If you haven’t already, please read the “TCT Disclaimer,” under the True Crime tab at the top of the page, before reading any true crime posts.
Oh, shit. Mary Fucking Bell.
But, first let’s chat. So, I’ve never been much of a “kid person.” I’m not very good with them. I’m uneasy, unsure of how to have a conversation because kids like to talk about stupid shit. Then they show you things you’ve seen a million times. I don’t feign interest well. Ohh, cool, is that a piece of paper with scribbles on it? Wowwww.
I’m not sure what to do with them, or if I should be myself because I’m definitely R-rated. Also, I don’t understand kid ages? Like what happens when? And what age is appropriate for what? Because I watched Jim Carrey’s Grinch with a 7-year-old and that was apparently terrifying. I don’t get it, and all I really want to do is watch true crime documentaries and horror, so like, get a different babysitter next time? I’m sorry that’s selfish.
But mostly, I find kids shady.
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.
Trigger warning: Violence against children.
Mary Flora Bell was born on May 26, 1957 in Northumberland, England to a 17-year-old sex worker named Elizabeth “Betty” McCrickett, 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.
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 for the time with her daughter.
That’s fucked up.
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, or “accidentally” consumed a dangerous amount of sleeping pills.
Now, I’m no psychologist or scientists, but can you just fucking IMAGINE, the demented neural pathways that would have started to be created in Mary’s still young, developing brain? If her mother had just been fucking loving towards her daughter, maybe this story would have been very different.
Mary’s best friend on Whitehouse Road was 13-year-old, Norma Bell (no relation.) The two young girls had both grown up in an environment where violence and crime were 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 little team.
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 he was on a cross, surrounded by rubble and garbage, with blood coming from his mouth.
Martin Brown was four-years-old.
An ambulance arrived on scene and first-responders 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 vandalized 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.
I just want to take a moment to recognize how different like was back then, that you would let a 3-year-old play outside, by themselves, is totally unthinkable today. We’ve already established I’m not good with kids, but I know enough to say you don’t let a 3-year-old peace out for the afternoon to do their own thing in the neighbourhood. Anyway…
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, the skin on his legs had been sliced, 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. 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 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.
During a trial that lasted 9 days, Mary appeared detached from 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, because she was a fucking child, but she did know what would happen to her if she was found not guilty, and that prospect apparently 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.“
But honestly, if you’ve read anything at all about psychopathy, you will have noted that most psychiatrists are very hesitant to diagnose any child as that, because almost every juvenile checks the boxes for being a psychopath. It’s because their brains aren’t developed yet. Their emotions aren’t full range. They have a very limited concept of time, other people’s lives, etc. They’re selfish and self-involved and don’t often understand other people’s feelings.
Obviously, I only know as much about this case as is available to the public, but I’d be 100% shocked if Mary Bell’s choices were not heavily impacted by how her mother’s treatment of her was affecting her – if she wasn’t suffering from PTSD or some other form of traumatic response. But, still, not all 10-year-olds would strangle babies and cut them with scissors, so she was obviously fucked up in more complex ways.
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.
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 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, which seems exceptionally lenient considering she made a fucking jailbreak.
For a time, Bell also lived in a girls’ remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood.
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 in her 60s.
Okay, let me know how you feel about this one.
What she did to those children is fucking disgusting and hard to read about, but she was such a little kid herself and her mother was garbage. Does that affect your opinion of this case or her punishment?
As always, if you have a suggestion for a case you want to see written up here, pop over to the TCT Suggestions page under the True Crime tab at the top of the page, and send me your ideas!
Stay safe. Be Kind. But, take no shit.
Later, Murderinos ✌️🔪