Known as the Lonely Hearts Killers, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez murdered their last victim on February 28, 1949. Then the couple went to a movie and enjoyed popcorn and soda. It would be their last outing.
Born in 1919 in Milton, Florida, Martha suffered a glandular condition that caused her to physically mature faster than other children. At age 10, she looked like a grown woman and possessed the sex drive of an adult. She was also overweight and the subject of ridicule from classmates and mother. At trial, Martha would claim her bother sexually assaulted her and her mother beat her for accusing him.
After graduating nursing school, Martha he moved to California and became pregnant. Ashamed and alone, she moved back to Florida. She made up a story about the father being killed in the service and later gave birth to a daughter. After a short marriage to Alfred Beck, Martha placed an add in a local “lonely heart’s club.”
Raymond Fernandez was five years older than Martha and served with Spain’s Merchant Marine’s during WW2 where he suffered a head injury. Located in the frontal lobe region that regulates logic and learning, the injury forever changed Fernandez. He was distant, easily angered, and rambled when he spoke. He soon became convinced voodoo gave him a special sexual power over women.
By the time he met Martha, Fernandez was using the lonely hearts club to rob his date of money, jewelry, and anything else he could find.
Martha was hooked by his elaborate words and faux sincerity. A two-week correspondence included a dozen letters and an exchange of photographs. Not wanting to turn Fernandez off with her size, Martha sent a group photo of the nurses at her hospital where she was partially hidden.
Fernandez didn’t care about Martha’s size–just her money. He eventually requested a lock of hair to perform his voodoo ritual, and after a back and forth courtship that attempted suicide by Martha, he moved her to New York City to live with him. His one requirement was that she give up her kids, and Martha complied. On January 25, 1948, she dropped them off at the salvation army on January 25, 1948. Three years would pass before she had any further contact with her children.
Fernandez quickly introduced Martha to his criminal ways. Posing as his sister, she aided Fernandez’s escapades but was careful to make sure he never consummated the relationship. If he did have sex with a victim, Martha’s violent temper reared its head.
Although suspected of killing as many as seventeen (some say twenty) women, the murder of one woman sent the couple to the electric chair. In 1949, Fernandez became engaged to Janet Fay, 66. When Martha discovered the two in bed together, she smashed Fay’s head with a hammar, and then Fernandez strangled her. They dumped the body in a large trunk, and nearly two weeks later, Fernandez buried the trunk in a cellar of a rented house, covering it with cement. He and Martha spent the next week cashing Fay’s check’s and typing letters to her family. That’s where they made a major mistake: Fay didn’t own a typewriter. Her family called the police.
The killers quickly moved on to a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they charmed Delphine Downing, a young widow with a two-year-old daughter. Fernandez gave her sleeping pills, and Beck strangled the crying child, but not killing her. Worried about the bruising on the baby, Fernandez shot Downing. The couple stayed for several days in Downing’s home, and when Beck again became enraged by the crying, she drowned the child in a basin of water. At trial, Beck would claim Fernandez made her kill the baby. They buried the two bodies in the basement, but suspicion rose, and police showed up on February 28, 1949.
Fernandez and Beck gave a detailed, gruesome confession to Kent County D.A. Roger O. McMahon, who promised they would not be turned over to New York, a state with the death penalty. But the pressure was immediately on for a transfer. New York Governor Thomas Dewey cut a deal with prosecutors: they would waive the charges for the Downing murders and allow New York to extradite.
At trial, the defendants claimed they were misled by law enforcement. Fernandez insisted everything he did was for Martha, that he was railroaded by prosecutors and confessed so that Martha could be freed.
But the written confession was too powerful. Martha told Michigan investigators, “I can still hear it! The blood was dripping, dripping, dripping, and the sound of it just sounded like it could be heard all over the house.” She also said that Janet Ray’s false teeth fell out when she was being strangled, and she and Fernandez disposed of them because her teeth would enable identification. Full of sex games, deception, and murder, the confession sealed their fate. Fernandes and Beck were convicted and later executed on March 8, 1951.
Their official last words demonstrated their love for each other, which they professed throughout their incarceration.
“I wanna shout it out; I love Martha! What do the public know about love?” Raymond Fernandez.
“My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean [...] Imprisonment in the Death House has only strengthened my feeling for Raymond….” Martha Beck.
There is a lot more to this case, including Martha’s testimony (one juror questioned her sanity) and it can be read here. The 2006 John Travolta filme, Lonely Hearts, featured the manhunt for Fernandez and Beck, and you can read more about it here.
What do you think? Was Martha a willing participant or manipulated victim? Did the Michigan D.A. act inappropriately by sending them to New York? How much did the press play into their verdict and did it matter?