Patron Episode Link: BONUS CASE #6 – Serial Killer Mary Bell | Sleuth Be Told on Patreon
Today we are talking about Mary Bell. Before we dive in, I want to talk a little bit about terminology because I have always heard people refer to her as “the youngest serial killer.” Because of this, I always had this image in my mind of this kid who had killed a bunch of people. However, when I started really looking into her, I learned she only ever had two victims. This surprised me because I think we’ve all heard that a serial killer is someone with three or more victims. I wasn’t sure if maybe I had missed something, misunderstood, or what, so I looked into this a little more. Since this is a Patreon episode I assume those of you listening wouldn’t mind hearing about the spiral I fell into when I decided to look deeper into this because you’re here for extra content so extra content I will give lol. If you don’t want to hear just skip ahead, I won’t be mad, but I do think it’s fascinating so I recommend sticking around.
When you type into Google, ‘what constitutes a serial killer?,” the result that opens at the top, ya’know the one that google thinks is most relevant to your search so it gives you the snippet without having to click it, is from libguides.com and says, “A serial killer is conventionally defined as a person who murders three or more people in a period of over a month, with a “cooling down” time between murders. For a serial killer, the murders must be separate events, which are most often driven by a psychological thrill or pleasure.”
So at first glance, I was like oh okay I was right. But then I saw another suggested article and this one was from the FBI website, so of course I had to check that the information matched up because what kind of sleuth would I be if I didn’t?! I clicked on the link and realized I had stumbled upon a wealth of information. This wasn’t simply the FBI saying ‘Serial Killer definition.’ No, this was an entire publication about serial murders called “Serial Murder Multi-disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators.” It was published by the Behavior Analysis Unit and there are 10 contributors from agents to unit chiefs after a symposium for law enforcement and it had a ton of fascinating information in there. I will put it in the show notes as always if you want to read it for yourself, but for the sake of time I will just tell you what I learned from the section about the definition of serial murder.
They said that there have been many different definitions of serial murder used by law enforcement, clinicians, academia, and researchers. Each of these definitions share common themes, but differ on specific requirements such as “the number of murders involved, the types of motivation, and the temporal aspects of the murders.” There does need to be certain clarifications to differentiate serial murders from mass murders. Mass murders have been described as a number of murders (4 or more) occuring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders.
They then explain that the definition we’ve come to associate with serial killers comes from 1998 when a federal law was passed by the United States Congress, titled: “Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 51, and Section 1111). This law includes a definition of serial killings: The term ‘serial killings’ means a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.”
This is the one that first came up when I did my initial Google, so I think it’s safe to say we have pretty much adopted that as the definition. However, the publication pointed out that the purpose of having this definition was to set criteria to establish when the FBI could assist local law enforcement agencies and it was never intended to be a “generic definition for serial murder.”
So what they did at the symposium was pool a bunch of minds together to come up with a “simple but broad definition, designed for use primarily for law enforcement.” Here’s what they came up with, “Serial Murder: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” The academics and researchers there felt it was important to establish a specific number of murders to allow clear inclusion criteria for research and since it was to be utilized by law enforcement, having it be a lower number of victims would allow them more flexibility in committing resources to a potential serial murder investigation.
They also discussed the inclusion of motive, but they felt that it didn’t belong in the general definition because that would make it overly complex. Also, if you hear it again, “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events,” you might realize that it sounds like it could include spree killers which I have always been under the impression are a different classification. The general definition of spree murder is “two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders, without a cooling-off period.” The difference here is the lack of a cooling-off period. This was discussed, but because it creates “arbitrary guidelines,” the majority of attendees agreed to disregard the use of spree murder as a separate category as it doesn’t provide any real benefit for use by law enforcement.
So anywho, all this to say that I was incorrect in my initial confusion of whether Mary Bell was a serial killer because she does fit into that general definition which means she was in fact a serial killer. Now that I’ve sufficiently talked your ears off about definitions I’ll move onto why we’re actually here and tell you about Mary Bell.
Mary Flora Bell was born May 26, 1957 in Corbridge, Northumberland, England. Her mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Bell was a well-known local prostitute and even though she was only 16 or 17, depending on the source, when she had Mary, she was her second kid. She was absent from the family home a lot as she would travel to Glasgow (2 to 2.5 hours away) to work. When she left, Mary and her older sister were left with William “Billy” Bell, if he was around. According to my research, it sounds like he wasn’t always there when she was gone so they may have been alone having to care for themselves. Even if he was around, it wasn’t a good situation. While Mary shares his last name, he and Betty didn’t get married until a year after Mary was born and no one is really sure whether he was her biological father or not. He was a violent alcoholic and was in trouble with the law constantly.
According to Mary’s aunt, Isa McCrickett, after she was born, Betty had said “take the thing away from me,” when they tried to place Mary in her arms. Growing up, Mary was constantly injured in household “accidents” when alone with her mother. One of these instances was in 1960, when she “fell” aka Betty dropped her from a first floor window. Another time Mary overdosed on sleeping pills. And if those things weren’t enough to cause concern, she once sold Mary to a mentally unstable woman who couldn’t have children of her own. Mary’s older sister, Catherine, ended up having to travel across the town to get her back. By the mid 1960s, it has been said that Betty began allowing and/or encouraging several of her clients to sexually abuse Mary in sadomasochistic sessions. I’m not sure if her family knew the extent to which things got, but with all of these things going on, her family were, rightfully so if you ask me, led to believe she was trying to intentionally harm or kill Mary. They offered repeatedly to take custody of her, but Betty refused. Some people have also speculated that she could have had Munchausen by proxy and longed for the attention and sympathy Mary’s “accidents” brought her.
Mary started to exhibit signs of disturbed and unpredictable behavior pretty early on in life. She would have sudden mood swings and was also a chronic bedwetter. Knowing what we do about what was going on at home, this isn’t very surprising. We talked in the Jon Benet episodes about children who have experienced sexual abuse and how they are more likely to wet the bed, so I think this gives more credence to the stories about what Betty allowed her clients to do. Mary was constantly fighting with other kids at school and it wasn’t just the kind of innocent fight kids get into when they’re little. She would try to strangle or suffocate the other children and in one of these fights she attempted to block the trachea of a young girl with sand. Not many of the kids wanted to be friends with her for obvious reasons, but she did have one friend who would spend her free time with Mary. This girl, Norma Joyce Bell, was a couple years older than her and despite the fact that they have the same last name, they actually weren’t related – just neighbors.
One of her classmates in elementary school said that they learned to tell when Mary was going to become violent. They had noticed that she would exhibit stressful mannerisms like shaking her head and forming a “steely gaze” with the focus of her gaze being the individual she would attack.
Her first recorded report of violence was on Saturday, May 11, 1968 when a 3 year old boy was discovered wandering around, dazed and bleeding. He informed police that he had been playing with Mary and Norma at the top of an unused air raid shelter when one of them had pushed him from the roof to the ground (7 feet btw) which resulted in him having a large laceration on his head. He couldn’t remember which of the girls had pushed him, but when questioned about it they both denied any involvement saying that they had simply discovered him there on the ground already.
That same evening, the parents of three girls went to police to report that both Mary and Norma had attempted to strangle their daughters when playing in a sand pit. They were both interviewed about it and while Mary denied any knowledge of the incident, Norma told a pretty disturbing story. She said: “Mary went to one of the girls and said, ‘What happens if you choke someone; do they die?’ Then Mary put both hands ’round the girl’s throat and squeezed. The girl started to go purple. I told Mary to stop, but she wouldn’t. Then she put her hands around Pauline’s throat and she started going purple as well … another girl, Susan Cornish, came up and Mary did the same thing to her.”
Because the girls were so young, even though a report was made about what happened, they were just given a warning and no further action was taken.
Unfortunately, this warning didn’t do anything and just a couple weeks later, on May 25, 1968, Mary strangled four year old Martin Brown. The area they were in was going through an “urban renewal project,” and because of this there were lots of houses in bad condition. Local kids would play in or around these houses and it was in the upstairs bedroom of one of these houses that Mary killed Martin Brown. His body was discovered by three children at about 3:30 pm that day. He was lying on his back with his arms stretched above his head and other than some blood and foam around his mouth, there were no signs of violence on his body. The children got a local workman named John Hall who attempted to perform CPR on Martin, but it was too late.
While he was performing CPR, Mary and Norma showed up at the doorway and John shooed them away. They then went and knocked on the door of Martin’s aunt, Rita Finlay, and said to her, “one of your sister’s bairns [children] just had an accident. We think it’s Martin, but we can’t tell because there’s blood all over him.”
The next day, a post-mortem was done on Martin and Dr Bernard Knight was unable to find any signs of violence on his body, and therefore couldn’t determine the cause of death. Investigators thought that maybe he had ingested tablets and died of poisoning from this as they found some sleeping pills near the body, but he was able to confirm that wasn’t what happened. An inquest was done June 7 and it was ruled the death was suspicious, but couldn’t reach any other verdict.
On May 26, 1968, the day after she killed Martin and her 11th birthday, Mary and Norma broke into and vandalized a nursery. Staff discovered the break in the next day and immediately notified police. The girls had peeled tiles off the slate roof, torn up books, upturned desks, smeared ink and poster paints, and left some disturbing notes. One of these notes stated: “I murder SO That I may come back”; another read: “WE did murder martain brown fuckof you bastard”; a third note simply read: “Fuch off we murder. Watch out Fanny and Faggot.” The final note was the most complex, reading: “You are mice Y Becurse we murdered Martain Go Brown you Bete Look out THERE are Murders about By Fanny and auld Faggot you Screws.”
Even though they were saying in these notes that they murdered Martin Brown, the police dismissed it as a tasteless and childish prank.
If you didn’t think this was bad enough, on May 29, the girls were playing a game of chicken and called Martin Brown’s mother, June. When she answered they asked to see her son. She replied they couldn’t see him because he was deceased and Mary’s response was, “Oh, I know he’s dead; I want to see him in his coffin.” Some sources say she actually knocked on the Brown’s door and did this to June’s face, but I lean more toward the telephone story because I think that makes more sense for a game of chicken. She also went around telling classmates that she killed Martin, but no one took her claims seriously because of her reputation as a show off and a liar.
They took a break for a little while, but it didn’t last long. On July 31, three year old Brian Howe was playing in the street outside his house with one of his siblings, the family dog, Mary, and Norma. He didn’t return home that evening so concerned family and neighbors searched the streets, but didn’t find him. A search party was started and at 11:10 pm, his body was found between two large concrete blocks. The first policeman on the scene, said that there was a “deliberate but feeble” attempt to conceal his body as it was covered in clumps of grass and weeds.
Unlike Martin, cyanosis was discovered on Brian’s lips and several bruises and scratches could be seen on his neck. There was also a pair of broken scissors near his feet. It was then determined by the coroner that he had died of strangulation by the killer squeezing his nostrils closed with one hand while they gripped his throat with the other at least 7 hours before being found. This next part is a little gruesome so skip ahead 15 seconds if you don’t want to hear. Numerous puncture wounds had been inflicted to his legs before death, sections of his hair had been cut from his head, his genitals had been partially mutilated, and a crude attempt had been made to carve the initial “M” into his stomach. The coroner could also determine that the murderer was another child because of the relatively small amount of force used. They also found grey and maroon fibers on his clothes and shoes that didn’t match anything from the family’s house and determined it had been transferred there by the killer.
Since this case was much more violent than Martin’s and there was no question about it being a murder, a large scale manhunt was formed. More than a hundred detectives were assigned to the case and over 1,200 children were questioned about the case by August 2. Mary and Norma were questioned on the first and while they admitted to playing with him, but denied seeing him after lunchtime. It’s said that while being interviewed, Norma was excitable whereas Mary was more observant and taciturn. They were also evasive and contradictory in their initial statements, so they were interviewed again on the second.
During this second interview, Mary said she remembered an 8 year old local boy playing with Brian that afternoon and that not only had she seen him hitting the child, he was also covered in weeds and grass as if he had been rolling in a field. She decided to really seal the deal here and said that she also had seen him with a pair of scissors. Clearly she knows everything about how she died and she doesn’t realize she’s totally giving herself away because they haven’t released this information, so the only way she could know to say those things was if she knew how he died. Detectives were pretty sure they knew what had happened at this point, but just to be sure they did question this boy and he had a very clear alibi with multiple witnesses.
They didn’t have enough to prove it was Mary yet, so they were trying to figure out next moves when Norma’s parents contacted police saying their daughter wanted to confess what she knew. Over the next couple days, Norma gave a full confession, Mary was questioned again and denied everything, and clothing owned by the girls was determined to be a match to the fibers found on Brian. Sidenote: they also found the grey fibers from Mary’s clothes on Martin.
On the day of Brian’s funeral, according to DCI Dobson, Mary Bell stood outside the Howe household as the child’s coffin was brought from the home at the beginning of the funeral procession and “stood there, laughing. Laughing and rubbing her hands. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve got to bring her in. She’ll do another one.’”
Mary and Norma were both formally charged with the murder of Brian Howe that evening. Mary’s response was, “that’s all right by me,” while Norma burst into tears and said, “I never. I’ll pay you back for this.” Mary then admitted to being there when Brian was killed, but blamed everything on Norma.
They were both psychologically evaluated and this revealed “Norma was intellectually delayed and a submissive character who easily displayed emotion, whereas Mary was a bright yet cunning character, prone to sudden mood swings. Occasionally, Mary was willing to talk, although she rapidly became sullen, introspective and defensive in nature.”
The girls were tried for both murders and spent the trial casting the blame on each other. They each said it was the other that committed the murders and that they had been there, but not touched the boys. There was a lot that happened in the trial, but two witnesses in particular stood out to me. The first was Norma’s mother who testified and told a story of Mary attempting to strangle Norma’s younger sister and that she only stopped when her husband had punched Mary in the shoulder. The second was child psychiatrist, Ian Frazer, who testified that Norma’s mental age was 8 years and 10 months, so while she was physically older than Mary, she mentally was younger. He also said that although her capacity of knowing right from wrong was limited, she was capable of appreciating the criminality of the acts she was accused of committing.
Norma ended up being acquitted of all charges, but Mary wasn’t as lucky. She was cleared of murder, but convicted of manslaughter of both boys on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Because it was on the grounds of diminished responsibility, it allowed the judge sentencing discretion. During sentencing, the judge described Mary as a dangerous individual and that she posed a very great risk to other children and that “steps must be taken to protect the public from her.” She was sentenced to be detained at her majesty’s pleasure which basically means an indeterminate amount of time and could be indefinite.
Over the next few years, she was moved around a bunch and even escaped once, but even with this on her record, she was released in May of 1980 at the age of 23. This means she served about 11.5 years for her crimes. When she was released, she was granted anonymity which included a new name. Just to clarify, she was released, but her release was “on license.” This means that she was still technically serving her sentence, but was doing so while living in the community under strict probation. Four years after being released, she had a daughter who didn’t know anything about her mother’s violent past until 1998 when reporters found them. They were then relocated and a few years later, they won a high court battle to have her daughter’s anonymity extended for life (normally she would have the anonymity until 18). The order was also later updated to include Mary’s granddaughter. This prevents any information divulging any aspects of their lives which could identify them from being released, so we really don’t know much about her life after prison besides the fact she now has a daughter and granddaughter. There is a book that she collaborated on called ‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny where she apparently goes into detail about her life before and after her crimes that has great reviews, but I haven’t read it so I’m not sure if maybe that has more info on what she’s done after prison. On the flipside, there was some public criticism and backlash over the book as Sereny gave Mary residuals from the sales. She said, “I felt that I wanted to give her some of the money. . . because I could not use her, as everybody else has done.”
Which I understand, but I also understand why one of the boy’s mothers isn’t happy about it. She explained, “Mary Bell died when she left prison and took on a new identity. I thought of her as dead. I tried to have a decent life. I started to learn not to hate her because she had died and become someone else. Now Gitta Sereny has resurrected her. Why?”
According to Sereny, Mary does not claim she was wrongly convicted and freely admits the abuse she suffered as a child does not excuse her crimes. From that statement, it sounds like maybe she really was reformed and while like she said, the abuse she suffered doesn’t in any way excuse what she did, I definitely think it plays a huge factor in what went down.
Patron Episode Link: BONUS CASE #6 – Serial Killer Mary Bell | Sleuth Be Told on Patreon
Accessed June, 2022. “Evil Born”: The Vicious Crimes Of 11-Year-Old Murderer Accessed June, 2022. Mary Bell https://allthatsinteresting.com/mary-bell
Accessed June, 2022. Mary Flora Bell https://murderpedia.org/female.B/b/bell-mary-flora.htm
Accessed June, 2022. Mary Bell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Bell#Martin_Brown
Accessed June, 2022. What is Mary Bell up to now? Does she feel any remorse for her crimes? https://filmdaily.co/news/mary-bell-now/
Accessed June, 2022. Serial Murder https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder#two
Accessed June, 2022. 8 Youngest Serial Killers in History https://www.oldest.org/people/youngest-serial-killers/
17 of 24,236
Accessed June, 2022. Juvenile delinquency and the evolution of the British juvenile courts, c.1900-1950, by Kate Bradley, (University of Kent)
Accessed June, 2022. UK Serial Killers – which area has produced the most killers? – NCC