It’s winter in Newcastle, England, and 11-year-old Mary Bell stands alone in the dock. The daughter of a prostitute, her past has been marred by violence and abuse. Now, the tables have turned, and she finds herself accused of a terrible crime. It’s the start of a horrifying saga that will stalk Mary for the next 50 years.
Mary was born on May 26, 1957, in Newcastle upon Tyne, a city in northern England. Her mother Betty was just 17 when she gave birth. According to records, Betty was a prostitute and often traveled some 150 miles north to Glasgow in order to find work.
When Mary was just a baby, Betty married a local criminal named Billy Bell. But even though Mary spent most of her life believing Billy to be her father, it’s likely that they were not related by blood. Meanwhile, Mary’s early years were marred by trouble in the Bell household. According to those who knew the family, Mary was prone to a worrying number of accidents and injuries.
On one occasion, Mary appeared to fall out of an open window. On another, she managed to ingest several sleeping pills. However, some believed that these were not accidents, and that Betty was actively trying to murder her daughter. Later, a witness would claim to have spotted Betty feeding the pills to the infant Mary.
According to Mary, these years were also a period of sexual abuse. Allegedly, it began when she was just four years old, with Betty forcing her daughter to have relations with men. Not surprisingly, this unstable environment started to have a negative effect on the girl. Indeed, by the time she was in preschool she was already exhibiting signs of a fierce temper.
Then, on May 25, 1968, something unthinkable happened. In Scotswood, a working class suburb of Newcastle, four-year-old Martin Brown vanished from his home. Later, a group of boys found him on the floor of a derelict house, bleeding from his mouth. The boys raised the alarm, but sadly it was too late.
Initially, investigators thought nothing untoward had occurred, even though an aspirin bottle was discovered near to Martin’s body. Suspecting that the boy could have swallowed the medicine unwittingly, authorities recorded an open verdict. But just two days after Martin’s death, there was another development.
On May 27, teachers at a local kindergarten arrived after the weekend to a shocking scene. Apparently, someone had broken into the school and left behind some threatening messages. “I murder so that I may come back,” read one, in a childish scrawl. “We did murder Martin Brown,” claimed another.
However, despite the sinister claims, police believed the notes were just a prank. Then, two months later, another local boy went missing. This time it was Brian Howe, a three-year-old with a mop of curly blond hair. And while his sister Pat was searching for him, she was approached by Mary, who was 11 at the time. Mary was accompanied by her pal Norma Bell, a 13-year-old girl who was not a relation.
Together, Mary and Norma led Pat to a nearby area of wasteland. Mary then pointed to a specific spot, hinting that Brian could be there. Pat, however, was unconvinced and left without checking. But just hours later police arrived – and found Brian’s dead body exactly where Mary had suggested.
This time there was no mistaking that a violent crime had taken place. Moreover, it seemed that whoever was responsible for Brian’s death had strangled him before mutilating his body. Shockingly, a letter “M” had also been carved into the boy’s flesh. And, with the local community descending into hysteria, police began an urgent investigation.
Despite their young years, Mary and Norma soon found themselves at the center of suspicion. When questioned by the authorities, the pair showed an unnatural curiosity in the deaths. Furthermore, strange stories about Mary’s behavior began to emerge. One even involved her visiting Martin’s mom, asking if she could see the boy lying in his coffin.
Then, on the day of Brian’s funeral, a cop spotted Mary outside the Howes’ home. Allegedly, she was observed giggling as the coffin left with the boy’s body inside. The detective was shocked at this apparent callousness and questioned Norma again – and that’s when the sordid truth began to unravel.
Norma told the detective that Mary had confessed to killing Brian. Furthermore, she had even taken her friend to see the body and told her how she had committed the crime. At first, Mary protested her innocence, before later claiming that Norma had been the one to do the deed. Eventually, however, both girls were arrested on suspicion of murder.
Then, as Mary and Norma awaited trial, more details continued to emerge. While the younger Mary was described as manipulative and cunning, the older Norma was seen to have been dominated by her friend. Eventually, on December 16, 1968, Norma was cleared of the charges. Mary, however, was a different story.
When psychiatrists appointed by the court examined Mary, they proclaimed her to be exhibiting symptoms of psychopathy. With this in mind, she was considered to have diminished responsibility and thus avoided a murder charge. However, Mary was deemed to be a danger to others and was found guilty of manslaughter.
According to the judge, though, knowing what to do with Mary posed a challenge. “It is a most unhappy thing that, in all the resources of this country, it appears that there is no hospital available that is suitable for the accommodation of this girl,” he was reported to have said.
Eventually, Mary was sentenced to an indeterminate term of incarceration. At first, she was sent to a secure unit in Lancashire, England, where she was the only female inmate. Then, when she became an adult, she was transferred to Staffordshire’s Moor Court open prison. And in another twist to the tale, Mary briefly managed to escape.
Soon locked up once more, Mary was moved from place to place before being released, aged 23, in 1980. But having spent half of her life behind bars, she struggled to adjust to the outside world. As a result, Mary turned to crime in a failed attempt to get sent back to jail. Then, in 1984, she had a child of her own.
So, with a new name for both herself and her daughter, Mary attempted to live a quiet life. But by 1998 her story was back in the news, as it emerged that a journalist had paid her to collaborate on a book. After being forced to change their names once more, Mary and her daughter won immunity for life in a much-publicized court battle. Today, Martin and Brian’s mothers still grieve their sons – while wondering how Mary has been allowed to profit from such terrible crimes.