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Thriller Thursday: The Lonely Hearts Killers

Martha Jule Beck and Raymond Martinez Fernandez

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.

Martha Beck Following Her Arraignment.

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 Martinez Fernandez
Raymond Martinez Fernandez.

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 with an adoring Martha looking on.
Fernandez with an adoring Martha looking on.

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.

Victim Janet Fay.

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.

The home of Delphine Downing.

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?

26 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: The Lonely Hearts Killers”

  1. Stacy, I am still just so amazed by how people can pair up to kill together as partners in crime. They both sound totally remorseless. Was there ever a movie made about these 2? Horrific.

  2. How creepy! I’d say they were definitely insane. I think today they’d be in prison–especially Raymond, with his brain injury.

    • His brain injury is interesting. He was known as a happy, kind person before that, so he may be one of those sad cases where he was a victim, too.

      Martha, on the other hand, strikes me as the more psychologically damaged. She endured some pretty rough stuff.


  3. Eesh. Sick sick sick. I had never heard of these people, but thank you for your well-written summary of the case. I’m not sure what it shows except that you just cannot tell what’s inside a person by looking at the exterior. Martha looks like a sweet normal woman in the pictures….

    • I hadn’t heard of them either, and there is SO much more to this case than I could cover. Martha was beaten down her whole life for her weight and even had trouble getting jobs. The press crucified her for it even more than the murders. I think she was kind of the perfect storm to be taken advantage of.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • I live two blocks from the house Martha Beck Grew up in and I stopped by and looked in windows and took pics of the house no one is living there at this time but it looked as if someone is trying to fix it up.

      • My friend Andrew said Martha was married to his mom’s brother at one time his last name was Beck. We live in Milton and she is buried a half mile from my house and the home she grew up in which is a couple blocks away from me.

  4. I’ve got a vague recollection of hearing about or reading about this before but didn’t know the details. It all sounds horribly gruesome.

    • It does. There was a lot I didn’t include because there was so much info. He was a great con artist, getting really close to the women. Not sure he would have been a murderer without Martha, though.


  5. Creepy, but very interesting! I really like your Thriller Thursdays, Stacy! So much information, and I think I realized how much this stuff actually fascinates me. I’d love to see that movie, too. I think you’re right that they were both victims in one way, and both absolutely guilty in another. And I agree that it doesn’t seem like Raymond would have been a murderer without Martha.

    • Thank you. They’re my feature post, and I’m really trying to grow them slowly but sure. Isn’t it fascinating? I’ve always said that if I were smarter I would have been a forensic psychologist, lol. I agree – they were victims and completely guilty.

  6. I’ve always wondered how two potential killers find each other and get started. At what point does one say to the other, “Hey, let’s murder someone”? How do you know they won’t turn you in? Enough killers seem to sniff each other out, which obviously happened here. Terrible tale. Horrible for the families. You always do a great job telling the story, though, Stacy.

    • Me, too. That would be a good blog topic some day. Would love to interview psychologist or something like that. Sniff each other out, that’s a good way to describe it. And thank you. I really worried about this one, because there was a ton of info in their case.

  7. I saw this on either Deadly Women or Fatal Attraction. I thought the case was super interesting and wondered how people like this find one another.

    You did a great job of summarizing a HUGE case. I have never researched this one but can only imagine the amount of information. This is one of those topics where the information is like locking moose horns ascending into the heavens.

    These crimes would be a great basis for a suspense novel. LOL

    • Really? This is one I hadn’t heard of until I started researching. I would love to understand the psychology behind the couple killings.

      Thank you! I was really stressed about summarizing because there is so much out there. LOL, love the analogy.

  8. Such a sad and frightening story. Both were victims themselves, but it could never excuse what they became. Thank you for the interesting post.

    • Yes, it really is. They were both victims, and I’m not sure Fernandez would have been a killer without Martha. And I don’t think she would have been a criminal without him. You’re very welcome, and thanks for the comment.

  9. Pingback: Thriller Thursday: A Real Life Bluebeard | Stacy Green – Turning The Page

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  11. timothy carlson

    I was wondering what the name of the movie was regarding these murders. I am a distant relative of Delphine Downing and my grandmother asked me to see if I could find out the name of the movie as she would like to see it. I have some of the newspaper articles about the murders. So I’m sure this is the same “lonely hearts” murders.

  12. I just watched ALLELUIA, the recent movie by Fabrice du Welz. which is based on the story of Martha and Fernandez (!) and which fascinated me that much that I googled Martha Beck and arrived here. The movie to me covers the subject very well and Lola Duenas is great as ‘Martha’, though not carrying her weight. This is not needed. It is indeed about the psychology (the psychological weight) of this couple that starts murdering because they became a couple indeed (it is the idea I also got, even by just watching the movie Stacey, am curious how you yourself covered the story.

  13. Traci Muratides's ( Rosenberg)

    My Father- Herbert E ROSENBERG
    was chosen to represent them both
    and I have the scrapbooks ect as well as love letters and all their correspondence between the 2
    And Sing Sing up until their last day and their last meal.
    My dad unfortunately died in 1962 – 1 month before I was born and thus has been in our family.
    Traci Rosenberg Muratides

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