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Mary Flora BELL






A.K.A.: "The Tyneside Strangler"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (11)
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: May 25, 1968 / July 31, 1968
Date of arrest: August 1, 1968
Date of birth: May 26, 1957
Victims profile: Martin Brown, 4 / Brian Howe, 3
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, United Kingdom
Status: Convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility on December 17, 1968. Sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. Released in 1980

photo gallery


Mary Flora Bell was an eleven-year-old monster who caused a sensation in 1968 when she killed two small boys in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Martin Brown, four years old, was found asphyxiated in a derelict house, 85 St Margaret's Road, in the Scotswood district of Newcastle on Saturday 25th May 1968. A local nursery school was broken into a couple of days later. Police investigating the incident found four notes, one of which referred to the death of Martin Brown.

On 31st July 1968 Brian Howe, aged three, was found dead on wasteground off Scotswood Road. He had been strangled and his body had numerous small cuts on it. The police launched an investigation that took in the interviewing of twelve hundred children. Two girls, Norma Joyce Bell and Mary Flora Bell (no relation to each other), gave answers that were suspicious or evasive. Each was questioned several times and changed their stories twice.

Eventually, each accused the other of "squeezing" Brian Howe's throat and Mary accused Norma of making the cuts on his body with a razor blade. Both girls were arrested on 5th August 1968 and, when charged with murder, Mary replied, "That's all right by me."

Mary Bell was born on 26th May 1957 to Betty Bell, a seventeen-year-old prostitute, who later married Billy Bell, an armed robber and career criminal. Mary was raised in the depressed area of Scotswood and had a reputation for theft, vandalism and attacking other children.

At their trial at the Moothall in December 1968, Mary was very confident and self-possessed. Both girls admitted breaking into the school and writing the notes found there. After nine days of evidence Norma, who had appeared confused and over-awed during the proceedings, was found not guilty. Mary was, because of diminished responsibility, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to life imprisonment.

After spending eight years in young offenders institutes, Mary Bell was transferred to Moore Court open prison from where she escaped, with two boys, in 1977. They were at large for only two days. She was released with a new identity in 1980. In 1998 a biography called Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell was published. There was a furore in the press when it was discovered that she had been paid for her story.


Bell, Mary Flora

Mary Bell was born in May of 1957, when her unwed, mentally unstable mother was, herself, a child of seventeen. 

Though Betty Bell would subsequently wed the baby's father, marriage did not guarantee a stable home. Mary's father was frequently out of work, occasionally in trouble with the law. Betty, for her part, frequently left her daughter with relatives or acquaintances, once "giving" the child to a woman she met on the street, outside an abortion clinic. The Bell home, in Newcastle, England, was filthy and sparsely furnished. At school, Mary became known as a chronic liar and disruptive pupil. On occasion, she voiced her desire "to hurt people." 

The cruel urge surfaced on May 11, 1968, when Mary and Norma Bell (no relation) were playing with a three-year-old boy on top of a Newcastle air raid shelter. The boy fell and was severely injured, but the incident was written off as accidental. On May 12, the mothers of three young girls informed police that Mary had attacked and choked their children. She was interviewed and lectured by authorities, but no juvenile charges were filed. 

On May 25, two boys playing in an old, abandoned house found the corpse of four-year-old Martin Brown, lying in an upstairs room. Mary and Norma Bell had followed the boys inside, and had to be ordered out when police arrived. With no obvious cause of death, it was assumed that Martin Brown had swallowed pills from a discarded bottle, found nearby. 

On May 26, Norma Bell's father caught Mary choking his 11-year-old daughter; he slapped her face and sent her home. Later that day, a local nursery school was vandalized. Police discovered notes that read "Fuch of, we murder, watch out, Fanny and Faggot," and "We did murder Martain brown, fuckof you Bastard." Four days later, Mary Bell appeared at the Brown residence, asking to see Martin. Reminded of the tragedy, she told his grieving mother, "Oh, I know he's dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin.''

On May 31, a newly-installed burglar alarm at the vandalized nursery school brought patrolmen rushing back to the scene, where they found Mary and Norma Bell loitering beside the building. Both girls fervently denied involvement in the previous break-in, and they were released to the custody of their parents.

Two months elapsed before the disappearance of three-year-old Brian Howe, in Newcastle. An immediate search was mounted, and Mary Bell told Brian's sister that he might be playing on a heap of concrete blocks that had been dumped out on a nearby vacant lot. In fact, he was discovered there, among the tumbled slabs, but he was dead, a victim of manual strangulation, legs and stomach mutilated with a razor and a pair of scissors that police recovered at the scene. 

A medical examiner suggested that the killer might have been a child, since relatively little force was used. Detectives started circulating questionnaires among the local children, asking suspects to account for their movements at the time of Brian's death. Answers from Mary and Norma Bell were inconsistent, and both girls were brought in for questioning. While Mary claimed that she had seen an older boy abusing Brian, Norma soon broke down and told of watching Mary kill the boy. At trial, in December 1968, Norma was acquitted of all charges, while Mary Bell was convicted on two counts of manslaughter. 

Described by court psychiatrists as "intelligent, manipulative, and dangerous," Mary proved herself a problem inmate. In 1970, she fabricated charges of indecent assault against one of her warders, but the man was acquitted in court. In September 1977, she escaped from Moor Court open prison with another inmate, but the runaways were captured three days later. 

In the meantime, they had met two boys with whom they spent the night, a circumstance that placed the ego centric Mary back in tabloid headlines, offering a blow-by-blow account of how she gave up her virginity.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Mary Flora Bell (born 26 May 1957) is a British woman who was convicted in December 1968 of the manslaughter of two boys, Martin Brown (aged four) and Brian Howe (aged three). Bell was 10 years old when she killed Brown and 11 when she killed Howe, making her one of Britain's most notorious child killers.

Early life

Bell's mother, Betty, was a prostitute who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary was her first child, born when she was sixteen years old. It is not known who Mary's biological father was, and for most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, an habitual criminal later arrested for armed robbery, who had married Betty some time after Mary was born.

Independent accounts from family members suggest strongly that Betty had attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental more than once during the first few years of her life.

Mary herself says she was subject to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her to engage in sex acts with men from the age of five.

Bell grew up in the Scotswood area of Newcastle, an economically depressed area where domestic violence and criminal behaviour was commonplace. As a result, her previous crimes, including attacks on other children at school, vandalism and theft did not attract undue attention. Also, she had developed a reputation as a "show off", so her proclamation, "I am a murderer" was dismissed as just another one of her idle boasts.

The murders

On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled four-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house. She was believed to have committed this crime alone. Between that time and the second killing, she and a friend, Norma Joyce Bell (no relation), aged 13, broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. The police dismissed this incident as a prank.

On 31 July 1968, the pair took part in the death, again by strangling, of three-year-old Brian Howe, on wasteland in the same Scotswood area. Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had later returned to his body to carve an "N" into his stomach with a razor; this was then changed using the same razor but with a different hand to an "M". Mary Bell also used a pair of scissors to cut off some of Howe's hair, scratch his legs, and mutilate his penis. As the girls were so young and their testimonies contradicted each other, the precise details of what happened have never been entirely clear.

An open verdict had originally been recorded for Martin Brown's death as there was no evidence of foul play—although Bell had strangled him, her grip was not hard enough to leave any marks. Eventually, his death was linked with Brian Howe's killing and in August 1968 the two girls were charged with two counts of manslaughter.


On 17 December 1968, at Newcastle Assizes, Norma Bell was acquitted but Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying "classic symptoms of psychopathy". The judge, Mr. Justice Cusack, described her as dangerous and said she posed a "very grave risk to other children". She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in St. Helens, Lancashire — the same facility that would house Jon Venables, one of James Bulger's child killers, 25 years later.

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 Mary's. Bell herself made headlines when, in September 1977, she briefly absconded from Moore Court open prison, where she had been held since her transfer from a young offenders institution to an adult prison a year earlier. 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.

Life after prison

In 1980, Bell, aged 23, was released from Askham Grange open prison, having served 12 years. She was granted anonymity (including a new name) to start a new life with her daughter, who was born on 25 May 1984. Bell's daughter did not know of her mother's past until Bell's location was discovered by reporters 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 someone is consequently known as a "Mary Bell order".

In 2009, it was reported that Bell had become a grandmother.

Depictions in media

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 by 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.

Bell's brief prison escape was the basis for a Screen Two teleplay on the BBC, Will You Love Me Tomorrow (1987), starring Joanne Whalley as the tough yet oddly innocent escapee who has come of age behind bars and goes looking for love in a seaside resort town.

Bell's case (as well as the murder of James Bulger) was used as the basis for a 1999 episode of Law & Order entitled "Killerz". Hallee Hirsh played the Mary Bell analogue. The story was reprised in a 2010 episode of Law & Order: UK entitled "Broken".

Bell's case was also used as the basis for an episode of the short-lived 2005 series The Inside entitled "Everything Nice". Jennette McCurdy played the Mary Bell analogue. The "Young Blood" episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel also depicted the Bell case.

Bell was also the basis for several songs written by extreme metal band Macabre on their 1993 album Sinister Slaughter, and is also the subject of the Perfume Genius song "Look Out, Look Out". The seminal industrial artist Monte Cazazza named one of his songs after Bell.

Bell's case was the basis for a short story titled "Blue Eyes" by Jay Caselberg that aired on Pseudopod on September 2nd, 2011.


Child killer Mary Bell becomes a grandmother at 51: But all I have left is grief, says victim's mother

By Michael Seamark and Paul Sims -

January 9, 2009

Child killer Mary Bell has become a grandmother, it emerged yesterday.

Bell became notorious at 11 after being convicted of strangling two small boys 'solely for the pleasure and excitement' of killing.

Now 51, the woman at the centre of one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century later won a court order giving her the right to anonymity for life.

The ruling is similar to those protecting the identities of Maxine Carr, girlfriend of Soham murderer Ian Huntley, and Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who killed two-year-old James Bulger in 1993.

The identity of Bell's 24-year-old daughter will also remain a secret until her dying day.

The order protecting her has been updated by the High Court in London to include Bell's grandchild, who was referred to as 'Z'.

Last night June Richardson, 64, whose four-year-old son Martin Brown was suffocated by Bell, said: 'A child is a blessing.

'She took my blessing and left me with grief for the rest of my life. I hope when she looks at this child she remembers the two she murdered.

'I will never see a grandchild from my son. I hope every time she looks at this baby she realises what my family are missing out on because of what she has done.'

Bell was convicted of manslaughter in December 1968 for suffocating Martin and Brian Howe, three, in Newcastle.

Martin, of Scotswood, Newcastle, was found dead in a derelict house, while Brian's body was discovered on waste ground two months later with the letter M carved into his stomach with scissors.

Bell's fellow accused, Norma Bell, 13, a neighbour who was not related to her, was acquitted. 

During the trial Norma gave evidence describing how Mary had ignored her pleas to stop hurting Brian Howe as she strangled him. 

The jury ruled Bell was suffering from diminished responsibility and therefore not guilty of murder.

She received life in detention but was released at 23 and given a fresh identity to protect her daughter when she was born four years later, on May 25, 1984  -  16 years to the day after Martin died.

She has had three assumed identities and has moved at least five times after being identified. 

In 1998, she was paid a reported £50,000 for collaborating with author Gitta Sereny's book, Cries Unheard, which detailed her life. She was tracked down amid calls for her right to anonymity to end.

But in 2003 the double child killer and her 18-year-old daughter were granted the right to live anonymously for the rest of their lives after a High Court ruling that outraged her victims' families. 

Mrs Richardson said: 'It's all about her and how she has to be protected. As victims we are not given the same rights as killers.'


Mary Bell: Portrait of a Killer as a Young Girl

by Shirly Lynn Scott

Brian Howe

"Brian Howe had no mother, so he won't be missed."
-- Mary Bell

"Are you looking for your Brian?" asked Mary Bell. Brian's sister, Pat, was worried about the missing toddler, who should have been home by now. A small, three-year-old boy with fair hair, Brian Howe usually played close to home. Mary and her best friend, Norma, eagerly offered to help search for him. They led Pat through the neighborhood, looking here and there, all the while knowing exactly where Brian was.

They crossed the railroad tracks to the industrial area, where the kids of Scotswood often played among construction materials, old cars, and dangerous wreckage. Pat was worried -- only a few weeks ago little Martin Brown was found dead inside of a condemned house. Mary pointed to some large concrete blocks. "He might be playing behind the blocks, or between them," she said.

"Oh no, he never goes there," insisted Norma. In fact, Brian lay dead between the blocks. Mary wanted Pat to discover her dead brother, Norma later said, "because she wanted Pat Howe to have a shock." But Pat decided to leave. The Newcastle Police would find his body at 11:10 later that night.

Terrible Discovery

Brian was found covered with grass and purple weeds. He had been strangled. Nearby, a pair of broken scissors lay in the grass. There were puncture marks on his thighs, and his genitals had been partially skinned. Clumps of his hair were cut away.

The wounds were bizarre: "There was a terrible playfulness about it, a terrible gentleness if you like, and somehow the playfulness of it made it more, rather than less, terrifying," said Inspector James Dobson. Brian's belly had been signed "M" with a razor blade. This cut would not be apparent until days later. It appeared that someone had imprinted an "N", and that a fourth mark was added (by a different hand?) to change the "N" into a "M".

In this summer of 1968, Scotswood, an economically depressed community 275 miles north of London, was in a state of panic. Police flooded the community, interviewing kids between the ages of three and fifteen. The adults wondered if Martin Brown's "accident" was also murder. "We were real nervous," said Martin's aunt, "but the kids themselves felt it too."

Suspicious Behavior

Among the children who stood out as suspicious to the investigators were eleven year old Mary Bell and thirteen year old Norma Bell (no relation). Mary was evasive and acted strange. Norma was excited by the murder, remembers one authority. "She was continually smiling as if it was a huge joke."

As the investigation narrowed on Mary, she suddenly "remembered" seeing an eight year old boy with Brian on the day he died. The boy hit Brian for no reason, she claimed. She had also seen the same boy playing with broken scissors. But that boy had been at the airport on the afternoon Brian died.

By revealing that she knew about the scissors, which was confidential evidence, Mary implicated herself. She described them exactly: "like silver coloured and something wrong with the scissors, like one leg was either broken or bent." It was becoming clear that either Mary, Norma, or both, had seen Brian die. And one of them was probably the killer.

Brian Howe was buried on August 7th. Detective Dobson was there: "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."

Closing In

"All that mattered was to lie well."

-- Mary Bell (as an adult)

Before Brian's funeral, Dobson questioned Norma again. She now claimed that Mary told her she killed Brian, and brought her to see his body at the blocks. Mary told Norma "I squeezed his neck and pushed up his lungs that's how you kill them. Keep your nose dry and don't tell anybody." When she saw Brian, Norma knew he was dead. "His lips were purple. Mary ran her fingers along his lips. She said she had enjoyed it." That night, Norma was taken to the police station to give an official statement.

Norma's story shocked the police, who wasted no time in picking up Mary Bell at 12:15 that night. Her intense-blue eyes were bleary, but she kept her wits. "She appeared to see herself in a sort of cliché scenario of cops-and-robbers film: nothing surprised her and she admitted nothing," Dobson told Gitta Sereny, who has written extensively on the case.

"I have reason to believe that when you were near the blocks with Norma," said Dobson. "A man shouted at some children who were nearby and you both ran away from where Brian was lying in the grass. This man will probably know you."

"He would have to have good eyesight," she responded.

"Why would he need good eyesight?" Dobson said, ready to catch her in a lie.

"Because he was . . ." Mary said, after a moment, "clever to see me when I wasn't there." She stood up. "I am going home. . . This is being brainwashed." But Dobson wasn't about to let her go. At one point Mary asked, "Is this place bugged?"

In the end she refused to budge. "I am making no statements. I have made lots of statements. It's always me you come for. Norma's a liar, she always tries to get me into trouble." At 3:30am Mary was permitted to leave. Dobson second-guessing himself. But after seeing Mary's behavior at Brian's funeral, and gathering additional testimony from Norma, he brought Mary back into the station.

"She was very apprehensive," said Dobson. "She gave me the impression that she knew the time of reckoning had come." Mary now admitted to being present when Brian died, but her "confession" took a bizarre turn.

Mary's Statement

"I couldn't kill a bird by the neck or throat or anything, it's horrible that.
-- Mary Bell

The following is Mary Bell's official statement.

I, Mary Flora Bell wish to make a statement. I want someone to write down what I have to say. I have been told that I need not say anything unless I wish to do so, but that whatever I say may be given in evidence.

Signed, Mary F. Bell

Brian was in his front street and me and Norma were walking along towards him. We walked past him and Norma says, 'Are you coming to the shop Brian?' and I says, ' Norma, you've got no money, how can you go to the shop? Where are you getting it from?' She says, 'Nebby' (Keep your nose clean). Little Brian followed and Norma says, 'Walk up in front.' I wanted Brian to go home, but Norma kept coughing so Brian wouldn't hear us.

We went down Crosshill Road with Brian still in front of us. There was this coloured boy and Norma tried to start a fight with him. She said, 'Darkie, whitewash, it's time you got washed.' The big brother came out and hit her. She shouted, 'Howay, put your dukes up.' The lad walked away and looked at her as though she was daft.

We went beside Dixon's shop and climbed over the railings, I mean, through a hole and over the railway. Then I said, 'Norma, where are you going?' and Norma said, 'Do you know that little pool where the tadpoles are?' When we got there, there was a big, long tank with a big, round hole with little holes round it. Norma says to Brian, 'Are you coming in here because there's a lady coming on the Number 82 and she's got boxes of sweets and that.'

We all got inside, then Brian started to cry and Norma asked him if he had a sore throat. She started to squeeze his throat and he started to cry. She said, 'This isn't where the lady comes, it's over there, by them big blocks.' We went over to the blocks and she says, 'Ar--you'll have to lie down' and he lay down beside the blocks where he was found. Norma says, 'Put your neck up' and he did. Then she got hold of his neck and said 'Put it down.' She started to feel up and down his neck. She squeezed it hard, you could tell it was hard because her finger tips were going white. Brian was struggling, and I was pulling her shoulders but she went mad. I was pulling her chin up but she screamed at me.

By this time she had banged Brian's head on some wood or corner of wood and Brian was lying senseless. His face was all white and bluey, and his eyes were open. His lips were purplish and had all like slaver on, it turned into something like fluff. Norma covered him up and I said, 'Norma, I've got nothing to do with this, I should tell on you, but I'll not.' Little Lassie was there and it was crying and she said, 'Don't you start or I'll do the same to you.' It still cried and she went to get hold of its throat but it growled at her. She said, 'Now now, don't be hasty.'

We went home and I took little Lassie home an all. Norma was acting kind of funny and making twitchy faces and spreading her fingers out. She said, 'This is the first but it'll not be the last.' I was frightened then. I carried Lassie and put her down over the railway and we went up Crosswood Road way. Norma went into the house and she got a pair of scissors and she put them down her pants. She says, 'Go and get a pen.' I said 'No, what for.' She says, 'To write a note on his stomach,' and I wouldn't get the pen. She had a Gillette razor blade. It had Gillette on. We went back to the blocks and Norma cut his hair. She tried to cut his leg and his ear with the blade. She tried to show me it was sharp, she took the top of her dress where it was raggie and cut it, it made a slit. A man came down the railway bank with a little girl with long blonde hair, he had a red checked shirt on and blue denim jeans. I walked away. She hid the razor blade under a big, square concrete block. She left the scissors beside him. She got out before me over the grass on to Scotswood Road. I couldn't run on the grass cos I just had my black slippers on. When we got along a bit she says, 'May, you shouldn't have done cos you'll get into trouble' and I hadn't done nothing I haven't got the guts. I couldn't kill a bird by the neck or throat or anything, it's horrible that. We went up the steps and went home, I was nearly crying. I said, if Pat finds out she'll kill you, never mind killing Brian cos Pat's more like a tomboy. She's always climbing in the old buildings and that.

Later on I was helping to look for Brian and I was trying to let on to Pat that I knew where he was on the blocks, but Norma said, 'He'll not be over there, he never goes there,' and she convinced Pat he wasn't there. I got shouted in about half past seven and I stayed in. I got woke up about half past eleven and we stood at the door as Brian had been found: The other day Norma wanted to get put in a home. She says will you run away with us and I said no. She says if you get put in a home and you feed the little ones and murder them then run away again.

I have read the above statement and I have been told that I can correct, alter or add anything I wish, this statement is true. I have made it of my own free will.

Mary Flora Bell (signed at 6:55 pm)

Mary's statement had some partial truths but for the most part was a transparent attempt to blame Norma. Dobson formally charged Mary Bell with the murder of Brian Howe. "That's all right with me," she replied. He then arrested Norma Bell, who in anger to the charge, declared, "I never. I'll pay you back for this."

The girls were incarcerated at the Newcastle West End police station. Their upcoming trial would attract the attention of a fascinated, yet horrified nation.

Martin Brown

"There has been a boy who Just lay down and Died."
-- Mary Bell's notebook

Investigators now looked at the mysterious death of Martin Brown as a homicide. In fact, Mary Bell's behavior after Martin's death was so flagrant, it was a wonder she hadn't been apprehended sooner. Perhaps Brian Howe's life would have been spared. But, as one local boy said, everyone knew Mary was a "show-off," and her screams "I am a murderer!" had simply been laughed at.

Even before Martin's death, other children were being hurt by Mary.

On May 11, 1968, a three-year-old boy was found behind some empty sheds near a pub, bleeding from the head. He was found by Norma Bell and Mary Bell. The boy was a cousin of Mary's. He had "fallen" off a ledge, landing several feet below. Mary would later admit to having pushed him over the edge.

The following day, three girls who were playing by the Nursery were attacked by Mary, with Norma nearby. One of the girls said that Mary "put her hands around my neck and squeezed hard. . . . The girl [Mary] took her hands off my neck and she did the same to Susan." The police were soon called. Norma stated that "Mary went to the other girl and said, 'What happens if you choke someone, do they die?' Then Mary put both hands round the girl's throat and squeezed. The girl started to go purple. . . . I then ran off and left Mary. I'm not friends with her now."

According to the official report on May 15, "The girls Bell have been warned as to their future conduct." Ten days later Martin Brown was killed.

Finding Martin

Martin was last seen at approximately 3:15 pm, and was discovered at 3:30, lying on the floor of a boarded-up house. Three boys were foraging for some scrapwood had found the child on his back next to a window, with blood and saliva trickling down the side of his cheek and chin. Panicked, they called out to the construction workers outside, who remembered giving little Martin some biscuits earlier that day. They raced up the stairs and tried to revive him, but Martin was already dead.

One of the boys noticed Mary Bell and a friend coming toward the house, and stopped directly below the window. "Shall we go up?" said Mary. They squeezed through boards to get inside. Mary had brought Norma to show her that she had killed Martin. But they were told to go away.

The girls then went to find Martin's aunt to tell her that there had been an accident, that they thought it was Martin, and that there was "blood all over." "I'll show you where it is," said Mary to the distraught woman.

Strangely, the police could not find any signs of violence. A bottle of aspirin was nearby -- perhaps he ate them all. There were no visible strangulation marks or any other marks on the child, and therefore the authorities believed his death was accidental. The Criminal Investigation Department was not called in.

The official report on Martin Brown declared the "cause of death open." But the Scotswood community couldn't simply let go of the tragic death, so they marched and protested against the dangerous conditions of the condemned buildings in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the true menace of Scotswood, Mary and Norma, were giving Martin's aunt the creeps with their prying questions. "They kept asking me, 'Do you miss Martin?' and 'Do you cry for him?' and 'Does June miss him?' and they were always grinning. In the end I could stand it no more and told them to get out and not to come back."

"I wanted to see him in his coffin"

Martin's mother June Brown was also bothered by the girls. After hearing a knock, June opened the front door to find Mary standing there. "Mary smiled and asked to see Martin. I said, 'No, pet, Martin is dead.' She turned round and said, 'Oh, I know he's dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin,' and she was still grinning. I was just speechless that such a young child should want to see a dead baby and I just slammed the door on her."

Mary's ominous behavior was by no means exclusive to Martin's grieving family. On Sunday, the day following Martin's death, Mary celebrated her eleventh birthday by trying to throttle Norma Bell's younger sister. Fortunately, Norma's father saw Mary's stranglehold on the girl. "I chopped Mary's hands away," he said, "and gave her a clip on the shoulder."

But the day wasn't over yet. The next morning the staff at the Day Nursery at Woodlands Crescent would make a chilling discovery.

Murderous Messages

"Look out THERE are Murders about"
-- note found in vandalized nursery

On Monday morning, May 27 the teachers at the Day Nursery, on Woodlands Crescent at the end of Whitehouse Road, arrived to find the school ransacked. School supplies were strewn about recklessly, and cleaning materials had been splattered on the floor. But the most disturbing discovery was the four scribbled notes left behind:

"I murder
I may come back"

"fuch of
we murder
watch out
and Faggot"

"we did
you Bastard"

"You are micey
y Becurse
we murdered
Martain Go
Brown you Bete
Look out THERE
are Murders about
and auld Faggot
you Srcews"

Police took the notes back to the station and filed them away as a sick joke. Mary would later admit they wrote the notes "for a giggle." Because this wasn't the first break-in at the Nursery, the school installed an alarm system.

That same morning, Mary Bell drew a picture in her notebook of a child in the same pose as that in which Martin Brown had been found, with a bottle near him with the word "TABLET.." There was a man walking toward the child.

It read, "On saturday I was in the house, and my mam sent Me to ask Norma if she Would come up the top with me? we went up and we came down at Magrets Road and there were crowds of people beside an old house. I asked what was the matter. there had been a boy who Just lay down and Died." Mary's notebook entry did not strike the teacher as odd, although she was the only student who wrote on Martin's death.

On Friday of the same week, the newly-installed alarm sounded off at Nursery. Mary Bell and Norma Bell were caught red-handed, but denied breaking in before. Released to the custody of their parents, a date was set for them to appear at Juvenile Court.

A week later, Mary attacked Norma near the Nursery sandpit. A boy saw Mary scratch her friend and kick her in the eye, but only laughed when he heard Mary scream, "I am a murderer!" She pointed in direction of house where Martin Brown was found. "That house over there, that's where I killed . . ." Since Mary was well known as a show-off, he didn't take her ominous bragging seriously.

Toward the end of July, before Brian Howe's murder, Mary visited the Howe household, and declared "I know something about Norma that will get her put away straight away." She told them her secret: "Norma put her hands on a boy's throat. It was Martin Brown -- she pressed and he just dropped." To make her point, she grabbed her own throat in a choking gesture, then left. It would be a few days later that Mary would strangle the Howe's own child. This insatiable need to "show and tell" her deadly crimes would be acted out upon another innocent babe.


"Murder isn't that bad, we all die sometime anyway."
-- Mary Bell to one of her guards

The first night in their small jails cells in Newcastle West End police station, the girls were restless. "They kept shouting to each other through the doors," said one of the police women who watched the children. The police station was not accustomed to housing child offenders, and they had to make provisions as best as they could. "We finally told them to shut up. At one moment I heard Mary shout out angrily about her mother."

Mary, who had been a chronic bedwetter, was terrified of going to sleep, for fear that she might mess her bed. "I usually do," she confided. At home, Mary's mother severely humiliated her whenever she wet the bed, rubbing her daughter's face in the pool of urine, said Mary, years later. She then hung the mattress outside for the entire neighborhood to see.

During the course of her incarceration, the women guards got to know Mary better, describing her as confident, intelligent and "cheeky." Some of Mary's casual comments would shock the police women, but others saw her as a scared little girl who had no comprehension of the enormity of her actions. In the middle of the night Mary would "bolt upright."

Mary's hostility had an almost naive quality: while tightly grabbing a stray cat by the neck, a guard told her not to hurt the cat. Mary allegedly replied, "Oh, she doesn't feel that, and anyway, I like hurting little things that can't fight back." In another incident, a police woman said that Mary said she'd like to be a nurse, "because then I can stick needles into people. I like hurting people."

If her parents were somehow responsible for young Mary's behavior, she would not talk about it. She had been taught to keep quiet, especially around authority figures. Her father, Billy Bell, had lived with the family, but the children (Mary and her younger brother and sister) were instructed to always call him "uncle," so that their mother could collect government assistance. Billy Bell was a thief, and the mother, Betty Bell, was a prostitute who was often away in Glasgow on "business." Because of the family's shady vocations, Newcastle Welfare authorities knew very little about Mary's family. One detective who visited Mary's home described it as having "no feeling of a home, just a shell. Very peculiar . . . the only life one felt was that of a big dog barking."

Was it because Mary was unresponsive that the psychiatrists found her "psychopathic"? If she had broken her silence and told them of her abusive home life, would she earned a more sympathetic analysis? "I've seen a lot of psychopathic children," said Dr. Orton, the first to see her during her incarceration. "But I've never met one like Mary: as intelligent, as manipulative, or as dangerous." During the murder trial, Mary's behavior would do little to harvest sympathy.

The Trial

"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's question to Norma Bell

Mary Bell and Norma Bell were brought to trial for the murder of Martin Brown and Brian Howe at the Newcastle Assizes Moothall on December 5th 1968. The trial would last nine days. The media attention, although mild by today's sensationalist standards, was generating increasing interest as the trial progressed -- by the final day the press was everywhere. Despite attempts to make the court proceedings less threatening to the children, both Norma and Mary were bewildered. Mary appeared to be attentive, but later admitted the whole thing was a "blur."

Prosecutor Rudolph Lyons opened the trial by suggesting that whoever murdered Brian Howe also killed Martin Brown. Lyons methodically recounted the suspicious behavior of both girls at the scene of Martin's death, how they plagued the mourning family with their morbid questions, and how they vandalized the Nursery the next day, leaving notes that amounted to a confession. For Norma, these notes were the most damaging to her innocence. Handwriting analysis had verified that Norma written the "I murder so that I may come back" note. If Norma was truly innocent, why would she participate in these dreadful scribblings?

How did Mary know that Martin had been asphyxiated? asked Lyons. This was not public knowledge, yet she demonstrated to the Howes how Martin was strangled. Forensic evidence also implicated Mary -- gray fibers from one of her wool dresses were discovered on the bodies of both victims. Fibers from Norma's maroon skirt were found on Brian's shoes. Although there were doubts about Norma's guilt, Mary was considered guilty by most. According to Gitta Sereny, who was at the trial, the issue at stake was whether Mary was a sick little girl or a monster, a "bad seed."

Mary's family presence at the trial certainly didn't help her case. Her mother Betty Bell disrupted the proceeding with all her wailing and sobbing, her long blond wig slipping off her head. Like a poorly-played character in a lurid soap opera, she stormed out during the trial, only to dramatically reappear moments later. Her father Billy Bell sat quietly, ignoring his wife's spectacles.

Mary, who Sereny described as very pretty and intelligent, with dark hair and sharp blue eyes, which "in anger looked emotionally blank." Observers in the courtroom, wrote Sereny, were "watching her with a horrified kind of curiosity." For such a "manipulative" and "cunning" little girl, Mary knew nothing about attracting sympathy. At one point Mary told a police officer how a "woman up in the gallery smiles at me, but I don't smile back. It isn't a smiling matter. The jury wouldn't like it if I smiled, would they?"

Norma's Testimony

Norma, on the other hand, was surrounded by a much more sympathetic family. She was the third of eleven children, and reacted to evidence and testimony with a more childlike combination of fear and nervous tears (Mary disdained crying as a sign of weakness.

Norma was the first to take the stand. Her defense lawyer, R. P. Smith, asked her about the day Martin Brown was murdered, how Mary poked her head through the fence (the girls were next door neighbors) and said, "There's been an accident," and took her to the abandoned house were Martin's body had just been discovered. "Mary wanted to tell Rita there had been an accident. . . . and something about blood all over something," said Norma, excitedly.

For the prosecution, Norma was an important witness to Mary's violent disposition. "Did [Mary] ever show you how little boys or girls could be killed? Did she ever show you that?" When Norma answered "yes," Lyons responded, "Well, that was a very naughty thing to do, wasn't it, to think of killing little boys and girls and talk about it?" Norma agreed.

The night before her testimony, Mary asked a policewoman of meaning of word "immature." "'The lawyer said Norma was more immature,' she'd said. "Would that mean that if I was the more intelligent I'd get all the blame?'"

On the sixth day Mary was called to the stand. The room buzzed with anticipation, according to Sereny: "The public and press galleries were very full, the only day when the atmosphere in the court -- unlike all the other days -- was faintly tinged with that morbid fascination one associates with certain types of murder trials."

Mary was composed and brimming with rationale. Why did Mary ask to see Martin Brown in his coffin? "We were daring each other and one of us did not want to be a chicken or something. . . ." she explained. On drawing in her school notebook Martin's body with an incriminating knowledge of the crime scene: "Rumours," she said. "People were just saying there was a bottle of tablets and things spilled out of them. It was just to make it look better and that." She had told the Howes that Norma killed Martin "because I had an argument with Norma that day and I couldn't think of nothing else to say." Mary got the idea that Norma killed by strangulation from TV: "You see that on the television, on the 'Apache' and all that."

Handwriting experts said that the notes were written with both girls' handwriting. In fact, every single letter had to be examined separately, because Mary and Norma had alternated writing (they called it "joining writing."). Norma testified that the idea to write the notes came about in Mary's bedroom, where they were drawing with a red biro pen. Norma said "Mary wanted some notes written . . . to put in her shoes." Mary wanted them for the Nursery break-in.

While Mary conceded that the notes were a "joint idea" to write, she insisted it was Norma's idea to take them to the Nursery. "We went--er--Norma says, 'Are you coming to the Nursery?' I says, 'yes, howay then,' because we had broken into it before." She admitted "we were being destructful," but it was all in fun. "We thought it would be a great big joke." Mary was supposed to be "Faggot," and Norma was "Fanny."

Furthermore, Mary insisted, Norma wanted "to get put away," and asked Mary to run away with her. They had run off together before. When asked why Norma wanted to run away, Mary weirdly answered, "Because she could kill the little ones, that's why," she said, her voice getting shriller, "and run away from the police."

Despite their accusations against each other, the girls had an unfathomable connection. During the trial, according to Sereny, "their heads turned toward each other, their eyes locked, their faces suddenly bare of expression and curiously alike, they always seemed by some sort of silent and exclusive communion to reaffirm and strengthen their bond."

Yet they had their moments of betrayal: "They shook their heads incredulously or furiously at what one or the other said; they turned abruptly, glaring at each other when hearing themselves quoted as having accused the other of something outrageous; and they commented audibly -- in Norma's case with tears and desperate cries of 'No, No'; in Mary's case with loud and furious remarks -- about and against each other's evidence." Eventually the judge prohibited contact between the two girls during the trial.

Both denied any responsibility for Martin Brown, but both acknowledged they had been together with Brian on the day he died. According to Mary, a maniacal Norma strangled Brian. When asked if she was afraid that Norma might kill her, Mary boldly replied, "She would not dare -- Because I would turn around and punch her one."

Norma's grim version of the events, however, were closer to the truth: "May [Mary's nickname] told Brian to lie down," and then "started to hurt him." Norma demonstrated how Mary pinched Brian's nose. He started turning purple and tried to push Mary's hand away. "When she was really hurting him she said, 'Norma, take over, my hands are getting thick.'"

But Norma left, she tearfully claimed, while Brian was still alive. She then went to her friend's house, where they made pom-poms (an odd activity after witnessing murder.) If Norma was truly disturbed by Mary's behavior, why did she return with Mary to make marks on Brian's body? Mary brought scissors with her because she wanted "to make him baldy." She also had a razor blade to cut into Brian's belly.

The Verdict

"What would be the worst that could happen to me? Would they hang me?"
-- Mary Bell

The conviction was obvious -- Mary would get either Murder or Manslaughter. Although there was more sympathy for Norma, it was still unclear how severe her punishment, if any, would be. The defense needed to show that Mary was disturbed, and couldn't help herself, nor understand the enormity of her actions.

After the children's testimony, the defense called the psychiatrists who had examined Mary. Dr. Robert Orton testified that "I think that this girl must be regarded as suffering from psychopathic personality," demonstrated by "a lack of feeling quality to other humans," and "a liability to act on impulse and without forethought."

Legally, this was an question of "Diminished Responsibility." Judge Cusack explained the concept to the jury: "In 1957 there was an Act of Parliament and it said that . . . 'where a person kills, or is a party to the killing of another, he shall not be convicted of Murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind, or any inherent causes, or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts."

Closing Arguments

When the time came for the closing arguments, the prosecution characterized Mary as a fiend. Poor Norma was herself a victim of "an evil and compelling influence almost like that of the fictional Svengali," said Lyons. "In Norma you have a simple backward girl of subnormal intelligence. In Mary you have a most abnormal child, aggressive, vicious, cruel, incapable of remorse, a girl moreover possessed of a dominating personality, with a somewhat unusual intelligence and a degree of cunning that is almost terrifying."

In attempting to rescue Mary from being cast off as a demonic "bad seed," the defense posed broader questions: Why did this happen? What made Mary do it? "It is . . . very easy to revile a little girl, to liken her to Svengali without pausing for a moment to ponder how the whole sorry situation has come about. . ."

The jury, which consisted of five women and seven men, took under four hours to return a verdict. Norma was thrilled when she was found "not guilty" of Manslaughter on both counts. Mary Bell was found "guilty of Manslaughter because of Diminished Responsibility" in both Martin's and Brian's death. Justice Cusack pronounced a sentence of "Detention for Life" while Mary cried, uncomforted by her family. Her detention would be for an indeterminate amount of time.

Norma Bell was later given three years probation for breaking and entering the Woodlands Crescent Nursery, and placed under psychiatric supervision.


"He called me a murderer and I grabbed his hair and smashed his face into his dinner."
-- Mary Bell

Because Britain was not used to incarcerating little girls who murdered, the question of where Mary should be placed sent everyone scrambling. Prison was out of the question for an eleven-year-old. Mental hospitals weren't equipped to take her. She was too dangerous for institutions that housed troubled children. Eventually, the precocious murderess ended up in "all boys" facility. There would be problems down the road when puberty hit.

Mary's incarceration is fascinating because at some point she apparently "reformed." When she was released at age 23, she went on with her life and had a daughter of her own. She claims to be a completely different person than the "psychopathic" child killer she once was. Can a violent sociopath be cured? Was it possible that, at age eleven she was still psychologically pliable? Was there a "moral awakening," as author Gitta Sereny suggests? Or is she putting on a really good act? Sociopaths are experts at duplicity. In any case, her experience while incarcerated is worth reviewing.

Mary Bell was housed at the Red Bank Special Unit from February 1969 until November 1973. Red Bank was a reform school, a portion of which was high security. By most accounts the institution was a well-designed and reasonably comfortable facility, with a supportive staff, headed by James Dixon, a former Navy man who was known for his strong moral influence. Mr. Dixon provided structure and discipline for Mary, and she came to respect and love him.

If Mary had been in the stranglehold of an evil, immoral mother, Mr. Dixon filled the role of the benevolent, strong father figure which was lacking in her life. She loved Billy Bell (who was not her biological father, but was in her life from the beginning) but as a thief, he was not an ideal role model. When he was convicted of armed robbery in 1969, his visits to Mary ended.

Mary's mother was a disciplinarian, but not the kind generally advocated for family situations. As a prostitute with a specialty, she "disciplined" her clients with whips and bondage, claimed Mary. But Betty Bell did make some provisions: "I always hid the whips from the kids," she said.

Betty visited her daughter often, and Mary eagerly awaited to opportunities to see her mother, but she always appeared disturbed afterwards and acted out aggressively, according to the Red Bank staff. One doctor wanted Betty's visits to stop, but to suggest that a mother be kept from her daughter, was unthinkable in that era. The staff at Red Bank hated the overly dramatic and manipulative Betty. "She 'played' at being a mother," said one teacher.

Betty Bell profited from her daughter's notoriety, selling her story to the tabloids, and encouraged her daughter to write letters and poems that could be easily peddled to the press. Betty wanted her daughter to see how much she suffered as the mother of a famous juvenile murderer, said Mary: "Jesus was only nailed to the cross, I'm being hammered," complained Betty.

The philosophy of Red Bank was to focus on the present. Dwelling on past experiences was detrimental, and therefore Mary Bell's upbringing and eventual murders were not adequately acknowledged. One psychiatrist thought Mary was blocking out her troubled past, and was being discouraged from making any attempts to discover why she killed. "There is in her an extraordinary inner intensity. . . a neediness one can neither really understand nor handle," he said. She went through many counselors, very few of which got to know her well. She was manipulative and picked fights with the boys, and claimed to have had a twin sister named "Paula" ("I think I was inventing a twin who might have done what I really did," she said later.)

In 1970, Mary reported to a counselor she had been sexually assaulted by a housemaster, but her account was considered unreliable (although changes in staff were made soon hereafter.) Later, in 1972, she began "provoking the boys" and snuck into the boys' dormitory at night. She wounded herself with self-inflicted cuts. At sixteen she was moved to a prison, which was a traumatic experience not only for the confused and angry teenager, but for the staff as well, particularly Mr. Dixon.

"There can be little doubt that this transfer was destructive for Mary," wrote Sereny in Cries Unheard. Mary had to adjust from a mostly male atmosphere at Red Bank to a full women's facility at Styal. She was a rebellious prisoner and was frequently punished, but soon adapted: "What I had to do was, yes, continue to fight the system, but I had to graduate from being a prisoner to being a con, and that meant that rather than being open and angry, I had to be closed and crafty." She also decided to go "butch." When her mother heard this she said, "Jesus Christ, what next? You're a murderer and now you're a lesbian."

A consultant child psychiatrist, who did weekly group therapy sessions at Styal, observed that "[Mary] went a long way toward persuading her world that she was masculine. She strutted. . . and making up as if she had stubble on her face," and "rolled up stockings in the shape of male genitals and pointed this out to me in class. I think she wore these all the time." She would later ask a doctor for a sex change, but was denied ("It was the idea of not being me," she said.)

After being transferred to a less secure facility in 1977, Mary escaped. She, was picked up, along with a fellow escapee, by two young men. In her brief time out, Mary lost her virginity. The guy she slept with later sold his story to the tabloids, and claimed she escaped from jail so she could get pregnant. "As time went on, my nightmare was the press," said Mary. "I never could understand what they wanted from me."

Mary was moved to a hostel a few months before her parole in 1980, and she met a married man who got her pregnant. "He said he was determined to show me I wasn't a lesbian," she said. "It was hard for me not to think of sex as dirty." When she found out she was with child, she had a moral crisis of sorts: "But if I think that almost the first thing I did after twelve years in prison for killing two babes was to kill the baby in me. . ." But Mary felt she had no choice.

Free at 23

"Mary has made herself into two people for her own sake."
-- Mary's probation officer

Mary Bell was released May 14, 1980, and stayed in Suffolk. Her first job was in the local children's nursery, but the probation officers deemed this inappropriate work for her. She took waitress jobs, and attended a university, but was too discouraged to stick with it. After moving back in with mother, she met a young man and became pregnant. There was great concern over whether the woman who had murdered two children should be able to become a mother herself, yet she fought for the right to keep her child, which was born in 1984.

Mary claims to have a new awareness of her crimes from the birth of her child. She was allowed to keep the child, who was technically a ward of the court until 1992. "If there was something wrong with me when I was a child, there wasn't now. I felt that if they could X-ray me inside, they could see that anything broken had been fixed," she insisted.

Somehow, Mary Bell had made a transition, without appropriate psychiatric treatment, from a child killer to loving mother. Her years in reform school and prison yielded sexual abuse and drug addiction, yet she claims to have a new moral consciousness and deep sorrow for her crimes. Could this be possible? Can we believe, as Gitta Sereny wrote, in the "possibility of metamorphosis"? Mary Bell had become, for the author, "two people -- the child and the adult."

She eventually met a man and fell in love, then settled in a small town. But the probation officer had to inform the local authorities of her presence, and soon the villagers were marching through the street with "Murderer Out!" signs. She lived in constant fear of being exposed.

When attempting to explain what was going through her mind as a child, particularly during violent outbursts, Mary only partially acknowledged her behavior, and has trouble confessing to the compulsion to choke other kids. Instead, she often describes her violence as hitting or pulling: "I put my hands around her ears or her hair or something like that."

As far as killing Martin Brown, Mary's version of events keep changing, from being an accident to a unexplainable compulsion. She said she had a fight with her mother, and for the first time hit back. When she "pressed" on Martin's neck, she recounts a vague blankness: "I'm not angry. It isn't a feeling . . . it is a void that comes .. . .it's an abyss . . . it's beyond rage, beyond pain, it's a draining of feeling," she said. "I didn't intend to hurt Martin; why should I have? He was just a wee boy who belonged to a family around the corner . . ."

Yet Mary still implicates Norma in having some responsibility in Brian Howe's death. "The weaker makes the other stronger by being weak," she said, in defense of being the "stronger" one.

Making Mary Bell

"Take that thing away from me!"
-- Betty Bell, responding to the birth of her daughter Mary (Mary's Mother)

In the saga of Mary Bell, mother Betty has been portrayed as the primary villain and culprit to her psychopathology. Betty Bell was born in Glasgow in 1940, and was described as a deeply religious child. "We all thought she was going to be a nun," said her mother. She liked "religious things," remembered her sister. "She always drew nuns, and altars and graves and cemeteries." According to the family, there was no excessive punishments or abuse, but for some reason Betty began to drift away. When her father died, "Betty was demented," said Isa, Betty's sister. Betty threw tantrums, staged a drug overdose, and in 1957 she gave birth to Mary Flora Bell. Mary's father would remain a mystery.

Mary's brief childhood was a nightmare of abandonment and drug overdoses. Betty was anxious to get rid of her daughter -- she would drop her off with relatives, yet would always come back despite the family's pleas to let them keep her. In 1960 Betty brought Mary to an adoption agency, giving her to a distraught woman who wasn't allowed to adopt as she was moving to Australia. "I brought this one in to be adopted. You have her," Betty Bell said, leaving Mary with the stranger. Her sister Isa had followed Betty, and soon found the woman, who had already bought new dresses for Mary.

At two years old, Mary was refusing to bond with others -- she was already behaving in a cold and detached manner. Mary never cried when hurt, and began lashing out violently, smashing uncle's nose with a toy. Her mother's erratic rejections and reunions didn't help.

Mary witnessed her five-year-old friend get killed by a bus. This devastating event must have further retarded her ability to bond with others. In 1961, Mary started kindergarten. "She was almost always naughty," said her teacher, who once saw Mary putting her hands around the neck of another child. When told not to do that, Mary said, "Why? Can it kill him?" She was lonely, and other kids teased her. She kicked, hit and pinched the other kids, and told "tall stories all the time."

The most disturbing abuses came from Mary's frequent drug overdoses, which were likely administered by her mother. When Mary was one year old, she nearly overdosed after taking some pills that were hidden in a narrow nook inside a gramophone. It seemed impossible that the baby could reach the pills, and strange that she would eat so many of the "acid-tasting" medication. When Mary was three she and her brother were found eating "little blue pills" along with the candy their aunt Cath had brought for them. (Betty said, "they must have taken the bottle out of my handbag.") Cath and husband offered to adopt Mary, but Betty refused to let the child go, and soon broke off contact with her family.

In the most serious overdose, Mary swallowed a bunch of "iron" pills belonging to her mother. She lost consciousness and her stomach had to be pumped. A young playmate, as well as little Mary herself, said Betty Bell gave Mary the "Smarties" candy that made her sick. Overdoses, particularly for a developing child, can cause serious brain damage, a common trait among violent offenders.

Betty Bell was a drama queen and loved to play the martyr. She may have suffered from "Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome," thriving on the attention over her little daughter's tragic "accidents." This syndrome, first described in 1977, is characterized by caregivers who intentionally injure, suffocate, or poison their child for the sympathy of others. The "MSBP" mother usually had an unwanted child, or is unmarried. This may explain why Betty, despite the harm she caused Mary, always wanted her back.

Mary was later resentful of her mother's excessive complaints over her own sufferings, in fact she seemed more bothered by this tendency in her mother than the sexual abuse. This compulsive need for dramatic sympathy is illustrated by one incident: Betty tearfully told her sister that Mary had been run over by a truck, which generated an abundance of attention and sympathy. The next day Betty admitted that it was untrue; Mary was with friends who had temporarily adopted her.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, if true, are Betty's use of Mary during her prostitution. In what she calls "one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse I have ever encountered," Sereny recounts the horrors that Mary had to endure as her mother's sexual prop. No other relatives, including Mary's younger brother, were aware of this abuse, or would confirm it. Yet this would certainly help to explain Mary's erratic behavior. If she had been violated herself, the need to violate others might incite her to the abuse of her own little victims.

Psychological Portrait

"Manipulation of people is [her] primary aim"
-- Dr. Westbury after examining young Mary

Did she outgrow her need to kill?

At her trial, a psychiatrist who had examined Mary testified that she exhibited the classic symptoms of psychopathology (or sociopathology) by her lack of feeling toward others. "She showed no remorse whatsoever, no tears and no anxiety. She was completely unemotional about the whole affair and merely resentful at her detention," reported Dr. Orton. "I could see no real criminal motivation."

Mary's abusive mother, her genetic wild-card of a father, and physical damage likely incurred by the repetitive drug overdoses all contributed to her sociopathology. Her inability to bond with others in a loving manner was twisted into a bonding process based on violent aggression. Mary responded to others based on how she herself had been treated. When a mother is a source of fear for a child, some cope by developing protective mechanisms against the outside world, which, for the developing sociopath, is a constant threat. Of course, not all children raised in abusive situations become sociopaths. Genetic factors and neurological damage also play a role. If a child is subjected to all of these conditions, the forecast can be deadly.

Would Mary have become a serial killer?

She certainly showed no signs of being satiated after murdering Brian. She was violent toward animals, a chronic bed wetter until her adult years, and while she hadn't set fires, she did destroy property in her brief career as a murderer. Those familiar with these "triad" of symptoms that characterize serial killers will also recognize that she probably wouldn't have stopped killing if unapprehended. Mary preyed on victims weaker than herself, and after the murders interjected herself into the crime investigation.

"Living in a fantasy world" is fine for children, but for psychologically disturbed violent offenders, the phrase rings ominous. Mary and Norma fantasized about being criminals and escaping to Scotland. "We built it up and up until -- it now seems -- We kept hoping we'd be arrested and sent away," she said. "We never talked about anything except doing terrible things and being taken away."

Medical experts do not believe that sociopaths can be "cured." They are generally resistant to therapy, which Mary had proven to be throughout her incarceration. Some do speculate that aggressive tendencies quiet down with age. Perhaps Mary is better. We cannot know for sure.

As a child, Mary was described as very manipulative and intelligent. As an adult, being interviewed by Gitta Sereny, she overly performs her sorrow, even to the writer's suspicions: "Her recovery from these terrible bouts of grief, however, was astoundingly quick, and at first these rapid emotional shifts raised doubts in me."

"Only one thing overrides them all," she writes of Mary's tragic experiences, "the discipline she has created inside herself in order to give her daughter a normal life." Both Sereny and Mary are quick to demonize Betty Bell as a mother, and elevate Mary in the role of mother redeemed. But something doesn't sit right with this simple reversal. Mary displays too much of the "drama queen" flair she picked up from her mother, and we must wonder how successful she has been at purging Betty Bell from her psyche.

Mary allowed Betty to be part of her life, even living with her after she was released from prison, despite her continued abuses. She wanted her own daughter to meet Granny. Betty prostituted her daughter in every conceivable way. She first sold off Mary to her "johns," then sold her sad story to the tabloids. We cannot know the extent of Betty's damage to her daughter. Throughout Cried Unheard, Mary has demonstrated herself to be very unreliable. There is certainly reason to lie and exaggerate her mother's abuses, which many sociopaths do to gain sympathy and justification for their behavior. Betty is dead now, and no one else has collaborated the worst of the allegations. But perhaps the silence was the product of another, more repressed era, before child sexual abuse was openly discussed as it is today.

Postscript: Cries Unheard

"But what I want most of all is a normal life."

-- Mary Bell

When Cries Unheard was published in 1998, it ignited a firestorm over criminals profiting from their deeds. Mary was paid for her efforts, which infuriated so many that Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly decried her pay. Laws were written to prevent others, including serial killer Dennis Nilsen, from doing the same. Mary's hope for the book was to "set the record straight." She thought that if she told her story, the media would leave her alone.

Sereny, however, says the book was written for the benefit of Mary's child, yet she too was damaged by its publication. With the renewed media interest in Mary, reporters laid siege on her house. Her teenage daughter learned her mother was the infamous Mary Bell as the family evacuated their home, with blankets over their heads, dodging the flash bulbs and shouts from the media. But Mary says her daughter has accepted her mother's identity, and forgives her. "But Mum, why didn't you tell me? You were just a kid, younger than I am now," she said, according to Mary.

Perhaps the value of Cries Unheard is the attempt to unravel the "whys" of violent behavior in children, which is becoming an alarmingly common occurrence. In some ways, Mary Bell is an anomaly. She strangled her victims with her hands, instead of the now alarmingly typical shooting spree. Whether Mary's story can prevent the abuse of other children remains to be seen. It is an extraordinary cautionary tale of a child's capacity for violence. If it is true that children are blessed with an intrinsic goodness, it can also be a very fragile blessing.


Sereny, Gitta. Cries Unheard -- Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.

Sereny Gitta. The Case of Mary Bell. London: Arrow Books, 1972.



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