The real-life story behind the movie The Honeymoon Killers is even more bizarre and fascinating than the movie itself. Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were a couple who worked together to lure wealthy single women and rob them, but they eventually moved on to murder…
When film composer Leonard Kastle was asked by his friend and roommate Warren Steibel, a TV producer best known for the PBS talk show Firing Line, to do some research for a movie he was making about Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck—a boyfriend-girlfriend pair of con artists and murderers—he was a little skeptical.
The original trailer for The Honeymoon Killers:
Yet Fernandez and Beck’s crimes interested Kastle so much that he ended up writing the screenplay for The Honeymoon Killers (1970). He even ended up directing the film, when the intended director—none other than Martin Scorsese—was let go due to creative differences. Starring a largely unknown theater actress, Shirley Stoler, as Martha Beck, and a pre- French Connection Tony Lo Bianco as Raymond Fernandez, the film took some time to make due to financial constraints. It was, in short, a real passion project.
While The Honeymoon Killers barely made anything back upon its limited release in the States, it was met to critical acclaim overseas. The legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut even called The Honeymoon Killers “his favorite American film.” Longtime Village Voice film critic Gary Giddins later called the film “…a weirdly timeless love story with a body count.”
However, as most films based on real life tend to do, The Honeymoon Killers took some creative liberties. The real-life story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck is even more bizarre and fascinating.
Raymond, the son of Spanish immigrants to the United States, was born in Hawaii on December 17, 1914. When Raymond was a baby, the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he spent his childhood and early adolescence. In 1932, the now young adult Fernandez returned to his parents’ home country of Spain where he worked on a farm. He later served in the Spanish Merchant Marines as well as for British Intelligence during World War I. After the war, he decided it was time to return to the United States.
On the boat back to the States, a falling steel beam hit him, fracturing his skull. He suffered a severe injury to the frontal lobe, which may partly explain his aberrant behaviors later in his life. He recuperated for nearly a year in the hospital and emerged a different man. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for misdemeanor theft and thrown in jail. During his time in jail, he received an education in the occult from one of his cellmates, a practitioner of voodoo. Highly interested in this, Raymond started to practice it himself. After some time of dabbling in black magic and voodoo, Raymond genuinely believed he was “irresistible” and had “mastery over women”, and could turn any woman into his personal sex slave. Armed with this bizarre belief, he began to peruse the newspapers for personal ads posted by single women.
He originally planned to make them fall in love with him, even marry him, so he could have sex with them, gain access to their money and valuables, and rob them blind. But he met his match in 1947, when, through a personals ad, he met Martha Beck.
Born Martha Jule Seabrook on May 6, 1919 in Milton, Florida, she never had it easy. Congenital glandular problems resulted in her being fat and sickly throughout her childhood. Her weight problems, coupled with her early development through puberty, made her the target of cruelty and abuse by classmates and neighborhood kids. After being raped by an older brother, the preteen Martha went to her mother for help. Instead, her mother blamed her for the incident, and, as was customary in the Seabrook home, punished her with a severe beating.
As a teenager, Martha ran away from home, eventually finding work as an undertaker’s assistant before moving to Sacramento, California as a young woman and working as an Army nurse. After a one-night stand with a soldier, Martha found herself pregnant. She tried to convince the soldier to marry her. When he refused, the pregnant, broke, single Martha returned to her Florida hometown. She told everyone who inquired that the baby’s father was dead; when this story hit the town newspaper, she got the pity she desired as the whole town mourned her loss. She had the baby, a girl she named Willa, and quickly became pregnant again by a man named Alfred Beck. She had a second child, a boy named after the father. While still pregnant, Alfred and Martha wed, but they divorced six months after the birth of their son. She kept Alfred’s surname.
In 1946, Martha Beck moved to Pensacola, Florida and gained employment at a children’s hospital. A year later, her life changed when, out of desperation and loneliness, she placed the Lonely Hearts ad that would be answered by Fernandez.
The connection between lonely Martha Beck and cunning Raymond Fernandez was instantaneous, and they began a letter-writing courtship. Fernandez traveled down to Pensacola in December of 1947 to meet Beck, and she was over the moon in love with him. She then traveled to New York City shortly after to see him. He tried to end the relationship, but she was head over heels in love.
When Beck unexpectedly lost her job, she knew what to do. She packed her bags, took her children, and showed up at Fernandez’s front door in New York. When he made it clear to her that he wanted neither marriage nor children, Beck promptly abandoned her children at a local Salvation Army facility and moved in with Fernandez.
Fernandez revealed to Martha the full details of his crimes involving women he’d met through Lonely Hearts ads and even admitted to marrying a few of his victims. Martha was unfazed by these seemingly damning revelations. Rather, she wanted in on the scam. Using Beck as a decoy – she’d play Fernandez’s “sister”, thus making the female victims feel secure, so Fernandez could easily manipulate them into loving him and getting into a “relationship” with him, so he could rob them.
But there was trouble in paradise. Beck knew Fernandez was having sex with the women they’d prey on. She knew she was unattractive and that Fernandez sexually desired these women, older women even, over her. Sex was an established part of their scam, but it still bothered her as she truly loved Fernandez. Upon finding him in bed with a wealthy older woman, Janet Fay, in their home in New York, she flew into a fit of rage and jealousy and killed the unsuspecting woman.
Fernandez, however, was thrilled with Janet’s death and the resulting money, and they decided to incorporate killing the women into their scam. By 1948, they had killed two more women, one with an overdose of sleeping pills, the other by strangulation. They escaped suspicion until late 1949, when police responded to an anonymous report of the disappearance of a young woman named Delphine Downing and her young daughter, Rainelle, both of whom had been shot to death by Fernandez two days earlier. Apprehended as they got back to the Downing home after an outing, Fernandez and Beck reportedly dared the police to search the house. When they did, they found the bodies of Delphine and her daughter in a makeshift grave put together by Fernandez, right before he went out with Beck. Beck and Fernandez were arrested then and there.
The two confessed all, fearless in the face of their horrific deeds coming to light, thinking that they were safe in Michigan, a state that outlawed capital punishment. However, it was decided they would be extradited to New York, where the death penalty was legal. Overcome with fear, they attempted to plead insanity but were shut down, unable to convince the jury. They tried to retract their confessions of the 17 murders, but were nonetheless still convicted for the murders of Janet Fay and Delphine Downing.
The trial was a media sensation, with Fernandez and Beck becoming instantly infamous. The media reported every lyric detail of the seduction and killing of the women, and made a big deal of describing Beck as fat and unattractive, to the point where she sent in letters to the editor to complain. They made sure the public knew that despite it all, they loved each other.
Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, on March 8, 1951.
Fernandez’s last words were, “I want to shout it out, that I love Martha. What does the public know about love?”
Beck’s were, “My story was a love story, and only those that have been in love as I have know what I mean. I am not unfeeling, stupid or moronic. I am a woman who had a great love and always will have it. Imprisonment in the Death House has only strengthened my feelings for Raymond.”