For this instalment of my history of crime series, I thought it would be nice to take a break from the crimes of England and hop across the pond to write about a pair of killers I heard about a long time ago. As well as being American, these killers are of a more recent vintage than the others I have so far written about, their crimes were committed in the late 1940s, but I’m sure that affect your interest.
The Lonely Hearts Killers
On March 8 1951 Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were executed. They were jointly convicted of killing a single person, Janet Fay, but it is believed that they were responsible for killing at least seventeen people, mostly women, after contacting them through ads in lonely hearts columns, which resulted in the name given them by the press.
Raymond Fernandez was born in Hawaii, grew up in Connecticut, and later moved to Spain, where he married and fathered four children, whom he later abandoned. He served for a time in Spain’s merchant marine, and worked with British Intelligence during the second world war; it was while sailing back to America to look for work that he was struck on the head by a hatch, resulting in a change of personality and sexual behaviour, which apparently put him on the path to a life of crime.
After leaving hospital following his injury he stole some clothes, which led to him going to jail. Following his release from prison he claimed his roommate had taught him voodoo and black magic that gave him an irresistable power over women.
Martha Beck, born Martha Seabrook in Florida, ran away from home as a teen after alleging that her brother had sexually assaulted her. She studied nursing after finishing high school but had difficulty finding work due to being obese; eventually she became a mortuary assistant, preparing woman for burial, before quitting and moving to California where she became a nurse in an army hospital.
She became pregnant, and after the father refused to married her she returned to Florida as a single, soon-to-be mother, where she claimed she had married the father but he had died during the Pacific campaign. After giving birth to her daughter she became pregnant again, this time to a bus driver named Alfred Beck, whom she married and then divorced after only six months.
In 1946, Martha, the single mother of two children, and now employed at the Pensacola Hospital for Children, placed an ad in a Lonely Hearts column, an ad that Raymond Fernandez answered.
Fernandez met women through lonely hearts column, romanced them, and then fleeced them; he intended the same when he responded to Martha Beck’s ad but fell in love with her, and she with him.
Fernandez returned to New York, while Beck made arrangements to be with him; when she was suddenly fired from her job, she packed up her things and arrived on his doorstep, having left her children with the Salvation Army in order to be with him. Beck catered to Fernandez’s every whim and that behaviour, along with her treatment of her children, convinced Fernandez of her unconditional love.
He confessed his means of making money to her at this point, and she decided to join him in his criminal enterprises, posing as his sister in order to allay any concerns his victims might have. Though she was okay with Fernandez romancing the women he met through the columns, she was jealous and did everything she could to prevent him becoming intimate with the women he got engaged to.
Things went well enough for the pair until 1949, when Fernandez got engaged to their latest intended victim, Janet Fay, 66. Beck caught Fernandez in bed with Fay and took a hammer to her in a murderous rage, Fernandez then strangled Fay, though it is unclear whether Fay was already dead or not when he did so. When Fay’s family became suspicious about her disappearance, Fernandez and Beck fled.
In a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the pair met Delphine Downing, a widow with a two-year-old daughter. Things went wrong when the daughter began crying after seeing Delphine’s reaction to some sleeping pills Fernandez gave her to cope with a bout of agitation; Beck panicked in the face of the tears and choked the girl, though not fatally.
Fernandez shot Delphine while she was unconscious, sure that she would become suspicious, and perhaps report them to the police, if she saw the bruises Beck had left her daughter with. They stayed at the house for several days, before Beck drowned Delphine’s daughter in a basin of water after another bout of crying.
Both bodies were buried in the basement but the disappearances were noted by the neighbours, who reported them to the police. On March 1 1949 the police arrived at the house; they found the bodies in the basement and immediately arrested Fernandez and Beck.
Fernandez, sure that he could not be extradited to New York, confessed, feeling that he was better off being tried in Michigan, which did not have the death penalty. His certainty proved misplaced and they were both extradited to stand trial in New York, where Fernandez attempted to retract his confession.
Although they were suspected of at least seventeen murders, they were only tried for the murder of Janet Fay. After a sensationalist trial, which included rumours of sexual perversion, they were both found guilty.
The drama did not end with their conviction, such was the interest in Fernandez and Beck that the newspapers continued to write stories about them until their executions in 1951, including the rumour that Beck was involved with one of the guards at Sing Sing Prison, where she was on death row.
Despite all of this, the final words of both were used to express their love for one another
“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. I am not unfeeling, stupid or moronic. I am a woman who had a great love and always will have it. Imprisonment in the Death House has only strengthened my feeling for Raymond.” – Martha Beck.