Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop

Martha the Lonely Heart

Martha Beck (CORBIS)
Martha Beck (CORBIS)
Martha Jule Beck was a huge woman. The press variously reported her weight to be anywhere from 200 to 300 pounds. She was consistently described in derogatory terms by the tabloids in New York City, where her murder trial took place during the summer heat of 1949. Not that she didn't deserve it. Martha murdered at least three people and probably a lot more. Raymond Fernandez, age 33, her pathetic con-man, thief, killer boyfriend, roamed America looking for lonely widows who would fall for his Latino charms. While he pretended love and promised marriage, it wouldn't be long before Beck and Fernandez would gain control of the victim's money and bank accounts. Later in their criminal careers, they resorted to murder and freely boasted of their skills. "I'm no average killer," Fernandez later told authorities (Nash, p. 64) as Martha smiled approvingly.

Her sad and pathetic life began in Milton, Florida in 1919. She was born Martha Jule Seabrook and with a physical ailment that caused her to mature faster than others and also gain excessive weight. By the time she was 12, she had a woman's body and an advanced sexual drive that she was unable to satisfy. At the age of 13, she was allegedly raped by her brother who she said threatened to kill her if she revealed the attack. But Martha eventually told her mother anyway. Instead of taking action against the brother, Martha's mother beat her and told her that it was her own fault she was raped. Martha later attended a well-known nursing school and graduated first in her class. She worked for a time in a local hospital until she moved to California in 1942. She got a job working at an Army hospital. But at night she took to picking up soldiers on leave and on occasion, having sex with some of them. She became pregnant as a result of one of these encounters and eventually returned to Florida where she told people that her husband was a Navy officer in combat somewhere in the Pacific. Shortly afterwards, Martha spread a story that her husband was killed in action.

In December 1944, Martha, again pregnant, married a truck driver named Alfred Beck from Pensacola, Florida. However, within months, she was divorced and descended into a state of depression and despair. For the next several years, Martha worked again at a local hospital and dwelled in the world of romance novels and Hollywood films, dreaming of the day when she would meet her Prince Charming. She took to writing to lonely-hearts clubs and communicating with lonely people like herself. It was through one of these clubs that in 1947, she had the misfortune to meet Raymond Martinez Fernandez, 33, who was living in New York City.

Raymond Fernandez<br />(CORBIS)
Raymond Fernandez
(CORBIS)
Fernandez was born on the island of Hawaii in 1914 to Spanish parents. He moved to Connecticut at an early age where he attended grammar school. When he was a teenager, he went to Spain where he later married and had two children. Eventually he returned to the U.S. where he was promptly arrested in Alabama for stealing government property. Fernandez suffered a severe head injury in 1945, which gave him headaches for the rest of his life and subsequently altered his behavior for the worse. He developed an intense interest in black magic and voodoo and convinced himself that he had a mystical power over women. When he was released from prison in 1946, he began to communicate with lonely-hearts clubs and met dozens of women whom he was able to seduce and steal their savings. In 1947, Fernandez met a woman named Jane Thompson whom he took to Spain. While there, Jane died under mysterious circumstances. She was found dead in her hotel room with no apparent cause of death. Fernandez then returned to New York with a will naming him as the sole beneficiary.

In the winter of 1947, he visited Martha in Florida for the first time. When Fernandez and Beck initially met, they both lied to each other. Fernandez said he was a wealthy businessman; Martha lied about her portly appearance. Nevertheless, they had sex and Martha fell hopelessly in love with the Latin con man. But Fernandez had to get back to his business of scamming females and soon returned to New York. A few weeks later, Martha showed up at his door-step with her two kids and moved in. He allowed her to stay but he had no use for the children. Like the obedient slave, Martha shipped her two kids back to Florida, never to see them again. But Martha insisted on Raymond's fidelity. She agreed to help him, as long he didn't have sex with any of the victims, something that ran against Raymond's nature. Martha was a maniacally obsessive woman and would go to any lengths to prevent Raymond from engaging in sex with another woman. Throughout the following year, they robbed, beat, defrauded and murdered a dozen women in several different states.

On December 31, 1948, Ray and Martha met a potential victim, Janet L. Fay, 62, in Albany, New York. Mrs. Fay communicated with Raymond for several weeks through a lonely-hearts club and she was anxious to meet her potential lover. Within a few days, Mrs. Fay, a widow, had emptied her bank account of nearly $6,000 and went to live with Fernandez and his "sister" in Valley Stream, L.I. Inside their apartment, they quickly rid themselves of the unfortunate Mrs. Fay by clubbing her with a hammer and simultaneously strangling her with a scarf. As far as Martha was concerned, she couldn't wait to do in Mrs. Fay. At her trial, Martha later said, "I was just burning up with jealousy and anger" (New York Times, July 27, 1949). When it was over she turned to Raymond and said in a phony child's voice, "Look what I have done!" (Nash, p. 61). A week later, the murderous couple buried Mrs. Fay in the cellar of a rented house in Queens, New York City.

After the Fay murder, they fled the big city and turned up in Grand Rapids, Michigan to meet with another woman, Mrs. Delphine Downing, who also had a two-year-old daughter. Fernandez had been writing Delphine for several weeks and was ready to make his move. They quickly moved in with the unsuspecting victim. Almost immediately, Fernandez began having sex with Delphine, which irritated Martha to no end. They took whatever money they could find from Delphine and then together, forced sleeping pills down her throat. When she unexpectedly regained consciousness, Fernandez shot the woman in the head. But the child, who witnessed the killing, wouldn't stop crying for two days. Martha filled a bathtub with water and threw the helpless child in. And then, in an act of callous depravity, she held the child under the water until she drowned. Later, they buried both bodies in the basement and covered them with fresh concrete. But neighbors had already reported to the police that they hadn't seen Mrs. Dowling and her daughter in several days. The police showed up at the house and quickly discovered the bodies. Fernandez and Beck were arrested and within a few hours confessed to the police.

In a non-stop litany of swindle and murder, Fernandez and Beck detailed their long list of offenses. Found in Raymond's possession was a list of 20 women who were reported missing in different cities. He said that he murdered others and laughed while admitting to many killings, seventeen in all. Beck often chimed in by saying that she was the reason behind the murders since Fernandez was crazy for her and would do anything for her love. Since Michigan had no death penalty, they were extradited back to New York, where there was a death penalty, for the Fay murder.

The press immediately dubbed them the "Lonely Hearts Killers" and their trial became one of the most sensational of the late forties and early fifties. The New York papers printed edited versions of their sexual exploits that were detailed in trial testimony that was frequently too graphic for publication. The 250-pound Martha and the suave Latino Raymond were photographed endlessly by the media and crowds literally rioted outside Bronx County Court to get a seat at the trial. On one day, when Martha was brought into the courtroom, she ran from her guards and threw her huge arms around Raymond's neck, burying his mouth and neck with kisses. As she was pulled from his grasp, large smudges of red lipstick covered his grinning face. She screamed: "I love him! I do love him and always will!" After 43 days of testimony that was at times, salacious, disgusting, horrifying, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez were convicted of 1st degree Murder on August 18, 1949. The jury, consisting of ten men and two women, required twelve hours to bring in the verdict. Beck, it was said, displayed no emotion. On August 22, both defendants were brought back to court to face sentencing. As they stood motionless before Judge Ferdinand Pecora in Bronx County Court, a sentence of death was imposed. Less than one hour later, they were on their way to Sing Sing.

Beck, Rosenburg (Attorney) and Fernandez (CORBIS).
Beck, Rosenburg (Attorney) and
Fernandez (CORBIS).
While on Death Row, the press continued to vilify Martha. Every detail of her existence was reported in the tabloids. Her enormous weight was often a subject for speculation and ridicule by the endless appetite of the New York papers. To make matters worse, a rumor began that Martha, unable to control her animal passion, was having sexual relations with a prison guard. The rumor made its way to the headlines and caused her further grief, not only with Fernnadez but her family and attorney as well. "I'm still a human, feeling every blow inside, even though I have the ability to hide my feelings and laugh. 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," she said in a letter to her sister (Beck, letter of September 28, 1950).

After a long series of failed appeals, a date of March 8, 1951 was set for the execution. For her last meal, Martha ordered a double portion of fried chicken, potatoes and a salad. Fernandez smoked a Cuban cigar and refused to eat. He was afraid he would throw up and embarrass himself. His nerves were calmed when he received a note from his beloved Martha who still professed love for the Latin Romeo. "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 (Citizen Register, March 9, 1951). Dozens of women had asked to witness the execution but all of their requests were denied. The warden denied all of them because he "didn't think that women would make proper witnesses" (Citizen Register, September 2, 1949).

At 11:00 PM that night, a parade of death began. First, John King, 22, of Long Island City was executed for the killing of an airline employee in Queens in 1950. Next was Richard Power, 22, who was sentenced to death for the same murder. He sat quietly in the chair, praying as the electric current did its deadly work.

Before Fernandez was removed from his cell, he wrote these last words: "I want to shout it out. I love Martha. What do the public know about love?" He never said another word after that note. At 11:15 PM, the guards had to carry him into the death chamber, panic-stricken, a broken man consumed with anguish and unable to stand on his own. Minutes later, Martha sat in the chair, her enormous weight causing it to creak and moan. She squeezed into the seat with difficulty as the matrons adjusted the straps to fit. Her mouth formed the words "So long!" but there was no sound. Smiling, defiant to the end, she had nothing more to say. It was the first quadruple execution at Sing Sing in four years (Kivel, p. 5). The executioner, Joseph Francel of Cairo, New York, made $600 for the day's work.

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