Lord Lucan: Wanted for Killing the Wrong Victim

I missed getting a blog posted last week because every so often my day job gets in the way. My last blog featured the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers that dominated headlines in 1949. This week we look at an English case, the murder of a nanny and disappearance of her aristocratic employer, Lord Lucan.

Introducing Lord Lucan

Richard John Bingham was to the manor born on December 18, 1934. His father was an nobleman, the 6th Earl of Lucan. Bingham’s parents had him evacuated during World War II. After the war, he returned to England and attended Eaton, where he developed a taste for gambling. After college, he joined the Coldstream Guards for his national service.

Bingham’s gambling continued during his military service and afterward. He often won at backgammon and even earned the sobriquet “Lucky Lucan.” But he also racked up big losses and over time, he lost more money than he won. On a single bad night in a casino, he lost £10,000. An uncle helped him pay the debt, but it took him two years to pay the uncle back.

Lord Lucan: Richard John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan
Lord Lucan: Richard John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan

When Bingham’s father died in January 1964, he became Lord Lucan, the 7th Earl of Lucan.

Lord Lucan Takes a Wife

Lord Lucan met his future wife early in 1963. Veronica Duncan was something of an artist and had entrée into high society through her sister’s husband. She and Lucan married on November 20, 1963. Upon their marriage, Veronica became the Countess of Lucan. For a while, the marriage prospered. However, after the birth of the couple’s third child, Veronica suffered from post-partum depression and her mental state declined.

Lord Lucan with his future wife, Veronica Duncan, October 14, 1963 (By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36116676)
Lord Lucan with his future wife, Veronica Duncan, October 14, 1963

As if Veronica’s problems weren’t enough, Lord Lucan’s gambling addition was taking a toll on the family finances. The pressure of trying to maintain their financial position, coupled with Veronica’s depression, took a toll on the marriage. After a strained family Christmas in 1972, Lord Lucan moved out.

The separation generated a fierce custody battle between Lord Lucan and his estranged wife. He wanted full custody of the children and painted Veronica as unable to care for them. However, Mr. Justice Rees found the Earl’s character unimpressive and awarded full custody to Veronica.

The court case cost Lord Lucan about £20,000 and his gambling was now almost completely out of control. The pressure on his financial condition was immense. Furthermore, he began drinking more heavily than usual and started chain-smoking. He began spying on Veronica and, on at least one occasion, talked to friends about murdering his wife.

The Murdered Nanny

Sandra Rivett was a young woman who experienced several ups and downs in her life. Toward the end of 1974, Veronica hired her to be the nanny for her three children. Shortly before 9:00 p.m. on November 7, 1974, Sandra went to the basement kitchen of the Bingham home to make Veronica a cup of tea. When she entered the room, someone bludgeoned her to death with a lead pipe wrapped with tape. Her killer then stuffed her body into a canvas mailbag.

 (By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36114738)
Sandra Rivett (Daily Mail)

Countess Lucan wondered why it was taking so long to make a cup of tea and went downstairs herself. She called to Sandra from the top of the basement stairs and was attacked herself. When she screamed, her attacker told her to “shut up.” She immediately recognized her husband’s voice. The two continued fighting, but Veronica eventually escaped and ran to the Plumbers Arms, a nearby pub.

The Lucan home at 46 Lower Belgrave Street in London's posh Belgravia district (By Carcharoth (Commons) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20077974)
The Lucan home at 46 Lower Belgrave Street in London’s posh Belgravia district

Where Is Lord Lucan?

Lord Lucan made some phone calls and drove to East Sussex to visit friends, the Maxwell-Scotts. After that, he disappeared. An initial inquest into Rivett’s death began on November 13. However, the full inquest did not take place until June 16, 1975. The verdict, read by the coroner’s jury foreman, was “Murder by Lord Lucan.” The assumption was that he intended to kill Countess Lucan but killed Rivett by mistake.

Lucan’s fate remains a mystery. The last time anyone saw him was when he left the Maxwell-Scotts’ at about 1:15 a.m. on November 8, 1974. Since his disappearance, police have investigated thousands of supposed sightings but were not able to confirm any of them. At least one supposed sighting was an outright hoax. The generally accepted theory is that Lord Lucan committed suicide by scuttling his motorboat and jumping into the English Channel.

Lord Lucan
Lord Lucan

On February 3, 2016, 42 years after his father disappeared and became a fugitive, his son, George Bingham finally obtained a death certificate. Richard John Bingham was now officially dead, and George inherited his father’s title, becoming the 8th Earl of Lucan.


Veronica Lucan killed herself on September 26, 2017 with a mix of drugs and alcohol. She was 80 years old and had diagnosed herself as having Parkinson’s disease.

Several books about the case recount the facts of the crime and explore different theories about Lord Lucan’s fate. An early entry was Patrick Marnham’s Trail of Havoc: In the Steps of Lord Lucan, published in 1987. Later works include Dead Lucky: Lord Lucan: The Final Truth, Lord Lucan: What Really Happened?, and the recently revised A Different Class of Murder.

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The Lonely Hearts Killers Exploit Vulnerable Women

In my last blog, we saw how romantic difficulties drove an upright woman to murder. This week, meet a couple the press dubbed “The Lonely Hearts Killers.” Raymond Fernandez and Marth Beck met through personal ads and together murdered as many as seventeen women.

The Lonely Hears Killers Before They Met

Raymond Fernandez was born in Hawaii to Spanish parents in 1914, although the family soon moved to Connecticut. He served in the Spanish Merchant Marine and worked with British Intelligence during World War II. Sailing to the United States after the war, a steel hatch fell on him and fractured his skull. Whether this affected his subsequent behavior or not is unclear.

The Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez (L) and Martha Beck (R)
The Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez (L) and Martha Beck (R)

Fernandez later ended up in prison where he claimed a cellmate taught him voodoo and black magic. Black magic, he believed, gave him a mystical, irresistible power over women. He began to use this “power”—and lonely-hearts newspaper ads—to find potential love interests so he could rob them.

Martha Beck (born Martha Seabrook in 1920) came from Milton, Florida. As an adult she was overweight and not particularly attractive. She claimed at trial that her brother had raped her when she was a teenager. But when she told her mother, she beat Martha, claiming she was responsible. No one knows if that claim was true.

As a teen, Beck ran away from home and joined a traveling circus. Moving to California during the war, she worked there as an Army nurse. She returned home to Florida after becoming pregnant. She claimed (falsely) that she was married, and that her husband had died in the Pacific Campaign. Becoming pregnant again, she quickly married and almost as quickly divorced Pensacola bus driver Alfred Beck.

The Lonely Hearts Killers Connect

Unemployed and a single mother, Beck frequently escaped into a fantasy world. She bought romance magazines, read romance novels, and saw romantic movies. In 1947, she placed a lonely-hearts ad. Raymond Fernandez answered it.

The Lonely Hearts Killers posing as Mr. & Mrs. Charles Martin
The Lonely Hearts Killers posing as Mr. & Mrs. Charles Martin

Instead of victimizing Beck, Fernandez decided to team up with her. Beck visited and stayed with Fernandez for a while, telling people they were married. After Fernandez returned to New York, Beck followed, now posing as Fernandez’s sister.

Undone by Murder

In 1949, the Lonely Hearts Killers committed the three murders that led to their downfall. The first victim was Janet Fay, age 66. She and Fernandez became engaged, and she moved into his Queens apartment. When Beck caught Beck in bed with Fernandez, she flew into a rage and attacked the woman with a hammer. Fernandez finished the job by strangling her. When Fay’s family became suspicious, the Lonely Hearts Killers fled the state.

Fernandez and Beck hid the body of victim Janet Fay in the basement of this house in Queens, New York
Fernandez and Beck hid the body of victim Janet Fay in the basement of this house in Queens, New York

Fernandez and Beck next showed up in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming Township, Michigan. There they met and stayed with Deliphine downing. Deliphine was 31 and a widow with a two-year-old daughter, Rainelle. Eventually, though Deliphine became suspicious, and the couple gave her sleeping pills to calm her down. Now Rainelle was upset and began crying uncontrollably. Enraged by the child’s crying, Beck choked her but did not kill her. Concerned that Deliphine would call the police after seeing the bruising on Rainelle’s neck, Fernandez shot her.

Victim Deliphine Downing and her daughter, Rainelle
Victim Deliphine Downing and her daughter, Rainelle

For two days, the Lonely Hearts killers stayed in Deliphine’s house, trying to decide their next move. Ultimately, Beck held the child’s head under water until she drowned. She and Fernandez then buried both bodies in the basement and went to the movies. Not long after they got back, the police were at their door.

Trial and Execution

The couple was arrested for the murder of Janet Fay as well as killing Deliphine and Rainelle Downing. Their trial would be for Fay’s murder in New York, since New York had the death penalty and Michigan didn’t.

Fernandez quickly confessed. He recanted, though, claiming he made the confession only to protect Beck. They denied committing any of the seventeen murders attributed to them.

Naturally, the trial was a sensation, receiving great coverage in the press. When the papers printed derisive descriptions of Beck, she wrote them in protest. In what was almost a foregone conclusion, Fernandez and Beck were convicted of Fay’s murder and sentenced to death.

On March 8, 1951, the Lonely Hearts Killers died in the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing prison, still declaring their love for each other.

The New York Daily Mirror announces the execution of the Lonely Hearts Killers
The New York Daily Mirror announces the execution of the Lonely Hearts Killers

In 2020, true crime writer Tobin T. Buhk published a book about the Fernandez-Beck case, The Lonely Hearts Killers: The Bloody Passions of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.

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Jean Harris: Love, Lust, and a Scandalous Murder

From last week’s San Francisco porn kings, this week we move across the country to the prestigious Madeira School for girls. In 1980, the school’s headmistress, Jean Harris, killed her lover and ignited a scandal.

Jean Harris

Jean Harris was virtually the definition of respectable. In fact, the students at Madeira nicknamed her “Integrity Jean.” She was born Jean Struven in Chicago in 1923. She grew up in the tony Shaker Heights section of Cleveland, Ohio. Her education included Laurel School in Shaker Heights and Smith College in Massachusetts.. She graduated from Smith magna cum laude in 1945 with a degree in economics.

After college, Jean married Jim Harris, and the couple had two sons together. But in 1965, Jean divorced her husband (he died in 1977). The following year, Jean began a relationship with Dr. Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist and lifelong bachelor.

Jean Harris in 1984
Jean Harris in 1984

Jean Harris and Herman Tarnower

Despite being a confirmed bachelor, Tarnower embarked on a fourteen-year romantic involvement with Jean. During this time, he plied her with expensive gifts and exotic vacations. But he dated other women, too, a fact he didn’t hide from Jean. Not a formula for a smooth, tranquil relationship.

Dr. Herman Tarnower.
Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Jean became headmistress of The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia in 1977. McLean is near Washington, D.C. and the appointment earned her a listing in Washington’s social register.

In the late 1970s, Tarnower published The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Its regimen of low carbohydrates, oily fish, and reduced fat was novel for the time. Jean helped him with the book, something Tarnower acknowledged. But Tarnower considered her help merely clerical while Jean felt her role was more that of a co-author. The book hit the best-seller lists in 1978. However, some medical experts dismissed it as a fad diet and others lambasted it for “serious nutritional deficiencies.” Regardless, the fact that it was a best-seller made Dr. Tarnower moderately famous.

Trouble Brewing for Jean Harris

By this time, Jean was hooked on methamphetamines prescribed by—you guessed it—Dr. Herman Tarnower. She didn’t realize she had an addiction, though. However, meth clouded her thinking and contributed to what happened next.

In the mid-1970s, Tarnower hired a secretary for his office, a divorcee named Lynne Tryforos. Before long, the doctor and the secretary were having an affair, even though she was less than half his age. He began distancing himself from Jean, apparently with the intent of replacing her with Tryforos.

Jean was also having troubles at Madeira. She may have been having a long-term fling with Dr. Tarnower, but she was always the prim and proper headmistress at the school. Her rigid and inflexible authoritarian style didn’t wear too well in 1980. Student dissatisfaction boiled over right before break in March 1980. On March 8, some students staged a sit-in to vent their discontent with the faculty and the headmistress. The sit-in left Jean “despondent and distant” according to some Madeira faculty.

Main building of The Madeira School. Jean Harris was Headmistress from 1977 to 1980.
Main building of The Madeira School

The Death of Dr. Tarnower

Two days later, on March 10, Jean drove 264 miles from the Madeira School to Tarnower’s home in Purchase, New York. She took a .32 revolver with her. She later claimed she had intended to kill herself after talking with Tarnower. But when she got there, she found Tryforos’ lingerie in the bedroom. An argument followed and the gun, as guns are wont to do, went off—four times. Tarnower was dead. Jean left, allegedly to get help. But Tarnower’s housekeeper had phoned police when she heard the gunshots. When Jean met police cars racing toward Tarnower’s house, she turned around and followed them. Police arrested her at the scene.

Jean refused to plead guilty to a lesser charge and instead stood trial for second-degree murder. Her trial, which began on November 21, 1980, lasted 14 weeks. Not surprisingly, it was a national sensation. In the end, the jury rejected her defense of an accidental discharge and convicted her. Judge Russell Leggett sentenced her to the minimum: 15 years to life.


Jean Harris served her time at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She used her experience as an educator to establish programs for her fellow inmates to get their GEDs or college degrees while in prison. She also taught parenting classes and set up an in-prison nursery for babies born to inmates.

Jean Harris (Newsday)
Jean Harris (Newsday)

On December 29, 1992, after eleven years in prison, Governor Mario Cuomo commuted the remainder of Jean’s sentence. She was almost 70 when she walked out of prison in 1993. Harris lived quietly and mostly out of the limelight until her death at age 89 in 2017.

Two books about the case came out in the early 1980s. Mrs. Harris, published in 1982, is Jean’s story told to writer Diana Trilling. Journalist Shana Alexander published Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower in 1983.

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