10-year-olds, particularly, those little girls look cute and innocent. And once in a while one could also come across a ‘different’ kind of girl – a naughtier version perhaps. But a girl as ‘different’ as to be a serial killer at the tender age of 10 is an extreme rarity. Well, as they say, truth is many a time stranger than fiction. In case of Mary Bell it was way too strange and heart-chilling.
When Pat was looking for her 3-year-old brother, Brian Howe, Mary and Norma sought to help her out. They were across the railway tracks where kids of Scotswood often went to play. The area was covered with old cars, wreckage and construction material. Pat’s getting worried was very natural because it had only been a few weeks when Martin Brown, a small boy, was found dead in a deserted house. Mary suggested that they could look for Brian amidst the concrete blocks. He might have gone there to play. But Norma dismissed the suggestion immediately asserting that Brian never went there to play.
Later, Norma would tell the authorities that Mary wanted Pat to discover her dead brother so as to have the opportunity to see her shocked. However, the girls went back without finding Brian and the matter was reported to the police, who found the kid’s body between the blocks at 11:10 that night.
The boy had been strangled and there were wounds all over his thighs, his hair had also been snipped and his genitals were also assaulted with a sharp instrument, which could be the broken scissors found near the body. Later, it was also discovered that the letter ‘N’ was originally cut into his stomach, which appeared to have been turned into an ‘M’ subsequently.
The police took the matter seriously and initiated intensive investigation, and Mary and Normal Bell were immediately the suspects because ever since the killing had come to light, they had been smiling and asking questions as though it was nothing more than a big joke. Mary Bell acted strange at the funeral of the dead boy. When his coffin was being carried from home, she laughed and rubbed her hands together in what appeared to be an expression of delight.
The police then focused on the kids and interrogated them. Mary said that she had seen the dead child with another boy, who also hit him for no apparent reason. She also claimed to have seen the other boy with the scissors, which were not in the right condition. Something was not right with the scissors, either one of its legs was broken or bent, she told. This is where the police was certain that Mary and Norma had seen the boy die and it was very possible that one of the two was the killer because the description of the scissors was accurate, but the scissors were part of confidential evidence, which meant that only the police or someone who had seen the boy die could have known anything about them. Besides, the boy Mary talked about was at the airport around the time Brian died. Therefore, he could not have killed the boy.
Detective Dobson had questioned Norma a day before Brian’s burial. And Norma had told the police that Mary had talked about her having killed Brian, and had also shown Brian’s body to her. Norma’s story was certainly shocking, but there was no reason for the police to disbelieve her. So, the police got into action immediately and picked Mary up the same night at 12:15 AM for interrogation.
Mary remained unrelenting and admitted to doing no harm to the dead boy. But when Detective Dobson saw her behaviour at the burial, he decided to bring her in again. She admitted to being present when Brian was killed, but gave an odd turn to her ‘confession’ accusing Norma of killing Brian.
Now, both the girls had accused each other of killing, and both had admitted to being there when Brian was killed, which indicated that one of them was the killer or both of them were. Therefore, Detective Dobson charged Mary with murder of Brian Howe and arrested Norma the next day.
There was an open investigation into the death of another child, Martin Brown. The boy had been found dead in an abandoned house in the same area and Mary’s behaviour in the wake of Martin’s death was so outrageously unusual that it was surprising that she was not looked upon with suspicion any earlier.
But that was perhaps because Mary was seen as a ‘show off’ in the locality, neither her behaviour, nor her categorical declaration “I am a murderer!” were taken with any degree of seriousness.
It also came to light that even before the murders took place, Mary had been hurting children. She had hit other children hard enough to make them bleed and had also tried strangulating a kid. And in nearly all of these instances Mary and Norma were together.
On May 12, 1968, Mary and Norma assaulted three girls who were playing by the Nursery, and one of the girls told that Mary attempted to strangle her by putting her hands around her neck and squeezing hard. However, she did not strangle her hard enough to kill. The police were soon called. Norma told the police that Mary had indeed attempted strangulation of the girls. The official report was filed on May 15, which stated, “The girls Bell have been warned as to their future conduct.” Just 10 days later, on the 25th of the same month, Martin Brown was found dead. The case was still open when Mary and Norma were arrested in relation to Brian’s murder. The police turned to Martin’s case and the cause of death that had so far been ‘open’ in police records was soon to turn into homicide.
Martin’s body was discovered by three boys who had been looking for scrap wood in an abandoned house by a window with saliva and blood oozing down his chin and cheek. It was natural for the boys to panic. They called the construction workers working outside, who could immediately remember the boy they had given some biscuits a little while ago. They tried to bring him back to life, but he had already departed for good.
Mary and Norma were seen coming to the house by one of the boys. Mary was there to show Martin’s body to Norma after having told her that she had killed him. But they were told to go away, after which they went straight to Martin’s aunt and told about the ‘accident’. They also told that they thought the dead boy with blood all over was Martin, and even offered to ‘show’ where it was. Police, however, did not find any sign of struggle or violence, and thought of it as an accident. Since there was no prima facie sign of crime, the Criminal Investigation Department was not involved.
Mary and Norma kept up their strange and unsettling behaviour. They would go to Martin’s aunt and would constantly hurl at her their creepy questions like “Do you miss Martin?”, “Do you cry for him?” and “Does June miss him?” What made it worse was that they always kept wearing smiles as though it were a big, funny joke. It grew as intolerable as to make Martin’s aunt drive the girls away telling them not to come back.
A day after Martin’s death it was Mary’s birthday, which she celebrated by attempting to strangulate Norma’s brother, who was saved by Norma’s father.
On the morning of May 27, the Day Nursery on Woodlands Crescent was found ransacked and there were four scribbled notes in the whole mess. They said: “I murder so THAT I may come back”, “fuck 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”
Mary Bell and Norma Bell were charged with the murder of Martin Brown and Brian Howe and were tried at the Newcastle Assizes Moothall. The trial commenced on December 5, 1968, and lasted for nine days culminating in Norma’s acquittal and Mary’s conviction on December 17, 1968. She was convicted of “manslaughter due to diminished responsibility”, and was sentenced to be “detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure”, which amounted to indefinite imprisonment. She was released in 1980 after serving 12 years and was granted anonymity to start a new life with her daughter, who was born in 1984. Mary’s daughter had no inkling about her mother’s past until the reporters found her whereabouts. Originally, Mary’s daughter’s anonymity was to be protected until she was 18, but later, on 21st May 2003, a court ordered that the anonymity of both the mother and the daughter was to be protected for life.
Originally published as part of ‘Crime File’ in LAWYERS UPDATE in January 2011.