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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Lonely Heart Killers (Martha Beck Milton Florida Born Serial Killer )


By Mark Gado

“I’m no average killer!” Raymond Martinez Fernandez told Michigan cops on the day he was arrested. The slim, smartly dressed, balding man sat in the wooden chair between two detectives as he told a tawdry story of sex, lies and murder. He wiped his sweating forehead every few minutes with a white handkerchief supplied by his co-conspirator and obese sex slave, who looked on with wide-eyed admiration and love. For several hours he described their journey through a maze of deception and betrayal that ended with the deaths of as many as 17 women. “I have a way with women, a power over them,” he said. That power, he claimed, was achieved by the practice of voodoo.

Raymond Martinez Fernandez, 34, was born in Hawaii of Spanish parents. His rotund girlfriend, Martha Jule Beck, 29, who weighed well over 200 pounds, lovingly brushed his thinning hair back on his head as he told police how they killed their last victims in the town of Byron Center, Michigan on the night of February 28, 1949. Later, when the victim’s two-year-old daughter refused to stop crying over the loss of her mother, Martha drowned her in a tub of dirty water while Raymond looked on. After the murders, they decided to go to the movies where they munched on popcorn and drank a gallon of soda.

The day-by-day revelations about this bizarre couple had New York City’s press working overtime to keep up with the story that seemed too sleazy even by tabloid standards.  Martha’s enormous size was the subject of never-ending speculation by the press who estimated her weight to be anywhere from 200 to over 300 pounds. This constant ridicule caused Martha to write a series of tearful, angry letters from prison to the media complaining of the unfair treatment she received from columnists like Walter Winchell and newspapers like The Daily News and the New York Mirror.

“I’m still a human, feeling every blow inside, even though I have the ability to hide my feelings and laugh,” she said, “But that doesn’t say my heart isn’t breaking from the insults and humiliation of being talked about as I am. O yes, I wear a cloak of laughter.”

Fernandez and Beck came to be known as the “lonely hearts killers” in the nation’s press. Their murder trial took place during the scorching hot summer of 1949 in Bronx Criminal Court where the salacious testimony of “abnormal sexual practices” caused a near riot among spectators. The Latino Lothario and the plump, love-sick girlfriend who killed lonely, sex-starved women was a story weirder and more intriguing than anything out of the trashiest pulp magazines of the 1940s.


She was born Martha Jule Seabrook in 1919 in the town of Milton in northwest Florida. As a small child, Martha developed a glandular condition that caused her to physically mature faster than most children. By the age of 10, she possessed a woman’s body and the sexual drive of an adult. Unfortunately, she was already obese by that age and suffered ridicule from not only her classmates but from her domineering mother as well. It was claimed at Martha’s murder trial in 1951 that her brother sexually assaulted her at an early age. When she told her mother about the incident, she blamed Martha and beat her. Wherever she went thereafter, her mother followed her. If a boy showed any interest in Martha, her mother was sure to chase the boy away with a barrage of insults and threats. Throughout her teenage years, Martha was the focus of cruel jokes and insults which drove her further within herself. She became reclusive, withdrawn and had virtually no friends her own age.

Later, Martha attended a nursing school in Pensacola where she graduated first in her class in 1942. But because of her appearance, she was unable to gain employment in the nursing field. She was forced to take a job working for a mortician in a local funeral home preparing female bodies for burial. It was a surreal environment for Martha who was already remote and lonely. Tending to the bodies of the dead at all hours of the day and night, she may have found a strange solace in the company of those who could not hurt her with criticism and ridicule. She lived with the dead.

In 1942, desperate to begin a new life, she moved to California. She soon got a job at an Army hospital working as a nurse. But at night, Martha would frequent the city’s bars where she would pick up soldiers on leave and at times, have sex with some of them. As a result of one of these encounters, she became pregnant. The father was a soldier who was uninterested in her. When he discovered Martha was pregnant he attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself into a nearby bay. Unable to convince the father to wed and deeply ashamed that a man would rather die than marry her, she returned to Florida depressed and alone.

In Milton, Martha soon realized that she had to explain the pregnancy. She made up a story that she met and married a Navy officer in California. She bought a wedding ring and wore it proudly around town. Her husband would soon return from the Pacific and then everyone would meet him. Of course, that day could never happen so she had to come up with a remedy. She arranged to have a telegram sent to herself announcing that her husband was killed in action. She went into hysterics when she received the “news.” The town mourned for her and the story even appeared in the local papers. Martha received a great deal of attention and sympathy for her “loss.” In the spring of 1944, she gave birth to a daughter, Willa Dean.

A few months later she met a Pensacola bus driver named Alfred Beck and Martha became pregnant again. Alfred, perhaps feeling guilty about the pregnancy, reluctantly married her in late 1944. Six months later, they were divorced. Martha had lost her job the year before and now found herself alone once again, this time with two small kids and no income. She fell into a fantasy world of romance novels and afternoon movies, like Confidential Agent and Gaslight, which featured her favorite leading man of the day, Charles Boyer. She read “true confession” type magazines and dreamt of the man who would save her from her loneliness and desperation. In early 1946, she finally secured a job at a Pensacola Hospital for children.

Martha was actually a very good nurse. She took her job and responsibilities very seriously. “I chose this profession,” she wrote, “without thought of self and want to prepare myself for this profession, not for material gains but for the purpose of aiding humanity and rendering service to others.” Unable to be happy in the social side of her life, Martha put everything she had into her work. Before the year was out, she received a promotion and eventually became nurse superintendent of the hospital. But still, she was depressed and yearned for the day when she could have a man all to herself, a man that would give her sexual fulfillment, companionship and, above all, the kind of love she read about for years in the hundreds of magazines that lay strewn all over her apartment.

As the result of a practical joke played by a co-worker, Martha received an ad in the mail to join a lonely-hearts club. When she read the ad, she broke down into bitter tears. “How could I forget that day?” she later said. But in an act of defiance, Martha placed an ad in “Mother Dinene’s Family Club for Lonely Hearts.” She had to fill out a form describing herself and send it in for publication. But she conveniently left out the fact that she weighed near 250 pounds and already had two kids. The ad was published and Martha breathlessly awaited her Prince Charming. Each day, when she returned home from work, she anxiously checked the mailbox, searching for the letter that would sweep her away from the pain of loneliness.

Raymond Fernandez

Raymond Martinez Fernandez was born on the island of Hawaii on December 17, 1914. His parents were of Spanish descent and proud people who were disappointed in Raymond’s frail and sickly appearance. His father especially was not fond of Raymond and wished for a stronger son. When Raymond was only three, the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1932, Raymond decided to go to Spain to live and work on an uncle’s farm. There, at the age of 20, he married a local woman named Encarnacion Robles and set up house. By then, Raymond had left behind the awkward weakness of his youth and evolved into a handsome, well-built young man. He had a calm, gentle manner and was well liked in the village of Orgiva.

When the Second World War began, Raymond served with Spain’s merchant marine. But he soon found service with the British government as a spy and apparently achieved certain notoriety in the intelligence gathering community. Little is known of his wartime activities but the Defense Security Office in Gibraltar once said that he “was entirely loyal to the Allied cause and carried out his duties which were sometimes difficult and dangerous, extremely well.”

In late 1945, after the war was over, Fernandez decided to return to America to find work and then send for Encarnacion and his newborn son. He managed to get passage on a freighter that was headed for the island of Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. While on board the ship, Raymond was the victim of life altering event. As he attempted to come up to the deck, an open steel hatch cover fell directly on the top of his head. The injury caused a severe indentation on his skull and may have damaged his brain in an irreversible way. When the ship docked in December 1945, he was placed into the hospital where he remained until March 1946.

Upon his release from the hospital, Raymond had undergone a personality transformation. Before the accident he was an ordinary young man who was socially adept, open with people and courteous in manner. But after the accident, Raymond became distant, moody and quick to anger. He did not smile as easily and when he spoke, he often rambled. Personality disorders that result from head injury are well documented and research suggests that the level of disorder hinges upon the severity and location of the injury. In Fernandez’s case, the injury, which fractured his skull, was located in the frontal lobe region that regulates the learning, reasoning and logical segments of brain function. There was no doubt: Raymond Fernandez was a changed man.

He bought passage on another ship headed for Alabama. When the boat arrived at the port of Mobile, Fernandez did a stupid thing. He stole a large quantity of clothing and items from the ship’s storeroom that were clearly marked. When he tried to pass through customs, he was immediately arrested. He had no explanation for his conduct and when he was asked why he committed the theft, he said, “I don’t know. I can’t think. I can’t say why I did it. I just saw other men putting a towel or two in their bags, so I thought I’d do the same. Only I just couldn’t seem to stop.”  He was sentenced to one year in the federal penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida. While he was in prison, Fernandez became cellmates with a Haitian man. This man, a follower of the ancient religion Vodun, introduced Raymond to the practice of voodoo and plunged him into the world of the occult.

He became convinced that he had a secret power over women that originated with voodoo. His sexual powers were at their peak, he believed, when they were enhanced by the energy of the Vodun. Erroneously described as an evil religion, it is a derivative of several African religions, mostly Nigerian, some of which go back over 5,000 years. Raymond fell into the dark side of voodoo and believed that he was a oungan(priest) who could obtain his mystical powers from the Loa (spirits). He read the notorious “Haiti or the Black Republic,” written in 1884 and the source of a great deal of misinformation about the Vodun religion. It contained lurid descriptions of human sacrifice and tortures, which later captured the imagination of Hollywood filmmakers who produced films that perpetuated that myth. Fernandez told friends that he could make love with women from great distances by placing voodoo powders inside the envelopes. In his letters, he asked his victims to send a lock of their hair, an earring, or some personal item that he could utilize in voodoo rituals to strengthen his supernatural control. Unsuspecting women, he believed, then fell at his feet, consumed by the erotic sexual persuasion of Raymond Fernandez, voodoo houngan.

In 1946, Raymond was released from prison and moved to Brooklyn to live with his sister. His relatives were upset with his appearance, which had changed dramatically since the accident. He was mostly bald where before he had an abundance of rich, dark hair. The scar from the accident was plainly visible on the top of his head. Raymond locked himself in his room for days at a time and complained of painful headaches. During this period, he began to write dozens of letters to “lonely hearts” clubs where, through the mails, he began to seduce gullible females who were looking for men. Once he gained their trust, he would steal money, jewelry, checks; whatever he could embezzle. Then, he would disappear forever. The victims, often too embarrassed to complain, rarely reported the episodes to the police.

Raymond had found a way to live without working.

Death in La Linea

For months, Fernandez immersed himself in the world of lonely hearts clubs, writing letters to numerous women, often at the same time.  In 1947, he began a correspondence with a Jane Lucilla Thompson who had recently separated from her husband. She was lonely, susceptible to kindness and ripe for the picking.  After a letter-writing courtship, Jane Thompson agreed to meet Fernandez. In October 1947, they bought cruise ship tickets with Jane Thompson’s money and took a trip to Spain. For several weeks, they traveled together and booked hotel rooms as man and wife. They dined and took sightseeing trips across the Spanish countryside.

Fernandez, though, was still legally married to his first wife, Encarnacion Robles. Eventually, he found his way to La Linea where Encarnacion lived with his two kids. He introduced her to Jane and for a time, the unlikely three frequently dined out on the town. Things seemed to be going well, but on the night of November 7, 1947, something happened between the two women. It is believed that some type of a disagreement or fight erupted between Raymond and Jane at the hotel in La Linea. He was seen running out of the room late that night.

The next morning, Jane Lucilla Thompson was found dead in her room of unknown causes. Her body was removed and buried without an autopsy. Later, when suspicions of murder by poison were aroused, her body would be exhumed. Meanwhile, Fernandez skipped town, leaving his wife, the long-suffering Encarnacion, alone once more. He caught the next boat to the United States where he showed up at Jane’s old apartment in New York City. With the forged last will and testament of Jane Thompson in his hand, he took possession of the apartment and all the furnishings despite the fact that Jane’s elderly mother lived there.

During this tumultuous time, while Raymond traveled through Spain with Jane Thompson, dined with both women and then confiscated the New York City apartment from the mother of his latest victim, Fernandez continued his correspondence with dozens of women.

One of them was Martha Seabrook Beck.

A Letter from New York

In sunny Florida, Martha went about her business at the Pensacola Hospital where she was so good at her job, she was made supervisor of all the nurses in just six months time. Her professional career was finally on track but her social life and her yearning for romance was still at a dead end. After she wrote her first letter to Mother Dinene’s club, she waited nearly two weeks for a return letter. And each day she was disappointed when none arrived. But sometime before Christmas Day in 1947, she received her first and only reply.

The letter was from a Raymond Fernandez from West 139th Street in New York City. He said he was a successful and well-respected businessman who made his fortune in the import and export trade. The words were written in an elaborate manner, extremely courteous and seemed sincere. He wrote that he was a Spaniard who had recently left his country to come to America for better business opportunities. He now lived alone “here in this apartment much too large for a bachelor but I hope someday to share it with a wife.” Fernandez wrote that he knew Martha was a nurse and he wrote to her because “I know you have a full heart with a great capacity for comfort and love.”

It was too much for the starry-eyed Martha. She carried the letter with her everywhere she went and read it at every opportunity. She couldn’t believe how well he wrote and expressed himself. She immediately bought expensive stationery and began a two-week correspondence that included a dozen letters and an exchange of photographs. The photos were a little bit of a problem. Of course, Martha didn’t want to scare off the prospective Romeo with a full frontal view of her generous size. Instead, she sent Fernandez a group photo of all the nurses at the hospital in which she was partially hidden behind a row of friends. In the accompanying letter, she wrote “it doesn’t do me justice.”

She couldn’t have known that size or appearance was of little concern to Raymond Fernandez. By this time, he had already defrauded, tricked, deceived and stole from dozens of women across the country. He didn’t care if his victims were fat, skinny, old or young. He had only one criterion: they had to have assets. When he learned that Martha was a nurse, he assumed that she had money or a house or something of value. He knew that he would have to develop a relationship by mail and maybe a telephone call or two before arranging a face-to-face meeting. He had to build trust and inspire a level of sexual anticipation in his victims. Through repeated acts of trial and error, he built up a standard routine and he followed that script almost in every instance right up to the end.

When the victim realized that she had been “taken,” most times she was reluctant to call the police. There were strong feelings of humiliation, guilt and even complicity in the crime. And above all, the women did not want their names dragged into public view as “lonely hearts” seeking men through newspaper ads. The self-absorbed Fernandez just assumed that most women were satisfied with his sexual dexterity and imagined they simply accepted the theft as a valid price to pay for a few days or weeks of happiness with a wonderful lover like him.

After a few letters, back and forth, Fernandez performed the necessary step of asking Martha for a lock of her hair. With this hair, Fernandez was able to perform his voodoo ritual, which he believed would make Martha unable to resist his sexual charms. He followed directions from a book written by William Seabrook called {Magic Island}, a bible of voodoo and secret spells. He considered it a good omen that his favorite author and his latest victim shared the same name.

Martha was thrilled that a man would ask for a lock of her hair. That had never happened before. She happily sent a generous piece of her hair with the very next letter and doused it with a smattering of perfume. Maybe her turn had finally come, she may have thought. Maybe she imagined that Raymond Fernandez would be her knight in shining armor, her dream lover to take her away from the daily routine of bedpans and a life of drudgery.

Maybe her luck had finally changed.


After Fernandez built up enough anticipation in Martha and he performed the necessary voodoo ritual, he decided that the time had come for the meeting. He arranged to take a train down to Florida and for Martha to meet him at the station. Of course,  Martha, realizing that she was about to confront the lies she told about herself, was extremely nervous, but her curiosity and desire quickly overcame whatever fears she may have had. On December 28, 1947, he arrived in Pensacola, Florida.

At first, Fernandez must have been surprised at her size but outwardly he gave no signs of his disapproval. When she first saw Fernandez, Martha was thrilled. She couldn’t believe how lucky she was to have such a handsome man. He was everything she dreamed of, and more. She thought he strongly resembled her hero, Charles Boyer. They returned to her home where Martha introduced Raymond to her two children and prepared dinner. Once the children were put to bed, Raymond made his move. Martha, already thrilled that he would pay any attention to her whatsoever, quickly surrendered. For the first time in her life, she attained sexual fulfillment. It was a revelation.

Fernandez, though, was still thinking of his scheme to fleece the gullible Martha. He was anxious to learn of her assets in order to determine if she was worth the effort. They spent the next day and night together and had sex several times. Martha swore her undying love and wanted him to stay in Florida to marry her. But Fernandez did not want marriage; he wanted to continue his work. He suddenly told Martha that he had business in New York and really should return as soon as possible. Martha protested but Fernandez calmed her by saying he would soon be back or send money so she could join him in New York. Martha interpreted that as a sort of proposal.

After he boarded the train in Jacksonville, she went back to Milton and told everyone that she was about to be married again. A shower was prepared in her honor, she was happy like she had never been before. Then, on the day of the shower, she received a letter from Fernandez in which he said that she “misunderstood” his feelings for her and he would not be returning to Florida. She was devastated. After Martha attempted suicide, Fernandez relented and agreed to let her visit him in New York. She stayed for a glorious two weeks. 

But when she returned to her job in Florida, she was fired without explanation. When she tried to find out why, her employer refused to elaborate. Martha felt it was because the town had learned about her scandalous affair with a Latin lover from New York. She picked up her last paycheck as Martha Fernandez and went home to pack. She got her two kids dressed, said goodbye to a few friends and got on the first bus to New York.

When Fernandez answered his door on the morning of January 18, 1948, much to his dismay, he found Martha and her two children standing there. This was a major stumbling block in his career of theft and deception. Fernandez, though, didn’t disprove of having Martha around. There was something comforting about her, the way she catered to his every need, made his bed, cooked for him. But the kids had to go, he insisted. Martha reluctantly decided that giving up her children was the price she had to pay for Raymond. On January 25, 1948, she dropped off her kids at the Salvation Army and abandoned them. For the next three years, she had no contact with them whatsoever. Not until she was in Sing Sing prison in 1951, did she ever give them another thought.

The Beginning

Once they were rid of the children, Beck and Fernandez had the apartment all to themselves. It was at this point that Raymond brought out all his lonely heart letters. He told her everything:  the dozens of women he deceived and robbed, his wife in Spain and the other wives as well. Martha, already committed to Fernandez, realized there was no turning back. He was her man and she was his woman. The way Martha saw the situation; it was her duty to help him. Together, they made plans for his next victim. As they poured over the photographs of widows and lonely hearts, they settled upon a Miss Esther Henne in southern Pennsylvania.

The unlikely pair traveled down to Pennsylvania where they met with Ms. Henne. Martha posed as Raymond’s sister-in-law. Within the week, on February 28, 1948, Esther Henne and Raymond Fernandez were married in a brief ceremony at the County Clerk’s Office in Fairfax, Virginia. Then the newlyweds, with Martha, returned to the apartment on West 139th Street. She later told reporters: “For four days he was very polite to me. Then he gave me tongue lashings when I wouldn’t sign over my insurance policies and my teacher’s pension fund to him.” Things went downhill after that. “I began to hear stories about how he went to Spain with a woman and she died,” she said. Shortly afterwards, the new Mrs. Fernandez left the apartment minus her car and hundreds of dollars which Raymond stole from her. 

Several other women followed Esther Henne in quick succession including two named Myrtle. One of them, Myrtle Young of Greene Forest, Arkansas, agreed to marry Fernandez. On August 14, 1948, he and Myrtle were married in Cook County, Illinois. Martha posed as Raymond’s sister this time and did everything she could to make sure that the marriage was never consummated. It included sleeping in the same bed as Myrtle. This went on for several days until Myrtle protested so much, that Raymond gave her a heavy dose of drugs which caused her to lapse into unconsciousness. With Martha’s help, Raymond carried Myrtle onto a bus and sent her back to Little Rock, Arkansas where she had to be carried off the bus by the police. She was also robbed of four thousand dollars. The very next day, Myrtle Young died in a Little Rock Hospital.

Meanwhile, Martha and Raymond continued on their way back east. They stopped in several towns and met with an assortment of women who had been corresponding with Raymond. They managed to steal some money but none looked promising as a long-term investment. They arrived back in New York and soon were scouring the lonely-hearts ads for more victims. They found one in New England but when they went to meet her, she was younger than Martha imagined and she wouldn’t let Raymond work the scam.

The money was dwindling lower and lower. The winter was coming and neither Martha nor Raymond had real jobs. They were desperate for more victims. Soon, they located Janet Fay, a 66-year-old widow who lived in Albany, New York. Raymond took pen in hand and began the game once again.

Janet Fay

Janet Fay rented a spacious apartment in the downtown part of the city and, more importantly, had money in the bank. She had a habit of writing letters to lonely hearts clubs and despite warnings from her friends and family, she continued the practice. Mrs. Fay was a religious woman who attended Catholic church every Sunday, a fact that was exploited by Fernandez who then laced his future letters with references to God and religion. Fernandez often used the name “Charles Martin” for his correspondence with his victims.

After a period of several weeks, in which Fernandez persuaded Janet that his aims were honorable, arrangements were made for him to come to Albany just before New Years Day. On December 30, 1948 Martha and Raymond arrived in downtown Albany and checked into a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Fernandez. The next day, he showed up at Janet’s door carrying a bouquet of flowers. They spent the day together getting acquainted and discussing religious matters.

Over the next few days, Fernandez brought along Martha, introducing her as his sister, and together, they had dinner and toured the city. Janet even allowed them to sleep over in her apartment. Soon, Raymond proposed marriage to Janet and she readily accepted. They made plans to move to Long Island where Martha had already rented an apartment at 15 Adeline Street, Valley Stream, Long Island. During the first week in January 1949, Janet made the rounds of the Albany banks cleaning out her bank accounts. She accumulated over $6,000 in cash and checks. As soon as she completed her errands, Fernandez convinced her to leave Albany.

On January 4, 1949, Fernandez, Beck and Janet Fay left Albany and drove to Long Island. When they arrived at the apartment, they ate dinner together and settled in for the night. Fernandez fell asleep first leaving Janet and Martha together alone. What exactly transpired between them will never be known for Martha told several different stories later when questioned by police. But she did say: “I was just burning up with jealousy and anger!” Martha also said that when she entered Raymond’s bedroom she saw “Janet naked with her arm around Raymond.” Already upset with Raymond because he showed too much attention to Janet, the sight of the two of them in bed was too much for Martha to bear. According to Martha, Janet became angry and yelled, “I won’t allow you to live with us! You’re the most brazen bitch I’ve ever seen!” An argument followed during which Fernandez allegedly told Martha: “Keep this woman quiet. I don’t care what you do! Just keep her quiet!”

Martha later testified she blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened. “The next I knew, the defendant Fernandez had me by the shoulders and was shaking me!” she said. Janet Fay’s body lay at Martha’s feet bleeding profusely from a severe head wound. She was bludgeoned into unconsciousness with a ball-peen hammer and then garroted using a scarf as a tourniquet around her neck. Martha said that immediately after the killing, she was in some type of a “trance.” Fernandez and Beck cleaned up the room, wrapped the body in towels and sheets and pushed it into a closet. Then, they went to sleep.

The next day, they bought a large trunk and dumped the body inside. They drove over to Raymond’s sister’s house where they convinced her to store the trunk in her basement for the time being.  Eleven days later, on January 15, Raymond retrieved the trunk from his sister’s home and buried it in the cellar of a rented house. Raymond then covered up the grave with cement. For the next week, they cashed Janet Fay’s checks and typed letters to her family saying “I am all excited and having the time of my life. I never felt as happy before. I soon will be Mrs. Martin and will go to Florida!” They signed the letters “Janet L. Fay.” But in their haste, they made a pivotal error. Janet did not own a typewriter and couldn’t type. Her family immediately notified the police.

Delphine and the Baby

Beck and Fernandez quickly left Valley Stream and headed west to Grand Rapids, Michigan where the next victim was waiting. For several weeks, Fernandez corresponded with a young widow named Delphine Downing, 41, who also had a two-year-old child, Rainelle. Delphine also knew Fernandez as “Charles Martin,” a successful businessman in the export trade who also had a special love for children. So when “Charles” wrote Delphine and told her that he was coming for a visit to Byron Center, a suburb of Grand Rapids, she was pleasantly surprised. She also didn’t mind when he said that he would be bringing his sister, Martha, along.

When they met, in late January 1949, Delphine was impressed with “Charles” and may have thought that she had a future with him. She liked his courteous manner and considerate attitude toward Rainelle. Before the month was out, he was having sex with Delphine, a development that had Martha quietly seething with rage. But Delphine’s happiness was short lived. One morning, she entered the bathroom and accidentally observed “Charles” without his toupee. She was shocked at his baldness and the ugly scar on the top of his head.

She accused Fernandez of fraud and deception. Fernandez turned on the charm to placate her, but nothing worked. Martha was still burning inside but remained quiet, hoping the situation would calm down. She convinced Delphine to take some sleeping pills. While the pills did their work, Rainelle began to cry, perhaps sensing that her mother was not acting normally. Martha, already furious with Delphine and Fernandez, suddenly grabbed the child and began to choke her into unconsciousness causing obvious bruises on her neck. Fernandez was angry.

“If she wakes up and sees Rainelle, she’ll go to the police!” he said.

“Do something, Ray!” Martha said. Fernandez went into the next room and retrieved a handgun that belonged to Delphine’s dead husband. He wrapped the pistol in a blanket and placed the muzzle against Delphine’s head. He pulled the trigger, sending a bullet into her brain, which killed her instantly. Rainelle watched the entire event from a few feet away. Then, they wrapped Delphine up in sheets and carried her into the basement. They dug a large hole and dumped the body in. Fernandez covered the grave with cement while Martha dutifully cleaned up the murder scene.

For the next two days, they made their plans to escape. They cashed in whatever checks that Delphine had and looted the house of all valuables. Meanwhile, Rainelle cried constantly and refused to eat. They talked over what should be done with the little girl but could not agree. Ultimately, Fernandez told Martha to get rid of her.

“I can’t do it, Ray, I can’t!” she pleaded. But Martha was already in too deep. She was accomplice to several murders and partner to dozens of frauds and thefts. She had no real home and had abandoned her own children to be with her Svengali lover. And now, after burying yet another body to hide their crimes, Fernandez wanted her to do the unthinkable. She may have tried to resist, but his power over her was complete. As Rainelle continued to sob, Beck and Fernandez transferred some of the water that had accumulated in the basement and filled an empty metal tub to the brim. Then, in an act of callous depravity, Martha picked up the child and held her under the water until she drowned. A few minutes later, Fernandez was digging another grave next to Delphine. Only this one was a lot smaller.

Although they were now free to leave town and move on, they chose not to. Instead, Martha and Raymond went to the movies. Later when they came back to the apartment, they began to pack their bags. There was a knock at the door and when Fernandez opened it, he found two stern-looking cops standing in front of him. Suspicious neighbors had called the police.

The Arrest

After they were arrested on February 28, 1949, Beck and Fernandez were brought to the Kent County D.A.’s office where they were questioned by the police and the District Attorney. Perhaps because they were already resigned to their fate, neither asked for an attorney nor did they attempt to avoid questioning. “I’m no average killer,” Fernandez said to investigators.  Together they told a salacious story of sex, deception and murder to the police. They signed a 73-page confession in the presence of Kent County D.A. Roger O. McMahon who assured them they would never be turned over to the New York police. Fernandez and Beck were aware there was no death penalty in Michigan and were content to remain in Kent County rather than be extradited back to New York to face charges for the Fay killing.

“The electric chair scares me!” Martha said. With the promise that if they told the truth, Fernandez could be out of prison in six years with time off for good behavior, they cooperated fully with investigators.

The next day, the Lonely Hearts murder case was in the nation’s headlines. It was page one in every big city newspaper. The N.Y. Times wrote, “3 ‘Lonely Hearts’ Murders Trap Pair; Body Dug Up Here.”  Wherever Beck and Fernandez went while in custody, the photographers followed, hoping to catch a photo of America’s most dysfunctional couple. And just as soon, the process of dehumanizing Martha Beck began.

The papers called her “fat,” “simpering,” “Big Martha,” “a 200 lb. figure of wrath,”  “the giggling divorcee,” “unattractive,” “a weird woman,” and other humiliating terms.  Each newspaper story published during that period included her weight, which was falsely reported in nearly every instance. (Her actual weight at the time of her arrest was 233 pounds.) Unfortunately, the New York press has a long and shameful history of such reporting, particularly in murder cases where the accused is a female. From the time of Ruth Snyder in 1927, a woman convicted of murdering her husband, right up until the modern era, the city’s tabloids often lose every sense of objectivity when it comes to reporting on criminal trials in which the defendant is a woman. Snyder, especially, was vilified by the press in a way that is seldom seen for any criminal defendant, male or female. Her case became the journalism benchmark on how a woman can be totally demonized by newspaper reporting.

Headlines such as “Reveal Lonely Hearts Blood Money Dealings,” “Hearts Killer Explodes at Attorney,” and “Fernandez Tells Strange Love Story” built an image in the public’s eye that the two defendants were already guilty and a trial was just a necessary formality. In a startling display of the media’s bias in this case, even just a cursory read of the press coverage before and during the murder trial reveals an expectation, even a demand, that Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez receive the death penalty. The pressure for them to die was building.

During the week of March 8, 1949, after several phone calls from New York Governor Thomas Dewey to the state of Michigan, a deal was cut with Kent County prosecutors. They would waive criminal charges for the Downing murders and permit New York to extradite the defendants to face charges in the Janet Fay murder.

The reason was simple: Michigan had no electric chair.

The Trial Circus

Amidst a stunning, deadly heat wave that gripped the nation that summer, the trial of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez opened on June 28, 1949. A young Manhattan attorney, Herbert E. Rosenberg, was chosen to represent Martha and Raymond. Of course, one attorney to represent both defendants was a violation of ethics and unfair to the accused, but the decision was allowed to stand. A change of venue from Nassau County, Long Island, where the Fay murder was committed, was granted and the trial moved to the more spacious, more accessible   Bronx Supreme Court near baseball’s famous Yankee Stadium. But nothing could save the spectators from the oppressive heat. Over the July 4th weekend in 1949, at least 881 people died nationwide from heat and accidents, a record that still stands today.

Judge Ferdinand Pecora sat on the bench, a stern but fair jurist who had a reputation of moving things along in his trials. The prosecutor was Nassau County District Attorney Edward Robinson Jr. who was on the case since the very beginning and participated in the deal to extradite the defendants back from Michigan.  The prosecution began its case with a barrage of witnesses including the medical examiner, friends of Janet Fay from Albany and the landlord from Janet’s apartment. Michigan investigators followed them to the stand and forensic detectives later explained the substantial physical evidence to the court.

Raymond Fernandez took the stand on July 11, 1949. He denied any role in the Fay killing and said that he only met Martha a short time before by writing to lonely hearts clubs. He admitted confessing to the Michigan authorities but wished to retract the entire statement because he said he confessed only to save his sweetheart, Martha. In a soft voice and often smiling over at Martha as she nodded approvingly during his testimony, Fernandez appeared the picture of the sophisticated Spanish gentleman.

“All my statements were made for the purpose of helping Martha,” he said softly, exposing his gold lined front teeth. “I love her. It couldn’t be anything else,” he added.

But prosecutor Edward Robinson jumped all over Fernandez’s story by bringing up Jane Thompson, Delphine Downing, Rainelle Downing and Myrtle Young, all dead after meeting with Raymond Fernandez.  Robinson kept after him in a shouting, blistering examination.   

“Mr. Fernandez is not deaf!” said Martha from her seat after one exchange. But Fernandez scored points also, especially when he described the Michigan interrogation.

“Everybody was permitted to question me, including the newspapermen,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was coming or going. And the D.A. said that whatever I said would not be used against me.” Fernandez regained his composure and continued on, sensing that this point was one to dwell on. “They would look upon me as a murderer in New York and let her go,” he said. “As a man, I could take it better than a woman. If I cooperated, they said I would do six years and be paroled. Then I could do what I liked. If I didn’t cooperate, I would go to jail for life.”

But the defendants had too much against them. The lengthy confession with all its gruesome detail came back to haunt them many times over. As the statement was read into the record, the courtroom gasped when they heard descriptions of the murders. “I can still hear it! The blood was dripping, dripping, dripping and the sound of it just sounded like it could be heard all the over the house!” Martha had told the Michigan investigators. While Fernandez was strangling Mrs. Fay, she said, her false teeth fell out. They had the presence of mind to dispose of them because “we realized in case her body was found, if the teeth were there, that would be a mode of identification.”

D.A. Robinson then asked Fernandez if he shot and killed Delphine Downing.

“That is true,” he said simply. But when asked if he killed Janet Fay, he denied it. At that point, Martha suddenly jumped out of her seat.

“I think at this time, your honor, I want to take the stand!” she shouted.  Judge Pecora admonished her as her attorney pushed her down into the seat. Page after page of their confession, each one more damaging than the last, went on to describe their twisting journey through deception, sex, fraud and murder.

The testimony of Raymond Fernandez included descriptions of extensive sexual relations he had with his various victims. Much was made of a three-way strip poker game he played with Martha and Esther Henne, one of his victims. The last hand was played for who would have the pleasure of sleeping with Fernandez. Martha won. This type of testimony continued through the morning of July 21 and was so lurid that “unauthorized persons were not permitted to loiter outside the courtroom.” The N.Y. Times said that “many of the would-be spectators, predominantly women, did without lunch in order not to lose their places.”

Martha Takes the Stand

The anticipation had been building for weeks. The tabloids were filled with stories of how Martha would testify. Would she give up Raymond? Would she take the blame for all the murders herself? Would she cry? When her name was called on the morning of July 25, 1949, she rose from the defense table and walked slowly to the witness stand. She climbed the two steps up to the platform and sat gently into her seat. She wore a gray and white polka dot summer dress, two strands of pearls around her neck and green wedge-type shoes. It was an outfit inappropriate for a courtroom. After Raymond described their “abnormal sexual’ practices during his testimony, the New York papers went into overdrive to further degrade the accused killers. The courtroom was jammed with an overflow of spectators and reporters.

When Martha told her story to a hushed and crowded room, Fernandez sat rigid in his chair, not knowing what to expect.  Martha began with her childhood, reciting all the problems she suffered through as a child. When she was just 13, Martha said, she was subjected to “two incestuous attacks” which left her “frightened and shy” and also pregnant. She said that the assaults “preyed on my mind ever since.”  She dreamed constantly of being in love. “Life was not worth living,” she explained.  “I’d rather be dead than to continue arguing with my mother each day of my life.” She said that her mother was over-bearing to such a degree, that “I had to give her a day-to-day story of whom I was with and what I did.” She attempted suicide on several occasions.

Her luck with men was just as bad. Every time she developed a romantic relationship, she said, it went nowhere. Her first marriage ended when her husband walked out, leaving her pregnant. “He gave me the impression I was the only one he ever had loved,” she said tearfully. Each boyfriend after her marriage was a disaster. She had two children along the way and yet still could not hold onto a man. She said the “remorse, fear and shame” drove her to attempt suicide once again. She told the court that she tried to commit suicide six times in the year before she was arrested and that “it entered in my mind almost every day.” When she explained how she dropped off her children on January 25, 1948 at the Salvation Army in New York City, she broke down again.

After a short recess, Martha returned and resumed her testimony. She claimed that she knew Fernandez was a murderer and that she helped him find lonely women to victimize. “Raymond got quite a kick out of the photographs of some of the old hags who write to him and expected him to correspond with them,” she said. At times, Martha giggled when she recalled how easily Raymond was able to deceive his victims. When the questioning turned to Mrs. Fay, Martha said the last thing she remembered was Fernandez ordering her to keep Mrs. Fay quiet. Then she found herself standing over Mrs. Fay while Fernandez shook her shoulders screaming, “My God, Martha, what have you done?”

When the prosecutor asked about her love of Fernandez, Martha defended him. “We loved each other and I consider it absolutely sacred….You referred to the love making as abnormal but for the love I had for Fernandez, nothing is abnormal!” she said. Martha fidgeted in the stand, her large frame looking out of place in a wooden chair designed for smaller people. She said “a request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command. I loved him enough to do anything he asked me to!” She insisted she remembered nothing about the killing until she saw Mrs. Fay at her feet bleeding profusely all over the rug. At her instruction, Fernandez wrapped a scarf around Mrs. Fay’s neck and twisted it like a tourniquet. With a straight face, Martha said her “training as a nurse taught her that a tourniquet about the neck would stop bleeding from the head.”

For three days, she was questioned relentlessly by Nassau County District Attorney Edward Robinson Jr. At times, tearful, angry, rebellious, Martha gave details of her sexual relationship with Fernandez that made some women leave the courtroom. When she began to describe certain sex acts connected to the practice of voodoo, a contingent of two dozen cops had to be called to the Bronx Supreme Court building to contend with the crowds that tried to push their way into the courtroom. The N. Y. Times reported “the lonely hearts murder trial was disrupted yesterday afternoon by a near riot of would be spectators outside the courtroom.”

The Verdict

On August 18, 1949, after 44 days of testimony and a five-hour charge by Judge Pecora, the case went to the jury. They took a break for dinner and began deliberations at 9:45 p.m. Later that night, they came back and asked for a reading of Fernandez’s confession. They also asked for a clarification on the term “premeditation.” Some observers thought that Fernandez would take the weight of the case while Martha would be convicted on a lesser charge. But the jurors worked through the night with no sleep and by 8:30 a.m. the next morning it was over. Ironically, when the verdict was announced, there was almost no one in the courtroom. Thinking that the jury would continue deliberations in the morning, all the spectators went home for the night.

Almost immediately after the jury received the case on the night before, a vote was taken. The tally was already 11 to 1 for conviction. A single juror wondered if Martha was sane and if Fernandez had premeditated the murder of Mrs. Fay. After several hours of debate that juror gave in and voted for conviction. The jury of ten men and two women found Fernandez and Beck guilty of first-degree murder. The defendants displayed no emotion or surprise though the Daily News said “Mrs. Beck, as she did so many times during the trial, took on a brazen pose.” There was no recommendation for mercy for either defendant and sentencing was set for the following Monday.

On August 22, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez stood impassively as Judge Pecora sentenced them both to die in the electric chair on October 10 of that year. Within the hour, they were on their way to Sing Sing prison on the banks of the Hudson River. Martha became inmate #108594 and Fernandez became # 108595. Upon admission, Martha was asked routine questions.

“To what do you attribute your criminal act” the guard asked.

“Something I got into. I had no control,” she replied. To the same question, Fernandez said, “An accident.”  They were processed, immediately separated and placed on Death Row. Ironically, Martha was assigned the same cell as murderess Ruth Snyder in 1927 and later occupied by the irrepressible Eva Coo in 1936. Both were executed. The cell consisted of a bunk, a sink and toilet. Her only companions would be the matrons on duty. Martha submitted a list of approved visitors that included her divorced husband, Alfred Beck, her brother and three sisters. She also included her son Anthony, now 4, and her daughter Carmen, 5 who she hadn’t seen since January 1948 when she abandoned them at the Salvation Army office in Manhattan.

On Death Row

Martha and Raymond’s stay on Death Row in Sing Sing prison had to be one of the most tumultuous events in that prison’s history. From the day they arrived on August 19, 1949 until March 8, 1951 when they were executed, the ongoing soap opera of the broken-hearted Martha never ceased. Fed by intermittent press stories of Martha’s sexual deprivation and erratic behavior, the public never lost its appetite for gossip about the Lonely Hearts Killers.

In September 1950 it was rumored that Martha was having an ongoing sexual relationship with one of the guards, a story that made front-page news in the tabloids. “For several weeks I have suffered in silence because of the rumors started by Mr. Fernandez,” she wrote in a letter to Warden Denno of Sing Sing. “To print that or say that I am having an affair with a guard is one of the most asinine and ridiculous statements ever made!” she said. “Approximately 25 million persons heard Winchell’s broadcast tonight ─ including members of my own family. And I’ll admit it will be a shock and embarrassment to them.”

But Fernandez apparently believed the story and submitted court papers to have his case dropped. The petition stated “the triangle subjects him to mental torture beyond endurance” and requests that all appeals on his behalf be stopped immediately so that he be executed forthwith to “end his living death!”  Martha asked her attorney, Herbert Rosenberg to do something to stop the rumors. “What do they expect me to do?” she wrote. “Sit here and let him destroy the one thread of decency I have left? He has done so much talking about how he has me wrapped around his little finger that it was a blow to his ego when I unwrapped myself and forgot about him…All I can say is: what a character!”

As time went on, Martha and Raymond carried on a love/hate relationship that changed almost daily. Some days they professed their undying love for one another, other days they would barely speak to each other. In one letter, Martha belittled him to her mother: “Oh yes, he’s brave when it comes to talk and hurting others ─ he can kill without batting an eyelash ─ but to hurt himself ─ he’d never do it. It takes a man to kill himself. Not a sniveling, low-down, double-crossing, lying rat like him!”

Incredibly, all during the time he spent on Death Row and apparently unknown to Martha, Fernandez continued to write and profess his love for his first wife Encarnacion, who was still in La Linea, Spain with his four children. “Kisses and hugs to the children and you receive a million kisses and hugs from the one who always will have you until the last second of my life,” Fernandez wrote on January 8, 1951. Encarnacion, who knew that he was involved with many other women, still considered him her husband and wrote:  “Do you prefer me to fly to you and spank you for not writing, just as if you were a little child? Kisses from the children. All my love to you, from your wife, Encarna.”   

But it was Martha, the hopeless romantic, who was trapped in a web of deceit and obsessive love who captured the imagination of legions of women. They could empathize with a young girl, who was ridiculed and rejected by family, friends and boyfriends because of a weight problem. They could feel for a woman who wound up on Death Row because she wanted to please the only man she ever loved and who loved her.


Although executions were still a reality at Sing Sing, the number of executions had diminished greatly in the previous few years. There were only three in 1950, down from 14 in 1949 and a high of 21 executions in 1936.   After several failed appeals, their execution date was set for March 8, 1951. Martha would be the 6th female executed in the state of New York during the 20th century. As time ran out for the Lonely Hearts Killers, they reconciled and wrote letters to each other declaring their love once more.

Preparations for the event required weeks of activity by the prison staff. Witnesses for the Beck and Fernandez executions totaled at least 52 people, an unusually high number. They included nine judges, numerous police officials from Michigan, New York and Long Island, press representatives from the Detroit  News, the New York Journal American, the World Telegram, the New York Daily News, the New York Mirror, New York’s El Diario, the Pensacola Daily Times and many others. Prison officials were unusually accommodating to the media.

On March 8, her last morning, Martha ate “a good breakfast, ham, eggs and coffee and took a shower,” according to a Death Row log kept by Matron Evans. “Martha ate fair dinner. Laundry sent out, returned and checked,” she wrote. Martha preferred to spend her last day with Matron Evans but became angry when she discovered that another matron would be on duty from 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Martha wrote her last angry letter that afternoon in which she said, “I do not appreciate it one bit, but I am glad that no member of my family will know how hurt and misled my last day was. It hurts me deeply to realize that I have been wrong in thinking that there could be “good” in a state paid employee. Martha Jule # 108594.”

According to Martha’s written instructions, her last meal consisted of “Fried chicken, no wings, French frys (sic), lettuce and tomato salad.” Fernandez ordered an onion omelet, French fries, chocolate and a Cuban cigar. He was especially nervous and confided to prison guards that he may not hold up under the pressure. As the hour grew near, Martha sent Fernandez a note professing her undying love.

 “The news brought to me that Martha loves me is the best I’ve had in years. Now I’m ready to die!” he said. “So tonight I’ll die like a man!”

At 11:00 p.m. the procedure began. First, two other convicts, John King, 22, and Richard Power, 22, from Queens, New York were taken from their cells and marched over to the pale green death chamber. They were executed for the senseless murder of an airline clerk in 1950. After their deaths, Fernandez was removed from his cell and taken to the same cold, barren room. It was tradition at Sing Sing that the weakest should go first.  “I want to shout it out. I love Martha! What do the public know about love?” he said. Fernandez was a broken man, panic-stricken and paralyzed with fear. He had to be carried into the chair.

Minutes later, Martha was brought into the dreaded room on her own volition, escorted by the matrons. She sat down into the creaking chair carefully and had to wriggle her large frame into the seat. She was able to squeeze into position with difficulty as the teary matrons applied the straps to her body. Her mouth formed the words “So long!” but no sound escaped her lips. At 11:24 p.m. she was dead. It was the first quadruple execution since 1947. The executioner, Joseph Francel of Cairo, New York, was paid $150 per person for his expertise.

Before she was led from her cell, Martha had this final statement for the press.  “What does it matter who is to blame?” she said. “My story is a love story, but only those tortured with love can understand what I mean. I was pictured as a fat unfeeling woman…I am not unfeeling, stupid or moronic…in the history of the world how many crimes have been attributed to love?”


Buck, Paul. The Honeymoon Killers.  London: Xanadu Publications. 1970.

Beck, Martha Personal Letters in Sing Sing Case Files. Courtesy of New York State Archives, Albany, New York.

Brown, Wenzell. They Died in the Chair. Toronto: Popular Press. 1958.

Brown, Wenzell. Introduction to Murder. London: Andrew Dakers Limited.   1953

Christianson, Scott. Condemned.  NY: Northern University Press. 1998.

Cook, John. “Pulling the Plug on the Electric Chair,” Mother Jones Interactive. May, 2000

New York Daily News articles:

Dillon, Edward and Lee, Henry. “Link Lonely Hearts Pair With Slain Widow,” June 28, 1949;  “Reveal Lonely Hearts Blood Money Dealings,” June 29, 1949; “Hearts Killer Explodes at Attorney,” July 1, 1949; “Fernandez to Hit Own Confession,” July 6, 1949; “Fernandez Admits Heart Killing in Michigan, Denies One Here,” July 13, 1949;  “Fernandez tells Strange Love Story,” July 21, 1949; “Mean Mom, Bad Men My Downfall: Martha,” July 26, 1949. 
Kivel, Martin. “Hearts Killers Calmly Face the Last Mile,” March 9, 1951.

The Citizen Register, September 2, 1949, March 9, 1951

Elliot, Robert G.  Agent of Death. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co. 1940

Frasier, David K. Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc. 1972.

Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New York State 1639-1963. 1997.

Knappman, Edward W., editor. Great American Trials. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. 1994

Nash, Jay Robert. Bloodletters and Badmen. New York: M. Evans and Company. 1973

Nash, Jay Robert. Look For the Woman. NY: M. Evans and Company Inc. 1981

Seigel, Kalman. “3 Lonely Hearts Murders Trap Pair; Body Dug up Here,” March 2, 1949, New York Times.

Sing Sing Prison Electrocutions 1891-1963. Ossining Historical Society, Ossining, New York

Sing Sing Prison: case files of the condemned, New York State Archives, Albany, New York.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. NY: Facts on File Inc. 1970.

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