True Crime Tuesday: Mary Bell

I’ve never been much of a “kid person.” I’m not very good with them. Unsure of how to have a conversation because kids like to talk about stupid shit, and show you things you’ve seen a million times and I don’t feign interest well. Ohh, cool, is that a piece of paper with scribbles on it? Wowwww. Unsure of what to do with them, because watching Hocus Pocus is apparently terrifying to them, but all I really want to do is watch a true crime documentary so like, get a different babysitter next time.

But mostly, I find kids shady. Like R. Kelly says: REAL TALK.

And no, that joke isn’t distasteful, it’s hilarious considering the news.

Anyway…you never really know what they’re going to say or do. Could they throw a tantrum and ruin a perfectly good evening? Probably. Are they going to say something wildly inappropriate and pass it off like they didn’t know better while Mommy says, “Eva, you don’t tell people they’re fat!” Like, yes, one hundred-percent that’s going to happen in the presence of a child.

Are they going to kill you? FUCKING MAYBE.

People like to think children are cute and innocent and need to be protected at all costs. Don’t give them sex education, they’ll be ruined!

Little did you know, they were already planning to ruin you. By flushing your phone down the toilet, or colouring the dog with a Sharpie. Or fucking killing someone.

There are lots of examples of children who kill. Seriously, just google children who kill and watch the results roll in. But possibly my favourite example of this dark shady kid business is Mary Bell, who, at the age of ten, strangled two toddlers to death.

Mary Flora Bell was born on May 26, 1957 in Northumberland, England to a 17-year-old sex worker named Betty, and a petty criminal, Billy Bell (who was not her biological father.) Together the family of three lived on Whitehouse Road, in the Scotswood area of Newcastle. Whitehouse Road was a street that had high unemployment rates and a constant police presence for domestic-abuse issues, drug activity and sex workers.

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Billy Bell looked after Mary the majority of the time while Betty travelled north to work the more lucrative streets in Glasgow. Billy, though he would eventually be sent to prison for armed robbery, was gentle with Mary and loved her dearly.

This was in sharp contrast to how Betty treated her young daughter. Reports are that Betty consistently beat young Mary, and even passed her young daughter out to her sex work clients, who sexually abused Mary, and paid Betty. Family members later recalled for the biography written by Gitta Sereny, The Case of Mary Bell, that Betty had attempted to kill Mary more than once, with the intention to make it look like an accident. The family was always suspicious of when Mary “fell” from a window, and “accidentally” consumed a dangerous amount of sleeping pills.

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Norma Bell.

Mary’s best friend on Whitehouse Road was Norma Bell, 13 (no relation). The two young girls had both grown up in an environment where violence and crime was normalized. But even kids who are accustomed to certain elements know, without being able to put it into words, that they are missing something that other kids get and they’re angry about it. Norma regularly took out this anger with her fists on the playground and was known as a bully. The two young girls bonded through hate and became a dangerous team.

Martin Brown.

On May 25, 1968, the day before Mary Bell’s eleventh birthday, a group of boys were gathering wood in derelict houses. In number 85, on St. Margaret’s Rd, the body of Martin Brown was found in a bedroom. He was laying on his back, arm’s outstretched like Jesus on the cross, surrounded by rubble and garbage, with blood coming from his mouth.

Martin Brown was four-years-old.

An ambulance arrived on scene and tried to revive Martin. With no physical evidence, signs of struggle or visible injuries to the body, investigators assumed Martin had been involved in a tragic accident and didn’t investigate further.

The following day, a break-in occurred at a nursery in Scotswood. The nursery was vandalised, and angry notes had been scrawled all over the place. They would only make sense to police later. Among the notes was the warning: fuck off we murder. And the confession: I murder so that I may come back.

Police wrote off the notes and break-in as a prank.

Nine weeks later: July 31st, 1968. Brian Howe, 3 years old and a resident of Whitehouse Road, is last seen playing with his dog in the street. When dinner time rolled around, his parents called for him but he did not come home. The Howe family started a search of the neighbourhood, but when it had seemed Brian was really nowhere to be found, they called the police. Well into the night, police, neighbours and the Howe family searched for the toddler.

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Brian Howe.

At around 11PM, baby Brian was found in a wasteland near his home, covered under a blanket of grass and weeds. Unlike Martin Brown, it was clear to police that Brian had been the victim of a homicide. There was bruising and scratches around his neck where he’d been strangled. Scratches covered his face and blood dripped from his mouth.

Detective Chief Constable James Dobson was in charge of the investigation in Brian Howe’s death. He’d also been on the scene weeks earlier when Martin Brown had been found in the derelict houses up the street. He began putting out feelers for suspected child abusers in the area.

The pathologist ruled that Brian Howe had been strangled to death between 3:30 and 4:30 the previous afternoon. He noted pressure marks around the boy’s neck and across his nose. Brian Howe had been choked and smothered, carefully and deliberately. The pathologist also found something much more sinister: his hair had been cut, his legs had been sliced at, an ‘M’ was carved into his stomach and his penis had been mutilated.

Dobson determined that there was no anger in the cut marks made to the child’s body, but rather insisted that they had been made with a curious playfulness.

“There was a terrible playfulness about it, a terrible gentleness if you like,” Dobson said. “And somehow the playfulness of it made it more, rather than less, terrifying.”

On the morning of Brian Howe’s funeral, Dobson attended to scope out the crowd. And this is where he first became suspicious of Mary Bell. He recalls her behaviour being disturbing and it completely convinced him of her guilt.

“Mary Bell was standing in front of the Howes’ house when the coffin was brought out. I was…watching her,” Dobson said. “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.”

Dobson made the decision to arrest Mary Bell and Norma that afternoon.

During their interrogations, the girls’ statements went through many changes and the police slowly chipped away to find the truth. On August 4th, Norma Bell broke and revealed what she swore was the full truth.

Norma told police that Mary had taken her to show her Brian’s body. Police took her back to the scene where the small body had been discovered to test if she was telling the whole truth. Norma got on the ground and laid in the same spot, and position, that Brian had been found in, convincing the police that she had, in fact, seen the toddler after his death. She also showed the police where Mary had hidden the scissors she’d used to mutilate the boy’s body and genitals.

Police didn’t believe Norma’s claim that she wasn’t involved in the murder of Brian Howe. And after linking Howe’s murder to the murder of Martin Brown, both girls were charged with two counts of manslaughter in August of 1968.

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During a trial that lasted 9 days, Mary appeared detached of what she was accused of. She wasn’t bored, but somehow disengaged from the space occupied by the barristers, the jury and everyone else present. And yet, she was also seemingly alert to the moment, watching the movement around her with her ethereally blue eyes. She disturbed every adult charged with her care during the proceedings, “gave them the willies.”

Mary didn’t understand the implication of what might happen to her if she were found guilty, but she did know what would happen to her if she was found not guilty, and that prospect filled her with terror because she knew that when she got home her mother would beat her to death.

On December 17, 1968, Norma Bell was acquitted of the charges against her, but Mary was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy.

The judge, Justice Cusack, described her as dangerous and said she posed a “very grave risk to other children.” She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in Lancashire – the same facility that would house Jon Venables, one of James Bulger’s killers, 25 years later.

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Mary Bell, 1977.

After her conviction, Mary was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press. Her mother, Betty, repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter. Mary herself made headlines when, in September 1977, she briefly escaped from Moor Court open prison, where she had been held since her transfer from a young offenders institution to an adult prison a year earlier. Her penalty for this was a loss of prison privileges for 28 days. For a time, Bell also lived in a girls’ remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood.

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Mary Bell, 1980.

In 1980, at the age of 23, Mary was released from Askham Grange open prison after having served 12 years. She was granted anonymity (including a new name), allowing her to start a new life. Four years later she had a daughter, born on Mary’s own birthday.

Mary’s daughter did not know of her mother’s past until 1998, when their location was discovered by reporters. Mary and her daughter had to leave their house with bed sheets over their heads. Since then, they’ve been forced to move home several times, until the courts finally decreed, in 2003, that Mary’s daughter should also have anonymity for life. Any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict in Britain is consequently sometimes known as a “Mary Bell order.”

In 2009, it was reported that Bell had become a grandmother. Today, Mary Bell is 60 years old.

Until next time, Booknerds…

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7 thoughts on “True Crime Tuesday: Mary Bell

    1. Agreed. I heard about her for the first time during a podcast episode. The fact that she’s a mom and just out living her life, I find crazy. Can you imagine being a teenager and learning what your mom had done?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I find Mary Bell really interesting because she did successfully re-integrate into society after her release, and if her identity hadn’t been discovered there’s nothing to suggest she wouldn’t have carried on living a completely normal life. I wonder what the difference is between Mary Bell and, say, Jon Venables, who was also a child when he killed James Bulger and ended up back in prison as an adult. Maybe it mean Mary Bell really entirely a product of her environment, and Jon Venables was somehow predisposed to commit his crimes. Or maybe it means Mary Bell had better treatment and a proper support system. It’s a really interesting one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a really good point. I think it’s also interesting – we never know what’s going on in someone’s mind. For all we know Mary Bell thinks about doing things like that all the time, but she’s got amazing impulse control as an adult. Or her time in prison really was enough to scare her into behaving, despite her base impulses. I think we can agree women tend to be a little bit stronger in terms of self-restraint lol. Jon Venables perhaps couldn’t control himself as well, or his time in prison was enough to hurt him more instead of “rehabilitate” him. The psychology of prison, and what it does to a person, especially a child is very vast and complex and it, a lot of times, sets people up to disadvantage and continuing on a bad path, instead of lifting them up and providing an actual second chance.

      Like

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