Murder on Main Street – Part Two

Last week we covered the abrupt shooting of a rigger named Henry Gagnon. He was shot to death in broad daylight on Main Street, right here in Poughkeepsie. His killer just happened to be his married lover, Fela Palick, local proprietor of the Red Rose Lunch Room, which she operated alongside her husband. We left off with Fela sitting in jail awaiting trial, accompanied by the infant she had named for the man she was accused of murdering. In February of 1929, a cell in the Dutchess County Jail was converted into a temporary nursery for the newborn baby, so that Fela could nurse him. Photos of Fela and the child with cell bars in the background could be seen in newspapers across the country, as people wondered how someone so lovely could commit such a brutal crime. 

In March, Fela’s attorney, William Mulvey, brought in Dr. Clarence O. Cheney from the Hudson River State Hospital, to examine the mind of his client. The goal was to determine if she had suffered from a fit of “emotional insanity,” causing her to kill her lover when he refused to acknowledge that he was the father of her unborn child, as she claimed. Meanwhile, District Attorney Allen S. Reynolds was preparing his own file of evidence, as he hoped to send Fela to the electric chair for what he saw as a cold-blooded murder. Reynolds also worked to keep the newborn child out of the courtroom during the trial, as he felt it might sway the jury. 

When the trial began in early April, there was no shortage of witnesses. Plenty of people had seen the shooting take place on Main Street. Others had seen Fela and Henry together as a pair. The most important of these witnesses was a man named Astride Petrain, who had been a roommate with Henry and was also working on the construction of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Astride remembered Fela coming to their apartment on several occasions, and had seen the pair be intimate together. He testified that he had been next to Henry that day, and saw Fela come up from behind with a pistol under her coat. On the 6th day of the trial, Samuel Palick (Fela’s husband) testified for nearly seven hours on the details of the affair between his wife and Henry, and how it destroyed their marriage. 

At the end of the trial, attorney William Mulvey brought in yet another doctor from the Hudson River State Hospital, Dr. William Thompson, who declared that Fela was indeed insane when she fired that pistol on August 11th: “that she was not capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.” However, D.A. Allen S. Reynolds also brought his own team of alienists (aka psychiatrists) who all declared that Fela was sane when she made the decision to shoot her lover. After ten days of the trial and four hours of deliberation by the jury, Fela was declared guilty of first degree manslaughter. The jury rejected the idea that Fela was insane, but they did believe her attorney’s theory that she did not mean to kill Henry, only to scare him. 

Justice George H. Taylor Jr., who presided over the case, believed that the jury had already been too lenient with Fela, and sentenced her to the maximum of 10 to 20 years in Auburn prison; her infant son would serve part of the prison sentence with her. She was paroled from prison on July 5th, 1935. Fela then moved to Pennsylvania, where she appears to have remarried and lived until her death, on January 2nd, 1939.  

Poughkeepsie Eagle News: 26 Feb 1929, 16 Mar 1929, 3 Apr 1929, 9 Apr 1929, 10 Apr 1929, 16 Apr 1929, 19 Apr 1929, 20 Apr 1929, 24 Apr 1929, 26 Apr 1929, 16 Jan 1935, 21 Apr 1939. 

01 – Image of an article from the Poughkeepsie Eagle news, 26 Feb 1929
02 – Image of Fela Palick with her baby in Jail
03 – Modern day photo of the Dutchess County courthouse basement cell where Fela spent some time with her baby during the trial.