Look at that face. So sweet, almost cherubic. An innocent child, right? Wrong. Mary Bell murdered two toddlers when she was just ten years old, making her one of the youngest (if not the youngest) serial killers in history and a true psychopath.
Mary Bell lived about 275 miles north of London in the small town of Scotswood. Her mother was a prostitute and her father unnamed, although he was thought to be Billy Bell, a known criminal. Family members would later claim Mary attempted to murder her mother several times as a child. Mary would also say she was a victim of sexual abuse and that her mother forced to her to have sex with men as a young child.
On May 25, 1968, just a day before her eleventh birthday, Mary strangled four-year-old Martin Brown and left his body in a condemned house. He small hands couldn’t squeeze hard enough to leave marks, and the murder went unsolved.
Then, in July, Mary decided she wanted to kill again. She chose three-year old Brian Howe as her victim and enlisted the help of her troubled friend, Norma. The little boy was found in an industrial area, covered with grass and weeds. A pair of scissors lay nearby. There were puncture marks on his thighs, his genitals partially skinned. Clumps of hair were missing. An “M” had been etched onto the boy’s tummy with a razor blade.
Before Brian’s body was discovered by police, Mary and Norma had offered to help the toddler’s older sister Pat search for him, going so far as to take her into the industrial area where his body lay. Mary wanted the sister to find the boy’s body, “because she wanted Pat Howe to have a shock,” Norma later said. Pat insisted he wouldn’t go that far from home and left.
Although she was barely eleven, Mary Bell immediately stood out to investigators, along with her friend Norma. Mary acted aloof while Norma was animated and excited, one authority said, “smiling as if it were a huge joke.”
With investigators honing in on her, Mary’s memory conveniently returned. She told investigator she saw a boy with Brian on the day he died. She claimed he hit the toddler for no reason, and that she had also seen the same boy playing with broken scissors. Even a calculating psychopath makes mistakes: the boy in question had been at the airport the day Brian died, and the scissors had been kept confidential. Mary described the scissors in detail, right down to their silver coloring and broken leg.
The scissors Mary Bell used to mutilate Brian Howe.
On August 7th, Brian Howe was laid to rest.
“Mary Bell was standing in front of the Howe’s 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 dare not 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.” – Inspector Dobson.
Dobson questioned Norma before Brian’s funeral. The girl now said Mary told her she had killed Brian and showed her his body. Mary allegedly told Norma “I squeezed his neck and pushed up his lungs, that’s how you kill them.” Norma claimed that when Mary showed her the body, Mary stroked the dead boy’s lips and said she had enjoyed killing him.
Police picked Mary up, and Dobson said that while the child was weary, she kept her wits. Dobson tried a variety of tactics with Mary, hoping to entice the truth out of her.
“I have reason to believe that when you were near the blocks with Norma, a man shouted at some children and you both ran away from where Brian was laying in the grass. This man will probably know you,” Dobson said.
“He would have to have good eyesight.”
“Why would he need good eyesight?” Dobson asked.
“Because he was…clever to see me when I wasn’t there.” Mary then said she was being brainwashed and that she was going home. Dobson refused and forged on. Mary held fast.
“I am making no statements. I have made lots of statements. It’s always me you come for. Norma’s a liar, she always tries to get me into trouble.”
Note written by Mary Bell after the murders, found at a nursery she and Norma broke into.
Ignoring the nagging voice in the back of his head, Dobson allowed Mary to leave. He later brought her back to the station after getting more information from Norma.
Still cool under pressure, Mary finally admitted to being present when Brian died but implicated Norma as the actual murderer. Mary claimed she tried to pull Norma off the little boy, but that Norma screamed at her and kept strangling him. You can read Mary’s full statement here.
When Dobson told Mary she was being charged with the murder of Brian Howe, she reportedly said, “That’s all right with me.”
Once she was incarcerated, stories of Mary’s bizzarre behavior and abuse began to surface. Other children said she was a show off, and they didn’t believe her when she went around claiming she was a murderer.
According to friends and family, Mary had pushed her cousin several feet off a ledge behind some sheds, leaving him bleeding from the head. She also attacked three girls at a daycare, with Norma in tow. One of the girls claimed Mary had squeezed her throat, asking “what happens if you choke someone, do they die?”
Headline during Mary Bell’s trial.
Mary was soon connected to Martin Brown’s murder that had occurred months earlier. The three boys who had found the boys body remembered Mary and Norma squeezing through a broken section of boards to get into the house. Mary had brought Norma to show her the boy’s body.
Because police could find no signs of violence, the cause of death had been left open. But ice-cold Mary and Norma revelled in tormenting the boy’s aunt, asking her if she missed Martin and if she cried for him.
The girls didn’t stop there. June Richardson, Martin’s grieving mother, was also a target.
“Mary smiled and asked to see Martin. I said, ‘no pet, Martin is dead.’ She turned round and said, ‘Oh I know he’s dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin.’ 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.”
June Richardson with a picture of Martin.
At trial, the psychiatrist who had interviewed Mary said she exhibited the classic signs of psychopathy: she showed no remorse and was completely unemotional. Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter while Norma was found not guilty and placed under psychiatric evaluation.
I have no idea how she only received manslaughter, but I can only assume it was because of her age.
The authorities had no idea what to do with an eleven-year-old murderer, so Mary spent the rest of her juvenile years floating from one institution to another. After the conviction, she continued to make headlines as her heartless and greedy mother sold stories about her to the press. In 1977, Mary escaped from Moore Open Court Prison, where she’d been since her transfer from a young offenders institution.
Mary Bell at 16.
Mary was released from prison in 1980 at the age of twenty-three, serving only twelve years for the murders of two helpless little boys. Even worse, she was granted anonymity, including a new name, to start a new life with her daughter (born in May, 1984). Their location was eventually discovered and the two had to escape the house under the cover of bed sheets. Yet another innocent child had been affected by Mary’s hideous actions, but this time it was her own flesh and blood.
Mary Bell in 1980 after her release.
Mary and her daughter were supposed to lose their anonymity when the child turned 18. But to the heartbreak of the victim’s families, Mary Bell succeeded in having her own anonymity and her daughter’s extended for life.
The Brown and Howe families were devastated. Mary had not only served very little time for the double homicides, but she also made money with an autobiography and would now be able to hide behind her daughter for the rest of her life, effectively negating any accountability.
Bell recently had a grandchild, and the order has been extended to include him.
“A child is a blessing. She took my blessing and left me with grief for the rest of my life. I hope when she looks at this child she remembers the two she murdered. I will never see a grandchild from my son. I hope when she looks at this baby she realized what my family are missing out on because of what she has done.”
— June Richardson, mother of Martin Brown.
You can find much more of Mary’s story here
In all my research of violent crimes, this has to be the worst. The chilling way Mary spoke of her victims and her utter lack of remorse is astounding. What do you think? Should she have served more time, and should she be allowed anonymity?
Oh. This is so scary. Is she out there in the world somewhere today? I wonder how many more she has killed. Chilling is right!Great and disturbing story…
SusieShe is out there somewhere today. I wonder the same thing. Someone like her does not stop killing, IMO.
Sonia G Medeiros
That is definitely the most disturbing thing I've ever heard. Were they able to find if she had been abused? Maybe not by her mother but it seems like something traumatic must have happened. I haven't researched killers very much yet. It's just hard to imagine a human being being so twisted without something horrible having happend as a child.
SoniaFrom everything I've read, it sounds like most believed she was but I'm not sure it was every actually proven. Given her nature, it would be hard to just take her word for it. I do agree, it does seem like something traumatic had to have happened, but there are psychopaths out there that are raised in normal homes and still act out. That said, where there's smoke, there's usually fire.Thanks for commenting and sharing the link:)
Chilling!! So frightening to know such people exist and that justice systems seem to do more to protect them than the rights of the dead. Sad!
NatalieI know it. It's very frustrating. Granted, in 1968 the system had no idea how to deal with someone like Mary, but by the 80s, research into the criminal mind/profiling was kicking off. She never should have been released, but she cashed in on her age.Thanks for stopping by.
No, I don't think she should be allowed that freedom. But more than that, the fact that she had such a twisted a childhood breaks my heart. There are many children like that at a young age. It only takes one to press the boundaries, and go too far. Creepy.
LauraThe whole thing is heartbreaking. I tend to believe psychopaths are both a mixture of being made and being born, but what this girl went through didn't help her case. Who knows what tendencies would have been triggered if she'd only had a normal childhood. Thanks for commenting.
Stacey, this was fascinating – and chilling! My heart breaks for the families of those babies. I thought I would eventually read that Mary had killed herself or had been killed. Knowing she's out there somewhere – and has a child/grandchild – makes this 'ending' even more frightening. So intriguing. Thank you for posting this incredible piece.
I have to hope that it is possible for a person to change. That at some point, perhaps when she felt the intense love of having her own child, that something would awaken within her to change her. It's hard to imagine what could make a child do something so terrible. Interesting, and disturbing, post, Stacy.
I can't even talk about people who harm children. It is inexcusable. It disgusts me to no end.
Stacy, your blog must be good to get ME to come back time and again and read these stories of evil. I say that because I am extremely sensitive and hold onto imagines in my brain for too long, so usually I avoid stuff like this. It is bizarrely fascinating though. That a human being can BE so cruel and heartless is beyond me. I think there is just pure EVIL in the world that can not be explained. I feel so sad for those little boys and who knows who else she killed and got away with it. I do NOT think she should have her freedom. Psychopaths do not recover or change.
DeborahThanks so much. It is a terrible story, and you're right, the fact that she's just another face in the crowd after all that is frightening.Thanks for commenting!CynthiaI hope it's possible as well, but so many studies show that people with psychopathic studies have significant differences in their brain. The tendencies are partially hardwired, at least. But I hope that her years of incarceration taught her something. Thanks for commenting.
KellyI know what you mean. Every time I read about something like this, all I can picture is my own child. Horrible. Thanks for stopping by.Michael AnnThanks for the compliments. Like you, I hold onto these images for a long time, but the psychology behind someone like Mary is fascinating. I often say that if I'd have been smarter (and tougher) I would have gone into criminal/forensic psychology. Completely agree – there is pure evil out there.
Stacy, I just got chills reading that thinking – OMG what if she lives in my town…she could be in a anyone's town and you can bet she's already killed again. There is something missing in her genes to make her like that at such a young age, a true killer disease.
Chilling story, Stacy. I think we have a problem by not having "guilty but insane" as an option. Some people are simply too disturbed to be let out of custody and need ongoing oversight. What gets me, though, is who fathered Mary Bell's daughter? I don't know about the anonymity since her daughter and a grandchild are involved as well. A bunch of victims all around. But I sure wouldn't want that chick as a next-door neighbor.
DonnaSo true. There's no evidence she's still in Britain after receiving anonymity. I don't know if that's part of her release or not. I would think she's already killed again, but she's gotten really good at covering her tracks. JulieGood question. I couldn't find much on that, only that she was born in 84, after Mary was out of prison. That's the biggest injustice regarding the anonymity: her neighbors have a right to know what's next door.Thanks for commenting, ladies!
Oh, this is a great story. I knew everything up to the part where you started talking about what happened to Mary after her arrest. I'm so glad you included an update. And how odd and unfair that she's living free and clear under a new name. I had read about a similar case that took place in Canada. The girl murdered her parents and siblings. Her anonymity is protected, and she'll be released from detention as a an adult. Great, well-researched post. Good job.
CatieI swear you're a walking history book, lol. I knew nothing of this story until I started researching. I've heard about young killers before, but Mary Bell is probably the worst I've heard of. Thanks for the compliments and glad you enjoyed the post:)
Stacy, the whole thing is so disturbing and sad. All I can think of is "The Bad Seed." A movie that gave me nightmares as a child. I'm the same age as Mary Bell, with a daughter born the same year. Creeps me out.
AmyThat would creep me out as well. I've not seen "The Bad Seed," but Catie said the same thing as you. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for commenting!
Whoa. What a story. How have I never heard of Mary Bell before? Creepy girl with an angelic face! GREAT post, Stacy!! GREAT.
I wonder if any authorities kept track of her, even her new identity, to compare her with unsolved murders in UK? Do you know if her story was ever made into a movie? Scary stuff.
Gah! That note is so creepy. She really didn't care, did she?
TiffanyI hadn't heard of her before I started researching, either. Awful, isn't it? Thanks so much for the compliment and for posting the link:)JulieGood question. I would have to assume they did. At least, I'd hope they would have. I'm not sure about the movie, but I know there have been a few books about her. Thanks:)EllieNo, she didn't. True psychopath, which makes her freedom even scarier. Thanks for stopping by!
This is a chilling story. To think she laughed outside the boy's own funeral and then stalked his family and asked to see him in his coffin. Disgusting. I'm very much against the death penalty, so I'm glad the history of this story did not include that aspect, but 12 years does seem like very little for murdering two toddler boys. What I really don't get is the anonymity she got though. Why are we letting people who have been clinically identified as psychopathic serial killers change their name and be released back in society? Who did she have a daughter with? Was this guy in the picture for longterm? I wish you could see my face, it's all twisted up with questions and terror. Crazy true story! Very well written.
JessIt's very disgusting. I can't imagine being that boy's mother.I agree, 12 years was too short, but I'm sure their system is much like ours, and if she was tried as a juvenile, that was probably the max. I completely agree on the anonymity issue. It's one thing to protect her daughter, because she's a victim to, but society has a right to know where that woman is. I can only hope the police keep track of her.Thanks so much for commenting.
Oh jeez, this is horrible! And so fascinating… I don't mean it in a creepy way, but I have this fascination with psychopaths I can't explain. Mainly, I have no idea how one can be devoid of feelings. I was completely creeped out at the part where she wanted to see the dead boy in his little coffin. I can't believe they'd tease and… actually, I can. She was a little girl; she didn't know that there'd be such consequences to her actions, did she?In any case, she shouldn't have been granted anonymity. What about the autobiography? Did she admit to everything in them? Did she fake remorse? Did she change along the way… Then again, I probably should use the link you gave. :PVery interesting post! Thanks, Stacy. 🙂
LynI know it. I feel guilty for being so fascinated by her, but Mary's psyche is really interesting. I have the same interest in psychopaths (that sounds so bad, lol) so I fet what you're saying.Wanting to see the little boy in the coffin is awful. I wonder if she wanted to relive it in some way or if it had something to do with power/control? Considering the abuse she took, she may not have fully understood the consequences … but she understood enough to lie.I don't know much about the autobiography. I'll have to look into it.Thanks!
Wow, this one gives me chills. It brings about the debate…are serial killers born, or made? Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse
AngelaIt definitely does, that's a great debate. Proof for both sides of the argument. I have to say at least some of it, especially in Mary's case, is genetic predisposition. But environment has to play into it, too.Thanks!
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Wow…this one is truly shocking. I don’t think I’ll forget Mary’s story anytime soon. I don’t understand how she received so little time in prison for such heinous crimes. Under that pretty little face hid a monster.
Isn’t it? Mary’s story is shocking and sad. I don’t understand it either. Because of her childhood abuse and early warning signs, I’ve no doubt she’s still a threat, wherever she is.
So many people affect in this great tragedy indeed.
However, the blogpost and the comments that praises how well researched it is makes it impossible not to comment on this. This post is not meant to make the events seem less tragic, in fact they seem worse in some parts in my opinion.
One crucial part of this story that is neglected, and wrongfully, speculated on are the facts of sentencing and incarceration.
Sentence: Detention without a time limit. Which means that it wouldn’t have been a problem to keep her locked up for life. This means that her release after 12 years was conditioned on it being deemed safe to do so.
Mary’s upbringing: Her mother attempted to kill her FOUR times within her first four years. Two of these attempts came very close, and this behavior stopped only after the intervention of relatives (What took them 4 attempts over 4 years boggles the mind). When the mother stops trying to poison her daughter, the next phase of torment begins. Mary is used by her mother in her work as a prostitute; for Mary that included oral sex, anal sex and sadism (she was tied and whipped).
The area where she grew up was in large plagued of socioeconomic problems. High rate of unemployment, poverty, criminality and for the most part made up by condemned buildings or buildings that was already demolished.
The letters were written, and found, between the two murders, not after both. Mary, also wrote about the first murder in school the Monday after Martin’s death. These contained details that had not been released to the public, i.e. the can of pills beside the body.
After the second murder Mary and Norma guides the Brian’s older siblings in where to search. This search continues for a long time, and adults are notified at 7 pm. They contact the police, and the search is concluded around midnight with the finding of Brian. This doesn’t fit that well with “Mary wanted the sister to find the boy’s body”, which she had ample time to make sure of.
The general slant of the article overall can be found in the details, which seem placed in the blogpost just to build on the horror of the events. This makes me ill, since the nature of the actions are more than enough tragedy in themselves. This might be seen as nitpicking, but I maintain the importance of trying to be balanced when writing of things how horrible they may be over sensationalize.
*The children murdered were 4 and 3 years old, i.e. not two toddlers. The motive for for using this term I can only speculate on, but the conclusion I reach is that the author of the article felt the need to distinguish between the innocent and defenseless victims and Mary. Something that the events should be able to put beyond any possibility of confusion.
The term psychopath and sociopath is often used interchangeably, but the terms can also be used to underline the debate of genes vs environment. And a glance at the conditions under which Mary was brought up and the fact that she was released, and have been law-abiding since, surely makes the argument for environmental explanations deserving of a hearing over “born evil”/”pure evil” rants in this case. Especially since psychopathy is widely regarded as a permanent affliction, and would have warranted continued incarceration.
If all comments are written under the firmest of beliefs that rehabilitation in any and all cases is impossible, the this post won’t change your mind, but otherwise I’d urge you to at least consider the circumstances of Mary’s childhood. First, to grow up being repeatedly subjected to poisoning to the brink of death by one of the persons in the world that is supposed to care for you and to protect you from harm and to TEACH YOU HOW THE WORLD WORKS. Second, when this stops it is only to have that unimaginable hell to change into a life of sexual abuse with elements of sadism.
The decision to release Mary, which implies enough change on her side to deem it safe, makes the anonymity discussion quite simple in my opinion. She was released assuming that she would be able to live a ordered life from then on out, which the tabloids made impossible. A free citizen, one that has served time/repaid debt/been rehabilitated, shouldn’t be harassed to only serve newspaper circulation. And the sentence that allowed her anonymity to be kept after that also led to making it illegal for newspapers to reveal identities of people that have court order that guarantees their anonymity and new name. And to think that anonymity equals her not being monitored closely at some higher level within the police seems naive to me. Imagine the the crisis for the state if she were to get arrested again.
The “served more time”-question must have been the main one for the judge that ordered her release, since it surely was the controversial choice. To be frank few would have cared if the choice would have been further incarceration. I cannot imagine that this was done on a whim, and that I can only see it being easier to err on the side of caution in these matters by keeping prisoners locked up. A lot must have happened during those 12 years both on getting to the full life story of Mary as well as change in Mary’s understanding of the events as well as personal development. So, even though we now the benefit of her record after release, there is little reason to doubt that releasing Mary was the right choice.
This post is not meant as an argument absolving Mary for the ACTIONS, it is meant to give some nuance to the knee-jerk-reactions posted here to a poorly researched article which seem to have been perceived as something different by many readers.
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