Have you heard of Mary Bell, one of the youngest serial killers in the United Kingdom?
At age 11, she and a friend strangled and mutilated two preschool boys.
Her trial, one of the most sensational of the twentieth century, showed a defiant child who killed ‘solely for the pleasure and excitement.’
Here's everything you need to know about female serial killer Mary Bell.
Mary Bell: A Murderous Child
Mary was born to teen-aged prostitute Betty McCrickett in 1957. Betty later married Billy Bell, although their home life continued to be unstable. They lived in Scotswood, an economically depressed high-crime area of Newcastle.
Mary claimed that her mother tried to kill her on several occasions, and she testified that she was subjected to frequent sexual abuse. By the time of the killings, she was already known at school as an attention seeker.
The first of the Mary Bell murders occurred on May 25, 1968, the day before her 11th birthday. Four-year-old Martin Brown’s body was found in a vacant house in Scotswood.
Although the she strangled the boy, her grip was not strong enough to leave ligature marks, leading to uncertainty about the cause of death. Two days later, Mary and 13-year-old Norma Bell (no relation), broke into and vandalized a nursery.
They left notes claiming responsibility for the murder, although police initially dismissed the confession as a prank. On July 31, 1968, she killed again.
Mary and Norma strangled three-year-old Brian Howe, leaving his body on wasteland in the Scotswood area. Before leaving the crime scene, she carved the letter “M” into the boy’s stomach with scissors.
She also cut off part of his hair, scratched his legs, and mutilated his penis. The medical examiner suspected the criminal might be a child because relatively little force was used.
Eventually they linked Brown’s murder with Howe’s, and police questioned children throughout the area, looking for anyone with clues to Howe’s murder—or anyone who couldn’t substantiate their whereabouts.
The Youngest Serial Killer Caught
The break in the case came when Mary and Norma gave inconsistent answers. Detectives brought in both girls for further questioning. Mary tried to blame the killings on an older boy, but Flora, who was more timid, broke down and accused Mary.
The case went to trial in December, 1968. Norma testified that she begged Mary to stop hurting Howe. She was acquitted of her role in the killings. On the other hand, Mary, at the time the youngest serial killer in British history, was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder.
The jury concluded she had diminished responsibility based on court-appointed psychiatrists’ testimony that she exhibited “classic symptoms of psychopathy.”
Yet she still “posed a very grave danger to other children,” Justice Cusack ruled, and he sentenced her to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
With no fixed termination date, detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure was effectively a lifetime sentence—unless the government chose to release her. She was imprisoned in the secure children’s unit at the Red Bank Community Home. In 1970, she falsely accused a guard of sexually assaulting her.
The guard was acquitted in court. When she reached adulthood, she was transferred to the Moor Court open prison. She and another prisoner escaped briefly in 1977.
Although they were apprehended three days later, in the interim they met and spent the night with two boys. She made headlines nor only for her escape for but the account of losing her virginity that night.
She was released from prison in 1980, at age 23, after serving 12 years of her sentence. The Home Office granted her a new name and protected her identity so she could live in anonymity, without harassment.
The press has always strived to find her, however. She has had three identities and has moved at least five times. The anonymity order also covered her daughter, who was born in 1984. The daughter did not know of her mother’s murderous past, at least initially.
The protection was supposed to extend to her daughter only until her eighteenth birthday. In 2003, in a much-publicized case, the High Court granted both Mary and her child the right to live in anonymity for the rest of their lives.
When Bell became a grandmother, the High Court amended the order to apply also to the grandchild, known only as ‘Z.’ As a result, an order protecting the identity of a child is sometimes called a Mary Bell order.
The decision outraged the victims’ families. “It’s all about her and how she has to be protected,” said June Richardson, Martin Brown’s mother. “As victims, we are not given the same rights as killers.”
One time that the anonymity was broken was in 1998, when she was paid to cooperate with author Gitty Sereny’s book about the Mary Bell murders.
Brown’s sister Sharon expressed outrage, saying she hoped the government would set limits on Mary’s ability to profit from book or movie deals. But Sereny justified it by saying Mary had not demanded money. She thought Mary would have cooperated even without payment.
For someone like Mary who always sought attention, that might be true.
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