On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Flora Bell strangled four-year-old Martin Brown to death. She was believed to have committed this crime alone although this was later proven false. Her friend Norma Joyce Bell (no relation), age thirteen, assisted Mary with the crimes although Mary was the ringleader and Norma, who was of significantly lower intellect than Mary, was the follower. Their relationship was a prime example of murderous couples: one partner is dominant and the other simply follows orders.
On 31 July 1968, the girls took part in the death, again by strangulation, of three-year-old Brian Howe. Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had gone back after killing him to carve an “N” into his stomach with a razor; this was then changed with a different hand to an “M”. Brian Howe’s mother was devastated when headlines trumpeted her son’s death as “Rat Alley Boy Murdered“. The slum where the children lived was known as rat alley for its abject poverty and run-down appearance. Understandably, she was devastated when her child was labelled in this manner. Watch the Mary Bell case 1/5
Mary’s childhood was a recipe for disaster. She grew up in a slum area of Scotswood marked by abandoned buildings, petty crime and domestic violence. Children were left to play unsupervised for hours in the streets. Her mother Betty (née McCrickett) was a prostitute who travelled to Glasgow to work, often leaving Mary behind for days at a time. Mary was her first child, born when Betty was 17 years old. It is not known who Mary’s biological father was; for most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, a habitual criminal who married Betty after Mary was born.
To say that Betty was unfit to be a mother is an understatement. Independent family members stated that Betty had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life. Her family was suspicious when Mary ‘fell’ from a window, and when she ‘accidentally’ consumed sleeping pills. On one such occasion, a witness saw Betty giving the pills to her daughter as sweets. When Mary was an infant, she gave her to Child Services to adopt her out to another family. Unfortunately for Mary, her aunts retrieved her before this could happen. They offered to raise Mary for Betty but she refused.
Mary was subject to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sex acts with men, some of which involved sadomasochism. Mary was also subjected to physical abuse. By the time she reached adolescence Mary was an extremely angry, dangerous child who often tried to asphyxiate other children by having Nora hold them down while she stuffed sand into their throats. Watch the Mary Bell case 5/5 (interview with Betty Bell)
On two separate occasions, Mary attempted to murder other children. She was accused of trying to suffocate a little girl, whose parents called police to investigate. For whatever reason, charges weren’t filed and the incident was overlooked. On another occasion, she beat and burnt a boy at school with a cigarette. He reported this to their teacher who asked Mary if it was true. Calmly Mary replied, “yes.” Again, for unknown reasons, Mary wasn’t called upon to explain her actions by authorities. Martin Brown is pictured left.
Not surprisingly, Mary was feared by all children on her school playground. If a child in any way annoyed her, she fixed that child with an “evil stare” that indicated she intended to harm the child as terribly and as soon as she could, which she usually did. One little girl remembered Mary strangling her and stuffing sand into her mouth to the point where she was certain she was going to die. At the time, very few children reported these incidents to parents or teachers. During that era, children simply accepted bullying as a way of life.
It may have been significant that Mary attempted asphyxiation on several children and attempted strangulation. It is possible that the child’s actions reflected her own abuse by Betty and her customers, whom she often brought home.
In May 1968, Martin Brown’s death was initially ruled an accident as there was no evidence of foul play; although Mary strangled him, being only a young child her grip did not leave any marks. After the arrest the girls’ testimonies contradicted each other, and what happened to Martin Brown has never been clear. His death was linked with Brian Howe’s 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 when it became apparent she was not the instigator of the crimes. Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
The judge, Mr. Justice Cusack said she posed a “very grave risk to other children“. Mary was sentenced to be imprisoned an indefinite sentence. 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. Watch Child of Rage – the documentary part 1 – a clip about 4-year-old Beth Thomas explaining the origins of child rage and violence.
After her conviction, Mary was the focus of attention from the British press. Her mother sold stories about her. When she visited Mary in prison during the trial, she pinched her child and tormented her verbally. Throughout her childhood and her teens, Mary refused to take responsibility for her crimes. While imprisoned, Mary wrote her mother a long letter in which she stated that although she murdered two children and was convicted or the crimes, her mother’s abuse had driven her to it: “it was you, Mam, it was always you.”
In 1980, aged 23, Mary was released from prison having served 12 years, and was granted anonymity to start a new life with her daughter, who was born on 25 May 1984. In 2009 Bell disclosed that after she was feed she shoplifted, hoping that she would be caught and sent back to the security of prison. She expected her release to be “a magical day” but it was in fact a terrifying experience, and that she was only at home inside a prison since she had “grown up in a corrupt world”. She was plagued with doubts about her ability to form normal relationships with “straight” people and she has admitted that it took years to rid herself of routine prison habits. She was given home leave to see her mother for the first time in 12 years, an emotional experience which left her utterly confused. In the morning, she told friends she had got up and stacked the sheets on her bed, as she had done in prison.
When she began to go shopping in Leeds she was unsupervised, and started dabbling in drugs and heavy drinking. She was led astray by new friends and at the time, welfare officials and friends were angry at the confusion and lack of thought that went into how she should be dealt with. Bell even became pregnant although at that time she had an abortion. During this time, Bell was plagued by anxiety, sleeplessness and indecision. “I was like a fish out of water,” she told one friend. She was frightened of other people, particularly men. She went into a “cold sweat” travelling on buses, terrified people would recognize her. Bell told friends that she had too much time on her hands and did not know how to use it.
Mary’s daughter’s anonymity was protected only until she reached the age of 18; however, on 21 May 2003 Mary won a High Court battle to have her own anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life. Mary never re-offended and lives a quiet, law-abiding life. Astoundingly, Mary bought her child to visit her grandmother, Betty. Mary was astonished by the loving interaction between Betty and her granddaughter, particularly when the little girl amused Betty, who “laughed out loud.” In 2009, it was reported that Mary had become a grandmother. Watch Deadly Women – young blood