The case of Britain’s Mary Bell is a dark and tragic one. She became the world’s youngest serial killer at 11 years old in 1968 after killing two young boys. The case has sparked many controversies, even years later, related to criminals receiving money for their crimes and anonymity for children who commit serious crimes.
Mary Flora Bell: A Child Murderer Is Born
Mary Flora Bell, the world’s youngest serial killer was born in Newcastle, England, in May 1957. Her mother, Betty Bell, a prostitute, had her when she was only 17 years old. Born out of wedlock, Mary’s father is a mystery, although Mary assumed him to be Billy Bell, a career criminal that married her mother after she was born.
Young Mary didn’t have a stable home life. She was often passed to relatives to care for as Betty Bell traveled to different cities to work. Betty once tried to give two-year-old Mary away to a woman who was denied an adoption. Mary was rescued by an aunt who had followed the scheming Betty.
Stories from family members assert that Betty tried to kill her daughter several times while still a toddler and make the murder appear to be an accident. In one instance Mary “fell” from a window, in another she “accidentally” ate sleeping pills. A family member stated that Mary’s mother Betty fed her the pills as if they were candy.
Another source asserts that Betty Bell suffered from the mental disorder Munchausen by Proxy (also known as Factitious disorder imposed on another – FDIA). Suffers from this disorder purposely injure their children to gain the attention and sympathy received from healthcare workers, family, and friends.
According to Mary Bell, she was sexually abused for years, starting at age of four. She was forced to perform sexual acts with men, her prostitute mother’s customers. This had not been confirmed by other sources, but trauma of this nature could help explain the emotionless child Mary became.
As a result of the physical abuse inflicted by Mary’s mother Betty, she was left with brain damage to her prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that controls voluntary movement and decision making. Some scientists believe that many serial killers may have brain damage to areas such as the frontal lobe that lead to their murderous actions. Serial killers Henry Lee Lucas, Arthur Shawcross, and Bobby Joe Long had brain damage or a history of head injuries.
From the abuse and brain damage as she grew older Mary was described as intelligent and manipulative, as well as being a liar that was often violent. Her tendency for violence started as a toddler when she would attack family members. In Kindergarten, she reportedly tried to choke a classmate.
The World’s Youngest Serial Killer
Mary Bell has two known victims, both young boys, she strangled to death. In one case she revisited the body to mutilate it.
Mary Bell strangled and killed four-year-old Martin Brown in an abandoned house on the day before her 11th birthday, May 25, 1968, She is believed to have killed Martin by herself, although there is some conjecture that her friend, Norma Joyce Bell (no relation) was involved or was taken to see Martin Brown’s body after he was killed. With no signs of foul play, Martin’s death was thought by police to be accidental.
Nursery school vandalism and notes
Between the murders of Martin Brown and Brian Howe, a nursery school was broken into and vandalized by Mary Bell and Norma Bell. Beyond the vandalism, four notes were left behind. Filled with profanity and seemingly scribbled by a child, two were very disturbing. One note read, “We did murder Martin Brown,” and another read cryptically, “I murder so that I may come back.” The authorities dismissed the notes as they thought Martin’s death had been an accident. Mary later confessed to writing the notes to amuse herself.
Mary Bell and Norma Bell strangled and killed three-year-old Brian Howe on July 31, 1968, in an industrial area of Scotswood, Newcastle. Police reports state that Mary and Norma returned to the crime scene and Mary carved the letter “M” on Brian’s torso with a razor blade, as well as used scissors to cut some of his hair, and puncture his legs and mutilate his genitals. Broken scissors were found near the body.
Residents were in an uproar after Brian Howe’s murder and police were searching for answers. This was 1968, years before the term serial killer was even coined, and police had no modern tools like DNA testing and psychological profiles to assist in their investigation.
The police interviewed the local children, an estimated 1,200 young people, and two girls immediately stood out because of their odd behavior. Norma Bell, 13 years old, was visibly excited by the talk of the murder, smiling as she was questioned. To her it seemed as if it was a big joke, a detective noted. Mary also acted oddly and was cagey during her interview.
Mary eventually claimed she had seen an eight-year-old boy with Brian Howe the day he was murdered. She also told police the boy had been playing with a pair of scissors. This damning evidence was discovered by police to be a fabrication. The boy in question had an alibi for the time Brian was killed. In trying to implicate someone else, Mary tipped her hand to investigators. The scissors were confidential evidence – only someone who had information about the murder would know about them. Police believed both Norma and Mary were involved.
On the day of Brian Howe’s funeral, investigators saw Mary standing outside the Howe home. As Brian’s coffin was carried from the house, she was seen laughing and rubbing her hands together. Police were disturbed by this behavior and knew they needed to act fast before another child was killed. They interviewed Norma Bell again. This time she had a different story to tell about her friend Mary.
According to Norma, Mary Bell told her she killed Brian and took her to see the body. Mary said had strangled him and enjoyed it. That was enough for the police to scoop up Mary. When interviewed she was evasive and said Norma was lying and trying to get her into trouble. Mary was initially released but after more information was provided by Norma Bell, Mary was interviewed again. She confessed to being at the scene when Brian Howe was killed but named Norma as the killer. Even though it was a case of she said – she said, police arrested both girls and they were charged with manslaughter.
Mary And Norma Bell’s Trial
Between the arrests and trial, the police learned more about Mary Bell. They linked her to the nursery school break-in and the confession notes. Children testified at the trial that Mary screamed, “I am a murderer,” while pointing at Brian Howe’s home. As Mary often lied, this public confession was not taken seriously. While awaiting trial Mary reportedly told the female jail guards odd things, such as, “I like hurting things that can’t fight back.” Her seemingly emotionless personae, coupled with odd behavior, led psychiatrists to diagnose Mary as psychopathic.
While Mary murdered Martin Brown alone, she and Norma Bell both pointed their fingers at each other for Brian Howe’s death when testifying at the trial. Despite this, there seemed to be a strange bond between Mary and Norma. A psychologist appointed by the court testified that Mary Bell was a textbook case of psychopathy. Because of this mental illness, she was not responsible for her actions.
Mary and Norma Bell received their verdicts from the jury on December 17, 1968. Norma was acquitted of the charges against her and Mary was convicted of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, owing to her diagnosis of psychopathy. Her sentence was to be detained “At Her Majesty s pleasure” – meaning an indefinite sentence length. The judge described Mary as dangerous and said she posed a very great risk to other children.
Mary was sent to Red Bank Secure Unit – a juvenile detention facility. As the world’s youngest serial killer she received a lot of attention from the British press and Stern, a German magazine. Mary’s mother Betty sold many stories about her, and her purported writings, to the press. Mary was in the news again in 1977 when she escaped from Moor Court Open Prison (an adult prison) after being transferred from a young offender facility. She was quickly recaptured. Mary’s punishment was the loss of prison privileges for 28 days.
After 12 years in prison, Mary Bell, then 23 years old, was released in 1980. She was granted anonymity and given a new identity to start a new life. Little is known of Mary after her release. It is believed she kept an interest in her hometown and even lived there for some time. In 1984 Mary gave birth to a daughter and authorities were concerned about her raising the child, given her history of child murder. Ultimately, she was allowed to keep the child.
Her daughter grew up knowing nothing of her mother’s past until law enforcement leaked Mary Bell’s name and location in 1998 after the publication of the book Cries Unheard (see below). She and her daughter were forced to flee, their heads covered in bedsheets to avoid being photographed by the press. Mary took her anonymity case to the country’s High Court and had her and her daughter’s (and later, granddaughter’s) anonymity extended for their lifetime.
As well as being the world’s youngest serial killer, Mary Bell’s name is also used in legal circles. Any court order protecting the identity of a convicted individual in Britain is sometimes known as a “Mary Bell order.”
Mary Bell Book and controversy
Mary Bell is the subject of two books by author Gitta Sereny: The Case of Mary Bell, and Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell. The latter is a deep-dive biography researched using interviews with Mary and her relatives, friends, and others that knew her. Cries Unheard was the first book to expose Mary’s claims of sexual abuse.
Controversy erupted after it was learned Mary was paid for her participation in this project. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government tried to find a legal way to stop the book’s publication on the grounds a criminal should not profit from their crimes. The government’s attempt was unsuccessful.
A similar situation arose in the United States after the David Berkowitz – Son of Sam trial in 1977 and fears that Berkowitz would sell his story to newspapers or filmmakers. The “Son of Sam law” was quickly passed in New York to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes. The law was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1991 as being unconstitutional.
Where Is Mary Bell Now?
At the time of this writing (2020) Mary Bell is 63-years-old Her current whereabouts or activities are unknown.
Mary Bell Documentary
For such an infamous case there is only one known documentary on the Mary Bell killings. Part of the BBC’s Children of Crime series, the Mary Bell episode is narrated by Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter. While the quality available of the 1998 documentary on YouTube is terrible, it is an interesting look into the social and societal issues at the time of the killings in 1968.
Three Killer Mary Bell Books
There are three great books on Mary Bell, the world’s youngest serial killer.
by Nancy Veysey
A 2019 book part of the Real Crime By Real Killers series
By Gitta Sereny
A controversial 1999 book based in part on interviews with Mary Bell
by Sylvia Perrin
A short, 2015 book, part of the True Crime; Bus Stop Reads series.
The murder of 2-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993 was very similar to the Mary Bell case. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both 10 years old, abducted, tortured, and killed James in a crime that shocked the world. Like Mary Bell, they were sentenced to be detained “At Her Majesty s pleasure.” Robert and Jon were the youngest convicted murderers in British history. They were paroled after serving eight years and given new identities as Mary Bell was.
What do you think?
Should Mary Bell have been released from prison after only 12 years? Was her punishment just? How do we properly sentence 11-year-old serial killers?
Leave your comments below.