A Murder in Klondike

An AI generated image of a 1903 small coal mining town in eastern Ohio that shows a row of company houses. (Source: openai.com/dall-e-2

Many immigrants arrived in Tuscarawas County at the turn of the 20th century to work in the industries that dominated the local economy at the time. Among them were coal miners who came to work the county’s numerous coal mines, leading to the creation of “company towns” like Klondike. Many of the stories of these immigrants, like the company towns they worked in, have been forgotten or overlooked. This is one of those stories.

A note: The names of recent immigrants are often spelled many different ways depending on the writer.

During the late 1890s the Beaver Dam Coal Company, based in Cleveland, began to make plans to develop the coal fields in Tuscarawas County’s Beaver Dam Valley. The location they selected straddled the Goshen and Union township line about 5 miles east of New Philadelphia, Ohio, and just to the east of Vickers Post Office on the Roxford Road. The company arranged for a branch of the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad to be constructed to the area and laid out a company town to house the miners needed to work the new mine. The town was named Klondike after the popular goldrush region in Alaska that was reported upon in all the newspapers of the day.

The opening of the Beaver Dam mine could not have come at a better time. A large mine operated near Midvale by the Midvale-Goshen Coal Company had recently ceased operation so many of those miners made their way to the new town of Klondike to find work. The miners were competing for jobs in the new Beaver Dam mine with large numbers of recently arrived immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, among them many Hungarian newcomers. One of those newcomers was John Elek (1859-1926), who had arrived with his family around 1900, and in 1903 was living with them in one of the company houses along with four other miners.

  • Newspaper snippet about the development of the coal mines near Klondike, March 1897. (Source: newspaperarchive.org)
  • The location of the town of Klondike on the township map found in the Tuscarawas County Atlas, 1908. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • The location of the town of Klondike on the Union Township map found in the Tuscarawas County Atlas, 1908. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • The town of Klondike found in the Tuscarawas County Atlas, 1908. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • Modern satellite view of the location of the town of Klondike, 2023. (Source: google.com)

Two of the men boarding with the Eleks apparently took a shine to their seventeen-year-old daughter Mary (1887-1965) who could speak English and often helped with preparing the meals. Those two men were Gyorgy Novak (1865-aft. 1913), usually referred to as George Novak, and Mayk Forkass (1875-1903) who was usually referred to as Michael Farkas. Both men had arrived from Hungary within the last two years and made their way to Ohio to work in the Beaver Dam mine. Neither spoke English very well.

The evening of June 27, 1903 the four men boarding at the Eleks’ house decided to play cards after dinner. The men went out to the front yard, sat on some benches, and began playing. At some point during the card game, Mayk Forkass allegedly made some comments about Mary, and Gyorgy’s chances with her, that angered Gyorgy. What Mayk may have not known was that Gyorgy had in his possession a .32 caliber pistol and a willingness to use it. Gyorgy drew the pistol and fired five shots into Mayk, with one striking him in the head causing a fatal wound. Gyorgy then ran off into the woods south of town.

  • Headline from the Canton newspaper about the murder of Mayk Forkass in Klondike, 29 June 1903. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • Headline from the New Philadelphia newspaper about the murder of Mayk Forkass in Klondike, 2 July 1903. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • Excerpt from New Philadelphia newspaper's report of the murder detailing Mayk Forkass' death, 2 July 1903. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)

County law enforcement were notified and they quickly arrived in Klondike to search for the offender, but had no luck finding him. A reward of $400 was offered for anyone who could locate Novak, and many men from the community descended on Klondike to aid in the search. Eventually the Deputy Sheriff learned that Novak was returning to town late at night to find food and then absconding back into the woods. The Deputy Sherriff and another man staked out the town and, three days after the murder, Novak was arrested at midnight on Tuesday, June 30, 1903. Novak was then taken to the Tuscarawas County Jail in New Philadelphia to await justice.

Gyorgy Novak was brought into his arraignment a few days later and the Mayor’s court heard testimony, translated by Mary Elek, from a number of people who had witnessed the murder. The Mayor determined that Novak was to be held without bail while a grand jury was paneled to look at the case. The grand jury ultimately handed down a charge of first degree murder on October 31, 1903 to which Novak pleaded not guilty. However, a few days later after meeting with his attorneys, Novak returned to court and pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He was then sentenced to life in prison at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.

As Gyorgy Novak sat in a prison cell at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, changes began happening in and around the mining town of Klondike. First, Klondike merged with a neighboring community and the two then became known as the town of Roswell. Second, the Elek family moved from Klondike to Cleveland, Ohio and Mary Elek, the woman whose affections allegedly triggered the murder, married around 1909. Lastly, in 1910, the Beaver Dam Coal Company abandoned the mine in Klondike and many of the miners there moved on to new locations and new lives elsewhere in Ohio. Gyorgy Novak was paroled in 1913 after serving on ten years of a life sentence. His life after prison is elusive.

  • Gyorgy Novak listed in the 1910 Census as an inmate at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. (Source: familysearch.org)
  • An early 1900s postcard depicting the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. (Source: ohiomemory.org)
  • New Philadelphia newspaper article reporting on the parole of Gyorgy Novak, December 1913. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2023.


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