"Are you looking for your Brian?" asked Mary Bell. Brians sister, Pat, was worried about the missing toddler, who should have been home by now. A small, three-year-old boy with fair hair, Brian Howe usually played close to home. Mary and her best friend, Norma, eagerly offered to help search for him. They led Pat through the neighborhood, looking here and there, all the while knowing exactly where Brian was.
Mary Bell Mary Bell They crossed the railroad tracks to the industrial area, where the kids of Scotswood often played among construction materials, old cars, and dangerous wreckage. Pat was worried -- only a few weeks ago little Martin Brown was found dead inside of a condemned house. Mary pointed to some large concrete blocks. "He might be playing behind the blocks, or between them," she said.
"Oh no, he never goes there," insisted Norma. In fact, Brian lay dead between the blocks. Mary wanted Pat to discover her dead brother, Norma later said, "because she wanted Pat Howe to have a shock." But Pat decided to leave. The Newcastle Police would find his body at 11:10 later that night.
Brian was found covered with grass and purple weeds. He had been strangled. Nearby, a pair of broken scissors lay in the grass. There were puncture marks on his thighs, and his genitals had been partially skinned. Clumps of his hair were cut away. The wounds were bizarre: "There was a terrible playfulness about it, a terrible gentleness if you like, and somehow the playfulness of it made it more, rather than less, terrifying," said Inspector James Dobson. Brians belly had been signed "M" with a razor blade. This cut would not be apparent until days later. It appeared that someone had imprinted an "N", and that a fourth mark was added (by a different hand?) to change the "N" into a "M".
In this summer of 1968, Scotswood, an economically depressed community 275 miles north of London, was in a state of panic. Police flooded the community, interviewing kids between the ages of three and fifteen. The adults wondered if Martin Browns "accident" was also murder. "We were real nervous," said Martins aunt, "but the kids themselves felt it too."
Among the children who stood out as suspicious to the investigators were eleven year old Mary Bell and thirteen year old Norma Bell (no relation). Mary was evasive and acted strange. Norma was excited by the murder, remembers one authority. "She was continually smiling as if it was a huge joke."
As the investigation narrowed on Mary, she suddenly "remembered" seeing an eight year old boy with Brian on the day he died. The boy hit Brian for no reason, she claimed. She had also seen the same boy playing with broken scissors. But that boy had been at the airport on the afternoon Brian died. By revealing that she knew about the scissors, which was confidential evidence, Mary implicated herself. She described them exactly: "like silver coloured and something wrong with the scissors, like one leg was either broken or bent." It was becoming clear that either Mary, Norma, or both, had seen Brian die. And one of them was probably the killer.
Brian Howe was buried on August 7th. Detective Dobson was there: "Mary Bell was standing in front of the Howes house when the coffin was brought out. I was, of course, watching her. 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, Ive got to bring her in, shell do another one."
"All that mattered was to lie well."
-- Mary Bell (as an adult)
Before Brians funeral, Dobson questioned Norma again. She now claimed that Mary told her she killed Brian, and brought her to see his body at the blocks. Mary told Norma "I squeezed his neck and pushed up his lungs thats how you kill them. Keep your nose dry and dont tell anybody." When she saw Brian, Norma knew he was dead. "His lips were purple. Mary ran her fingers along his lips. She said she had enjoyed it." That night, Norma was taken to the police station to give an official statement.
Normas story shocked the police, who wasted no time in picking up Mary Bell at 12:15 that night. Her intense-blue eyes were bleary, but she kept her wits. "She appeared to see herself in a sort of cliché scenario of a cops-and-robbers film: nothing surprised her and she admitted nothing," Dobson told Gitta Sereny, who has written extensively on the case.
"I have reason to believe that when you were near the blocks with Norma," said Dobson. "A man shouted at some children who were nearby and you both ran away from where Brian was lying in the grass. This man will probably know you."
"He would have to have good eyesight," she responded.
"Why would he need good eyesight?" Dobson said, ready to catch her in a lie.
"Because he was... " Mary said, after a moment, "clever to see me when I wasnt there." She stood up. "I am going home... This is being brainwashed." But Dobson wasnt about to let her go. At one point Mary asked, "Is this place bugged?"
In the end she refused to budge. "I am making no statements. I have made lots of statements. Its always me you come for. Normas a liar, she always tries to get me into trouble." At 3:30am Mary was permitted to leave. Dobson second-guessing himself. But after seeing Marys behavior at Brians funeral, and gathering additional testimony from Norma, he brought Mary back into the station.
"She was very apprehensive," said Dobson. "She gave me the impression that she knew the time of reckoning had come." Mary now admitted to being present when Brian died, but her "confession" took a bizarre turn.
"I couldnt kill a bird by the neck or throat or anything, its horrible that.
-- Mary Bell
The following is Mary Bells official statement.
I, Mary Flora Bell wish to make a statement. I want someone to write down what I have to say. I have been told that I need not say anything unless I wish to do so, but that whatever I say may be given in evidence.
Signed, Mary F. Bell
Brian was in his front street and me and Norma were walking along towards him. We walked past him and Norma says, Are you coming to the shop Brian? and I says, Norma, youve got no money, how can you go to the shop? Where are you getting it from? She says, Nebby (Keep your nose clean). Little Brian followed and Norma says, Walk up in front. I wanted Brian to go home, but Norma kept coughing so Brian wouldnt hear us.
We went down Crosshill Road with Brian still in front of us. There was this coloured boy and Norma tried to start a fight with him. She said, Darkie, whitewash, its time you got washed. The big brother came out and hit her. She shouted, Howay, put your dukes up. The lad walked away and looked at her as though she was daft.
We went beside Dixons shop and climbed over the railings, I mean, through a hole and over the railway. Then I said, Norma, where are you going? and Norma said, Do you know that little pool where the tadpoles are? When we got there, there was a big, long tank with a big, round hole with little holes round it. Norma says to Brian, Are you coming in here because theres a lady coming on the Number 82 and shes got boxes of sweets and that.
We all got inside, then Brian started to cry and Norma asked him if he had a sore throat. She started to squeeze his throat and he started to cry. She said, This isnt where the lady comes, its over there, by them big blocks. We went over to the blocks and she says, Ar--youll have to lie down and he lay down beside the blocks where he was found. Norma says, Put your neck up and he did. Then she got hold of his neck and said Put it down. She started to feel up and down his neck. She squeezed it hard, you could tell it was hard because her finger tips were going white. Brian was struggling, and I was pulling her shoulders but she went mad. I was pulling her chin up but she screamed at me.
By this time she had banged Brians head on some wood or corner of wood and Brian was lying senseless. His face was all white and bluey, and his eyes were open. His lips were purplish and had all like slaver on, it turned into something like fluff. Norma covered him up and I said, Norma, Ive got nothing to do with this, I should tell on you, but Ill not. Little Lassie was there and it was crying and she said, Dont you start or Ill do the same to you. It still cried and she went to get hold of its throat but it growled at her. She said, Now now, dont be hasty.
We went home and I took little Lassie home an all. Norma was acting kind of funny and making twitchy faces and spreading her fingers out. She said, This is the first but itll not be the last. I was frightened then. I carried Lassie and put her down over the railway and we went up Crosswood Road way. Norma went into the house and she got a pair of scissors and she put them down her pants. She says, Go and get a pen. I said No, what for. She says, To write a note on his stomach, and I wouldnt get the pen. She had a Gillette razor blade. It had Gillette on. We went back to the blocks and Norma cut his hair. She tried to cut his leg and his ear with the blade. She tried to show me it was sharp, she took the top of her dress where it was raggie and cut it, it made a slit. A man came down the railway bank with a little girl with long blonde hair, he had a red checked shirt on and blue denim jeans. I walked away. She hid the razor blade under a big, square concrete block. She left the scissors beside him. She got out before me over the grass on to Scotswood Road. I couldnt run on the grass cos I just had my black slippers on. When we got along a bit she says, May, you shouldnt have done that cos youll get into trouble and I hadnt done nothing I havent got the guts. I couldnt kill a bird by the neck or throat or anything, its horrible that. We went up the steps and went home, I was nearly crying. I said, if Pat finds out shell kill you, never mind killing Brian cos Pats more like a tomboy. Shes always climbing in the old buildings and that.
Later on I was helping to look for Brian and I was trying to let on to Pat that I knew where he was on the blocks, but Norma said, Hell not be over there, he never goes there, and she convinced Pat he wasnt there. I got shouted in about half past seven and I stayed in. I got woke up about half past eleven and we stood at the door as Brian had been found: The other day Norma wanted to get put in a home. She says will you run away with us and I said no. She says if you get put in a home and you feed the little ones and murder them then run away again.
I have read the above statement and I have been told that I can correct, alter or add anything I wish, this statement is true. I have made it of my own free will.
Mary Flora Bell (signed at 6:55 pm)
Marys statement had some partial truths but for the most part was a transparent attempt to blame Norma. Dobson formally charged Mary Bell with the murder of Brian Howe. "Thats all right with me," she replied. He then arrested Norma Bell, who in anger to the charge, declared, "I never. Ill pay you back for this."
The girls were incarcerated at the Newcastle West End police station. Their upcoming trial would attract the attention of a fascinated, yet horrified nation.
"'What happens if you choke someone, do they die?"
-- Mary Bells notebook
Investigators now looked at the mysterious death of Martin Brown as a homicide. In fact, Mary Bells behavior after Martins death was so flagrant, it was a wonder she hadnt been apprehended sooner. Perhaps Brian Howes life would have been spared. But, as one local boy said, everyone knew Mary was a "show-off," and her screams "I am a murderer!" had simply been laughed at.
Even before Martins death, other children were being hurt by Mary.
On May 11, 1968, a three-year-old boy was found behind some empty sheds near a pub, bleeding from the head. He was found by Norma Bell and Mary Bell. The boy was a cousin of Marys. He had "fallen" off a ledge, landing several feet below. Mary would later admit to having pushed him over the edge.
The following day, three girls who were playing by the Nursery were attacked by Mary, with Norma nearby. One of the girls said that Mary "put her hands around my neck and squeezed hard... The girl [Mary] took her hands off my neck and she did the same to Susan." The police were soon called. Norma stated that "Mary went to the other girl and said, What happens if you choke someone, do they die? Then Mary put both hands round the girls throat and squeezed. The girl started to go purple... I then ran off and left Mary. Im not friends with her now."
According to the official report on May 15, "The girls Bell have been warned as to their future conduct." Ten days later Martin Brown was killed.
"There has been a boy who Just lay down and Died."
-- Mary Bells notebook
Martin was last seen at approximately 3:15 pm, and was discovered at 3:30, lying on the floor of a boarded-up house. Three boys foraging for some scrap wood had found the child on his back next to a window, with blood and saliva trickling down the side of his cheek and chin. Panicked, they called out to the construction workers outside, who remembered giving little Martin some biscuits earlier that day. They raced up the stairs and tried to revive him, but Martin was already dead.
One of the boys noticed Mary Bell and a friend coming toward the house, and stopping directly below the window. "Shall we go up?" said Mary. They squeezed through boards to get inside. Mary had brought Norma to show her that she had killed Martin. But they were told to go away.
The girls then went to find Martins aunt to tell her that there had been an accident, that they thought it was Martin, and that there was "blood all over." "Ill show you where it is," said Mary to the distraught woman.
Strangely, the police could not find any signs of violence. A bottle of aspirin was nearby -- perhaps he ate them all. There were no visible strangulation marks or any other marks on the child, and therefore the authorities believed his death was accidental. The Criminal Investigation Department was not called in.
The official report on Martin Brown declared the "cause of death open." But the Scotswood community couldnt simply let go of the tragic death, so they marched and protested against the dangerous conditions of the condemned buildings in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the true menace of Scotswood, Mary and Norma, were giving Martins aunt the creeps with their prying questions. "They kept asking me, Do you miss Martin? and Do you cry for him? and Does June miss him? and they were always grinning. In the end I could stand it no more and told them to get out and not to come back."
June Richardson with a photograph of her son Martin Brown, who was murdered by Mary Bell June Richardson with a photograph of her son Martin Brown, who was murdered by Mary Bell
Martins mother, June Brown was also bothered by the girls. After hearing a knock, June opened the front door to find Mary standing there. "Mary smiled and asked to see Martin. I said, No, pet, Martin is dead. She turned round and said, Oh, I know hes dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin, and she was still grinning. I was just speechless that such a young child should want to see a dead baby and I just slammed the door on her."
Marys ominous behavior was by no means exclusive to Martins grieving family. On Sunday, the day following Martins death, Mary celebrated her eleventh birthday by trying to throttle Norma Bells younger sister. Fortunately, Normas father saw Marys stranglehold on the girl. "I chopped Marys hands away," he said, "and gave her a clip on the shoulder."
But the day wasnt over yet. The next morning the staff at the Day Nursery at Woodlands Crescent would make a chilling discovery.
"Look out THERE are Murders about"
-- note found in vandalized nursery
On Monday morning, May 27 the teachers at the Day Nursery, on Woodlands Crescent at the end of Whitehouse Road, arrived to find the school ransacked. School supplies were strewn about recklessly, and cleaning materials had been splattered on the floor. But the most disturbing discovery was the four scribbled notes left behind:
"I murder so THAT I may come back"
"fuch of we murder watch out Fanny and Faggot"
"we did murder Martain brown Fuck of you Bastard"
"You are micey Becurse we murdered Martain Go Brown you Bete Look out THERE are Murders about By FANNYAND and auld Faggot you Srcews"
Police took the notes back to the station and filed them away as a sick joke. Mary would later admit they wrote the notes "for a giggle." Because this wasnt the first break-in at the Nursery, the school installed an alarm system.
That same morning, Mary Bell drew a picture in her notebook of a child in the same pose as that in which Martin Brown had been found, with a bottle near him with the word "TABLET.." There was a man walking toward the child. It read, "On saturday I was in the house, and my mam sent Me to ask Norma if she Would come up the top with me? we went up and we came down at Magrets Road and there were crowds of people beside an old house. I asked what was the matter. there had been a boy who Just lay down and Died." Marys notebook entry did not strike the teacher as odd, although she was the only student who wrote on Martins death.
Notebook entry Notebook entry
On Friday of the same week, the newly-installed alarm sounded off at Nursery. Mary Bell and Norma Bell were caught red-handed, but denied breaking in before. Released to the custody of their parents, a date was set for them to appear at Juvenile Court.
A week later, Mary attacked Norma near the Nursery sandpit. A boy saw Mary scratch her friend and kick her in the eye, but only laughed when he heard Mary scream, "I am a murderer!" She pointed in the direction of house where Martin Brown was found. "That house over there, thats where I killed... " Since Mary was well known as a show-off, he didnt take her ominous bragging seriously.
Toward the end of July, before Brian Howes murder, Mary visited the Howe household, and declared "I know something about Norma that will get her put away straight away." She told them her secret: "Norma put her hands on a boys throat. It was Martin Brown -- she pressed and he just dropped." To make her point, she grabbed her own throat in a choking gesture, then left. It would be a few days later that Mary would strangle the Howes own child. This insatiable need to "show and tell" her deadly crimes would be acted out upon another innocent babe.
"Murder isnt that bad, we all die sometime anyway."
-- Mary Bell to one of her guards
The first night in their small jail cells in Newcastle West End police station, the girls were restless. "They kept shouting to each other through the doors," said one of the police women who watched the children. The police station was not accustomed to housing child offenders, and they had to make provisions as best as they could. "We finally told them to shut up. At one moment I heard Mary shout out angrily about her mother." Mary, who had been a chronic bedwetter, was terrified of going to sleep, for fear that she might mess her bed. "I usually do," she confided. At home, Marys mother severely humiliated her whenever she wet the bed, rubbing her daughters face in the pool of urine, said Mary, years later. She then hung the mattress outside for the entire neighborhood to see.
During the course of her incarceration, the women guards got to know Mary better, describing her as confident, intelligent and "cheeky." Some of Marys casual comments would shock the police women, but others saw her as a scared little girl who had no comprehension of the enormity of her actions. In the middle of the night Mary would "bolt upright." Marys hostility had an almost naive quality: while tightly grabbing a stray cat by the neck, a guard told her not to hurt the cat. Mary allegedly replied, "Oh, she doesnt feel that, and anyway, I like hurting little things that cant fight back." In another incident, a police woman said that Mary said shed like to be a nurse, "because then I can stick needles into people. I like hurting people."
If her parents were somehow responsible for young Marys behavior, she would not talk about it. She had been taught to keep quiet, especially around authority figures. Her father, Billy Bell, had lived with the family, but the children (Mary and her younger brother and sister) were instructed to always call him "uncle," so that their mother could collect government assistance. Billy Bell was a thief, and the mother, Betty Bell, was a prostitute who was often away in Glasgow on "business." Because of the familys shady vocations, Newcastle Welfare authorities knew very little about Marys family. One detective who visited Marys home described it as having "no feeling of a home, just a shell. Very peculiar... the only life one felt was that of a big dog barking."
Was it because Mary was unresponsive that the psychiatrists found her "psychopathic"? If she had broken her silence and told them of her abusive home life, would she have earned a more sympathetic analysis? "Ive seen a lot of psychopathic children," said Dr. Orton, the first to see her during her incarceration. "But Ive never met one like Mary: as intelligent, as manipulative, or as dangerous." During the murder trial, Marys behavior would do little to harvest sympathy.
The Trial Begins
"Well, that was a very naughty thing to do, wasnt it, to think of killing little boys and girls and talk about it?"
-- Prosecutions question to Norma Bell
Mary Bell and Norma Bell were brought to trial for the murder of Martin Brown and Brian Howe at the Newcastle Assizes Moothall on December 5th 1968. The trial would last nine days. The media attention, although mild by todays sensationalist standards, was generating increasing interest as the trial progressed -- by the final day the press was everywhere. Despite attempts to make the court proceedings less threatening to the children, both Norma and Mary were bewildered. Mary appeared to be attentive, but later admitted the whole thing was a "blur."
Prosecutor Rudolph Lyons opened the trial by suggesting that whoever murdered Brian Howe also killed Martin Brown. Lyons methodically recounted the suspicious behavior of both girls at the scene of Martins death, how they plagued the mourning family with their morbid questions, and how they vandalized the Nursery the next day, leaving notes that amounted to a confession. For Norma, these notes were the most damaging to her innocence. Handwriting analysis had verified that Norma had written the "I murder so that I may come back" note. If Norma was truly innocent, why would she participate in these dreadful scribblings?
How did Mary know that Martin had been asphyxiated? asked Lyons. This was not public knowledge, yet she demonstrated to the Howes how Martin was strangled. Forensic evidence also implicated Mary -- gray fibers from one of her wool dresses were discovered on the bodies of both victims. Fibers from Normas maroon skirt were found on Brians shoes. Although there were doubts about Normas guilt, Mary was considered guilty by most. According to Gitta Sereny, who was at the trial, the issue at stake was whether Mary was a sick little girl or a monster, a "bad seed."
Marys family presence at the trial certainly didnt help her case. Her mother Betty Bell disrupted the proceedings with all her wailing and sobbing, her long blond wig slipping off her head. Like a poorly-played character in a lurid soap opera, she stormed out during the trial, only to dramatically reappear moments later. Her father Billy Bell sat quietly, ignoring his wifes spectacles. Mary, who Sereny described as very pretty and intelligent, with dark hair and sharp blue eyes, which "in anger looked emotionally blank." Observers in the courtroom, wrote Sereny, were "watching her with a horrified kind of curiosity." For such a "manipulative" and "cunning" little girl, Mary knew nothing about attracting sympathy. At one point Mary told a police officer how a "woman up in the gallery smiles at me, but I dont smile back. It isnt a smiling matter. The jury wouldnt like it if I smiled, would they?"
Norma, on the other hand, was surrounded by a much more sympathetic family. She was the third of eleven children, and reacted to evidence and testimony with a more childlike combination of fear and nervous tears (Mary disdained crying as a sign of weakness.)
The Girls Testify
Norma was the first to take the stand. Her defense lawyer, R. P. Smith, asked her about the day Martin Brown was murdered, how Mary poked her head through the fence (the girls were next door neighbors) and said, "Theres been an accident," and took her to the abandoned house were Martins body had just been discovered. "Mary wanted to tell Rita there had been an accident... and something about blood all over something," said Norma, excitedly.
For the prosecution, Norma was an important witness to Marys violent disposition. "Did [Mary] ever show you how little boys or girls could be killed? Did she ever show you that?" When Norma answered "yes," Lyons responded, "Well, that was a very naughty thing to do, wasnt it, to think of killing little boys and girls and talk about it?" Norma agreed.
The night before her testimony, Mary asked a policewoman of the meaning of word "immature." "The lawyer said Norma was more immature, shed said. "Would that mean that if I was the more intelligent Id get all the blame?"
On the sixth day Mary was called to the stand. The room buzzed with anticipation, according to Sereny: "The public and press galleries were very full, the only day when the atmosphere in the court -- unlike all the other days -- was faintly tinged with that morbid fascination one associates with certain types of murder trials."
Mary was composed and brimming with rationale. Why did Mary ask to see Martin Brown in his coffin? "We were daring each other and one of us did not want to be a chicken or something... " she explained. On the drawing in her school notebook of Martins body with an incriminating knowledge of the crime scene: "Rumours," she said. "People were just saying there was a bottle of tablets and things spilled out of them. It was just to make it look better and that." She had told the Howes that Norma killed Martin "because I had an argument with Norma that day and I couldnt think of nothing else to say." Mary got the idea that Norma killed by strangulation from TV: "You see that on the television, on the Apache and all that."
Handwriting experts said that the notes were written with both girls handwriting. In fact, every single letter had to be examined separately, because Mary and Norma had alternated writing (they called it "joining writing."). Norma testified that the idea to write the notes came about in Marys bedroom, where they were drawing with a red biro pen. Norma said "Mary wanted some notes written ... to put in her shoes." Mary wanted them for the Nursery break-in.
While Mary conceded that the notes were a "joint idea" to write, she insisted it was Normas idea to take them to the Nursery. "We went--er--Norma says, Are you coming to the Nursery? I says, yes, howay then, because we had broken into it before." She admitted "we were being destructful," but it was all in fun. "We thought it would be a great big joke." Mary was supposed to be "Faggot," and Norma was "Fanny."
Furthermore, Mary insisted, Norma wanted "to get put away," and asked Mary to run away with her. They had run off together before. When asked why Norma wanted to run away, Mary weirdly answered, "Because she could kill the little ones, thats why," she said, her voice getting shriller, "and run away from the police."
Despite their accusations against each other, the girls had an unfathomable connection. During the trial, according to Sereny, "their heads turned toward each other, their eyes locked, their faces suddenly bare of expression and curiously alike, they always seemed by some sort of silent and exclusive communion to reaffirm and strengthen their bond." Yet they had their moments of betrayal: "They shook their heads incredulously or furiously at what one or the other said; they turned abruptly, glaring at each other when hearing themselves quoted as having accused the other of something outrageous; and they commented audibly -- in Normas case with tears and desperate cries of No, No; in Marys case with loud and furious remarks -- about and against each others evidence." Eventually the judge prohibited contact between the two girls during the trial.
Both denied any responsibility for Martin Brown, but both acknowledged they had been together with Brian on the day he died. According to Mary, a maniacal Norma strangled Brian. When asked if she was afraid that Norma might kill her, Mary boldly replied, "She would not dare -- Because I would turn around and punch her one."
Normas grim version of the events, however, were closer to the truth: "May [Marys nickname] told Brian to lie down," and then "started to hurt him." Norma demonstrated how Mary pinched Brians nose. He started turning purple and tried to push Marys hand away. "When she was really hurting him she said, Norma, take over, my hands are getting thick." But Norma left, she tearfully claimed, while Brian was still alive. She then went to her friends house, where they made pom-poms (an odd activity after witnessing murder.) If Norma was truly disturbed by Marys behavior, why did she return with Mary to make marks on Brians body? Mary brought scissors with her because she wanted "to make him baldy." She also had a razor blade to cut into Brians belly.
"What would be the worst that could happen to me? Would they hang me?"
-- Mary Bell
The conviction was obvious -- Mary would get either Murder or Manslaughter. Although there was more sympathy for Norma, it was still unclear how severe her punishment, if any, would be. The defense needed to show that Mary was disturbed, and couldnt help herself, nor understand the enormity of her actions. After the childrens testimony, the defense called the psychiatrists who had examined Mary. Dr. Robert Orton testified that "I think that this girl must be regarded as suffering from psychopathic personality," demonstrated by "a lack of feeling quality to other humans," and "a liability to act on impulse and without forethought."
Legally, this was a question of "Diminished Responsibility." Judge Cusack explained the concept to the jury: "In 1957 there was an Act of Parliament and it said that... where a person kills, or is a party to the killing of another, he shall not be convicted of Murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind, or any inherent causes, or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts."
Judge Cusack (left) & Prosecutor Rudolf Lyons (right) Judge Cusack (left) & Prosecutor Rudolf Lyons (right)
When the time came for the closing arguments, the prosecution characterized Mary as a fiend. Poor Norma was herself a victim of "an evil and compelling influence almost like that of the fictional Svengali," said Lyons. "In Norma you have a simple backward girl of subnormal intelligence. In Mary you have a most abnormal child, aggressive, vicious, cruel, incapable of remorse, a girl moreover possessed of a dominating personality, with a somewhat unusual intelligence and a degree of cunning that is almost terrifying." In attempting to rescue Mary from being cast off as a demonic "bad seed," the defense posed broader questions: Why did this happen? What made Mary do it? "It is... very easy to revile a little girl, to liken her to Svengali without pausing for a moment to ponder how the whole sorry situation has come about..."
The jury, which consisted of five women and seven men, took under four hours to return a verdict. Norma was thrilled when she was found "not guilty" of Manslaughter on both counts. Mary Bell was found "guilty of Manslaughter because of Diminished Responsibility" in both Martins and Brians death. Justice Cusack pronounced a sentence of "Detention for Life" while Mary cried, uncomforted by her family. Her detention would be for an indeterminate amount of time.
Norma Bell was later given three years probation for breaking and entering the Woodlands Crescent Nursery, and placed under psychiatric supervision.
"He called me a murderer and I grabbed his hair and smashed his face into his dinner."
-- Mary Bell
Because Britain was not used to incarcerating little girls who murdered, the question of where Mary should be placed sent everyone scrambling. Prison was out of the question for an eleven-year-old. Mental hospitals werent equipped to take her. She was too dangerous for institutions that housed troubled children. Eventually, the precocious murderess ended up in an "all boys" facility. There would be problems down the road when puberty hit.
Marys incarceration is fascinating because at some point she apparently "reformed." When she was released at age 23, she went on with her life and had a daughter of her own. She claims to be a completely different person than the "psychopathic" child killer she once was. Can a violent sociopath be cured? Was it possible that, at age eleven she was still psychologically pliable? Was there a "moral awakening," as author Gitta Sereny suggests? Or is she putting on a really good act? Sociopaths are experts at duplicity. In any case, her experience while incarcerated is worth reviewing.
Mary Bell was housed at the Red Bank Special Unit from February 1969 until November 1973. Red Bank was a reform school, a portion of which was high security. By most accounts the institution was a well-designed and reasonably comfortable facility, with a supportive staff, headed by James Dixon, a former Navy man who was known for his strong moral influence. Mr. Dixon provided structure and discipline for Mary, and she came to respect and love him. If Mary had been in the stranglehold of an evil, immoral mother, Mr. Dixon filled the role of the benevolent, strong father figure which was lacking in her life. She loved Billy Bell (who was not her biological father, but was in her life from the beginning) but as a thief, he was not an ideal role model. When he was convicted of armed robbery in 1969, his visits to Mary ended.
Marys mother was a disciplinarian, but not the kind generally advocated for family situations. As a prostitute with a specialty, she "disciplined" her clients with whips and bondage, claimed Mary. But Betty Bell did make some provisions: "I always hid the whips from the kids," she said. Betty visited her daughter often, and Mary eagerly awaited opportunities to see her mother, but she always appeared disturbed afterwards and acted out aggressively, according to the Red Bank staff. One doctor wanted Bettys visits to stop, but to suggest that a mother be kept from her daughter, was unthinkable in that era. The staff at Red Bank hated the overly dramatic and manipulative Betty. "She played at being a mother," said one teacher.
Betty Bell profited from her daughters notoriety, selling her story to the tabloids, and encouraged her daughter to write letters and poems that could be easily peddled to the press. Betty wanted her daughter to see how much she suffered as the mother of a famous juvenile murderer, said Mary: "Jesus was only nailed to the cross, Im being hammered," complained Betty.
Mary Bell, Age 16, while incarcerated Mary Bell, Age 16, while incarcerated The philosophy of Red Bank was to focus on the present. Dwelling on past experiences was detrimental, and therefore Mary Bells upbringing and eventual murders were not adequately acknowledged. One psychiatrist thought Mary was blocking out her troubled past, and was being discouraged from making any attempts to discover why she killed. "There is in her an extraordinary inner intensity... a neediness one can neither really understand nor handle," he said. She went through many counselors, very few of which got to know her well. She was manipulative and picked fights with the boys, and claimed to have had a twin sister named "Paula" ("I think I was inventing a twin who might have done what I really did," she said later.)
"There can be little doubt that this transfer was destructive for Mary," wrote Sereny in Cries Unheard. Mary had to adjust from a mostly male atmosphere at Red Bank to a full womens facility at Styal. She was a rebellious prisoner and was frequently punished, but soon adapted: "What I had to do was, yes, continue to fight the system, but I had to graduate from being a prisoner to being a con, and that meant that rather than being open and angry, I had to be closed and crafty." She also decided to go "butch." When her mother heard this she said, "Jesus Christ, what next? Youre a murderer and now youre a lesbian." A consultant child psychiatrist, who did weekly group therapy sessions at Styal, observed that "[Mary] went a long way toward persuading her world that she was masculine. She strutted... and making up as if she had stubble on her face," and "rolled up stockings in the shape of male genitals and pointed this out to me in class. I think she wore these all the time." She would later ask a doctor for a sex change, but was denied ("It was the idea of not being me," she said.)
After being transferred to a less secure facility in 1977, Mary escaped. She was picked up, along with a fellow escapee, by two young men. In her brief time out, Mary lost her virginity. The guy she slept with later sold his story to the tabloids, and claimed she escaped from jail so she could get pregnant. "As time went on, my nightmare was the press," said Mary. "I never could understand what they wanted from me." Mary was moved to a hostel a few months before her parole in 1980, and she met a married man who got her pregnant. "He said he was determined to show me I wasnt a lesbian," she said. "It was hard for me not to think of sex as dirty." When she found out she was with child, she had a moral crisis of sorts: "But if I think that almost the first thing I did after twelve years in prison for killing two babes was to kill the baby in me... " But Mary felt she had no choice.
Free at 23
"Mary has made herself into two people for her own sake."
-- Marys probation officer
Mary Bell was released May 14, 1980, and stayed in Suffolk. Her first job was in the local childrens nursery, but the probation officers deemed this inappropriate work for her. She took waitress jobs, and attended a university, but was too discouraged to stick with it. After moving back in with her mother, she met a young man and became pregnant. There was great concern over whether the woman who had murdered two children should be able to become a mother herself, yet she fought for the right to keep her child, which was born in 1984.
Mary claims to have a new awareness of her crimes from the birth of her child. She was allowed to keep the child, who was technically a ward of the court until 1992. "If there was something wrong with me when I was a child, there wasnt now. I felt that if they could X-ray me inside, they could see that anything broken had been fixed," she insisted.
Somehow, Mary Bell had made a transition, without appropriate psychiatric treatment, from a child killer to a loving mother. Her years in reform school and prison yielded sexual abuse and drug addiction, yet she claims to have a new moral consciousness and deep sorrow for her crimes. Could this be possible? Can we believe, as Gitta Sereny wrote, in the "possibility of metamorphosis"? Mary Bell had become, for the author, "two people -- the child and the adult."
She eventually met a man and fell in love, then settled in a small town. But the probation officer had to inform the local authorities of her presence, and soon the villagers were marching through the street with "Murderer Out!" signs. She lived in constant fear of being exposed.
When attempting to explain what was going through her mind as a child, particularly during violent outbursts, Mary only partially acknowledged her behavior, and has trouble confessing to the compulsion to choke other kids. Instead, she often describes her violence as hitting or pulling: "I put my hands around her ears or her hair or something like that."
As far as killing Martin Brown, Marys version of events keep changing, from being an accident to an unexplainable compulsion. She said she had a fight with her mother, and for the first time hit back. When she "pressed" on Martins neck, she recounts a vague blankness: "Im not angry. It isnt a feeling... it is a void that comes... its an abyss... its beyond rage, beyond pain, its a draining of feeling," she said. "I didnt intend to hurt Martin; why should I have? He was just a wee boy who belonged to a family around the corner..."
Yet Mary still implicates Norma in having some responsibility in Brian Howes death. "The weaker makes the other stronger by being weak," she said, in defense of being the "stronger" one.
Making Mary Bell
"Take that thing away from me!"
-- Betty Bell, responding to the birth of her daughter Mary
In the saga of Mary Bell, mother Betty has been portrayed as the primary villain and culprit to her psychopathology. Betty Bell was born in Glasgow in 1940, and was described as a deeply religious child. "We all thought she was going to be a nun," said her mother. She liked "religious things," remembered her sister. "She always drew nuns, and altars and graves and cemeteries." According to the family, there was no excessive punishments or abuse, but for some reason Betty began to drift away. When her father died, "Betty was demented," said Isa, Bettys sister. Betty threw tantrums, staged a drug overdose, and in 1957 she gave birth to Mary Flora Bell. Marys father would remain a mystery.
Marys brief childhood was a nightmare of abandonment and drug overdoses. Betty was anxious to get rid of her daughter -- she would drop her off with relatives, yet would always come back despite the familys pleas to let them keep her. In 1960 Betty brought Mary to an adoption agency, giving her to a distraught woman who wasnt allowed to adopt as she was moving to Australia. "I brought this one in to be adopted. You have her," Betty Bell said, leaving Mary with the stranger. Her sister Isa had followed Betty, and soon found the woman, who had already bought new dresses for Mary.
At two years old, Mary was refusing to bond with others -- she was already behaving in a cold and detached manner. Mary never cried when hurt, and began lashing out violently, smashing an uncles nose with a toy. Her mothers erratic rejections and reunions didnt help.
Mary witnessed her five-year-old friend get killed by a bus. This devastating event must have further retarded her ability to bond with others. In 1961, Mary started kindergarten. "She was almost always naughty," said her teacher, who once saw Mary putting her hands around the neck of another child. When told not to do that, Mary said, "Why? Can it kill him?" She was lonely, and other kids teased her. She kicked, hit and pinched the other kids, and told "tall stories all the time."
The most disturbing abuses came from Marys frequent drug overdoses, which were likely administered by her mother. When Mary was one year old, she nearly overdosed after taking some pills that were hidden in a narrow nook inside a gramophone. It seemed impossible that the baby could reach the pills, and strange that she would eat so many of the "acid-tasting" medication. When Mary was three she and her brother were found eating "little blue pills" along with the candy their aunt Cath had brought for them. (Betty said, "they must have taken the bottle out of my handbag.") Cath and husband offered to adopt Mary, but Betty refused to let the child go, and soon broke off contact with her family.
In the most serious overdose, Mary swallowed a bunch of "iron" pills belonging to her mother. She lost consciousness and her stomach had to be pumped. A young playmate, as well as little Mary herself, said Betty Bell, gave Mary the "Smarties" candy that made her sick. Overdoses, particularly for a developing child, can cause serious brain damage, a common trait among violent offenders.
Betty Bell was a drama queen and loved to play the martyr. She may have suffered from "Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome," thriving on the attention over her little daughters tragic "accidents." This syndrome, first described in 1977, is characterized by caregivers who intentionally injure, suffocate, or poison their child for the sympathy of others. The "MSBP" mother usually had an unwanted child, or is unmarried. This may explain why Betty, despite the harm she caused Mary, always wanted her back. Mary was later resentful of her mothers excessive complaints over her own sufferings, in fact she seemed more bothered by this tendency in her mother than the sexual abuse. This compulsive need for dramatic sympathy is illustrated by one incident: Betty tearfully told her sister that Mary had been run over by a truck, which generated an abundance of attention and sympathy. The next day Betty admitted that it was untrue; Mary was with friends who had temporarily adopted her.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy, if true, are Bettys use of Mary during her prostitution. In what she calls "one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse I have ever encountered," Sereny recounts the horrors that Mary had to endure as her mothers sexual prop. No other relatives, including Marys younger brother, were aware of this abuse, or would confirm it. Yet this would certainly help to explain Marys erratic behavior. If she had been violated herself, the need to violate others might incite her to the abuse of her own little victims.
"Manipulation of people is [her] primary aim"
-- Dr. Westbury after examining young Mary
At her trial, a psychiatrist who had examined Mary testified that she exhibited the classic symptoms of psychopathology (or sociopathology) by her lack of feeling toward others. "She showed no remorse whatsoever, no tears and no anxiety. She was completely unemotional about the whole affair and merely resentful at her detention," reported Dr. Orton. "I could see no real criminal motivation."
Marys abusive mother, her genetic wild-card of a father, and physical damage likely incurred by the repetitive drug overdoses all contributed to her sociopathology. Her inability to bond with others in a loving manner was twisted into a bonding process based on violent aggression. Mary responded to others based on how she herself had been treated. When a mother is a source of fear for a child, some cope by developing protective mechanisms against the outside world, which, for the developing sociopath, is a constant threat. Of course, not all children raised in abusive situations become sociopaths. Genetic factors and neurological damage also play a role. If a child is subjected to all of these conditions, the forecast can be deadly.
She certainly showed no signs of being satiated after murdering Brian. She was violent toward animals, a chronic bed wetter until her adult years, and while she hadnt set fires, she did destroy property in her brief career as a murderer. Those familiar with these "triad" of symptoms that characterize serial killers will also recognize that she probably wouldnt have stopped killing if unapprehended. Mary preyed on victims weaker than herself, and after the murders interjected herself into the crime investigation.
"Living in a fantasy world" is fine for children, but for psychologically disturbed violent offenders, the phrase rings ominous. Mary and Norma fantasized about being criminals and escaping to Scotland. "We built it up and up until -- it now seems -- We kept hoping wed be arrested and sent away," she said. "We never talked about anything except doing terrible things and being taken away."
Medical experts do not believe that sociopaths can be "cured." They are generally resistant to therapy, which Mary had proven to be throughout her incarceration. Some do speculate that aggressive tendencies quiet down with age. Perhaps Mary is better. We cannot know for sure.
As a child, Mary was described as very manipulative and intelligent. As an adult, being interviewed by Gitta Sereny, she overly performs her sorrow, even to the writers suspicions: "Her recovery from these terrible bouts of grief, however, was astoundingly quick, and at first these rapid emotional shifts raised doubts in me."
"Only one thing overrides them all," she writes of Marys tragic experiences, "the discipline she has created inside herself in order to give her daughter a normal life." Both Sereny and Mary are quick to demonize Betty Bell as a mother, and elevate Mary in the role of mother redeemed. But something doesnt sit right with this simple reversal. Mary displays too much of the "drama queen" flair she picked up from her mother, and we must wonder how successful she has been at purging Betty Bell from her psyche.
Mary allowed Betty to be part of her life, even living with her after she was released from prison, despite her continued abuses. She wanted her own daughter to meet Granny. Betty prostituted her daughter in every conceivable way. She first sold off Mary to her "johns," then sold her sad story to the tabloids. We cannot know the extent of Bettys damage to her daughter. Throughout Cried Unheard, Mary has demonstrated herself to be very unreliable. There is certainly reason to lie and exaggerate her mothers abuses, which many sociopaths do to gain sympathy and justification for their behavior. Betty is dead now, and no one else has corroborated the worst of the allegations. But perhaps the silence was the product of another, more repressed era, before child sexual abuse was openly discussed as it is today.
"But what I want most of all is a normal life."
-- Mary Bell
When Cries Unheard was published in 1998, it ignited a firestorm over criminals profiting from their deeds. Mary was paid for her efforts, which infuriated so many that Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly decried her pay. Laws were written to prevent others, including serial killer Dennis Nilsen, from doing the same. Marys hope for the book was to "set the record straight." She thought that if she told her story, the media would leave her alone.
Mary ignites controversy over book Mary ignites controversy over book
Sereny, however, says the book was written for the benefit of Marys child, yet she too was damaged by its publication. With the renewed media interest in Mary, reporters laid siege on her house. Her teenage daughter learned her mother was the infamous Mary Bell as the family evacuated their home, with blankets over their heads, dodging the flash bulbs and shouts from the media. But Mary says her daughter has accepted her mothers identity, and forgives her. "But Mum, why didnt you tell me? You were just a kid, younger than I am now," she said, according to Mary.
Perhaps the value of Cries Unheard is the attempt to unravel the "whys" of violent behavior in children, which is becoming an alarmingly common occurrence. In some ways, Mary Bell is an anomaly. She strangled her victims with her hands, instead of the now alarmingly typical shooting spree. Whether Marys story can prevent the abuse of other children remains to be seen. It is an extraordinary cautionary tale of a childs capacity for violence. If it is true that children are blessed with an intrinsic goodness, it can also be a very fragile blessing.
Child Killer Granted Lifelong Anonymity
On May 21, 2003, BBC Online reported that child killer Mary Bell had been granted lifelong anonymity.
Following a High Court decision, the identities of Bell and her daughter will now be kept secret to protect them from vigilantes. Under the terms of a temporary court order, the current identity and whereabouts of Bell and her daughter cannot be disclosed.
Interviewed outside the court following the decision, the sister of Martin Brown, one of Bells child victims, said the decision was a mockery. The victims are not the heart of the subject - no one was interested in our family, she said.
Martin's mother June Richardson, interviewed by the BBC in April said: The best that could happen would be for her to remain anonymous and just vanish and we can get on with our lives.
BBCs Andy Tighe reported that Judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, had stressed the case was exceptional and it did not mean that a blanket of anonymity would be granted in all cases of this kind.
The BBC report further stated that the main issue the court had to decide was whether Bell's right to privacy and family life outweighed the competing claims of open justice and press freedom.
Defending her decision, Judge Butler-Sloss said that she had granted the injunctions for different reasons from a similar decision she made in the case of child killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the killers of James Bulger.
Danny Shaw, the BBCs home affairs correspondent wrote that the Judges decision had been expected and added, if the High Court had decided not to grant Bell anonymity, it would be one of the legal shocks of the year.