True Crimes Of The Century: The 1940s

By Nathaniel Whelan on May 29 2020 in History

The lonely hearts killers
The lonely hearts killers
  • For six days in 1942, the women of wartime London were terrorized by a serial killer known as the Blackout Ripper.
  • While in jail, John Haigh began researching the work of French murderer Georges-Alexandre Sarret who dissolved his victims in sulphuric acid.
  • Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck robbed—and sometimes murdered—women who put out personal ads in the newspaper.

Coming into the 1940s, the world had already been at war for four months, but it would be another five years before it came to a conclusive end.

With the Allies engaged with the Germans and Japanese in the European and Pacific theaters of war, the decade following the Great Depression suffered from an excess of horror and misery. But the bloodshed was not solely contained to the battlefield.

This fourth part to World Atlas’s True Crimes of the Century series looks at the violence occurring on the home front during and shortly after World War II. But be warned: some of these stories are quite unsettling.

In case you missed it: True Crimes Of The Century: The 1910s1920s, 1930s

The Blackout Ripper (1942)

For six days in 1942, the women of wartime London were terrorized by a serial killer known as the Blackout Ripper. True to his name, he was active in a time when all lights were doused at night to prevent detection by enemy aircraft. With the streets as black as tar, the attacker took advantage of the darkness to commit his atrocities.  

On February 8, an electrician found the body of Evelyn Hamilton, a 40-year-old pharmacist, in the gutter near an air raid shelter. She had been strangled to death. The only clue authorities had to work with were the markings around her neck, which revealed the attacker was lefthanded.

The following day, two-meter readers found the body of Evelyn Oatley, a 35-year-old woman with her sights set on stardom. She had been sexually assaulted with a can opener before the attacker slit her throat with a razor.  

Chief Superintendent and forensics expert Frederick Cherrill discovered fingerprints on the can opener, which had been left at the crime scene. Once again, the attacker was lefthanded, suggesting a possible connection with the first victim.

Public fear skyrocketed once the press got wind of the murders. They granted him his moniker and dubbed him the modern-day Jack the Ripper. With crime already up fifty percent, the police were concerned about the press provoking the situation. They were overwhelmed as it was by the amount of daily looting and racketeering—not to mention stress over possible German bombings—that they did not have the resources to control the swell of mass panic. Fortunately, the killer’s reign of terror was short-lived.

On Friday 13, following the deaths of two more victims, Greta Hayward was attacked in a doorway near Piccadilly Circus. The man was wearing a Royal Air Force (RAF) uniform. She resisted his advances at first, but eventually fell unconscious. Just before anything could happen, however, an 18-year-old night porter emerged and scared the attacker away.

But the man had accidentally dropped his service respirator. Police contacted the RAF, providing them with the respirator’s serial number. This led them to lead aircraftman Gordon Cummins. A quick investigation uncovered more evidence, including an initialized pen belonging to one of the victims.

The day before he turned 28, Cummins appeared in court. He defended himself, pleading innocence to all four murders and trying to discredit the Chief Superintendent’s testimony about the fingerprints. It took 35 minutes for the jury to determine his guilt. Cummins was hung at Wandsworth Prison in June.

The Acid Bath Murderer (1944 – 1949)

John Haigh came from wealth and was academically inclined, but whatever promising future he might have had was yanked away when he was arrested for fraud at the age of 25. As a result of his actions, his new bride left and his family disowned him.

After two years in prison, Haigh moved to London instead of returning to his childhood home of Yorkshire. He worked as a chauffeur but continued to swindle people out of their money on the side.

In 1939, he was thrown in jail again, this time for four years. With a lot of time to reflect, Haigh deduced that his biggest mistake was leaving the victims of his schemes alive.

He began researching the methods of past criminals, particularly the work of French murderer Georges-Alexandre Sarret who dissolved his victims in sulphuric acid. No body, no crime. Intrigued by the notion, he performed experiments on mice while still in jail.

Haigh was released in 1943 and took a job at an engineering firm. Soon after, he met up with William McSwan, a former client of his when he had been a chauffeur. McSwan was starting a new job as a landlord. Seeing an opportunity for fast money, Haigh attacked him in September 1944 and dumped his body into a forty-gallon drum filled with sulfuric acid. Two days later, Haigh dumped the remains down a manhole.

Taking over as landlord, he told McSwan’s parents that their son had run away to avoid being drafted. They grew concerned, however, once William did not return after Germany’s defeat in May 1945. Nervous about their suspicions, Haigh killed them as well, disposing of their bodies in a remote warehouse.  

He stole their money and quickly developed a gambling problem. After he burned through most of their cash, he sought out new victims to kill, eventually settling on Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife.

Haigh’s sixth victim was Olive Durand-Deacon, a 69-year-old widow who lived at Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington, his current place of residence. She was interested in his work at the engineering firm, which made it easy for him to lure her to a newly rented warehouse on Leopold Road where he killed her. But unlike his previous warehouse, there was no manhole, so he was forced to dispose of Durand-Deacon’s liquified remains on a nearby pile of rubble. As it turned out, this sludge attracted the attention of the authorities.

Dubbed the Acid Bath Murderer by the press, Haigh was arrested and charged with murder. He pleaded insanity, insisting that he drank the blood of his victims. This did not sway the jury; it took them mere minutes to come to a unanimous decision. Haigh was executed on August 10, 1949.

The Lonely Hearts Killers (1947 – 1949)

After serving in British Intelligence during the war, Raymond Martinez Fernandez received a head injury which was said to influence his social behavior. After being released from the hospital, he committed petty theft and ended up in prison. While incarcerated, his cellmate convinced him that voodoo was real and from then on, Fernandez believed he had sexual powers over women.

Upon his release, he began answering personal newspaper ads from women, many of whom were left widowed after the war and in search of companionship. Preying on their loneliness, he took them on dates—wooing them with his supposed voodoo charm—only to steal their money and valuables.

In 1947, Fernandez answered a “lonely hearts” ad from a single mother named Martha Beck.  

Beck was delighted when Fernandez visited her in Milton, Florida. She grew deeply infatuated with the man and claimed she would do anything for him, including dumping her two children off at the Salvation Army before moving back to New York with him.  

Fernandez took this as a sign of her unconditional love and marveled at how she pampered him. He enjoyed it so much that he confessed his crimes rather than make her another victim.

So deeply in love, Beck agreed to help him con other women. She played the role of the sister, lulling the unsuspecting victims into a false state of security. Beck grew increasingly jealous, however, and turned violent when she found Fernandez in bed with other women.

In 1949, they met Janet Fay, a 66-year-old widow. When Beck found Fernandez in bed with her, she smashed the older woman’s head with a hammer. They buried the body and moved on.  

Following this incident, they answered another ad and went to Grand Rapids, Michigan where they met Delphine Downing, a widow with a two-year-old daughter. They stayed with her for several weeks, Beck growing jealous once again. Downing eventually became suspicious that something was not right and confided in Beck, who convinced her to take sleeping pills.

That might have been the end of it if Downing’s daughter had not burst out crying. Beck strangled the child into unconsciousness. Afraid that Downing would notice the marks on the infant’s neck when the pills wore off, Fernandez shot the sleeping woman while Beck drowned the kid. The couple buried both bodies in the basement, yet continued to live in the house.

Once Downing’s absence was noticed, neighbors called the police who searched the house and found the makeshift graves. Fernandez and Beck were taken into custody on February 28, 1949.

The press jumped on the story, printing articles about the “Lonely Hearts Killers.” The couple confessed to their crimes, thinking their lives were not in danger because Michigan did not have the death penalty. In the end, they were only charged for the murder of Janet Fay. Because the 66-year-old lived in Albany, Fernandez and Beck were extradited to New York where the death penalty was allowed. They were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on March 8, 1951.  

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