The murder of one child by another always evokes a special reaction,
disbelief almost over-riding the instinctive horror. How could a child
commit such a crime? Fore the answer, no matter how the experts and
psychiatrists try to wrap it up, it is normally unnecessary to look farther than
the child's home. That is how it was with Mary Bell, a classic case.
Mary was pretty, with a hear-shaped face and vivid blue eyes. Grown-
ups, by and large, liked her but found her withdrawn. That is hardly
surpassing. She was - and is - the illegitimate daughter of an emotionally-
disturbed Scotswoman who rejected her when she was born. Later, the
mother married a man named Billy Bell. But she had itchy feet and was
always disappearing. Sometimes Mary found herself living with her
stepfather, sometimes with relatives, sometimes with a succession of foster-
In the end, this is instability in her life and her craving for a mother's
affection transformed her into a murdering psychopath. On Saturday, May
25, 1968, the eve of her eleventh birthday, she strangled four-year-old
Martin George Brown, a neighbor's child. On Wednesday, July 31, of the
same year she strangled three-year-old Brian Howe, the son of another
Both crimes were committed in Scotswood, a depressed area of
Newcastle upon-Tyne, in Northumberland. It is only natural to ask: Surely,
if a child is so emotionally disturbed that it is going to commit murder, there
must be some warning signs?
In the case of Mary Bell there were plenty. But life is hard in
Scotswood. With the traditional North of England industry, ship-building, a
dying one, it is not uncommon for half the men to be out of work at any
time. Drinking, gambling, and petty crime are common. Wives have
Behavior that might have aroused comment and suspicion elsewhere
was readily accepted as part of the fabric of the tough day-to-day business of
living. In fact, had it not been for a flash of inspiration by a detective - who
linked together the two deaths and a number of "warning signs" - Mary
would almost certainly have killed again before she was caught.
The dark forces at work in her mind first showed themselves on
Saturday, May 11 - exactly a fortnight before she put childhood behind her
and became a killer. Early in the afternoon, police and an ambulance were
called to the Delaval Arms, a Scotswood pub, after John G. - a three-year-old
cousin of Mary's - had been found injured close to some nearby sheds.
The following day police took statements from the two girls who had
found the injured child, Mary and her next-door neighbor and friend, Norma
Joyce Bell, aged 13 and, although they bore the same surname, no
Both girls told the same untrue story - after hearing shouting they had
gone to investigate and found John G. lying on the concrete path and
bleeding from the head. Norma Bell ended her statement with the words: "I
have never seen John G. playing down there before, and I have never taken
him down there." Mary concluded her statement: "I don't know how John
got down behind the sheds, I have never taken him to play there
I said "There'll be trouble"
That was not the only encounter the two girls had with the police on
what, with hindsight, was a significant weekend. On that same Sunday night
a Mrs. Watson complained to the police that, at a local sandpit around tea
time, on of the two girls - either Norma or Mary - had started to strangle her
daughter, Pauline, aged seven, and two of her friends, Cindy Hepple, six,
and Susan Cornish, six.
Once again the police took statements. Said Norma: "Mary put both
hands round the girl's [Cindy's] throat and squeezed. The girl started to go
purple. I told Mary to stop, but she wouldn't. She did this for a while and
then she put her hands round Pauline's throat and she started to go purple as
well. Both Pauline and the other girl were crying.
"Another girl, Susan Cornish, came up and Mary did the same to her.
Susan had some rock [sweet rock] and Mary took this off her. I said to
Mary, 'There's be trouble,' and then Mary asked me if I wanted some rock. I
said 'Yes,' and had a piece from her. I then ran off and left Mary, I am not
friends with her now."
Mary's statement differed fundamentally from her friend's account of
what had happened. It mad no mention of touching the three girls. It said:
"...I went behind the shed to play. When I was behind the shed I heard
Pauline scream. I came up from behind the shed and saw Pauline running
away towards the fence. She was holding her throat and screaming.
I asked Norma what happened and she said that Pauline had fallen and hurt
her throat on the edge of the sandpit..."
After considering the statements and further inquiries, the police
decided to take no action beyond informing the Children's Department, and
"warning the two girls as to their future conduct".
Martin Brown - a sturdy little boy with fair hair and a mischievous face
- was the next victim. Three children, looking for scrapwood to build a
dovecote, found him dead in a derelict house shortly after 3:30 p.m. on
Saturday, May 25. Only a few minutes earlier he had bought a candy in a
nearby shop. Now he lay in what had been a back bedroom with blood and
saliva dribbling from his mouth.
Apart from some workmen, summoned by the children who had found
Martin, Mary and Norma were the first people on the scene, and it was they
who carried the news of the child's death to his aunt, Mrs. Rita Finlay, who
lived a few doors away on the other side of the street. "I think it's your
June's bairn [child] and there's blood all over," said Mary.
Police could find no sign of a stuggle or a fall. Dr. Bernard Knight, the
pathologist who carried out an autopsy that evening found it impossible to
determine the cause of the boy's death. The only abnormality he could
discover was a minor brain hemorrhage. He dismissed the possibility of
strangulation because he could find no pressure marks.
At the end of several days of inquiries, the uniformed police accepted
that Martin's death had been an accident. The matter was not passed to the
Criminal Investigation Department. Meanwhile, Mary and Norma were
subjecting Mrs. Finlay to a form of emotional torture. "They came every
day," she recalled later, "and they kept asking me, 'Do you miss Martin?' and
'Do you cry for him?' and 'Does June miss him?' In the end I could stand it
no more, I told them to get out and not come back."
But that persecution was far from the only warning sign. On Sunday,
May 26, her eleventh birthday, Mary tried to strangle her friend Norma's 11-
year-old sister, Susan. Susan's parents heard her scream and, when they
dashed out of the house, saw Mary with both hands around Susan's
"I chopped Mary's hands away and gave her a clip on the shoulder," Mr.
Bell remembers. "She said, 'I'm going to tell my dad.' I said 'You do that,'
but I never heard any more about it."
The next morning, the Monday, teachers arriving at the nearby Day Nursery
found it had been broken into during the weekend. Entry had been obtained
by taking slates off the roof. Chalk, school books ad cleaning materials had
been scattered everywhere. Police also found four notes in childish writing
among the debris. They said:
1) I murder
I may come
4)You are micey [stupid]
Brown you Bete
Look out THErE
are Murders about
and auld Faggot
The police decided the notes were just a sick prank. But, as a
precaution against further break-in's, it was decided to install a burglar alarm
in the nursery school loft.
Two days later, Mary turned her attention from Mrs. Finlay to her
sister, Mrs. June Brown, mother of the dead Martin. "She knocked at the
door and asked to see Martin," says Mrs. Brown. "I said, 'No, pet, Martin is
dead.' She said, ' know he's dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin.' She was
grinning. I was speechless and just slammed the door on her."
"I know something..."
On the Friday of that week the newly installed school burglar alarm
started to ring in the police station. Two constables were on the scene within
minutes. They discovered two girls who had broken into the school my
removing slates from the roof. The girls were Mary and Norma Bell. Both
denied ever having done such a thing before. Eventually they were charged
with breaking and entering, and released into their parents' custody until
their case could be heard - some months later - by the Juvenile Court.
A few weeks later, towards the end of July, Mary brought up the death
of Martin Brown again when she was visiting another family of the
neighbors, the Howes. "I know something about Norma that will get her put
away," she suddenly announced. They asked her what. "Norma put her
hands on a boy's throat," she said. "It was Martin Brown. She pressed and
he just dropped." Later that same day Mary called on Norma's mother and
apologized for what she had said.
Brian Howe, three-year-old son of the family she had told about Norma,
was to be Mary's next victim. His sister Pat, who looked after the family
because the mother had left home, missed him during the afternoon of
Wednesday, July 31. Two of the children who helped her to search for him
were Mary and Norma Bell.
One of the favorite playgrounds of Scotswood children was the "Tin
Lizzie", a stretch of waste ground littered with concrete blocks, oil drums,
old building materials and metal tanks. "He might be playing behind the
blocks," Mary suggested to Pat. "Oh no, he never goes there," said
There must be a connection
But that was where the police found him, dead, soon after eleven
o'clock that night. His body covered with long grass and purple-flowering
weeds, lay between two of the concrete blocks. Bloodstained froth covered
his blue lips. There were scratches on his nose, and scratches and pressure
marks on both sides of his neck. Beside him lay a pair of scissors with one
broken blade and the other bent back. What looked like a letter N,
subsequently turned into an M, had been scratched on his stomach.
Detective-Chief-Inspector James Dobson of the C.I.D. reached the
scene at 1:10 a.m. and parked his car just across the road from the house
where Martin Brown had been found. "As I walked down to the 'Tin Lizzie'
I suddenly thought of Martin Brown," he recalls. "There wasn't any reason.
I'd had nothing to do with that case. But it ran through my mind that there
must be a connection somewhere."
Medical opinion - based on the small degree of violence used and the
playful rather than vicious nature of the marks on Brian's stomach - pointed
to a child killer. Next morning a hundred C.I.D. officers moved in on
Scotswood. Within 24 hours 1200 mimeographed question-nares had been
distributed to homes with young children. Among them were the homes of
Mary and Norma Bell.
Mary and Norma admitted having spent much of the Wednesday
together, yet their statements did not tally. Twice they changed them. Mary
had also tried to implicate an eight-year-old local boy. She had seen him hit
Brian for no reason at all, she said. She had also seen him playing with a
pair of silver-colored scissors which had something wrong with them, "like
one leg was either broken or bent". At the time nothing about the scissors
found near the boy's body had been published in the newspapers.
"By the night of August 2 we had pretty well eliminated everybody
except Mary and Norma bell," says the Chief-Inspector. "It had to be them
or one of them." On August 4 a Detective-Constable Thompson called on
Norma to try to clarify some inconsistencies in her account of her
movements. Suddenly she began to cry and asked: "Can I talk to you with
out my dad being here?" Then, when her father had left she blurted out: "I
was down Delaval Road with Mary and her dog. Mary took me to see
Chief-Inspector Dobson saw Norma for the first time that night in her
father's presence. After cautioning her, he said "I understand that you have
something you want to tell me about the death of Brian Howe."
"I went with Mary Bell down to the blocks the day that Brian was lost,"
she stated. "I tripped over something. I looked down and saw it was Brian's
head. He was covered with grass, but I could see all his face. He was dead.
Mary said: 'I squeezed his neck and pushed up his lungs. That's how you kill
them. Keep your nose dry and don't tell anybody.'
"Brian's lips were purple. Mary ran her fingers along his lips. She said
she had enjoyed it. Mary showed me a razor and said she had cut his belly.
She pulled his jersey up and showed me the tiny cut on his belly. She hid the
razor under a block and told me not to tell my dad or she would get into
Laughing and rubbing her hands
Taken to the "Tin Lizzie" by police car, Norma produced a razor blade
from under the block. Back at police headquarters she made a formal
statement, and at 12:15 a.m., Mary Bell was got out of bed and brought for
questioning. She denied everything. "I had her there for three hours," said
the Chief-Inspector, "and she just stuck to her story - she didn't know a
Mary was still at liberty on August 7 when Brian was buried. "I watch
her as she stood in front of the Howes' house while the coffin was brought
out," the Chief-Inspector went on. "That was when I knew I couldn't risk
another day. She stood there laughing, laughing and rubbing her hands. I
thought, My God, I've got to bring her in or she'll do another one."
The Chief-Inspector sent a policewoman for Mary at 4:30 that after
noon. "She arrived pale and tense and very apprehensive," he said. "She
gave me the impression that she knew the time of reckoning had come."
Now she suddenly agreed to make a statement which turned out to be
reverse of Norma's.
It was Norma, she said, who had killed the boy. "She started to feel up
and down his neck. She squeezed it hard, you could tell it was hard because
her fingertips were going white. Brian was struggling, and I was pulling her
shoulders, but she went mad...His face was all white and bluey, and his eyes
were open...Norma covered him and I said, 'Norma, I've got nothing to do
with this. I should tell on you but I'll not.'"
A nursing sister, sent for to be present while the statement was made,
said afterwards that what had struck her was Mary's callousness. "She felt
nothing. She said all those awful things they had done, but she didn't
feel a thing."
The trial of the two girls for the murders of Martin Brown and Brian
Howe began at Newcastle Assizes on December 5, 1968, and lasted nine
days. The nationwide atmosphere of repugnance which the case aroused
was captured on the second day of the trial when the judge, Mr. Justice
Cusack, commented on the distress of the five women jurors when asked to
look at photographs of the murdered boys.
"I have every sympathy with you," he said. "This is not an agreeable
case for anybody. But I want to say to you, and I hope you will spymathaize
with me, that this case is a case in which the assistance of women jurors is of
very great importance. Of course, women nowadays take the place of men
and have the same duties to perform as citizens, but if there is any lady on
the juror who feels so ill as to be unable to discharge her duty and follow the
evidence, I shall reconsider the position."
That repugnance was also demonstrated by the small amount of space
devoted to the trial in the newspapers, and by the action of one British
Sunday newspaper, not normally noted for squeamishness, in turning down
flat on offer from Mary's parents - reunited for the trial- to tell "The True
Story of Mary Bell".
Perhaps the most critical aspects of the trial were the impression the
two girls created in court, and the psychiatric evidence. Both stuck to their
story that the other was the killer. But Norma, frequently in distress, came
across as truthful; Mary, quick-witted and very much in command of
herself, well able to dominate the older girl.
There was expert evidence that Mary suffered from a psychopathic
personality. Dr. Robert Orton, who had seen her twice, defined some of the
symptoms as a lack of feeling; a liability to act on impulse; aggression; lack
of remorse, and an inability to profit by or use experience - which includes
the lack of response to punishment.
The jury cleared Norma but, on the grounds of diminished
responsibility, found Mary guilty not of the murder of the two boys but of
their manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to detention for life in a
suitable institution. The sentence meant that her case would be regularly
reviewed, and if psychiatrists were satisfied that she had been cured of her
psychopathic condition, she could be returned to the normal world. She was
released in 1980, aged 23.
A very sick child
But it is debatable whether it will ever be possible to patch up the
emotional chaos of her lost childhood. Indeed, the events of the summer of
1970 suggest it may be not so much debatable as doubtful.
On Monday, June 15, Mary - now 13 - complained that one of her
housemasters at the mixed Special Unit where she was under treatment - a
married man of 35 who had been with the since it's formation four years
earlier - had assaulted her indecently.
The committal proceedings were heard at Newton-le-Willows the
following August. Mary claimed that the master had asked her: "Have you
any hair down there yet?" and they started to "mess about". She also
alleged that he had given her a book called Oral Love to read before
visiting her next morning and masturbating on her bed.
Despite conflicting evidence about other ways the book - which
contained her palmprints on page 18 - might have come into her possession,
the case was sent for trial at Liverpool Assizes. There it was thrown out
after the housemaster's lawyer had pointed out a whole string of
inconsistencies in Mary Bell's statements.
Said the judge: "She has told four stories and, having told four stories,
it is inconceivable that the jury would believe any of them. She has
fabricated. She is a very sick child. One can only hope that she can be given
treatment to help her..."