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.
Portrait of a Killer as a Young Girl
by Shirly Lynn
had no mother, so he won't be missed."
-- Mary Bell
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
mattered was to lie well."
-- Mary Bell
(as an adult)
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.
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
"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.
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.
kill a bird by the neck or throat or anything, it's horrible that.
-- Mary Bell
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.
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
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
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
Bell (signed at 6:55 pm)
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
been a boy who Just lay down and Died."
-- Mary Bell's notebook
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.
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
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."
the official report on May 15, "The girls Bell have been warned as to
their future conduct." Ten days later Martin Brown was killed.
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
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.
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.
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"
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."
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
But the day
wasn't over yet. The next morning the staff at the Day Nursery at
Woodlands Crescent would make a chilling discovery.
THERE are Murders about"
-- note found in vandalized nursery
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 may come back"
"You are micey
Brown you Bete
Look out THERE
are Murders about
and auld Faggot
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
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
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.
that bad, we all die sometime anyway."
-- Mary Bell to one of her guards
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
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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, 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.
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?"
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.'"
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.
"What would be
the worst that could happen to me? Would they hang me?"
-- Mary Bell
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
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."
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."
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."
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. . ."
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
-- Mary Bell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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."
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.)
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.
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."
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.
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.
thing away from me!"
-- Betty Bell, responding to the birth of her daughter Mary (Mary's
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
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
of people is [her] primary aim"
-- Dr. Westbury after examining young Mary
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."
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.
have become a serial killer?
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."
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."
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.
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.
"But what I
want most of all is a normal life."
-- Mary Bell
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.
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.
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
Sereny Gitta. The Case of Mary
Bell. London: Arrow Books, 1972.