On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Flora Bell strangled four-year-old Martin Brown. 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 lower intellect than Mary, was the follower. 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”. 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. 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. Mary was subject to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sex acts with men. Mary was also subjected to physical abuse. By the time she reached adolescence Mary 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)
In May 1968, Martin Brown’s death was initially ruled an accident as there was no evidence of foul play; although Mary strangled him 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 but 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. Throughout her childhood and her teens, Mary refused to take responsibility for her crimes. 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. 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. In 2009, it was reported that Mary had become a grandmother. Watch Deadly Women – young blood