Mary Flora Bell was an eleven-year-old who caused a sensation in 1968 when she killed two small boys in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Mary Flora Bell was born 26 May 1957 in Scotswood, Newcastle, a close-knit, working class community, with local children frequently playing out in the derelict streets, often for hours without parental supervision. Upon being presented with her newborn Mary’s mother was stated to have said – “Take that thing away from me!”.
Bell’s mother Betty (née McCrickett) was a prostitute, who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary (nicknamed May) was her first child, born when Betty was 17 years old. It is not known who Mary’s biological father was. For most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, a habitual criminal who was later arrested for armed robbery. Bell married her mother when Mary was a baby, but evidence gathered by Gitta Sereny suggests he met her after Mary was born. Police would later tell of being chased off by a violent Billy who threatens to set the dog on them when they call to interview Mary.
Independent accounts from family members strongly suggest that Betty had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life. Her family was suspicious when Mary ‘fell’ from a window, and when she ‘accidentally’ consumed sleeping pills. On one such occasion, an independent witness saw Betty giving the pills to her daughter as sweets.
There are suspicions that Betty suffered from the psychiatric disease, Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, where caregivers fabricate health problems of those in their care, in this case, her young daughter, Mary. Mary herself says she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with men.
children at the Delaval Road Junior School bear the brunt of Mary’s unpredictable and violent behaviour; she attempts to strangle young children, stubbing out a cigarette on the cheek of a young girl. Mary is a pretty little girl, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes. Her schoolteachers would comment how bright she is but express concerns about her lack of feeling for other people. Although Mary’s violent behaviour is noticed by those around her, nothing is done and she carries on unchecked, with terrible consequences.
She tries to strangle a little girl and suffocate her by filling her mouth with sand, while her friend Norma Joyce Bell (no relation) holds her down. Although Norma is a couple of years older than Mary she has learning difficulties and is easily led by the younger girl. Mary’s terrified victim manages to get away and the incident is reported to the police, but no action is taken.
Mary Bell is just ten when she starts her murderous activities, strangling four-year-old Martin Brown and three-year-old Brian Howe in separate incidents in Scotswood, Newcastle.Her potential for violence was well known in the local area, although no-one appears to suspect the true depths of her deviant nature. In May, Martin Brown’s lifeless body is discovered in an abandoned house. Though there is no conclusive proof, it is thought that Mary is alone when she kills Martin. It was 25 May 1968, one day before her eleventh birthday.
Two months later, on 31 July 1968, Mary, this time along with and her neighbour and accomplice, Norma Bell, Mary would murder again. The victim is three-year-old Brian Howe. After a walk with the pair, Brian is found on wasteland in nearby area that locals call the Tin Lizzy. This time there were disturbing signs and clues to the killers’ identities. Mary Bell had carved an crudely shaped “M” into his Brian’s stomach with a razor they’d also scratched his legs and mutilated his penis, cuttings from his hair are found in the surrounding area. Mary and Nancy broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. The police dismissed this incident as a prank.
After Martin Brown went missing while playing outside his home and his body was found in a derelict house he was rushed to hospital, doctors pronounce him dead on arrival. The police were hoping for answers from the post mortem on the four-year-old, the pathologist could find no cause of death. It was the death of Brian Howe that helped police to make the link and come to the conclusion that Martin could have been murdered. The pathologist who examines the body of the dead toddler, tells police that the killers are likely to be children.
The police hear from a young boy who saw what had happened to Brian Howe. He tells them what he saw Mary doing. She tells her victim that he has a sore throat and gives it a massage. Then she tightens her grip about his throat and doesn’t let go. With the violent attacks on her schoolmates, bizarre obsession with questioning the relatives of the dead boys, and her obvious interest in the case, the investigation narrows in on Mary and her friend Norma Bell. Incriminating, semi-confessional notes found at the local Woodlands Crescent nursery, initially dismissed by the police as nonsense were shown to handwriting experts, and are proved to written by both girls. Mary and Norma are brought in in for questioning.
On hearing of Mary’s arrest, her schoolteacher, Eric Foster, looks over his troubled pupil’s exercise books. He finds that Mary has made notes about Martin’s death and drawn pictures which contain information about the murder scene that was never revealed to the public. There was only one explanation: Mary was there when the little boy died. The investigation has identified an eye-witness, the killers themselves have left clues to their identity on their victim’s body and there are confessions to Martin’s death in childishly scrawled notes. Forensic evidence also finds fibres from the victims on both Mary and Norma’s clothing.
The girls deny any involvement in the crimes; the detectives are amazed at Mary’s intelligence and agile mind. She would answer one question and correctly anticipate the further series of questions from police and give answers to those as well. Chief Inspector Dobson formally charges Mary Bell with the murder of Brian Howe. “That’s all right with me,” she replies. He then charges Norma Bell, who in anger at the charge, declares, “I never. I’ll pay you back for this”. As the girls were so young and their testimonies contradicted each other, the precise details of what happened have never been entirely clear. The first night in their small jail cells, the girls are restless. The police station is not accustomed to housing such young offenders.
On 17 December 1968, at Court Two at the Newcastle Assizes, the court is told that the two defendants in the dock murdered “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing”. In an effort to make allowance for the young age of the defendants, Mr Justice Cusack rules that lawyers can sit with their clients. Over the course of nine days, the court hears testimony from both Mary and Norma. Prosecutor, Rudolph Lyons opens the trial suggesting that whoever murdered Brian also murdered Martin.
The court hears of the evidence from handwriting experts about the confessional notes found at the nursery, which are linked to both girls. It is told of the morbid questioning of the victims’ families by Mary, and how she had asked to see the dead bodies. Forensic evidence implicates Mary as gray fibres from one of her wool dresses were discovered on the bodies of both victims. Fibres from Norma’s maroon skirt were found on Brian’s shoes. Taken all together it makes for a strong case against both defendants. As with their police interviews, the sharp contrast between the two girls plays out in court, particularly when they take the stand to answer the barristers’ questions. Mary maintains her intelligent, dominating manner; giving witty quips to the lawyers. Observers call Norma a “pathetic child who is overwhelmed by trial”.
After the children’s testimony, the defence calls the psychiatrists who’ve examined Mary. Dr Robert Orton testifies that she suffers from a psychopathic personality disorder, that she has a demonstrated a lack of feeling towards others and is liable to act on impulse. The jury of five women and seven men take under four hours to return a verdict. Norma is found not guilty of manslaughter, as she is considered to be “simple minded”. Mary Bell is cleared of murder but found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The judge passes a sentence of detention for life.
Mr Justice Cusack, describes Mary as dangerous and posing a “very grave risk to other children”. Mary’s psychiatrists rely on observations alone; no-one comes forward from her family to try and explain how her past may have affected her behaviour. Mary Bell spent a total of 12 years at various institutions, including Red Bank Special Unit, where she was the only female offender.
Psychology experts now believe that the sexual behaviour she witnessed and was forced to take part in as a very young child may have harmed Mary’s mental development, making her unable to feel the same emotions as other children her age. After her conviction, Bell was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press and also from the German Stern magazine. Her mother repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter.
Bell herself made headlines when in September 1977, during a transfer to a less secure facility, Mary escaped. She was picked up along with a fellow escapee, by two young men and Mary lost her virginity. The man with whom she had slept later sold his story to the newspapers, and claimed that she had escaped from jail so she could get pregnant. Her penalty for this was a loss of prison privileges for 28 days. For a time, Bell also lived in a girls’ remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood (in a house built by Victorian inventor William Stanley).
Mary was moved to a hostel a few months before her parole and she met a married man. In 1980, Bell, aged 23, Bell was released from Askham Grange open prison, having served 12 years (whilst incarcerated she continually denied being guilty of the killings of Martin and Brian), and was granted anonymity (including a new name) allowing her to start a new life. Four years later she had a daughter, born on 25 May 1984; Bell’s daughter did not know of her mother’s past until Bell’s location was discovered by reporters in 1998 and she and her mother had to leave their house with bed sheets over their heads.
Bell’s daughter’s anonymity was originally protected only until she reached the age of 18. However, on 21 May 2003, Bell won a High Court battle to have her own anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life. Any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict in Britain is consequently sometimes known as a “Mary Bell order.” In 2009, it was reported that Bell had become a grandmother. Bell is the subject of two books by Gitta Sereny: “The Case of Mary Bell” (1972), an account of the killings and trial, and “Cries Unheard: The Story Of Mary Bell” (1998), an in-depth biography based on interviews with Bell and relatives, friends and professionals who knew her during and after her imprisonment.
This second book was the first to detail Bell’s account of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, a prostitute who specialised as a dominatrix, and her mother’s clients. The publication of “Cries Unheard” was controversial because Bell received payment for her participation. The payment was criticised by the tabloid press, and Tony Blair’s government attempted to find a legal means to prevent its publication on the grounds that a criminal should not profit from his or her crimes, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Mary has had three assumed identities and has moved at least five times after being identified, she is still alive.
Very little is known about Norma Bell after the trial, she passed away in 1989.
“Murder isn’t that bad, we all die sometime anyway.” – Mary Bell
If you want to watch a documentary on Mary Bell then just check out the video below: