ALLELUIA: The Lonely Hearts Killers

Love hurts. It really, really hurts.

Fabrice Du Welz’ intense new film Alleluia is based on the true life story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the Lonely Hearts Killers.  Fernandez and Beck were convicted for three murders, though there are estimates that they killed between 17 and 20 women between 1947 and when they were arrested in 1949. They used used personal ads in letter-based “lonely hearts” services to lure their victims, lonely women with assets looking for love. Fernandez had gotten his start as a grifter, answering personal ads, taking the women on fancy dates and stealing what he could from them before disappearing. He claimed he used voodoo, which he said he had learned from a Haitian cell-mate, to help him to gain power over women.

Things changed when he met Martha Beck through her ad. Martha was born and raised in Florida.  And she was a neighbor of Truman Capote, who mentions her in this 1957 interview at The Paris Review:

 Once I ran away with a friend who lived across the street—a girl much older than myself who in later life achieved a certain fame. Because she murdered a half-dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Someone wrote a book about her. They called her the Lonely Hearts Killer. But there, I’m wandering again.

Martha had been abused by her mother, who actively chased off anyone romantically interested or who even seemed interested in Martha. At her trial, she said had also been sexually assaulted by her brother. Martha had a glandular disorder that didn’t help things any. She reached physical maturity by age 10 and she became obese. She was harassed not only by her mother, but by strangers over it. She had training as a nurse, but could only get a job preparing bodies at a Pensacola funeral home. She worked briefly as a nurse in California, but returned to Florida after becoming pregnant. The father wanted nothing to do with her, so Beck concocted an elaborate story that her husband was a Naval officer in the Pacific. For good measure, she arranged the husband’s death while she was back in Florida. She had another child with a local Pensacola man, Alfred Beck, but the marriage didn’t last. It’s no wonder that lonely and damaged, she fell for Fernandez and his charms when he answered her 1947 ad in “Mother Dinene’s Family Club for Lonely Hearts.”

Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez in court sitting with two police officers.

Fernandez’ parents were Spanish and he was born in Hawai’i and raised in Connecticut. He moved to Spain when he was 20, married and had a child. In World War II, he worked as a spy for British Intelligence. On his return to America, he was struck on the head by a hatch cover and afterwards he was a completely different person. He was arrested for a theft he couldn’t explain and was incarcerated in Tallahassee for a year, which is where he said he learned voodoo, though he also had books like the sketchy and pretty much outright racist  Haiti or the Black Republic (1884) and Magic Island (1929).

I imagine sorcery aside, he seemed sophisticated and wordly to many of the women he conned. And someone with Beck’s background must’ve thought she’d lucked out, especially since she was reportedly a fan of Charles Boyer. For his part, Fernandez liked Beck’s devotion and submissiveness. Beck sent her children away and moved in with Fernandez in New York and helped Fernandez with his con. Beck would pose as his sister or sister-in-law, overjoyed to see her brother affianced. Then they would steal what they could and sometimes even kill the women.

Though Fernandez confessed to many more murders while in Michigan, he and Beck were found guilty of three: Janet Fay in Long Island, New York; Delphine Downing and her daughter, Rainelle, in Byron Center, Michigan. It was the disappearance of the Downings that led the police to track Beck and Fernandez down. They went to the movies after the murder of the Downings, but they didn’t go down like Dillinger. Instead, despite trying to stay in Michigan, which does not have the death penalty, they were executed at Sing Sing by the State of New York on Mar. 8, 1951.

(I used Crime Library, Wikipedia and The Paris Review in writing this. Check out any of those resources for more–and there is much more– or a variety of books).

ALLELUIA screening times:

Tues., Sept 9th, 10:00 PM, BLOOR HOT DOCS CINEMA
Thu., Sept 11th, 3:00 PM, BLOOR HOT DOCS CINEMA
Sat., Sept 13th, 9:15PM, SCOTIABANK 13

This post was originally published by the Vanguard Program Blog of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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