Meet Mary Bell: Britain’s Youngest Killer

It’s a well-known cliché: Kids can be so cruel. Usually, the phrase refers to name-calling in the playground or to excluding other kids from games. They might not want to sit with you at lunch or push you off the slide but be thankful you weren’t playing with Mary Bell. She makes all this schoolyard stuff look like… well, child’s play.

Mary Bell / Norma Bell / Mary Bell / Mary Bell.
Source: Getty Images

Sometimes kids are brutal in the most innocent of ways, but we can’t say that about Mary Bell. When you look into this case, you’ll understand what children are actually capable of given the right circumstances. This means their bloody crimes could be just as gruesome as grown adult crimes…. or even worse.

Today we are going to be discussing the youngest murderer in the history of the UK: 11-year-old Mary Bell.

The Disappearance of Martin Brown

It was Saturday evening, May 25, 1968. Four-year-old Martin went out to play, but his parents started to get worried when he didn’t come home. The family lived in a working-class neighborhood in Scotswood, Newcastle – in the northeast of England.

A portrait of Mary Bell.
Mary Bell. Source: Wikipedia

This was in the days when young children would be allowed to roam the neighborhood freely because, apparently, stranger danger wasn’t a thing until the 1990s. Martin would often go play outside with his friends and come home in the late afternoon for his tea (that’s what we Americans call dinner.)

Martin’s Body Was Found in an Abandoned House

His parents weren’t too concerned because it was a sunny weekend; all the local kids knew each other and looked after the younger ones. However, the local kids discovered Martin’s little body just one day after his disappearance.

A picture of Mary Bell.
Mary Bell. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Martin died in an abandoned house not far away from his home. Two boys were playing in there when they noticed the body. Soon after, two girls appeared at the scene. They reported what they found to the police, and as you can imagine, Martin’s parents were completely devastated.

His Death Was Ruled Accidental

The police just didn’t have enough information for an explanation. When they initially inspected the body, no serious injuries were found to suggest that the boy had died violently. There was just a drop of blood on his face and an empty bottle of painkillers. This led the investigation to believe that Martin accidentally overdosed.

Mothers of young victims protest against Mary Bell.
Eileen Corrigan, June Richardson. Photo by Tony Harris/PA Images/Getty Images

It was enough to rule his death accidental, despite the lack of information as to how Martin got those pills in the first place. Again, this was in 1968, and forensic science didn’t really exist yet. Nowadays, detectives have fancy pants technology to use in these types of cases.

Rising Suspicions

Either way, there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious. The most blatant was an incident that took place at Martin’s nursery school. Several weeks after his death, it was broken into and vandalized. The furniture was smashed and thrown around the classroom.

A photograph of letters written by Mary Bell.
Source: Pinterest

When police arrived at the scene, they found a few eerie, handwritten notes stating that Martin’s death wasn’t an accident. One said: “I murder so that I may come back,” and another said, “We did murder Martin Brown.”

The Notes Weren’t Connected

Those were strange things for a bunch of four-year-olds to write with their Crayolas. It was clear that whoever trashed the classroom left those cryptic notes behind. Investigators tried to figure out if this was some sick joke or if they should take these notes seriously.

A photo of the notes.
Source: Pinterest

All they had were four handwritten confessions found inside the classroom of a child who had just died mysteriously. Could this possibly mean he was murdered? Well, the Newcastle police concluded that it wasn’t connected to the crime.

A Sick Joke

Apparently, the Scotswood kids had a dark sense of humor, so the police just wrote off the entire thing as juvenile vandalism. Although the police were nonchalant, Martin’s grieving family had some reservations about his cause of death – you know, because of all the written admissions of murder.

A photo of Norma Bell walking the street.
Norma Bell. Source: Pinterest

But there were other strange occurrences that happened in the wake of the murder. When the family was getting ready for Martin’s funeral, days after his death, there was a visitor at the door.

Mary Flora Bell

It was Mary Bell, a little, neighborhood girl who had just had her 11th birthday on the day Martin’s body was found. She asked to see Martin, which was strange because she had heard the tragic news. June, the heartbroken mother, tried to explain to Mary that Martin was dead. But Mary’s response was chilling.

A portrait of Mary Bell at the age of 11.
Mary Bell. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mary clarified: She didn’t want to play with Martin; she knew he had died. She wanted to see his body in the coffin. June was horrified and slammed the door on the creepy little girl’s face and told her to stay the heck away.

Mary Bell and Norma Bell

Sure, Mary was a creep, but June had no idea that this wasn’t the first time Mary had seen the four-year-old’s dead body. She had been one of the little girls who arrived at the abandoned house right after the two local boys found him.

A photo of Norma Bell.
Norma Bell. Source: Pinterest

The other girl was Norma Joyce Bell; the girls weren’t related despite their matching last names. On May 26, when the girls arrived at the abandoned house, they were actually returning to the crime scene. Let’s get into what really happened.

The Real Story

Mary had lured Martin into the house the day before, promising him candy. Once inside, Mary Bell strangled the little boy with her bare hands. She was only 10! She left the scene before returning with her friend Norma Bell (no relation) the next day. When they got back, two local boys had already found the body when they were playing in the house.

A picture of the demolished house where Martin Brown was found.
Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Not long after, Mary and Norma broke into his nursery school and vandalized it with messages admitting to Martin Brown’s murder and promising to kill again. Police assumed these notes were a morbid prank.

Ignoring Red Flags

For the nursery school, this was just the latest (and most disturbing) in a series of break-ins. They installed an alarm system. It was the right choice as it caught Mary and Norma at the crime scene just a few nights later. They were playing outside when police arrived, so they were off the hook.

A picture of Mary Bell playing the flute.
Source: Pinterest

Meanwhile, Mary was telling the kids in her class that she had killed Martin Brown. But since she had developed a reputation as a show-off and a liar, no one really took her seriously. That was until another little boy turned up dead.

The Disappearance of Brian Howe

It was months since Martin Brown’s funeral and several weeks since Mary and Norma vandalized the nursery school. The first crime had pretty much gone undetected, so the girls began plotting more violent acts.

A dated picture of Martin Brown’s family.
Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

On July 31, 1968, Norma and Mary were playing outside together. They came across three-year-old Brian Howe who was out wandering the streets alone. Yes, toddlers as young as three were let out alone back in those days. As my grandparents always say, it was a safer time when nobody locked their door, and nothing bad ever happened.

Mary Bell’s Second Murder

Of course, that’s not exactly true. The past was just as terrible as the present… perhaps even more so. That tragic day, Mary and Norma brought the toddler to a piece of wasteland, overgrown with weeds. They found a spot that was hidden behind concrete blocks. That’s when Mary strangled little Brian to death.

Police officers stand at the crime scene.
Source: Pinterest

This time, however, Bell mutilated his body with scissors, scratching his thighs and butchering his penis. It was morbid, but the girls ran off like nothing happened and waited for some outrage they seemed to crave.

They Joined the Search

When Brian’s sister went out to look for him, Mary and Norma offered to help her. They searched the neighborhood, and then Mary pointed out the concrete blocks that his body was hidden behind. But Norma said that he wouldn’t be there, and Brian’s sister continued to search, starting to worry.

A photo of the neighborhood.
Source: Wikipedia

Luckily, there wasn’t an empty bottle of pills to throw off the police this time. They admitted that the child was probably murdered. Given the state of the body, they assumed a sexual predator was responsible and began interviewing local kids to see if they noticed any strange men in the area.

Looking for Suspects

Understandably, the community was terrified. Martin Brown’s family were told their son’s death probably wasn’t an accident after all. Oh, so that’s what the handwritten murder notes at the nursery meant. They really should have looked into that more by using handwriting analysis.

An image of kids playing in a playground.
Source: Pinterest

Now, police were on the hunt for a potential serial killer, but the murderer wasn’t who they suspected. They searched for a creepy, middle-aged man with a dodgy mustache.

An Eerie Discovery

When Brian’s body was finally found, it freaked out the neighborhood. Two little boys were dead in a matter of months. Police continued to interview local kids, hoping that someone saw something that would potentially lead to a suspect.

A razor and blade on white background.
Source: Getty Images

But they were in complete and utter shock when the coroner’s report came back. When Brian’s blood cooled down, new marks appeared on his body – a razor blade was used to carve the letter “M” into his torso. They noted another disturbing detail: the lack of force in the attack suggested that Brian’s killer might have been a child.

Interviewing Local Kids

Detectives contacted Mary and Norma to ask them if they noticed anything weird on the day of the murders. They interviewed more than 1,200 local kids, and several mentioned strange behavior from Mary and Norma, such as Mary claiming to have committed the murder and all that.

A view of the area.
Source: YouTube

Norma and Mary both should have raised red flags. I mean, they were seen outside the vandalized nursery and admitted to the crime. But Mary’s behavior was increasingly creepy. Her mannerisms and lack of empathy didn’t fit the profile of an 11-year-old girl.

Mary’s Psychopathic Behavior

Mary and Norma didn’t do a very good job at hiding their interest in the investigation during their police interviews. Both girls acted weird. Norma seemed excited, and Mary was evasive, especially when police brought up that she was seen with Brian Howe on the day that he died.

A photo of Mary Bell next to Brian Howe’s house.
Source: Pinterest

Things went from strange to stranger. On the day of Brian’s funeral, Mary Bell was spotted lurking around his house. She even laughed and rubbed her hands together when she saw his coffin. This sounds like a scene from a horror movie.

The Second Interview

When they called her in for a second interview, perhaps Mary began sensing that investigators were closing in. They made up a story about seeing an eight-year-old kid hit Brian that day. She said the boy that hit him was carrying a pair of broken scissors.

A photo of the scissors.
Source: YouTube

That was Mary Bell’s big mistake. The information about the body’s mutilation was not public knowledge. This was a detail that only the investigators knew… and one other person: Brian’s murderer. It would be impossible for Mary to know about the scissors unless she was involved.

The Story Didn’t Add Up

Plus, her story didn’t really hold up. The boy she had accused was actually in the airport the day of the murder. He had a solid alibi and wasn’t even around that day. Her reference to the scissors really got her in trouble. At this point, they knew she did it.

A photo of the house where Mary was arrested.
Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

During Norma’s interrogation, she couldn’t contain her excitement at the mention of the murders. She smirked while telling police what happened but didn’t give up any useful details, treating the murder as a joke.

Those Scissors Sealed Her Fate

Mary’s knowledge about the scissors was incriminating enough. Norma finally stopped laughing for long enough to discuss the rumors about her and Mary. She explained that Mary came to her the day after Martin went missing and confessed to the murder. She had told Norma she enjoyed the feeling of strangling a person to death and took Norma to see the body.

A photo of a newspaper clipping.
Source: Pinterest

Mary called Norma a liar and denied the entire thing. She finally admitted to being there when Brian was killed but insisted that Norma was the one who killed him. In any case, it seemed likely that both girls returned with the scissors. Forensic analysis showed that the “M” carved into Brian’s chest actually started as an “N.”

Turning on Each Other

Everything went downhill for Mary after she brought up those scissors. At this point, investigators were certain she was involved. It was time to interrogate Mary and Norma. They wanted a confession, and they planned on getting one out of these kids.

A mugshot of Mary Bell.
Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Both girls broke down under further questioning. Norma freaked out and finally began cooperating with police, implicating Mary. Mary Bell claimed that she was there during Brian Howe’s murder but tried to blame Norma. Both girls were charged, and a trial date was set.

Mary Bell’s Tragic Life

The tabloids had a field day when this case went to trial. The only thing they love more than sports and gossip are stories about child killers. As far as they were concerned, the girl was a bad seed, evil by nature, and rotten to the core.

A picture of a grown Mary Bell.
Source: YouTube

It’s certainly easy to dismiss killers as evil born as opposed to looking at the ways society collectively failed them. It’s definitely not an excuse; we’re just trying to understand. As we know, early trauma can have severe effects later in life, and I can’t imagine a life more traumatic than Mary Bell’s.

Even Her Birth Was Depressing

Mary Bell wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her life was quite the opposite, actually. She was born to a 16-year-old prostitute named Betty, who reportedly told the doctors to “take that thing away when from me” when she first saw her newborn daughter.

An image of a birthday cake and five candles.
Photo by Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

Betty had no idea who the father was, and surprisingly for her age, this wasn’t her first child. Mary’s older sister had to pick her up from some random lady’s house because Betty tried giving her away. The woman was unable to have children of her own and desperately wanted to adopt. Unfortunately, when Mary’s sister came knocking, she had to return the girl.

An Abandoned Child

On the one hand, Betty didn’t want Mary, but on the other hand, when relatives offered to take her in, Betty wouldn’t allow it. For Mary, being brought home wasn’t a good thing. She essentially missed a chance at a home where she would have been truly loved and wanted.

A picture of Mary Bell on a television monitor.
Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

Even if the other woman had been an awful mother, she certainly would have been better than her biological mother and stepfather, a career criminal named Billy Bell. They didn’t take very good care of her.

Accident Prone

Mary was also oddly accident-prone. On one occasion, she “fell” from a window, and another time she “accidentally” overdosed on sleeping pills and was sent to the hospital. Neighbors claim they witnessed Betty throw Mary out of the window (she didn’t “fall”). It caused a head injury (which might explain her psychopathic tendencies).

An aerial view of Scotswood, Newcastle.
Source: Wikipedia

Some attribute the accidents to Betty’s determination to end her life, while others see clear symptoms of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in retrospect. Betty enjoyed the sympathy and attention her daughter’s accidents brought her.

Losing Her Innocence

According to later accounts from Mary herself, her mother started to pimp her out when she was only four years old. This fact was never corroborated by family members. However, what they did know was that Mary’s young life had already experienced loss. She witnessed her five-year-old friend get run over and killed by a bus.

A portrait of Mary Bell.
Mary Bell. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Well… that’s traumatic. Considering all the turbulence in her early life, her relatives weren’t surprised that she became a strange kid by the age of ten, withdrawn and manipulative, always on the edge of violence.

No One Saved Her

Perhaps these factors planted the seed which led to her fascination with death and violence in the following years. Once she reached double digits, Mary Bell had already suffered more than most people do in a lifetime.

A photo of two witnesses arriving at court.
Mr. Norman Bell, Mr. Norman Leonard. Photo by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Without anyone to save her from her family environment or help her deal with the trauma she endured, Mary began inflicting pain on other little children – a twisted way to reclaim the power and control that had been violently taken from her.

A Pattern of Violence and an Obsession With Death

Mary Bell had been acting weird for weeks leading up to her first murder. On May 11, 1968, Mary was playing with a three-year-old boy who fell from the top of an air-raid shelter and was badly injured. His parents thought it was just an accident.

A picture of the shop next to Martin Brown’s house.
Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

However, the next day, three mothers went to tell the police that Mary had tried to choke their young daughters. There was a brief police interview and lecture that came out of that. But no official charges were filed against the troubled little girl.

The Trial of 11-Year-Old Mary Bell and Her Accomplice, Norma Bell

At the trial, the prosecutor told the court that the reason for Mary Bell’s murders was “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing.” Meanwhile, the British press referred to the young killer as “evil born.” Needless to say, the jury agreed that Mary Bell committed the crimes and handed down a guilty verdict.

Brian Howe’s mother holds a photograph of her son.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

However, she was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. A court psychiatrist had convinced the jury that little Mary Bell showed “classic symptoms of psychopathy” and couldn’t be held fully accountable for her actions.

Norma Bell: An Unwilling Accomplice

Norma Bell, on the other hand, was deemed an unwilling accomplice who had fallen under a bad influence. She was ultimately acquitted. The judge determined that Mary was a dangerous person and a serious threat to other children.

Police file images of Mary Bell and Norma Bell.
Source: Pinterest

She was sentenced to life behind bars “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure” −a British legal term that pretty much means you have an indeterminate sentence. Basically, you’re locked up until Queen Liz feels that it’s appropriate to let you out (or, more likely, the prison service that acts in her name).

Mary Bell’s Release

Apparently, the powers at play were impressed with Bell’s treatment and rehabilitation. By 1980, they felt like it was appropriate to let Mary Bell out. She was released on a license which technically meant she’s still serving time but is able to do so while under strict probation.

A recent photo of Martin Brown’s sisters leaving court.
Sharon Richardson Brown, Linda Brown. Photo by Ian Nicholson/PA Images/Getty Images

All in all, Mary Bell served a little over 11 years in the slammer (with a hiatus after nine years due to a short-lived jailbreak). That made Mary Bell 23 years old by the time she got out. Nine years seems hardly enough for killing two people. But on the other hand, this was a sick, miserable 11-year-old who needed psychiatric help more than anything.

Cured of Violence

However, the judge at her sentencing explained that, “It is a most unhappy thing that in all the resources of this country it appears there is no hospital available which is suitable for the accommodation of this girl.” Therefore, Mary Bell was shipped off to an all-boys facility. BBC reported that at the facility, she was “at the center of a sex and pornography scandal.”

A newspaper clipping on Mary Bell scandal.
Source: Pinterest

Needless to say, this was not a great environment for a mentally disturbed child. She was moved to a more suitable juvenile prison and a few other facilities after. When she was released, psychiatrists ruled that Mary was cured of her violent tendencies and fit to re-join society.

A Media Frenzy

Despite the fact that Mary’s early release was subject to strict observation and terms, the press was infuriated that she got off with just 11 years. Authorities tried to avoid a media circus, but the press was all over Mary Bell.

A photo of the victims’ relatives outside court.
Photo by Tom Buist/PA Images/Getty Images

Mary Bell was eventually given a new identity in order to give her a chance at a new life, but it only delayed the inevitable. However, she was still forced to move on several occasions to escape the newspapers and the general public, which always managed to track her down.

Betty Was Reaping the Benefits

When vulturous reporters try to get a story, no ethical violation is too great. If you need proof of that, the newspapers and media outlets allowed Mary’s mother to turn a pretty profit from the tragedy. Betty sold stories, which usually included notes and letters she claimed Mary had written.

A portrait of Mary Bell.
Source: Pinterest

Everyone was intrigued by this little girl, and the media wanted to find her. Things were getting really bad. When the parasitic press finally tracked down Mary, she wasn’t the only one whose life and safety were at stake.

Life After Prison

On May 25, 1984, exactly 16 years after she took the life of a child, Mary gave birth to a baby girl. The mother and daughter had to flee from their house when an investigative reporter managed to track them down.

A picture of Mary Bell walking the street.
Source: Pinterest

She needed to get away, not only for her safety but for her daughter’s. They uprooted their life and moved to a new town. They lived a seemingly normal life, in peace, away from the tabloids. It would be 14 years before the papers found them again.

Telling Her Daughter

Bell’s daughter didn’t know about her mom’s crimes until she was 14, and the tabloids were unable to find Bell’s common-law husband. It didn’t take long for a flock of journalists to surround her house, and some even camped out in her front yard.

A portrait of Mary Bell.
Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At that point, Mary had to explain to her daughter what she had done. The family had to escape the house with bedsheets over their heads in an attempt to hide their faces from the public. The people of Britain were captivated every time Bell resurfaced.

She Has Legal Anonymity

The story of Mary Bell left such a deep, eerie mark in the minds of an entire generation. Many people thought she would receive mob justice if she or her daughter’s faces would become known, despite how much time had passed.

A portrait of Mary Bell.
Source: Pinterest

Her legal anonymity was expiring as well, and that definitely would have opened up the floodgates. So, in 2003, Mary launched a successful court case to guarantee legal anonymity for her and her family. This included her future granddaughter.

Living Under a New Identity

It’s upsetting that Mary Bell, her daughter, and her granddaughter escaped the ongoing punishment for their crimes. It might be for the best that the courts de-clawed the reporters who were shaming Mary Bell for life. However, it feels unsettling… like she got away with murder.

A polyptych of Mary Bell.
Mary Bell. Source: Pinterest

She is still alive and living in some undisclosed site under a different identity. Today, Bell remains under protective custody at a secret location. She and her daughter are both anonymous and protected under court order.

Did She Get Away With Murder?

Many people don’t feel that Mary deserves protection. June Richardson, Martin Brown’s mother, heartbreakingly said: “It’s all about her and how she has to be protected. As victims, we are not given the same rights as killers.”

A photo of Martin Brown’s mother outside court.
June Richardson. Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images/Getty Images

Either way, Mary Bell continues to be protected by the British government today. Court rulings protecting the identity of certain convicts are unofficially dubbed “Mary Bell orders.” What do you think? Should Mary Bell remain behind bars? Or does she deserve a second chance given her young age?

She’s Not a Serial Killer

Although many people consider Mary Bell the world’s youngest serial killer, that’s not necessarily true. Since she only killed two victims, not three, she is just your ordinary killer. Whatever your opinions are on this case, I think we can all agree on one thing: there are no winners here.

Mothers of the victims protest against Mary Bell.
Eileen Corrigan, June Richardson. Photo by Tom Buist/PA Images/Getty Images

My sympathy first goes to the victims – little boys who never got the chance to grow up, get married and have children of their own. My thoughts and prayers are with the heartbroken families. However, it’s important to recognize that Mary is also a victim.

Nature vs. Nurture

Again, this is not an excuse for her actions, but kids don’t do this stuff. Most kids play with dolls, not torture the local kittens. This obviously isn’t normal behavior. It takes an incredible amount of deeply inflicted pain to make people lean toward extreme acts of violence.

An extreme closeup of the face of an antique ceramic doll.
Photo by Joseph O. Holmes/Getty Images

What I mean is that it’s hard to believe a person is just born evil. It takes a tremendous amount of trauma and abuse to create these monsters. If Mary Bell had grown up in a safe, loving home, her life would have gone in a totally different direction. I think nurture trumps nature in this case.