Mary Bell

This case is always a special one for me it was a bit of a bed time story for me when I stayed with my grandmother as a child, the violence inflicted on the victim in this case is shocking, but the most shocking art was this violence was inflicted by an 11-year-old girl. The girl was Mary Bell, one of Britain’s youngest murderers.

Bell was born on 26th May 1957 in Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, she was born into an unstable home; her mother Betty was a prostitute and was absent from the family home a lot during Bell’s childhood as she would travel to Glasgow to work. Betty was 17 years old when she had Mary, the father was unknown and uninvolved in Bell’s life, it was believed however that a local criminal named Billy Bell was her biological father, he was arrested and imprisoned for armed robbery when Bell was a baby. Mary Bell spoke as an adult to an author of two books about Bell; The Case of Mary Bell (1972) this was an account of the killing and trial and Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998) a biography based on interviews with Bell, her relatives, friends and professionals that knew Bell during and after her time in prison. In Cries Unheard Bell spoke od the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and her mother’s clients from the age of 4. Family members also witnessed Betty abusing Bell they gave several different accounts that suggested her mother had tried to kill her and make her death look accidental when she was a baby. The suspicions grew with family members when Bell “fell” from a window and when she “accidentally took sleeping pills” but family member did say they witnessed her giving Bell the pills “like sweets”.

Bell’s behaviour was strange in the weeks leading up to the first murder, on 11th May 1968 Bell was witnessed playing with a 3-year-old boy, but the boy was then badly injured in a fall from the top of an air raid shelter; his parents accepted the explanation that this was an accident. The following day however three mothers came forward to say that Bell had attempted to choke their young daughters, Bell was interviewed by police for this, but it only resulted in her being “lectured” then released without charges.

On 25th May 1968, the day before Bell’s 11th birthday Bell committed her first murder, she strangled 4-year-old Martin Brown in a local abandoned house, she acted alone in the murder, but after she took a friend Norma Joyce Bell (no relation) and broke into a nursery in Scotswood and left notes claiming responsibility for the murder of Brown, the police dismissed this incident as a prank. This was just the latest and most disturbing in a series of break-ins at the nursery, so they installed an alarm system, the alarm going off several nights later caught Bell and Norma at the nursery, but when police arrived, they were just loitering outside and let off the hook.

Notes that Bell and Norma left at the nursery

There was little for police to go on in Brown’s murder besides a bit of blood and saliva on the victim’s face, there was no obvious signs of violence on Brown’s body. A bottle of painkillers were found next to his body making the police assume that Brown swallowed the pills and his death was ruled as an accident. Brown’s family started to suspect otherwise when Bell showed up on their doorstep days after Martin’s death and asked to see him, Martin’s mother gently explained to Bell that Martin was dead, and she said she knew that and wanted to see his body in the coffin, so Martin’s mother slammed the door in Bell’s face.

While the police investigated Bell was telling her fellow classmates that she had killed Martin Brown, she already had a reputation as a show-off and a liar, so no one took her claims seriously until the next young boy was found dead.

Norma took part in Bell’s second murder on 31st July 1968, the girls strangled 3-year-old Brian Howe in a wasteland in the same Scotswood area as the first murder, Bell escalated her violence in the second murder as Bell returned to the scene alone after the murder and carved an “M” into Howe’s stomach, cut off some of his hair, scratched his leg and mutilated his penis with a pair of scissors she brought from home. She then hid the body under some concrete blocks.

Brian’s sister went out looking for him after he had failed to return home, she ran into Bell and Norma who then helped her look for Brian, Bell even pointed at the concrete blocks where she had hidden the body, but his sister said he wouldn’t be there and went to look elsewhere. The neighbourhood was panicked when the news hit that another boy’s body had been found and police began interviewing local children hoping that one of them had seen or spoken to the suspect.

Bell and Norma expressed too much interest in the investigation in to the murders and both acted strangely during their police interviews. Norma was excited, and Bell was evasive especially when police mentioned that Bell had been seen with Howe on the day he died. Bell was seen on the day of Howe’s burial lurking outside his house and even laughed and rubbed her hands together when she saw the coffin.

Bell was called back for a second interview and in this interview, she said she had seen an 8-year-old boy hit Brian on the day he died and that the boy had been carrying broken scissors when he was with Brian Howe. This was a big mistake on Bell’s part as the mutilation of the body with scissors had been kept out of the press, so the only other person aside from police that would know that was Brian Howe’s killer. Both girls were questioned further and broke down, Norma began cooperating with police and implicated Bell, Bel admitted to being present during Howe’s murder but tried to place the blame on Norma, both were charged, and the trial was set.

On 17th December 1968, Norma Bell appeared at Newcastle Assizes and was acquitted for her part in Brian Howe’s murder, she was regarded as an unwilling accomplice that fell under a bad influence. Bell however was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the court appointed psychologist described Bell as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy”. Bell was sentenced to be detained at her Majesty’s pleasure on an indefinite sentence, the judge closed by describing her as “a very grave risk to other children” initially she was sent to Red Bank Secure unit in Newton-Le-Willow, Lancashire, the same facility that housed another notorious British child killer Jon Venables 24 years later.

At the time this was case was of high interest to the British press, because of this Bell’s mother continued to exploit her daughter, she sold stories about her to the press and would give reporters writings that she claimed were from Bell. In 1977 Bell hit the headlines when she briefly escaped from Moor Court open prison, Bell had been held there since her transfer from young offenders to adult prison. Bell was released in 1980 from Askham Grange open prison aged 23, she served 12 years and was granted anonymity upon her release allowing her to start a new life. Bell went on to have a daughter after release who was unaware of Bell’s past until reporters discovered her location in 1988 forcing Bell and her daughter to flee their home with sheets on their heads. After this incident Bell’s daughter was also granted anonymity and was protected up until the age if 18, but on 21st May 2003 Bell appealed to the High Court and won a battle to have both their anonymities extended to life, since this appeal any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict is known as a “Mary Bell order”. Much like most cases where the offender is a child, the child committing the offence is often in need of some sort of protection and help themselves. In Bell’s case her rage came from the abused she suffered as a child, the fact it was inflicted by her mother would have made the rage worse as she would have felt completely trapped, stuck to do whatever her mother wanted her to do with no way out. Her mother’s attempts on Bell’s life were also a factor in what drove her to kill, the fact she experienced her mother have such a disregard for her life would have given her the idea that life is

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