“In the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?”
Those were the words of Martha Beck, one half of the duo who became known as the Lonely Hearts Killers after their conviction for the murder of 66-year-old Janet Fay in New York in 1949.
Beck, a lonely and “overweight” nurse with two children, met her other half, Raymond Fernandez, in the same way that the duo would eventually select their victims. She placed a so-called “lonely hearts” ad in the newspaper, and Fernandez answered it.
At that time, these “lonely hearts” were a common form of personal ads often placed in newspapers by men or women seeking friendship, romance, or matrimony.
The beginning of a dangerous duo
Fernandez himself already had a wife and four children whom he had abandoned across the sea in Spain. Since returning to America, he had made his way by answering such ads, swindling the women out of their life savings, and then disappearing. He believed that he was capable of doing this because of the power of voodoo, which had been taught to him by a cellmate after he was arrested for stealing some clothes.
That initial brush with the law may have been exacerbated by an injury that Fernandez received during a shipboard accident when a steel hatch cover fell on his head. There has been speculation since that the injury may have caused a total personality change in Fernandez, leading not only to his initial incarceration but to his later life of crime.
Beck and Fernandez proved to be a formidable—if volatile—pair. At the time they met, Beck was living in Florida, where Fernandez visited her for a time, following his usual playbook of sponging off his victims and then vanishing. When he attempted to return to New York, however, he underestimated the power he already had over Beck, who followed him, showing up unannounced on his doorstep.
When jealousy incites brutality
Perhaps realizing how devoted to him she had already become, Fernandez confided his criminal enterprises in his new accomplice. Rather than turn against him, however, Beck seemed to become even more attached, giving up her two children to the Salvation Army so that she could devote herself completely to Fernandez, and aiding him in his con schemes against other lonely women.
In this, she proved a valuable but also frustrating asset. By posing as Fernandez’s sister, Beck could grant the enterprise an air of legitimacy and put his victims at ease. They felt more comfortable visiting or having a gentleman caller when there was also another woman in the house. However, Fernandez’s attempts at wooing his victims were complicated by Beck’s jealousy, which eventually served as the catalyst for the one murder for which they were convicted.
In 1949, the 34-year-old Fernandez became engaged to 66-year-old Janet Fay, who came to live with him in his apartment in Long Island. Fernandez had reportedly promised Beck that he would never consummate his relationships with his victims, but when Beck caught him and his new fiancé in bed together, she flew into a rage. She reportedly struck Fay in the head with a hammer, after which time Fernandez strangled the older woman to death.
Martha Beck would later state that she had no memory of the crime. The last thing she claimed to remember was Fernandez telling her to keep Fay quiet, and then, the next thing she knew, she was standing over the older woman’s body while Fernandez screamed, “My God, Martha, what have you done?”
Serial Killers: Murder Without Mercy
Two more unsuspecting victims
With Fay’s family asking after her whereabouts, Beck and Fernandez fled New York and headed to Michigan, where they settled in a suburb of Grand Rapids, moving in with Delphine Downing, a 28-year-old widow selected through their usual methodology. Downing had a two-year-old daughter, and neither would survive the brief encounter.
The story goes that Downing became agitated over something, which prompted Fernandez to give her sleeping pills—possibly more than she should have taken. Her condition after taking the pills frightened her daughter, who began to cry. This enraged Beck, who strangled the little girl, although not to death.
Nonetheless, the pair were worried that they had already gone too far, and Fernandez shot Downing to death while she was still unconscious from the sleeping pills. The killers then stayed on for several more days in the deceased woman’s house. However, her daughter knew that something was wrong, and her continued crying led Beck to eventually finish the job she had started, drowning the young child in a basin of water. Both bodies were buried in the basement beneath the house, but suspicious neighbors soon turned the authorities on to the nefarious pair, and Beck and Fernandez were arrested on March 1, 1949.
Crowds in the courtroom
“I’m no average killer,” Fernandez is said to have boasted when the police took him in. He confessed to not only the three murders detailed here, but over a dozen more, eventually confessing to killing some 17 or 20 women over the course of his deceptions. With Beck by his side the entire time, the pair signed a 73-page confession so salacious that they became the talk of the national media, which gave them the nickname they still possess to this day: the Lonely Hearts Killers.
As the two stood trial in a sweltering New York City courtroom in July, Fernandez attempted to retract his earlier confession, claiming that he only did it to spare his sweetheart. “All my statements were made for the purpose of helping Martha,” he said in court. “I love her. It couldn’t be anything else.”
Fernandez was right about one thing: the media was especially hard on Beck. Reporting at the time constantly belittled her, often focusing on her weight, which was sometimes misrepresented as being considerably higher than it actually was. The lurid details of the case also drew huge crowds to the courtroom, such that rules were put into place that “unauthorized persons were not permitted to loiter outside” and the New York Times reported that Martha Beck’s testimony was “disrupted yesterday afternoon by a near riot of would-be spectators outside the courtroom.”
“What do the public know about love?”
Both were found guilty of the murder of Janet Fay, and both were sentenced to die in the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing prison, a verdict which was carried out in March of 1951. Of course, death was not enough to end the public’s fascination with the Lonely Hearts Killers. Though their exploits were too salacious for the cinemas of the day, the crimes of Beck and Fernandez were nonetheless immortalized in numerous films, beginning with the 1970 cult hit The Honeymoon Killers.
More recently, fictionalized versions of Beck and Fernandez appeared in a 2006 film simply called Lonely Hearts, in which an extremely unlikely Salma Hayek plays Martha Beck while Jared Leto plays Raymond Fernandez, opposite John Travolta and James Gandolfini as the cops who bring them down.
Though Beck and Fernandez seemed to experience a love-hate relationship during their time on death row, they both went to the electric chair professing their love for the other. “I want to shout it out,” Fernandez said as he was dragged to his doom. “I love Martha! What do the public know about love?”
Beck, meanwhile, walked to her execution under her own power, saying that, “My story is a love story, but only those tortured with love can understand what I mean.”