It was the summer of 1968 in Scotswood, a community north of London in England. Martin Brown’s lifeless body was discovered lying on the floor inside a boarded-up, condemned house, with blood and saliva trickling down his cheek. With no obvious signs of violence, police believed the 4-year-old’s death to be accidental at first.
A few weeks later, 3-year-old Brian Howe was found strangled in an industrial area, where the local children were known to play. He was found with various strange wounds, including puncture marks on his thigh, his genitals partially mutilated, and clumps of his hair cut off. In addition, a few days later another mark would become evident on his belly, where it looked like someone had tried to scratch the letter “M” into his skin with a razor blade. A pair of broken scissors lay nearby.
The community was in a state of panic, and the police were looking for an answer. They started questioning all the children in the area. Two children in particular seemed to be acting very strange; Norma Bell, age 13, seemed excited by the murder, and the detective noted that throughout questioning she kept smiling, as though it were a huge joke. 11 year old Mary Bell also reacted oddly, and was being very evasive (despite the common last name, Mary and Norma were not related).
As their investigation continued, Mary continued to act strangely. At one point, she claimed she had seen another 8-year-old boy with Brian the day he was murdered. She claimed she had seen the 8-year-old hit Brian, and that at one point she saw him playing with a pair of scissors. But, the boy she pointed the finger at had been at the airport the afternoon of Brian’s murder, and by mentioning the pair of scissors, Mary had implicated herself. The pair of scissors had been confidential evidence; if Mary knew about them, then she had to know something about the murder.
To police, it was becoming clear that one or both girls were involved in the murder. The day that Brian Howe was buried, Mary was observed by a detective standing outside of the Howe’s house. The detective was horrified to see Mary, watching while the coffin came out, laughing and rubbing her hands together. He decided something needed to be done immediately, before another child died, and so he questioned Mary’s friend, Norma Bell, again before Brian’s funeral. This time, what Norma told the police shocked them.
Though both of their stories would change over time, the story that Norma told police the day of Brian’s funeral was enough for the police to pick Mary up immediately. According to Norma, Mary had told Norma that she killed Brian, and she had brought her to the boarded-up house afterwards to show her his body. Mary described to Norma how she had squeezed his neck and strangled him, she said she had enjoyed it.
When the police questioned Mary, she was still evasive, and admitted to nothing. She refused to make a statement, and accused Norma of lying and trying to get her into trouble. Mary was let go at first, but after additional information provided by Norma, she was brought back into the station, and finally admitted to being there when Brian was killed, but she pushed all the blame onto Norma for the murder. Nonetheless, both of the girls were arrested and charged for the murder.
Leading up to, and during the trial, much new evidence and information was found. Just two days after Martin Brown was found dead, a nursery school in the area was broken into, and vandalized. School and cleaning supplies were strewn about the room, and four disturbing notes were left behind. The childishly scribbled notes were filled with profanity, but most unsettling, was the notes about murder, including one that started “We did murder Martin Brown…”. Another one said “I murder so that I may come back”. At the time, the police still assumed Martin’s death was an accident, and wrote the notes off as a sick joke. Mary would later admit to writing them for “a giggle”.
It also came out that Mary had been overheard by other children screaming “I am a murderer!”, and pointing to the house where Brian was found, saying “that’s where I killed”. Mary was known to tell tall tales, and her claims weren’t taken seriously. During her incarceration while awaiting trial, Mary made many strange comments to the women working as guards, including “I like hurting little things that can’t fight back”. Mary’s lack of emotions, unresponsiveness, and strange behaviour led psychiatrists to label her as psychopathic.
When it comes down to “Why?”, it is a hard question. Mary acted alone in killing Martin Brown, and though both girls pinned the blame on each other for Brian Howe’s death, Norma’s story that Mary was the culprit seems more believable. Yet, Norma returned with Mary to the crime scene, and helped to mark and mutilate Brian’s body after death with a pair of scissors and a razor blade. Were Mary’s actions a result of a little girl who was born psychopathic and emotionless? or were her psychopathic actions a result of deep trauma?
Mary was described as very manipulative, and intelligent. She was known to be violent, and to lie often. This violent streak began when she was still a toddler, family said, she would lash out at them and hit them. In kindergarten, she had wrapped her hands around a classmate’s throat and squeezed. It’s unthinkable to imagine a little girl with such violent rage. When family members started to come forward about what Mary had endured in her young life, it started to make a little more sense as to how a young girl could turn into a violent and emotionless psychopath.
When Mary was born, her mother Betty’s response was “get that thing away from me!”. She was eager to drop Mary off with relatives whenever possible, and even once tried to give her to a woman who had been denied an adoption. Betty’s sister, who had followed Betty, managed to get Mary back from the woman. Family member’s say that Mary, at only 2 years old, started to become cold, detached, and withdrawn.
Other stories from family members came to light; Mary had watched her five year old friend get hit and killed by a bus. Mary’s mother was a prostitute. Mary was frequently given intentional drug overdoses by her mother. It is believed that Betty suffered from Munchausen By Proxy, or MSbP, where a caregiver intentionally harms a dependent, in order to get attention from themselves. Betty loved the attention, and even lied to family members at one point that Mary had been run over by a truck and died. Most tragic of all, Mary alleges that her mother prostituted her out, using her as a sex prop and allowing her to be sexually abused by Betty’s clients. While family members have not corroborated this particular allegation, if it is true, especially taking the other information into account, it could definitely help explain Mary’s strange behaviour, and why she was so devoid of emotion.
Mary Bell and Norma Bell were both charged with two counts of manslaughter. Both girls testified during the trial, implicating each other in the crimes. It was noted, however, that the girls still seemed to have a strange bond between them. Court appointed psychologists testified that Mary displayed classic symptoms of psychopathy, and therefore was not completely coherent, nor responsible for her actions.
On December 17th, 1968, the girls were give their verdicts. Norma was acquitted of all charges against her. Mary was convicted of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, in due to the psychological assessment presented at trial. She was to be “detained at her majesty’s pleasure”, which is basically an indefinite sentence of imprisonment.
Nearly nine years later, in 1977, Mary would briefly escape from the adult prison she had just been transferred to, but was quickly caught. Despite that, she was released from prison after serving just 12 years, in 1980. She was 23 years old. She was granted anonymity to start a new life, under a new name.
Mary gave birth a daughter in 1984. There was great concern about whether or not Mary should be allowed to keep her child; after all, she had murdered two children. In the end, Mary was allowed to keep and raise her daughter. At one point, after “Cries Unheard” was published (see more below), and it was discovered that Mary Bell had been paid for telling her side of the story, there was a media uproar. Local law officials, who had been made aware of Mary’s whereabouts, revealed Mary’s local and indentity, and there was a large outcry from the local populace. Her daughter had not been aware of her mother’s past. Mary went to court, and was granted lifelong anonymity for both her and her daughter.
My other articles on Murderous Children:
12 Year Old Cristian Fernandez Killed His 2 Year Old Brother & Sexually Abused Another Sibling
10 Year Old Joseph McVay Shot & Killed His Mother After An Argument Over Chores
12 Year Old Jasmine Richardson Murdered Her parents & 8 Year Old Brother
12 Year Old Cody Posey Shot & Killed His Father, Step-Mother & Step-Sister, and Buried Their Bodies in a Pile of Manure
12 Year Old Lionel Tate Killed a 6-Year-Old Girl
14 Year Old Joshua Phillips Murdered His 8-Year-Old Neighbour & Hid Her Under His Bed For a Week
15 Year Old Alyssa Bustamante Brutally Murdered a 9-Year-Old Girl
or the articles in my Parents Who Kill series:
Elaine Campione drowned her two daughters
Alexandra Tobias murdered her infant son, when his crying interrupted her Facebook game
or my Unsolved Murders series;
33 Year Old Alexandra Flanagan’s Dismember Remains Found in Two Areas (Barrie, Ontario, 2007)
There are two books that have been written by one author specifically on Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny;
The Case of Mary Bell – first printed in 1972, this book is longer in print.
Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill, The Case of Mary Bell – released in the late 90’s, this book is still in print as far as I know.
There is also a third book about murderous children that profiles Mary Bell;
Children Who Kill: Profiles of Pre-teen and Teenager Killers by Carol Ann Davis
Also: 5 Part Video Documentary Series on Mary Bell is posted below the ‘Comments’ Section.