inconsistencies is that it reflects the general underlying prejudice against foreigners by the American reporters.

Another factor that complicated the murder for the Anglo-Americans was Samuel Gangas' total lack of emotions one way or another after his capture. He never said anything about his guilt or lack of it. His being for the most part mute during the entire sequence of legal proceedings really irked, and to be honest, confused the presiding officials. For his entire time behind bars he remained nearly entirely silent.

Samuel Gangas, a Greek immigrant from Sparta, was hanged at the New Castle county workhouse on Friday January 11, 1918 at 10:08 AM (Pottsville Republican (PA) January 11, 1918; Morning News Wilmington (DE) January 12, 1918). As he took his place on the gallows Gangas laughed as they placed a black bag over his head (Evening Journal January 11, 1918). He was still laughing when the trapdoor opened below him. Gangas “was permitted to hang for thirteen minutes at the end of which the young man was pronounced dead (Morning News (DE).” Or was it until the laughter stopped?

Catherine Bodjaska was an innocent who through misfortune encountered a human beast. Gangas was a confessed criminal who received his just punishment.

I have recounted this tragic murder, however, not to bring shame onto the Greek-American community, but to put a current phenomenon in perspective. I provided evidence from publicly available sources that Greek immigrants did in fact commit heinous crimes on American soil, but there is no evidence they ruled a criminal empire. For reasons yet to reveal themselves, there is a growing interest in the popular press asserting Greek-Americans secretly control all organized crime. 

True it is a matter of public record that individual Greek criminals have been and are currently involved in a variety of crimes in North America. But this a far, far cry from the latest popular allegations that the so-called Greek mob is secretly controlling the Italian mob.

While a series of writers are now asserting the most incredible kinds of Greek-American involvement in the historical and current circumstances of American crime I need offer only one name to refute these fraudulent accounts, Carl Sifakis. A short list of Sifakis' books on crime in America includes: The Mafia Encyclopedia; The Encyclopedia of American Crime; Encyclopedia of Assassinations; Mobspeak: The Dictionary of Crime Terms; The Encyclopedia of American Prisons; America's Most Vicious Criminals; American Eccentrics; Strange Crimes and Criminals; A Catalogue of Crime; Encyclopedia of Gambling; Frauds, Deceptions, and Swindles; Crimes and the Rich and Famous; A Compendium of Deceptions, and Ruses and Swindles. See how few Greeks are among the criminals in this nationally recognized authority’s documentation of crime in North America. At no point is there evidence any Greek person controls all crime in the Western Hemisphere.


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