On the last edition of True Crime Corner, I featured notorious child killer Albert Fish. If you thought only adults were capable of murder, think again. Meet Mary Bell, convicted at age eleven of killing two young children.
Mary Bell was born on May 26, 1957. She lived with her mother Betty and stepfather Billy in the blighted English neighborhood of Scotswood. Billy was also a criminal, and it was common knowledge that Betty was a prostitute. It was a poor area, and it wasn’t unusual for the neighborhood children to play in the many abandoned buildings.
It appears mother and daughter had a doomed relationship from the start. It’s believed that Betty wanted Mary taken away from her moments after her birth. Betty later tried to adopt Mary to other people, yet turned down offers of help from her own family. Some sources claim that Betty intentionally tried to harm her daughter when she was very small. Betty entertained clients in the family home, where the impressionable young girl most likely witnessed violence. It’s believed Betty was into sadomasochism, and perhaps Mary developed her penchant for choking people from witnessing interactions between her mother and her dates. Given her home environment, it’s likely she endured a variety of abuse.
Devoid of a stable home life, young Mary began acting out in school. On a few occasions she attempted to choke her schoolmates. Her peers became afraid of her, as her distinctive blue eyes fixed on them. She became increasingly violent towards others, yet no one ever intervened, despite increasing incidents. Mary had one friend with whom she spent some time, thirteen year old Norma Bell (they were not related).
Mary claimed her first victim in 1968, four year old Martin Brown. The child was pulled from a blighted building. His death at first wasn’t believed to be murder, as he was surrounded by pills when he was found. It was assumed he ingested some of the contents of the bottle beside him. Mary strangled him, but her grip was not yet strong enough to leave marks on the boy’s neck.
Vandals broke into a nursery school close to where Mary and Norma lived. Poorly scribbled notes were left claiming responsibility for the death of Martin Brown. No one seemed interested that Mary had drawn Martin’s body surrounded by pills in her school notebook. How would she know details that had not been made public? The girls denied that they had any involvement with the notes, but they were later seen again on the school grounds by a security camera installed after the incident. (The notes were later found to be written in both girls’ handwriting).
Mary Bell could be very manipulative and cruel. After little Martin’s death, Mary visited the Brown home, asking to see the child. His mother explained to her that he was dead, but Mary responded that she wanted to see him in his coffin. Did she not understand the finality of death, or was she trying to upset the grieving mother?
Bell’s second and final victim was three year old Brian Howe, killed about two months after Brown. She and Norma took the child to a secluded area where Mary strangled him, and mutilated his body with scissors and a razor. There were similarities in the killings that happened so close together, and the Brown case was reopened.
The police suspected a child was responsible for the crimes, and Mary made no effort to hide from the authorities. In fact, she had such an interest in the cases that she was present at every briefing, raising the suspicion of police.
Mary Bell was convicted in the deaths of both boys at the age of eleven in 1968. She was essentially sentenced to life at the recommendation of a psychiatrist, who considered Mary dangerous, with psychopathy. Norma was acquitted due to diminished mental capacity and released. Even though she was a couple years older than Mary at thirteen, she was considered little more than a follower, manipulated by the strong willed younger girl. (It’s believed Norma died in 1989).
The ruling left the English justice system with a dilemma. It was agreed that Mary would receive rehabilitation, but where should she go? Under the mental health laws at the time, she was too young to be hospitalized. Instead, she was sent to Red Bank, the only female in the reform school. Bell was later moved to a prison where she briefly escaped in 1977.
Mary Bell was no longer considered a threat in 1980, at age twenty-three. She was released with a protected identity, which also applied to the daughter she would have a few years after she returned to society. Whenever she was discovered, she would move, assuming a new name. She now has a granddaughter, and all three have been granted lifetime anonymity.
In 1998, the late author Gitta Sereny published Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell. This book caused controversy, because not only did Mary Bell herself contribute to it, but she was paid for her collaboration. There was an uproar because people thought she was profiting from her crimes. (The US has Son of Sam laws to prevent this from happening).
For more information on Mary Bell, Sereny covered her trial and published her first book about the child killer in 1972, titled The Case of Mary Bell.