Murderers always make headlines in the media, but child murderers? They are almost always unheard of. Meet Mary Bell, a child who became known internationally after murdering two young children.
Mary Bell’s Early Life
Mary Flora Bell was born on May 26th, 1957 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England to Betty McCrickett, who was a prostitute. Her biological father is unknown.
Accounts from various family members suggest Bell’s mother tried to kill her on several occasions and make her death appear accidental. Her family became suspicious after Mary allegedly “fell” from a window, and again when she “accidentally” ate sleeping pills. After the “fall”, it was said that she suffered brain damage because of it, but the initial cause is said to be a result of abuse from her mother. Her prefrontal cortex was damaged, which affected her voluntary movements and decision-making.
According to Mary, she was a victim of sexual abuse after her mother forced her to engage in sexual activity with men, beginning when she was four years old.
Becoming a Murderer
On the day of May 25th, 1968, just before her 11th birthday, Bell strangled a 4 year old boy named Martin Brown in an abandoned house. She left and returned with her friend Norma Joyce Bell (no relation) to show off what she had done, but two young boys playing in the house had discovered the body and reported it.
There were no obvious signs of violence on the boy’s body, and police believed his death to be an accident after discovering an empty pill bottle near his body.
Mary visited Martin’s family home a few days later and asked his mother to see him. After his mother told her that he was dead, Mary replied that she knew he was dead, and that she only came to see his body in his coffin. Martin’s mother was appalled and slammed the door in Mary’s face.
Mary Bell and Norma broke into a nursery in Scotswood and vandalized it, leaving notes to claim responsibility for the damage and for the murder of Martin Brown. The police thought this was a prank.
On July 31st, 1968, both girls took part in strangling 3 year old Brian Howe on wasteland in the Scotswood area. Mary further mutilated the body by carving the letter “M” into his abdomen, cut off some of his hair, and used the same scissors to mutilate his genitals and scratch his legs. The coroner’s report also revealed that the letter “M” was scratched into his torso using a razor blade.
Brian’s sister noticed he was missing and went looking for him, and Mary and Norma offered to help her look. Mary pointed out the concrete blocks where the body was hidden, but Norma said he wouldn’t be there and the trio moved on. His body was eventually found, and police began interviewing local children to gain information that would lead to a suspect.
Mary and Norma both acted suspicious during their interviews with police. Mary was evasive with police, specifically after they pointed out that she was seen with Brian Howe on the day he was killed.
Mary was called back for a follow up interview and, seeing that investigators were beginning to suspect she was involved, made up a story about seeing an 8 year old boy hit Brian. She also said that the boy was carrying broken scissors. This was a big mistake on Mary’s part. The details on the scissors were kept hidden from the press, and investigators knew only the killer would have that knowledge.
Norma and Mary broke down under further questioning, and soon turned on each other. Both girls were charged.
Trial, Conviction and Imprisonment
Mary Bell was convicted on manslaughter on December 17th, 1968 at Newcastle Assizes, on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The conviction was manslaughter and not murder because court psychiatrists convinced the jury by diagnosing her as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy”. Norma Bell was acquitted of all charges.
The prosecutor told the court that Mary murdered “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing”, and the British press labelled her as “evil born”. The judge, Justice Cusack, described Mary as dangerous and said in court that she posed a “very grave risk to other children”.
Mary Bell was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, which meant that she was to be held under an indefinite sentence. She was sent to the Red Bank secure unit in Newton-Le-Willows, Lancashire. Bell also spent time in a girl’s remand home in South Norwood.
Bell was released in 1980 at the age of 23 after serving 12 years, and she was given anonymity, giving her the ability to start a new life. She was still forced to move after the tabloids and newspapers kept tracking her down.
Bell gave birth to a daughter to a daughter in 1984, and her daughter was unaware of her crimes until 1998, when the tabloids discovered their location. Bell, her daughter, and her common law husband had to leave their home with bed sheets over their heads.
Mary Bell is still living under protection from the British government today, and the anonymity granted to her daughter was extended after she turned 18 years old. This protection was updated to protect the identity of Bell’s granddaughter in 2009.