On This Day in 1951, the Lonely Hearts Killers pay the price.

8 March 1951 was an historic day at Sing Sing Prison. The death house had six pre-execution cells nicknamed the ‘Dance Hall. At 11:30am four were occupied by John King, Richard Powers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. By 11:30pm those cells were empty. Their occupants were all dead in New York’s last quadruple execution.

   King and Powers were just making up the numbers, bit-part players. Murdering an airport clerk during a robbery in 1950 was their entrance. The ‘little green door’ would be their exit. Their date merely coincided with that of Fernandez and Beck, still two of New York’s most notorious criminals; The Lonely Hearts Killers.

   Together Beck and Fernandez wooed, deceived and fleeced a succession of lonely, wealthy, vulnerable women. At least three of these women they murdered. Their fourth known victim was a two-year old toddler, daughter of their final victim. There may well have been many more. Reviled by press and public alike, the pair’s infamy rivalled that of gangster Albert Anastasia and bank robber Willie Sutton.

   Brash, cocky and defiant at first, King and Powers had amused themselves tormenting Fernandez since their arrival. When their time came they were led away crying and shaking, no longer the arrogant hoodlums laughing at Fernandez’s predicament while sneering at their own. No longer would Fernandez hear remarks like: “Don’t forget, Ray, old boy! We got a date for Thursday, March eighth, at eleven o’clock! And don’t forget to bring Martha!” Unable to confront the pair directly, Fernandez had had to content himself with referencing Sing Sing’s custom at multiple executions: “You dirty punks, I’ll still be around when you’re both dead!”

All condemned inmates knew that custom. Death house staff monitored their inmate closely for signs of mental collapse. When executing two or more prisoners they died in order of perceived weakness. Those deemed most likely to panic and be dragged instead of going quietly were always taken first.

   Fernandez was right about them. They were first to be helped to the electric chair, barely able to stand let alone walk. He was wrong about his own pledge to go bravely. Third of the four, Fernandez had to be carried after fainting minutes earlier. Gone was his proud boast only hours earlier when reconciled with Martha for the last time: “Now I’m ready to die! So tonight I’ll die like a man!”

   Last to go was Martha, calmer and braver than the three men who died before her. She walked firmly, entirely under her own power and without sobbing or shrieking. The nearest she’d come to hysteria was in her final statement:

What does it matter who is to blame? 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 can be attributed to love?

By 11:24pm it was all over. Never again would New York’s State Electrician (known to inmates as “the burner”) claim a quadruple fee alongside his eight-cents-per-mile gas allowance. Tonight would be the last time Joseph Francel claimed one hundred-fifty dollars for his first execution and fifty each for the three after that.

   With the quartet dead and 52 witnesses headed home, one of the largest audiences in the prison’s history, the reporters filed their stories. Virtually overlooking King and Powers, they milked the Lonely Hearts Killers one last time. Despite her morbid obesity Beck hadn’t had to be wedged into the electric chair like a bung in a barrel. That didn’t stop some implying that she had.

   Raymond Martinez Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck came from different places, backgrounds and circumstances. Beck, a former nurse from Milton, Florida, hadn’t had a positive start in life. According to her later account she’d been tormented by her domineering mother and molested by her brother during her childhood. School too had been a nightmare, her weight was vastly increased by a glandular problem and classmates ridiculed her endlessly.

   Fernandez had been born in Hawaii to Spanish parents. Formerly a merchant sailor and wartime agent for British Intelligence, Fernandez was already married to Encarnacion Robles (his first and only legal wife) and living in Spain. Fernandez, once a charming, reasonable and quiet man, left Encarnacion in Spain when he returned to the US after World War II.

   Boarding the steamer returning him to America he suffered a serious head injury, a hatch cover had slammed shut on his head leaving him permanently scarred and losing much of his hair. His head wasn’t the only thing permanently changed, his personality followed suit and he began doing things he wouldn’t have before the accident. What started as petty theft would end in a trail of deception and several deaths including his own.

   His first crime was stealing clothes for which a tough-minded Florida judge handed him a year in Tallahassee Federal prison. While there Fernandez’s cellmate introduced him to occult practices, particularly Voodoo. Fernandez’s change in personality had probably caused his entry into crime. His cellmate had introduced him to life’s darker side. Once he’d crossed that line he never went back.

   He became a con-artist, using his looks charm and (he claimed) Voodoo rituals to help him find and fleece a string of vulnerable lonely women around the country. One of the advantages of his speciality was their unwillingness to report being found and fleeced by a conman. Better to endure private heartbreak than public humiliation, thought many of them.

   During his early criminal career he may also have committed his first murder, that of Jane Thompson. Bringing her to back to Spain, she got into a bitter argument with Encarnacion and then suddenly died seemingly for no reason. Poisoning was suspected, but never proved. Returning to the US bearing a forged will, Fernandez promptly took Thompson’s entire estate including her apartment, evicting her elderly mother in the process.

   With a base to operate from he went back to perusing lonely hearts clubs and personal ads for potential victims. One letter came from Florida via Mother Dinene’s Family Club for Lonely Hearts, from a young woman named Martha Beck. Fernandez, by then both a seasoned and callous conman, immediately sensed she was vulnerable. She also had a small but steady income.

   At first he viewed her as just another easy mark. When she met him in 1947 she was already twice divorced with two children, morbidly obese and seemingly just the type to find, fleece and forget. She had a job and some income and Fernandez thought it was business as usual. It wasn’t by a very long way. Their love-hate relationship would consume almost everyone who encountered them including themselves.

   It was shortly after taking up with Fernandez in Florida that her disapproving employers fired her. Jacksonville Hospital had no time or work for what they thought of as a loose woman. Fernandez was appalled when Martha arrived unexpectedly in New York with her two children. She could stay with him, he said, but the children had to go. What should have been a terribly hard choice for her simply wasn’t. She abandoned them with the Salvation Army. Given what would happen later that was probably just as well.

   With their cards both now on the table, Fernandez and Beck worked as a team. If anything Martha’s presence often made things easier apart from her rampant jealousy and pathological possessiveness. Martha was the junior partner who did the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Although Fernandez would later try to blame her for everything, insisting that he only stayed and obeyed her out of fear, it’s far more likely that it was him running the show. Jane Thompson might have been his first murder, but she was far from his last.

   Between their first meeting in 1947 and their arrest in 1950 they killed and killed again. In February, 1948 Pennsylvania’s Esther Henne had a lucky escape. She was only robbed after refusing to sign over her pension and life insurance. They took her car and several hundred dollars, but not her life. Myrtle Young met Fernandez in Illinois in August that year.

   Quarrelling with her over Martha’s unwelcome intrusion, the pair gave her a drug overdose and put her on a bus bound for Little Rock in her native Arkansas. She died in Little Rock’s hospital the day after arriving. Not interested in her fate (having already taken several thousand dollars in cash and assets) the couple returned to New York. Meeting several possible victims along the way, none proved very promising. By the time they reached Fernandez’s apartment they were short of funds. They needed another plump pigeon they could pluck, and quickly.

   66-year-old widower Janet Fay fit the bill perfectly, losing her life in the process. A resident of Albany, New York, she’d been warned by friends and family of the risks of lonely hearts clubs and the con artists who often trawled them. She dismissed the warnings and the Lonely Hearts Killers took full advantage. At their Albany hotel the couple were Mr and Mrs Fernandez. To Janet Fay they were Charles Martin and his sister.

   Fernandez was as skilled a conman as he ever would be. Martha had proved an able accomplice, not only loyal but obedient to his every whim. Alice Fay was simply another easy mark to be fleeced, fled from and forgotten. She was also the beginning of the end for the Lonely Hearts Killers. Their latest scam was to prove fatal for Janet Fay. In time it proved equally fatal for Fernandez and Beck.

   Like all conmen Fernandez needed a hook, something to help him into a mark’s heart and then their finances. Of Spanish heritage Fernandez had been raised a Catholic. So too had Janet Fay giving Fernandez just the hook he needed. He needed a wealthy mark and was happy to hint at a mutual devotion to Catholicism. He had no interest whatsoever in getting closer to God, just Janet Fay’s cash and assets.

   Unsuspecting, Fay let him do exactly that. First they visited her in Albany and then she packed to stay with them at 15 Adaline St., Long Island, New York. Before she left she toured local banks, taking with her over six thousand dollars in cash and assets. Bidding her family and friends goodbye she joined Fernandez and Beck on 4 January 1949. Only days later Janet Fay was dead.

   Martha’s jealous, possessive nature provided the catalyst for another murder. She’d always done her best to prevent Fernandez from physically consummating his many wives. While heading back to New York after killing Myrtle Young she’d even prevented him from cheating one prospective victim at all. A woman from New England had proved far younger and prettier than her photograph had suggested and Martha, too paranoid to risk losing her Raymond to another woman, had called off the affair.

   Walking into his room one night to find them naked had, according to Martha, simply been too much. She’d blacked out and had no memory of beating her rival with a hammer before strangling her with her own scarf. She’d been angry, Fay had responded in kind and murder was the result.

   Whatever the truth, whether it was a planned murder involving both of them or Marth’s lack of self-control, the deed had been done. Now they had a body to dispose of. As callous as they’d been cruel, they stuffed her body into a closet wrapped in towels and a bedsheet and did their best to clean up the crime scene. With that done they simply went back to bed.

   Fay’s murder had been brutal and probably unnecessary. Her burial was unceremonious and callously disrespectful. Janet Fay’s body went into a trunk the next day, Fernandez persuading his sister to store it for a while. She didn’t know it contained a recently-murdered human being. Once a house had been rented and a hole dug in the cellar floor, Fernandez and Beck placed the trunk in the hole and buried it in cement.

   To the Lonely Hearts Killers their latest victim was safely dead and buried, but not quite. To keep up the charade and avoid attracting attention they sent a series of typewritten letters to her friends and family. To look at the letters, Janet Fay was alive, well and couldn’t have been happier. When her family received them, though, they immediately knew something was very wrong. Janet Fay had never owned a typewriter, and she’d never used one.

   Typewritten letters might have been easier to forge, needing only a signature and not pages of well-crafted and faked handwriting. They were also entirely obvious to Fay’s family who’d repeatedly warned her of lonely hearts clubs and their inherent risks. As well-forged as her signature might have been, the use of a typewriter she didn’t have and couldn’t have used was an absolute giveaway. Her family didn’t know exactly what had happened to her but, fearing the worst, they were determined to find out. They immediately informed the police. It was the beginning of the end.

   The end finally came in Sing Sing’s death house, but not before the couple committed their final and most atrocious crime of all. With New York too hot to stay in they had to look further afield for their next victim. Grand Rapids, Michigan provided one. Delphine Downing lived there with her daughter, two-year-old Rainelle. After dozens of deceptions and likely more murders than they eventually paid for, Grand Rapids would be the end of the line.

   Like so many of his victims Delphine Downing knew Fernandez as ‘George Martin.’ A successful businessman with a pronounced liking for young children, he seemed a perfect match for a lonely, middle-aged single mother. Arriving in Grand Rapids with his ever-present ‘sister’ in tow, Ray Fernandez was anything but the perfect match. Delphine Downing, however, seemed like the perfect prey.

   Martha instantly harboured an intense hatred for Delphine. She was older than Martha but still considerably prettier and Fernandez, to Martha’s homicidal fury, was only too happy to sleep with her repeatedly. It probably gave Martha no small satisfaction when Delphine Downing accidentally saw him without his hairpiece. She also saw the large and ugly scar beneath it, the legacy of the accident that fractured Fernandez’s skull and changed him from an affable charmer to a cold-blooded sociopath.

   If Martha was pleased, Delphine certainly wasn’t. She hadn’t known about the wig, or about the scar. She’d certainly had no inkling that the man standing before her had committed more than one murder already. She and daughter Rainelle were, sadly, about to find out.

   It was Martha who made the fatal move. Unable to placate or even calm her with his trademark charm, it seemed as though Fernandez’s Voodoo powers had deserted him. All his protestations and kind (though doubtless insincere) words had failed him. Martha, though, was entirely in control.

   She was, all things considered, unusually and lethally level-headed. With sisterly charm and kindness she finally persuaded Delphine to calm down, even offering her a dose of sleeping pills to soothe her. In her distressed state Delphine probably never asked how many she’d taken or how strong they were.

   They were strong enough; Strong enough to knock her out fairly quickly. Already unconscious, Delphine Downing wouldn’t have felt a thing as Fernandez returned from the next room. In his hand was a pistol once belonging to Delphine’s deceased husband. Wrapping the weapon in a thick towel to deaden the noise Fernandez triggered a single shot into her head.

   Delphine, like Janet Fay before her, found herself entombed under the floor. While Fernandez buried the body Martha again busied herself trying to clean up another crime scene. This particular crime, though, wasn’t over.

   Two days passed before the pair decided what to do with Rainelle. The child wanted her mother and just wouldn’t stop crying. According to Martha Fernandez forced her to drown the little girl in a tub of water. According to Fernandez it was Martha’s idea and he just stood and watched. Whatever the truth, Rainelle was quickly buried beside her mother.

   After so dreadful an act Fernandez and Beck acted as though nothing important had happened. So used to murder that it barely mattered and perhaps overconfident having got away with it at least once already, they simply went to see a movie, drank a gallon of soda and gobbled popcorn for the evening.

   On their return they started packing to make an early departure the next day, and then there was a loud knock at the door. Delphine Downing hadn’t been suspicious, but her neighbours had. Officers from Grand Rapids police had caught them almost red-handed. The game was up. The Lonely Hearts Killers were under arrest.

It was probably one of the easiest arrests Grand Rapids police ever made. It was certainly one of the city’s most appalling, tragic and senseless crimes. When questioned by police and District Attorney Hugh McMahon they waived their right to an attorney and admitted everything. They even dictated and signed a 73-page confession listing all their crimes.

   Believing McMahon’s promise that they’d be kept in Michigan and would only serve a few years in prison, they snatched at the deal. Michigan had no death penalty and hadn’t since 1846. New York still had its death penalty and, although electrocutions were rarer than they used to be, they were still a regular feature in New York’s penal system and its newspapers. Anything was better than extradition to New York and its legendary electric chair known for decades as ‘Old Sparky.’ As Martha herself stated: “The electric chair scares me.”

   They were entirely right to be scared. They were entirely wrong to believe the District Attorney’s promise of a few years in jail and no extradition. McMahon had lied. Michigan waived its right to try them for the murders of Delphine and Rainelle Downing. DA McMahon quickly agreed to a deal with New York Governor Thomas Dewey. New York would try them for the murder of Alice Fay. If convicted (they would be) without the jury recommending mercy (they didn’t) the death sentence was mandatory. If court appeals failed Dewey alone could grant last-minute clemency. From the Governor’s chair, Dewey had every intention of sitting Fernandez and Beck in Sing Sing’s.

   Their trial in the Bronx Supreme Court before Judge Ferdinand Pecora was a media sensation. Not since the days of Murder Incorporated had so many reporters flocked from all over the country. Banner headlines daily served up a diet of kinky sex, occult rituals, deception, depravity and murder. Anything and everything was fair game.

   That included Martha Beck in particular. The media’s treatment of her was lurid, tasteless and tacky. They mocked her physical appearance and weight problem. They lampooned her declarations of undying love for Fernandez and her claims that she’d been under his spell. All told, it was Martha who attracted nothing but sneers and sanctimony, although her crimes fully deserved to be vilified press coverage had an almost personal spite to it.

   From the trial’s opening on 28 June 1949 to the verdict on 18 August the press and public regarded them with a mixture of revulsion and fascination. At one point, twenty-four police officers had to enter the court to maintain order. Judge Pecora endured forty-four days of lurid testimony, even more lurid headlines and occasional disorder before delivering a five-hour summation of the evidence. Only then could the jury retire to deliberate their verdict. After a forty-four day trial it came with unexpected speed.

   The jury began deliberating at 9:45pm on 18 August. Believing they’d be deliberating until at least the next day the spectators and reporters had left for the night. When the jury returned at 1:15am the next morning Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck heard their fate in front of an almost-empty courtroom;

Guilty as charged. With no recommendation for mercy.

On August 22 Judge Pecora passed the mandatory sentence. Beck and Fernandez were now death house inmates #108594 and #108595 respectively. Martha had a particularly ill omen on their arrival. She was assigned the same cell in the death house women’s wing that held Ruth Snyder in 1927, Anna Antonio in 1934, Eva Coo in 1935 and Helen Fowler in 1944. Snyder, Antonio, Coo and Fowler had all been executed. Asked why they’d committed their crimes, the couple were at best vague. Fernandez claimed it was: “An accident.” Beck may have been referring to Fernandez’s hold over her. For her it was: “Something I got into. I had no control.”

Martha now finally remembered her children. She could choose who was allowed to visit her and, provided they passed an FBI background check, they could see her regularly. Martha’s list included children Anthony and Carmen who she hadn’t seen since abandoning them in 1948. She also included ex-husband Alfred Beck, her sisters and her brother. An odd choice given her previous accusations against him.

Warden Wilfred Denno and his death house keepers now endured possibly the most tumultuous period in their history. The love-hate relationship between Fernandez and Beck remained as tempestuous as ever. Notes passed back and forth between the men’s and women’s wings, the couple alternately fighting, reconciling and fighting again. They finally reconciled only hours before being executed.

   Press interest remained as intense as it had been during the trial with lurid headlines, especially when it was suggested that Martha was having an affair with one of her keepers. Fernandez, furious at the rumours, even petitioned to drop his appeals and hasten his execution before abruptly changing his mind. The taunts from John King and Richard Powers, also to die that night, only increased tensions as 8 March 1951 drew ever nearer.

   Appeals were filed, argued and dismissed regularly. As time ran out it was obvious that Governor Dewey (who’d denied clemency to seven gangsters involved with Murder Incorporated and Helen Fowler) wasn’t going to make a phone call. When the day came the usual ritual began, starting with the foursome being moved from their cells at 11am.

   Barring last-minute court action, Governor’s clemency or temporary stays of execution they would spend their last twelve hours in Sing Sing’s “Dance Hall,” a suite of six cells sited within twenty steps of the electric chair. It was a short last mile but in the end only Martha walked unaided. The date was ironic, March being International Women’s Day. Martha would die like the three men slated to die with her, but would do so with far more fortitude and dignity.

   All four prisoners had to take a shower and were issued special execution clothes. Devoid of metal buttons or fastenings, they were designed to prevent a fire when the switch was thrown. All four had their right calf and part of their hair shaved for a clean contact with Francel’s electrodes. Much had been learned since William Kemmler in 1890.

   Last meals were served. Martha chose ham, eggs and coffee for breakfast. Fried chicken (without wings,) French fries and a lettuce and tomato salad would be her last meal before she died. Fernandez ordered only an onion omelette, French fries, a Cuban cigar and chocolate. Despite his bitter boasts at King and Powers his own nerve was faltering hours before his time finally came.

   Warden Denno had perhaps the busiest day of his tenure. With fifty-two witnesses including judges, lawyers, police officers and the press pack on top of all his regular daily responsibilities, Denno was probably glad when his day’s work was over. While Denno was meeting and greeting witnesses and attending to a myriad of details State Electrician Joseph Francel was testing the equipment.

State Electrician since 1939, Francel was a veteran professional who took his work seriously. If things went wrong in front of so many reporters and distinguished visitors Francel would get the blame. With his $300 fee in mind he knew another similar fee was highly unlikely. $150 for the first and an extra $50 for each extra prisoner was his standard deal, but multiple executions had become increasingly rare. As it turned out this was New York’s last quadruple execution. If anything went wrong Francel would be fired immediately.

   Nothing went wrong. Granted, three of the four (all men) had to be helped or carried to their deaths while Martha was the only one who walked unaided. Food for thought for anyone regarding women as the weaker sex. Warden Denno returned to a quieter daily routine after months of tensions and strife. Francel took home his unusually large pay check. John King, Richard Powers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, Sing Sing’s last fatal foursome, had finally been and gone.

The Lonely Hearts Killers and fifteen other historic New York cases can be found in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York,’ published by Fonthill Media and America Through Time.

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