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On March 8, 1951, chubby Martha Beck took her final steps to the death room at the famed Sing Sing Prison up the river from New York.
She was only 30 years old but unafraid of what awaited her.
Before her executioner flipped the switch on the electric chair, Beck offered an emotional homage to love and romance.
“My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean… Imprisonment in the Death House has only strengthened my feeling for Raymond…,” Beck told reporters.
She was referring to Raymond Fernandez, an oily lothario who had charmed Martha into murder. On the banks of the Hudson River, he wanted the world to know he felt the same.
“I wanna shout it out; I love Martha! What do the public know about love?” Fernandez said.
Beck was born in tiny Milton in the Florida Panhandle. She was overweight and puberty came early for the troubled girl who ran away and joined the circus.
Beck finished school and got her nursing diploma but had difficulty landing a job due to her weight.
However, with the Second World War raging, she got hired at a California U.S. Army hospital.
Promiscuous Martha became pregnant and returned to Florida. Not long after giving birth, she became pregnant again by a bus driver named Alfred Beck whom she would marry and just as quickly divorce.
She also got a job at the Pensacola Children’s Hospital where she was considered a “very good nurse.”
Off hours, her escape was romance magazines, novels and saccharine tales on the silver screen. That’s when Raymond Fernandez answered her ad in Mother Dinene’s Family Club for Lonely Hearts.
Six years older than Martha, Fernandez believed voodoo and black magic gave him extraordinary power over women. And he confessed to Martha his criminal schemes, fleecing lonely women and then getting rid of the witnesses.
Martha would do anything for Raymond.
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Here’s the deal: Martha would pose as Raymond’s sister, it would look respectable. The problem was that when Raymond’s romantic machinations were in play, she would become extremely jealous and violent.
The first to die was widow Janet Fay, 66, in 1949. When Beck caught Fay and Fernandez in the sack, she pulverized her love rival’s skull with a hammer. Her lover strangled the woman.
Now, New York was too hot and the pair went on the road to a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich.
There, they met widow Delphine Downing, a 28-year-old mother of a toddler. Downing was drugged and then the panicked pair shot her in the head. Her child? Martha drowned the crying baby in the bathtub.
Instead of getting out of Dodge, the pair stuck around a few days after the double murder – bad move.
On March 1, 1949, cops showed up, looked around and arrested the lovebirds.
Investigators around the country liked the couple for a slew of murders, possibly as many as 17. In fact, Fernandez had murdered a previous hearts victim, Jane Lucilla Thompson, in Spain in 1946.
Resigned to their fate, the pair told Michigan detectives a lurid tale of sex, deception and murder. The Grand Rapids DA assured the pair they would not be turned over to salivating New York homicide detectives.
A return trip to New York meant death in the electric chair at Sing Sing. But New York Gov. Thomas Dewey managed to wangle that return trip for the pair.
Already, the New York tabloids were calling the femme fatale “fat,” “simpering,” “Big Martha,” “a 200-pound figure of wrath,” “the giggling divorcee,” “unattractive,” “a weird woman,” and worse.
The trial was moved to The Bronx and the evidence presented by prosecutors was staggering. Seventeen homicides in all but the pair were only tried for the Janet Fay murder.
When Fernandez took the stand, he claimed his Michigan confession was bogus.
“All my statements were made for the purpose of helping Martha,” he said. “I love her. It couldn’t be anything else.”
Now, it was Martha’s turn to take the stand, finally ending weeks of speculation by the Daily News, New York Post and Daily Mirror. Would she throw Fernandez under the bus?
“Raymond got quite a kick out of the photographs of some of the old hags who write to him and expected him to correspond with them,” she said. “We loved each other and I consider it absolutely sacred… You referred to the lovemaking as abnormal but for the love I had for Fernandez, nothing is abnormal!”
She added: “A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command. I loved him enough to do anything he asked me to!”
On Aug. 22, 1949, a scorcher in the Big Apple, the Lonely Hearts Killers were found guilty. The sentence was death. On death row, the melodrama continued until the bitter end.
The night the couple died in the chair – he went first – was a grand slam. Two low-rent killers were also slated to die for murdering an airline clerk.
On death day, Fernandez said: “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. “So tonight I’ll die like a man!”
He was carried to the green room screaming.
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