Mary Bell was only ten years old when she committed her first murder — and it wasn't her last.
Mary Bell killed two young boys in 1968. When she was released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence, she was only 23 years old.
In other words, Mary Bell was only 10 when she started committing her murders.
But her experiences of violence didn’t begin there — pain and death were her companions almost from the moment of her birth.
The Beginning Of A Child-Killer
Mary Bell was born to Betty, a 16-year-old prostitute who reportedly told doctors to “take that thing away from me” when she saw her daughter.
Things went downhill from there. Betty was often away from home on “business” trips to Glasgow — but her absences were periods of respite for the young Mary, who was subject to abuse, both mental and physical, when her mother was present.
Betty’s own sister witnessed Betty try to give Mary away to a woman who had been unsuccessfully trying to adopt; the sister quickly recovered Mary herself. Mary was also strangely accident prone; she once “fell” from a window, and on another occasion “accidentally” overdosed on sleeping pills.
Some attribute the accidents to Betty’s determination to rid herself of an encumbrance, while others see the symptoms of Munchausen syndrome by proxy; Betty longed for the attention and sympathy her daughter’s accidents brought her.
According to later accounts given by Mary herself, her mother began to prostitute her out when she was just four years old — though this remains uncorroborated by family members. They did know, however, that Mary’s young life had already been marked by loss: she had seen her five-year-old friend run over and killed by a bus.
Given all that had happened, it did not surprise them that Mary, by the age of ten, had become a strange child, withdrawn and manipulative, always hovering on the edge of violence.
But there was a lot they didn’t know.
A Pattern Of Violence And An Obsession With Death
For weeks before her first murder, Mary Bell had been acting strangely. On May 11, 1968, Mary had been playing with a three-year-old boy when he was badly injured in a fall from the top of an air raid shelter; his parents thought it was an accident.
The following day, however, three mothers came forward to tell police that Mary had attempted to choke their young daughters. A brief police interview and a lecture resulted — but no charges were filed.
Then on May 25, the day before she turned 11, Mary Bell strangled four-year-old Martin Brown to death in an abandoned house in Scotswood, England. She left the scene and returned with a friend, Norma Bell (no relation), to find they’d been beaten there by two local boys who had been playing in the house and stumbled on the body.
Police were mystified. Besides a little blood and saliva on the victim’s face, there were no obvious signs of violence. There was, however, an empty bottle of painkillers on the floor near the body. In the absence of better information, they assumed Martin Brown had swallowed the pills. His death was ruled an accident.
But Martin’s grieving family might have started to suspect otherwise when little Mary Bell showed up on their doorstep in the days after Martin’s death and asked to see him. His mother gently explained to her that Martin was dead, but Mary said she already knew that; she wanted to see his body in the coffin. Martin’s mother slammed the door in her face.
Shortly after, Mary and her friend Norma broke into a nursery school and vandalized it with notes taking responsibility for Martin Brown’s death and promising to kill again. Police assumed the notes were a morbid prank. For the nursery school, this was just the latest and most disturbing in a series of break-ins; they wearily installed an alarm system.
It was a smart choice, because it caught Mary and Norma at the scene of the crime several nights later — but as they were simply loitering outside when the police arrived, they were let off the hook.
In the meantime, Mary was telling her fellow classmates that she had killed Martin Brown. Her reputation as a show-off and a liar prevented anyone from taking her claims seriously. That is, until another young boy turned up dead.
Mary Bell Kills For A Second Time
On July 31, two months after the first murder, Mary Bell and her friend Norma killed three-year-old Brian Howe by strangulation. This time, Bell mutilated the body with scissors, scratching his thighs and butchering his penis.
When Brian’s sister went looking for him, Mary and Norma offered to help; they searched the neighborhood, and Mary even pointed out the concrete blocks that hid his body. But Norma said he wouldn’t be there, and Brian’s sister moved on.
When Brian’s body was finally found, the neighborhood was panicked: two boys were dead in as many months. Police interviewed local children, hoping someone had seen something that would lead to a suspect.
They received a shock when the coroner’s report came back: as Brian’s blood had cooled, new marks appeared on his chest — someone had used a razor blade to scratch the letter “M” onto his torso. And there was another disturbing note: the lack of force used in the attack suggested Brian’s killer might have been a child.
Mary and Norma did a poor job of disguising their interest in the investigation in their interviews with police. Both acted strangely. Norma was excited and Mary evasive, especially when police pointed out that she had been seen with Brian Howe on the day of his death.
On the day of Brian’s burial, Mary was spotted lurking outside his house; she even laughed and rubbed her hands together when she saw his coffin.
They called her back for a second interview, and Mary, perhaps sensing investigators were closing in, made up a story about having seen an eight-year-old boy hit Brian on the day he died. The boy, she said, had been carrying a pair of broken scissors.
That was Mary Bell’s big mistake: the mutilation of the body with scissors had been kept from the press and the public. It was a detail known only to investigators and one other person: Brian’s murderer.
Both Norma and Mary broke down under further questioning. Norma began cooperating with police and implicated Mary, who herself admitted to being present during Brian Howe’s murder but tried to place the blame on Norma. Both girls were charged, and a trial date was set.
The Trial of 11-Year-Old Mary Bell and Accomplice Norma Bell
At trial, the prosecutor told the court that Bell’s reason for committing the murders was “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing.” Meanwhile, the British press referred to her as “evil born.”
The jury agreed that Mary Bell had committed the murders and handed down a guilty verdict in December. Manslaughter, not murder, was the conviction, as court psychiatrists had convinced the jury that Mary Bell showed “classic symptoms of psychopathy” and could not be held fully responsible for her actions.
Norma Bell was regarded as an unwilling accomplice who had fallen under a bad influence. She was acquitted.
The judge concluded that Mary was a dangerous person and a serious threat to other children. She was sentenced to be imprisoned “at Her Majesty’s pleasure,” a British legal term that denotes an indeterminate sentence — basically, until the powers that be feel like it’s appropriate to let you out.
Apparently, the powers that be were impressed with Bell’s treatment and rehabilitation and felt like it was appropriate to let Mary Bell out in 1980. She was released on license, which meant that she was technically still serving her sentence but was able to do so while living in the community under strict probation.
Additionally, Mary Bell was given a new identity to provide her with a chance at a new life and protect her from tabloid attention. Even still, she was forced to move several times to escape hounding by tabloids, newspapers, and the general public, which somehow always found ways of tracking her down.
Things grew worse for Bell after she had her daughter in 1984. Bell’s daughter didn’t know about her mother’s crimes until she was 14, when a tabloid paper was able to find Bell’s common-law husband and thus track Bell down.
Soon, a slew of journalists surrounded her house and camped out in front of it. The family had to escape their home with bedsheets over their heads.
Today, Bell is in protective custody at a secret address. Both she and her daughter remain anonymous and are protected under court order.
Some feel she doesn’t deserve the protection. June Richardson, the mother of Martin Brown, told the media, “It’s all about her and how she has to be protected. As victims we are not given the same rights as killers.”
Nevertheless, Mary Bell remains protected by the British government today, and court rulings protecting the identities of certain convicts are even unofficially referred to as “Mary Bell orders.”
After learning about Mary Bell and the gruesome murders she committed as a child, read the story of teenage serial killer Harvey Robinson. Then, have a look at some of the most chilling serial killer quotes.