Mary Flora Bell is an English woman known for killing two young boys when she was aged 10 or 11. In 1968, she strangled Martin Brown (aged 4) and Brian Howe (aged 3) to death. The incident took place in Scotswood, a metropolitan neighborhood in the West End region of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment for her crime. She took a number of assumed names since she was released. In order to protect her identity, a specific court order was issued. The order was later extended for the purpose of protecting her daughter’s identity, too. Gitta Sereny, a famous journalist, biographer, and historian of Austrian–British origin, wrote two books on Mary’s life. One of them was an exhaustive biography with a detailed account of the troubled childhood Mary had experienced due to her prostitute mother’s abusive and alcoholic nature.
Childhood & Early Life
Mary Flora Bell was born on May 26, 1957, to Betty (née McCrickett). The identity of Mary’s biological father is not known. However, for most of her life, she accepted Billy Bell as her father. Billy was a seasoned criminal who was later detained for armed burglary.
Mary had a troubled childhood because of her mother’s profession and her regular absence from the family home. She often traveled to Glasgow for work and gave birth to Mary, her first child, when she was 17.
According to the opinions of close friends and family members, little Mary was abused badly by her own mother. As described by an eye-witness, Betty once even tried to kill her by throwing her from a window and by making her consume sleeping pills. Additionally, at the tender age of 4 or 5, Mary was subjected to sexual assaults by her mother’s clients.
Mary sustained severe brain damage after her fall from the window. However, it has not been specified whether the damage was due to the fall or the abuses she had experienced. The prefrontal cortex of her brain, the area that is related to controlled activities and the capacity of decision-making, was damaged.
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On May 25, 1968, Mary Bell smothered a 4-year-old boy named Martin Brown in a deserted house. It is generally believed that she had committed the crime alone. On July 31 the same year, Mary, along with her friend Norma Joyce Bell (who was 13 years old at that time), committed another crime. They strangled a 3-year-old boy named Brian Howe in an uninhabited region of Scotswood.
It is said that after the first crime, Mary and Norma had entered and damaged a garden center in Scotswood. They had left notes there, asserting that they were responsible for the killing. However, the incident was disregarded by the police as a hoax. Later, investigations proved that Mary had returned to the corpse of the victim of her second crime, only to etch an “M” into the boy’s belly and mutilate parts of his body using a pair of scissors.
On December 17, 1968, the final verdict of the case was announced at the court of assizes in Newcastle. Norma was acquitted, and Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter. The psychiatrists appointed by the court found that Mary showed symptoms of psychopathy. Thus, the conviction sentence was made on the grounds of diminished responsibility, a type of case where the level of criminal offense is reduced from murder to manslaughter.
She was described as posing a “very grave risk to other children” by the judge, Justice Cusack, and was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment. Initially, she was taken to the ‘Red Bank’ secure unit in Newton-Le-Willows, Lancashire.
Mary Bell remained the center of public attention even after her imprisonment. Her mother also tried to grab attention by selling her daughter’s stories and a few notes that she claimed were written by her daughter.
In 1976, Mary was transferred from a young offender’s institution to the ‘Moor Court’ open prison for adults. A year later, she made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from there and made headlines again. As a result, she lost her prison privileges for 28 days.
Mary Bell was released from ‘HM Prison Askham Grange’ in 1980, when she was 23 years old. She was granted anonymity and was allowed to make use of a new name for the sake of living a trouble-free life.
The anonymity of her daughter was previously protected under the condition that it would be annulled when her daughter would turn 18. However, Mary had both her and her daughter’s anonymity extended for life, after winning a ‘High Court’ case on May 21, 2003.
The crimes committed by Mary Bell and the consequences were the subject of the book ‘The Case of Mary Bell’ (1972) by Gitta Sereny.
In 1998, Sereny released a second book on Mary Bell, ‘Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell.’ It was a detailed biography, full of her interviews with Bell and her relatives and close friends. The book was the first to feature her (Bell's) description of the cruelty and ill-treatment meted out to her by her mother and her mother's clients.
The publication of the second book gave rise to a lot of controversy, as Bell had reportedly received a portion of the profit from the sales of the book. Her critics claimed it was unethical to allow a convict to make any profit from his/her own crime. However, the protests and the subsequent attempt to cease the publication of the book turned out to be unsuccessful.
Family & Personal Life
Mary Bell’s daughter was born on May 25, 1984. The date matches the date when she had committed her first crime 16 years earlier. Her daughter was not informed about the past events of her mother’s life. In 1998, everything was revealed when reporters found out Mary’s location. Following this, the mother–daughter duo had to leave the house they were living in until then.
After Mary won the case where she fought for gaining her right to anonymity for life, any court order in Britain guarding the identity of a prisoner permanently is known as a “Mary Bell order.”
Mary Bell is one of the 13 adolescent slaughterers whose cases are described in detail in the 2004 book ‘Children Who Kill: Profiles of Pre-teen and Teenage Killers’ by writer Carol Anne Davis.
Of late, a music band has named itself ‘Mary Bell.’ The members of the band intend to tell the story of Bell’s life through their albums.