Murder on Main Street – Part One

If you watch the nightly news you are probably aware that there is a lot of gun violence out there. It seems like a regular occurrence in major urban areas like New York City. However, violence can happen anywhere and at any time. If we look back in history there have been plenty of vicious crimes that have taken place even in our neck of the woods. One need only scan through the rolls of microfilm within our collections to find mentions of shootings, stabbings, and unsolved ax murders that go all the way back to the 18th century! 

Fela Palick was a woman who couldn’t seem to get what she wanted in life. Historical records indicate that she appears to have been married-off around the age of 10 when she moved from Lithuania to Russia in 1911. In that marriage she had two children, though one died in infancy. When her family came to America they moved to Chicago, and it wasn’t long before she divorced her first husband and moved to the East Coast. She moved around in the years surrounding World War I with a series of jobs and partners. She had given up her surviving child as she could no longer afford to care for him, records indicate that he appeared to have ended up with a prosperous family in the Catskills. In 1920 she met her next husband, Samuel Palick, in the Newburgh shipyards and together they came to Poughkeepsie. They both were able to get jobs at the Hudson River State Hospital where they worked for the next three years.

They saved up enough money to start their own restaurant, eventually settling into a place at #124 Main Street, which they named The Red Rose Lunch Room. However, things were not  all rosy, as the newspapers reported several problems that occurred between the married couple. In 1924, the police were called when Fela tried to harm herself by swallowing iodine. Samuel took this opportunity to show the police a gun that Fela owned and had threatened him with. It would turn out that this restaurant would bring new love (and trouble) into Fela’s life. Henry Gagnon, a handsome (and married), rigger from out of town stopped by for lunch regularly on his way to work on the construction of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Fela and Henry began a year-long affair, which records indicate that it was well known, and a divorce between Samuel and Fela seemed likely. When Fela confronted Henry about being the father of her unborn child, he rebuked her and claimed that it could have been any number of men, including her husband.

This appears to have been the point in time when something snapped in Fela’s mind because she decided to put an end to Henry for what he did to her. On August 11th, 1928, as Henry and another worker walked towards a laundromat at 151 Main Street, Fela came up behind him with a .25 caliber Colt automatic under her coat. She fired 5 shots, 4 of which hit her intended target. While Henry lay on the sidewalk bleeding to death, Fela casually walked back to her restaurant where she informed one of the waitresses to call the police. Policeman Wilson Van Wagner took Fela into custody, and she surrendered willingly. While she was sitting in a Dutchess County jail cell she proclaimed, “I am happier now than I have ever been in a long time.” She also said that she needed no lawyer and was happy to pay the price for her crime. 

Within a few weeks of her inprisonment, her disposition managed to change as she faced first degree murder charges. Suddenly, she informed the press that she only wanted to hurt Henry, not kill him. She was assigned a lawyer but there was another problem that had to be dealt with; Fela was going to have a baby! In January of 1929, she was taken to St. Francis Hospital where a guard stood watch until she finally gave birth. On February 1st, Fela gave birth to a boy and newspapers proclaimed “The Dutchess County Jail will have a new inmate – not prisoner – within about two weeks.” She named him Henry Gagnon. 

Tune in next week for Part Two!