A Tough start in Life
Mary Flora Bell is born in May 1957 in an impoverished slum area in the West End of Newcastle called Scotswood. It is a close-knit, working class community, with local children frequently playing out in the derelict streets, often for hours without parental supervision.
Mary’s home life is a nightmare of extreme abuse and deprivation. Mary’s mother Betty McCrickett is a mentally unstable alcoholic, who works as prostitute and is often absent from the family home and her young daughter. In book about Mary called “Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell”, author Gitta Sereny talks about how as a child, Betty would force her daughter to take part in prostitution. Other family members would tell Sereny that in the early years of her life, Betty would try to kill Mary, trying to make it look like an accident.
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.
There are questions as to the true identity of Mary’s father. Marrying Betty after Mary was born; Billy Bell is a lifelong criminal who Mary thought may have been her father. 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.
Her awful home life seems to shape Mary’s personality and 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 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.
"Well, that was a very naughty thing to do, wasn't it, to think of killing little boys and girls and talk about it?"Prosecution question to Norma BellOn 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 psycopathic 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.
My God I've got to ring her in
"Mary Bell was standing in front of the Howe's house when the coffin was brought out. I was, of course, watching her. And it was when I saw her there that I knew I did not dare risk another day. She stood there, laughing. Laughing and rubbing her hands. I thought, My God, I've got to bring her in, she'll do another one."- Detective Chief Inspector James Dobson, Newcastle Police(Robert Musel, United Press International, March 1975)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."The first night in their small jail cells, the girls are restless. The police station is not accustomed to housing such young offenders.
"The Killers are likely to be children"
May 1968, in a run-down inner city suburb; a little boy goes missing while playing outside his home. His body is found in a derelict house and although he is rushed to hospital, doctors pronounce him dead on arrival. The police hoping for answers from the post mortem on four-year-old Martin Brown find none; the pathologist could find no cause of death.It would take the death of another child for the police to make the link and come to the conclusion that Martin could have been murdered. The pathologist who examines the body of dead toddler Brian Howe, 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.
A child capable of murder
"I squeezed his neck and pushed up his lungs, that's how you kill them."- Mary Bell to Norma Bell, her co-defendant in the double murder of two young children."When Kids Kill" by Jonathon PaulThere are many things which make the horrific aspects of the crimes committed by Mary Bell over the summer of 1968 in the slum area of Newcastle stand out: principally that the killers were children themselves who murdered younger boys.In what is one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th Century, Mary Bell is just 10 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 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. Cuttings from his hair are found in the surrounding area.The two young killers break into a local nursery after Martin’s death and leave macabre messages about the murder. The daubings use childish language and writing, “We did murder martin brown - We murder, watch out. I murder so that I may come back”.When two young boys befriend and later kill toddler James Bulger in Liverpool, 25 years later, comparisons would be made between these child killers and Mary Bell.
The Short and Brutal Timeline
26 May 1957- Mary is born in Newcastle1966- Martin Brown, Mary’s first victim is born1967- Brian Howe, Mary’s second victim is born25 May 1968- 4-year-old Martin Brown’s body is found in a derelict house27 May 1968- Notes confessing to Martin’s murder are found at nearby vandalised nursery31 July 1968- 3-year-old Brian Howe is killedAugust 1968- Police charge Mary and Norma with murder of Brian Howe and Martin Brown5 December 1968- Trial start at Newcastle Assizes17 December 1968- Newcastle Assizes, Mary Bell is convicted of the manslaughter of Martin Brown and Brian Howe. Norma Bell is acquitted1980- Mary Bell is released from prisonApril 1998- Mary’s teenage daughter becomes aware of her mother’s crimesJune 1998- "Cries Unheard: the story of Mary Bell" is published featuring interviews with Mary Bell2003- The High Court grants lifelong anonymity for Mary and her daughter
"Please Mam, put my tiny mind at ease, tell judge and jury on your knees. They will listen to your cry of ‘please’. The guilty one is you, not me. I am sorry it has to be this way. We’ll both cry and you will go away. Tell them you are guilty, please. So then Mam, I’ll be free.Your daughter, May."Mary Bell, in a letter to her mother after the court finds her guilty of manslaughter.Mary Bell spent a total of 12 years at various institutions, including Red Bank Special Unit, where she was the only female offender, before she was released in 1980 at the age of 23. Whilst incarcerated she continually denied being guilty of the killings of Martin and Brian.
After her release she was given a new identity and granted anonymity. In May 2003 Bell and her daughter won a case at the High Court which gave them both anonymity for life.The Mary Bell case was the first of its kind. Investigations into her early life, carried out after she was convicted, have been presented as arguments for the reason that she committed the terrible crimes that she did. 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.