We’ve covered the typical and not-so-typical female serial killer; now it’s time to look at the female serial killer in a serial killer couple. Nearly all of these women claim to be abused loves dragged along for the ride once the police come into the picture so it’s difficult to tell who are genuine victims and who were active participants in the murders. However, there are certain women who not only actively participate, but are the actual killers. They were not women too scared to run, they were women too in love (with the kill) to run. It will be one of these women we’ll look at now…
“Lonely Hearts” Lady
Martha Beck was part of a killer duo that murdered at least 3 (and as many as 20 if the rumors were true) in 1949. Her and her lover, Raymond Fernandez, became known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers” for their tendency to prey upon women using the “Lonely Hearts” ads in newspapers. Born Martha Jule Seabrook in 1920 Beck could’ve been little more than a sad story of an unfortunate childhood that seemed to lead her to make unfortunate choices. Due to a glandular problem she experienced puberty at a very young age and was overweight, which led to her into early promiscuity and being a continual outcast.
When she grew up Martha became a licensed nurse, but unable to get a job (supposedly due to her appearance) she initially took a position as an undertaker’s assistant in her home state of Florida. She eventually grew unhappy and moved out to California in 1942 to be an army nurse. (Unlike the Angels of Death we’ve covered in the past Martha was recorded as being a good nurse without any suspicious deaths of those in her care who took her job helping people seriously.) She returned to Florida after her promiscuity caught up with her and she became pregnant by a man who refused to marry her. In order to explain the illegitimate pregnancy she created an elaborate charade to explain the situation: she claimed she was married to a naval officer (even bought herself a ring) and, when the time came, had a telegram sent to herself saying he’d died in action. Not long after Martha became pregnant again, this time by bus driver Alfred Beck, who married her, but the two divorced six months after.
For the next two years Martha, unemployed single mother of two, slipped into a rich fantasy life of romance novels and afternoon movies. She dreamed of a Prince Charming to whisk her away into his loving arms. In 1946 she got a job as a nurse once more and put out a “Lonely Hearts” ad in the paper…it was through this ad she met Ray Fernandez. By the end of 1947 the two met face-to-face and, by 1948, Martha was abandoning her two children at the Salvation Army in order to keep Ray in her life permanently (she would not have contact with them again until 1951 while in prison). She had her Prince Charming and nothing would get between them.
Previous to their meeting neither Beck nor Fernandez were recorded as having killed anyone (though one of Fernandez’s former lovers died under suspicious circumstances) and neither showed any tendency towards violence. That being said once they met things changed rapidly for both of them. Martha developed a wicked jealous streak, which led to their first murder in January 1949. Now pulling cons together – Beck playing his sister to add to Fernandez’s respectability and lower women’s guards – Martha saw him in bed with their latest mark, Janet Fay, and lost control. She bludgeoned the woman with a ball-peen hammer and Fernandez finished the job via strangling with a scarf. The couple wrapped the body and stuffed it into the closet before getting some sleep. The next morning they got a large trunk, stuck the deceased inside, and eventually buried it in a rented house.
From the murder in Long Island the killer couple quickly moved on to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they met their next two victims. Again using the “Lonely Hearts” ads as a victim pool Fernandez began to correspond with a 41-year-old widow, Delphine Downing, who was the mother of a two-year-old daughter, Rainelle. For awhile things went relatively smoothly with Beck able to keep her jealous rage in check, but when Downing discovered Fernandez was not the man he claimed to be (thanks to witnessing him without his customary toupee) things quickly grew ugly. Downing refused to be charmed by Fernandez any farther and accused him of deception and fraud. Hoping to calm the woman Martha convinced her to take some sleeping pills; the pills did their job, but Downing’s little girl began to cry. An already frustrated Beck snapped, grabbed the child, and choked her unconscious, leaving clear bruises on the tot’s neck. When Fernandez saw what Beck has done they both panicked realizing Downing would see the bruises when she woke. Doing the only thing he could think of Fernandez used Downing’s late husband’s gun (and a towel as a silencer) to shoot her pointblank in the head, killing her. Over the next two days the couple made plans to skip town before realizing they also had to kill little Rainelle. Filling a tub with water Martha drowned the small girl and buried her with her mother in the basement of the house. Oddly, rather than leave town, they went to the movies before returning to continue packing; they were stopped by a knock at the door…suspicious neighbors had called the cops and “The Lonely Hearts Killers” came to an end.
The two depraved lovebirds never stood trial for the murders of Delphine and Rainelle Downing for one reason…they stood trial for Janet Fay instead to open the possibility for the death penalty. Both of them were convicted and both received the punishment of death by electric chair. Until the end they both loudly, proudly, and continually proclaimed love for one another.
…It’s unlikely that, if they’d never met one another, Ray Fernandez or (especially) Martha Beck would’ve ever committed multiple murders. It’s the most interesting and bizarre part of killer couples like them. Alone they were both troubled individuals who likely would’ve continued on their own pathetic paths; but in getting together, in becoming a couple, they became a true danger to virtually anyone they preyed upon. Any morals they might’ve had were set aside for one another and killing became an acceptable act for both of them. And, in this specific case, it was the woman who not only participated in the violence, but started them down on the terrible road that ended in death row.