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Martha Beck Trial: 1949

Martha Beck Trial: 1949

Defendants: Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: John H. Minton and Herbert E. Rosenberg
Chief Prosecutors: Edward F. Breslin, James W. Gehrig, and Edward Robinson, Jr.
Judge: Ferdinand Pecora
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: June 9-August 18, 1949
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: This notorious "lonely hearts murders" case, in which the bizarre defendants were tried for just one of some 20 murders committed over only two years, found the defendants pleading insanity. The jury, however, proved that it clearly understood the difference between the abnormal and the insane.

At 26, Martha Beck weighed 300 pounds. She had been married and divorced twice. A registered nurse, she had become superintendent of the Pensacola Crippled Children's Home in Florida. In 1947, answering an advertisement in a true-romance magazine, she spent five dollars to buy, through the mail, a membership in Mother Dinene's Friendly Club for Lonely Hearts.

A romantic letter came from one Raymond Fernandez of New York. She replied. Letters flew. Soon Fernandez stepped off a bus in Pensacola into Beck's arms and the couple began a two-day orgy. He was the Latin lover of her dreams.

After two days, however, Raymond had learned what was to him the most important fact about Beck: she had no money. He headed back to New York, where he wrote a "Dear Martha" letter that told her he just didn't love her after all.

Meantime, the overseers of the Crippled Children's Home fired Beck. She went straight to Fernandez's New York apartment and moved in. She soon discovered the nature of his business: he answered lonely-hearts ads, seduced well-to-do widows and spinsters, fleeced them of their savings, and disappeared. Undaunted, Beck proposed a partnership. She would play the role of his sister, helping to build the confidence of intended victims, but with a more sinister result than Fernandez had practiced. Rather than disappearing themselves, they would make their victims disappear.

Partnership Thrives

Time and again, lonely women naively handed their bankbooks, their jewelry, and ultimately their lives to the charming romantic who answered their lonely-hearts ads and turned up with his helpful "sister." Late in 1948, 66-year-old widow Janet Fay of Albany, New York, welcomed them, following an emotional and hopeful correspondence. By early January, she had turned over $4,000 in savings and cash, as well as jewelry and bonds, to Fernandez. Beck then skillfully packed the widow's possessions into a large trunk stolen from the most recent victim, and the three moved into a rented apartment in Valley Stream on Long Island. There Beck bashed Fay's skull with a hammer.

The murderers rented another house, buried the body in the cellar, covered it with a fresh cement floor, waited four days for the cement to harden, and departed for Grand Rapids, Michigan, and their next victim, who had already swallowed Fernandez's romance-by-mail bait and was on the hook. Soon the brother-sister act was ensconced in the home of Delphine Downing, a 41-year-old widow with a 2-year-old daughter. Wedding plans were made. But Delphine inadvertently came upon Fernandez without his toupee. Disillusioned, she rebelled: "Why, you're bald!" He shot her. Beck drowned the child in the bathtub. In the cellar, Fernandez dug a hole large enough for both bodies and poured fresh concrete.

The cement had not cured before the police, called by suspicious neighbors when they had not seen the mother and daughter for a couple of days, were at the door. Almost simultaneously, Fay's stepdaughter, unable to find her, had alerted New York police, who found the grave under the new cement floor and traced Fernandez and Beck to Michigan and the Downing home. A search of Fernandez revealed a notebook with the names of some 20 missing women.

As the couple confessed both the Fay and Downing murders, America, titillated by the image of the torrid Latin and the super-passionate fat lady, devoured the bizarre story. Spine-chilling news reports depicted the horror not only of the murders but of Martha Beck's tough, take-charge command of the weird operation.

Because New York had the death penalty for murder while Michigan did not, the two were extradited and tried for the murder of Fay.

The Kiss in the Courtroom

Opening June 9, 1949, the trial produced a torrent of sensational testimony as both defendants, apparently eager to prove their lack of sanity, burned the jurors' ears with lengthy streams of obscenity that described the intensity of their love life. What the court stenographers recorded could not be printed even by New York City's most torrid press. But the news reporters could describe how, when called to the witness stand, Martha Beck strode forward in bright green shoes, her massive body swathed in bright silks, a double-strand necklace clinking brightly, and suddenly detoured across the courtroom to Fernandez. Catching his face in her hefty hands, she pulled it toward her, kissing him on the mouth and, as the guards pulled her away, leaving him with a grin of bright red lipstick.

Following prosecutor Edward Breslin's straightforward presentation of the blood-curdling facts, the defense set out to prove insanity. Beck testified to four attempts to commit suicide, said her mind was a blank on the actual killings, and denied trying to shield Fernandez. A psychiatrist declared her mentally unsound and said that, even if she participated in the killing, she had no idea what she was doing. Defense attorney Herbert Rosenberg, contending that Beck had killed Fay in a fit of insanity inspired by jealousy, tried to prove that Fernandez had no part in the crime.

Charging the jury, Judge Ferdinand Pecora, referring to acts of perversion admitted by the defendants, said, "That kind of abnormality does not, in and of itself, constitute the kind of insanity which will excuse a person of a criminal act."

After debating for 12½ hours, the jury convicted Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez of first-degree murder. The death sentence was mandatory. The New York State Court of Appeals denied the pair a new trial. Governor Thomas E. Dewey turned down a plea for clemency. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Fernandez, claiming he received cruel treatment in Sing Sing Prison, was denied a habeas corpus order.

On March 8, 1951, the lonely-hearts murderersFernandez first, then Beckdied in the electric chair in Sing Sing.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Wenzel. Introduction to Murder: The Unpublished Facts Behind the Notorious Lonely Hearts Killer, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez. New York: Greenberg, 1952.

Jones, Richard Glyn. Killer Conples. Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1987.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts On File, 1982.

Wilson, Colin. A Criminal History of Mankind. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1984.

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