Kids who kill: 11-year-old Mary Bell

Kids Who Kill: 11-Year-Old Mary Bell

  • An 11-year-old British girl killed and mutilated two young boys: Martin Brown (aged 4) and Brian Howe (aged 3).
  • Her biological mother, a prostitute specializing in sadomasochism, was selling her daughter for prostitution sessions to clients.
  • Was released from juvenile prison after having served 12 years, with a new name and anonymity to start a new life. Became a grandmother at 51 in 2009.

Many of us want to believe children are born innocent. They only want to be loved and believed in. But sometimes, things go horribly wrong. Such was the case of Mary Flora Bell, an 11-year-old British girl who strangled two little boys to death in Scotswood, in the suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. A few hundred miles away sits the Liverpool railway line, where 10-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables tortured, murdered and mutilated the body of James Bulger who was only two at the time.

Parenting can be challenging at times, but never a burden. Mary Bell came from a dysfunctional family. Her father, Billy Bell, was a petty criminal who was always in trouble with the law. Away from home most of the time, he often left his daughter with relatives or acquaintances. It’s difficult to tell whether the man actually was her biological father since her mother, Betty Bell (née McCrickett), was working as a prostitute specializing in sadomasochism, a BDSM dominatrix who often sold her daughter to clients.

As Mary grew she exhibited signs of rage. She tortured animals and offered children on the playground a ‘massage’ – a strangulation, suggesting that perhaps her mother suffocated and then revived her daughter during prostitution sessions.

Family members claimed that Betty had ventured to kill Mary during the first few years of her life and make her death look accidental. Occasions such as when Mary Bell ‘fell’ from a window and ‘accidentally’ took great amounts of sleeping pills alarmed the relatives.

Norma Joyce Bell

At school Mary was a troubled child – a chronic liar who voiced her desire to hurt people, displaying classic symptoms of psychopathy from an early age. She was a bully and her peers were afraid of her. Their mothers once reported to the police that Mary had attempted to choke their children, but police took no action. Despite her violent tendencies Mary was intelligent and had an admirer – Norma Bell, a 13-year-old who was described as a bit dim and slow, not intellectually on par with Mary.

Norma Joyce Bell
Norma Joyce Bell was 13 at the time. Despite having the same family name, she wasn't related to Mary Bell.

Martin Brown & Brian Howe – The Killing Spree

According to the official version Mary Bell committed the first crime alone. Mary Bell’s friend Norma Joyce Bell was dragged into an already confusing investigation but was later acquitted of the murder charges by the judge, Mr. Justice Cusack.

• May 25, 1968. Two boys playing in an upstairs room of an abandoned house discovered the lifeless body of Martin Brown. The boys were accompanied by Mary and Norma Bell, who were there to help them find their missing friend. When police arrived they immediately noticed the suspicious behavior of both girls. There was no apparent cause of death, and it was believed Martin Brown had mistakenly swallowed pills from the discarded bottle found nearby. But in reality Mary Bell had strangled Martin to death. Because her grip was not strong enough to leave any marks on the neck police wrote it off as an accident.

Victims of Mary Bell: Martin Brown and Brian Howe
Victims of Mary Bell: Brian Howe (left) and Martin Brown (right).

Four days later Mary Bell appeared at the Brown's residence asking to see Martin. "Oh, I know he's dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin" said Mary Bell when Martin's mother explained her son was dead.

• May 26, 1968. Norma Bell’s father caught Mary choking his daughter. He stepped in, slapped her face and sent her home. Later that day a local nursery school was vandalized, school supplies and cleaning materials were splattered on the floor – Mary and Norma Bell had broken in, leaving disturbing notes behind.

Mary Bell's notes left behind...
The disturbing notes left behind, claiming responsibility for killing Martin Brown.

The notes read: "Fuck of, we murder, watch out, Fanny and Faggot," and "We did murder Martain brown, fuck of you Bastard." Police dismissed this incident as a prank.

• July 31, 1968. Another young boy was found strangled – a 3-year-old named Brian Howe. Both of the girls, Mary and Norma, were at the scene when the murder took place. Mary accused Norma of making the cuts on the boy’s body with a razor blade. Police assumed that Mary Bell had later returned to his body to cut an “N” into his stomach with a razor, but it was later changed to an “M”. Part of his hair was cut and his penis was mutilated with a razor blade.

Mary wanted Brian's brother Pat to discover the body to see the shock on his face, but was unable to make the arrangement. Instead, the Newcastle Police would find his body later that night.

"Brian Howe had no mother, so he won't be missed."

The disturbing statement made by Mary Bell when investigators asked her why she had killed Brian Howe.


The seemingly random killings shocked the community. The policed panicked and interviewed all the children in the community to detect any suspicious behaviour. When they interviewed Mary Bell, they knew they had found Brian’s killer.

Mary Bell’s Diary
Mary Bell’s diary entry describing the slaying of Martin Brown.

When Norma Bell was questioned she quickly confessed that it was Mary who did it. Police later saw the similarities between the Brown and Howe cases and managed to link them to Mary and Norma Bell.

On December 5th, 1968, Mary and Norma Bell were brought to trial for the murders of Martin Brown and Brian Howe.

Conviction and Life in Prison

On 17 December 1968, Norma Bell was acquitted of all charges. But what happened to Norma? She was not granted a new identity since this was not a common practice at the time. Most likely she was sent back to live in the slums and the family went to great lengths to protect themselves from British tabloids.

Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Despite this, psychiatrists described Mary Bell as someone with ‘classic symptoms of psychopathy’ and ‘intelligent, manipulative and dangerous.’ At her trial the judge said: ‘This girl is dangerous, and therefore, steps must be taken to protect other people’ and sent her to Red Bank secure unit – the same facility that housed Jon Venables, another notorious child killer.

Mary Bell proved to be a difficult inmate. After being transferred to a less secure facility in 1977, she and a fellow inmate escaped with the help of two young men who later sold the story to the tabloids, claiming she escaped from jail so she could get pregnant. In her brief time out, Mary lost her virginity. The circumstances placed Mary back in the media spotlight when one of the boys, who claimed to have taken her virginity, explained the process in detail in the columns of British tabloids.

Because of the incident, Mary's prison privileges were taken away for 28 days.

June Richardson holding a photograph of her son Martin Brown
June Richardson holding a photograph of her son Martin Brown. June became a campaigner for the rights of victims and even supported Mary Bell’s bid for anonymity, although she could never forgive her.

Life after prison – Where is Mary Bell now?

Mary Flora Bell now?
Mary Bell (circa 1980)

Mary Bell served 12 years. When released at the age of 23 she was granted a new identity and anonymity by the government, allowing her to start a new life with a new name.

Four years later she had a daughter, who had no idea about her mother’s dark past until their location was discovered by tabloid reporters in 1998, forcing them to leave the house with bed sheets covering their heads. After the incident, Mary Bell’s daughter was also granted anonymity by the government.

Mary Flora Bell

Documentary: The Mary Bell Case

Mary Bell now
Mary Bell. She is believed to be 16 in the picture.
Mary Bell newspaper
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