The story begins with Martha Beck.
Born in Florida in 1920, her childhood was lonely and difficult. The social isolation she felt because of her obesity—much rarer then than today—made its first painful inroads there, and it was a problem that would dog her throughout her life. The cruelty of the outside world even followed her home. When she told her mother that her brother had been molesting her, instead of intervening, Martha’s mother beat her and blamed her for her own victimization. Martha left home.
What followed were years of fits and starts. A career in nursing fizzled when she was passed over for work because of her weight. Unable to help the living, she instead took a job as an undertaker’s assistant, preparing the bodies of the female dead for burial. But she didn’t keep this job long either.
Sources describe Beck during this time as “promiscuous” though that label is a loaded one. We can’t know who she slept with and we can’t make guesswork of her impulses, though of course the presentation of this as fact is clearly meant to imply a certain kind of continued or deepening loneliness. Two children born out of wedlock followed, as well as a quickie marriage that didn’t last.
Martha was adrift.
Meanwhile, a man named Raymond Fernandez, six years Martha’s senior, had been busy.
Born in the States to Spanish parents, Raymond was a traveler. As a young man, he moved to Spain for a time and even started a family, though he would abandon his wife and children. Seeking excitement or at least movement, Raymond joined the Spanish Merchant Marines. Later, during World War II, he even served with British Intelligence.
On a ship back to the United States, Raymond had an accident that may well have shaped the course of the rest of his life. A heavy steel hatch fell on him and his skull was fractured. More concerning though, was that he sustained severe damage to his frontal lobe, the region of the brain where inhibition is largely regulated. Traumatic brain injuries can result in a host of physical, neurological, and emotional disturbances including (but not limited to): social disinhibition, depression, and difficulty inhibiting anger and excitement.
After Raymond was released from the hospital, a petty theft landed him jail time. His cellmate that year was a practitioner of voodoo and black magic who taught Raymond what he knew. Raymond was an eager student.
His time served and with a new set of skills and lessened inhibitions, Raymond Fernandez was set loose.
By 1947, Martha was drunk on romance. She didn’t have much in her life, but American pop culture at the time was just as besotted as Martha. She had plenty of magazines, movies, and romance books to pass the time. But soon, the fantasy wouldn’t be enough and she decided to place a lonely hearts ad. Raymond answered.
Their romance moved quickly. While the pair originally planned a life together in Florida, alongside Martha’s two children, she was fired from her job. Instead of Raymond moving to Florida, Martha abandoned her children and moved in with Raymond in New York City. Feeling buoyed by Martha’s decision to leave her kids behind, Raymond explained the scam he’d been running: meeting women through lonely hearts ads and then robbing the respondents who were often too embarrassed to turn him in. Perhaps to his surprise, Martha agreed to help him with his crimes. Presenting herself to Raymond’s dates as his sister allowed the women to relax in a stranger’s home.
For many women—perhaps as many as twenty—it would be where they would take their last breath.
You can read the conclusion of this story next Tuesday. In the meantime, maybe you’d like to watch Fabrice du Welz’s Alleluia, profiled last week by @bexbz in her Audiences Everywhere horror column, Nightmother: Unholy Matrimony. The film is loosely based on these murders.