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Mary Bell - Deadly Dames
2209    Dibyendu Banerjee    25/04/2020

Mary Bell was born on 26 May 1957, as the first child of Betty, a 17-year-old prostitute, who on her birth reportedly requested the attending physicians to take that thing away from her. Betty never told her daughter the name of her biological father, but for most of her life, Mary believed it to be Billy Bell, a habitual criminal who was later arrested for armed robbery. However, her mother married that man when Mary was almost a baby. During her childhood, Betty was often away from home, traveling to Glasgow to work. However, during her absence, Mary never missed her, rather enjoyed it, as those were the periods of respite for the poor child, who was always the subject to mental and physical abuse of her mother.


In fact, from the very beginning, Betty wanted to get rid of the burden of her daughter. Once Mary was saved by the sister of her mother, when her mother was trying to give her away to an unknown woman for adoption. Later, it was also strongly suggested by some of her relatives that, during the first few years of the child, Betty attempted to kill Mary more than once, but made arrangements to make her death look accidental. On one occasion, Mary strangely fell from a window and in another incident, she was reported to accidentally overdose on sleeping pills, which made her family suspicious, as someone noticed Betty giving the pills to her daughter as sweets. Nevertheless, It was reported later that, due to her so called accidental fall, Mary had damaged an area of her brain associated with voluntary movements and decision making.

mary bell

According to her own accounts, Mary was forced by her mother to engage in prostitution, from the age of four. While this was not confirmed by the family members, they knew that the girl became very much depressed, when she saw her five-year-old friend run over and killed by a bus. By the age of ten, the effects of all these unpleasant happenings forced Mary to become a strange child. She became withdrawn, pensive and manipulative, always hovering on the edge of violence, which is unusual for a girl of her age.


It is evident that, torture and death were the companions of Mary Bell, almost from the moment of her birth and the prevailing condition created the base of violence in her character, which led her to start committing murders, when she was only 10. In fact, on 11 May 1968, sixteen days before her 11th birthday, a three-year-old boy was badly injured in a fall from the top of an air-raid shelter, while Mary had been reportedly playing with him. However, nothing was reported, as his parents thought it was an accident. However, on the following day, three mothers came forward to report the police that without any provocation, Mary had attempted to choke their young daughters. The police on their part called the girl and after a brief interview, followed by lectures and sermons, closed the matter without filing a charge.

Finally, Mary Bell committed her first crime on the day before her 11th birthday, when she strangled four-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house in Scotswood in England, on 25 May 1968 and returned home with one of her friends, Norma Joyce Bell.

mary bell

Police were mystified, as they found no obvious signs of violence, except a patch of blood and saliva on the face of the victim. However, as they found an empty bottle of painkillers on the floor near the body, it was assumed that Martin Brown had swallowed the pills and his death was ruled as a self-inflicted accident. However, the grieving family started to think it otherwise, when in the days after Martin’s death, little Mary appeared on their doorstep and wished to see Martin. As his mother gently tried to explain to her that Martin cannot meet her as he was dead, Mary bluntly said that she was aware of that, but wishes to see his body lying in the coffin. The astounding mother became speechless and slammed the door on her face.

Shortly after that, Mary Bell and her 13-year-old friend Norma Joyce Bell broke into a nursery school in Scotswood and vandalized it. Before leaving the spot, they left notes claiming responsibility of killing Martin and promising to kill more. Though the note contained the names of Mary and Norma, they were let off the hook, as they were found loitering innocently just outside the school, when police arrived on the spot. While the police took the note as a morbid prank, the school wearily installed an alarm system.

It is not clear whether the little girl Merry could really understand the significance of murder, as she was openly boasting to her fellow classmates that she killed Martin. However, nobody took her claim seriously, as she was well known for her show off and her reputation as a confirmed liar.


Just two months after the first murder, Mary Bell struck again, when along with her friend Norma, she killed three-year-old Brian Howe by strangulation on wasteland in the same Scotswood area, on 31 July 1968. As if that was not enough, after the murder Bell mutilated the body of the poor boy with scissors, scratching his thighs and butchering his penis.

mary bell
X marks the spot where the body of Brian Howe was found in Newcastle

Later, when Brian’s big sister was looking for her brother, Mary and Norma willingly joined her to search the vicinity and when Mary pointed out a concrete block that could hide his body, Norma discouraged. Finally, when the body was found, the locals became panicked. With the hope to find out some clues that may lead to a suspect, the police interviewed the locals, including the children, which yielded nothing. According to the coroner’s report, someone had used a razor blade to scratch the letter ‘M’ onto his abdomen. Police kept the report secret from the press and the public

During their interviews both Mary and Norma behaved strangely. While Norma was excited, Mary was evasive. However, on the day of Brian’s burial, Mary made a big mistake, as she was spotted lurking outside his house, even laughing and rubbing her hands together when she saw his coffin. When both the girls were called back for further questioning, police falsely alleged that both of them had been seen with Brian Howe on the day of his murder. Sensing danger, Mary immediately made up a story about having seen an eight-year-old boy, carrying a pair of broken scissors, hit Brian on the day he died. This was a blunder on the part of Mary, as the mutilation of the body with scissors had been kept from the press and the public and was known only to investigators and the murderer of Brian. Both the girls broke down under questioning and when Norma began implicating Mary, Mary admitted her presence during Brian Howe’s murder but tried to put the blame on Norma. At the end, both girls were charged and a trial date was set.

mary bell

At the trial, Norma Bell was considered as an unwilling accomplice who had fallen under a bad influence and was acquitted on 17 December 1968. However, as the court psychiatrists had convinced the jury that Mary Bell showed classic symptoms of a psychopath and could not be held fully responsible for her actions, the judge accordingly considered Mary a dangerous person and a serious threat to other children. She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment and was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in St Helens, Lancashire.

Mary Bell made headlines again in September 1977, when she briefly escaped from the Moor Court open prison, an adult prison, where she was transferred a year earlier from a young offenders institution. She also lived for some time in a girls’ remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood and was released from Askham Grange women's open prison in 1980 at the age of 23, under strict probation. She was also given a new identity to protect her from tabloid attention.

mary bell
Askham Grange women's open prison

However, despite everything, she had to move several times to escape the press and the public. Four years after her release Mary Bell had a daughter on 25 May 1984, who knew nothing of her mother's past, until she was 14, when the reporters located Bell's location in 1998 and camped in front of her house. In their desperate attempt to avoid them, the mother and the daughter had to leave their home with bedsheets over their heads.

Subsequently, Mary Bell won a High Court battle on 21 May 2003, which gave her own anonymity and that of her daughter, extended for life. The court order was later updated to include Mary’s granddaughter and still today, she is living in protective custody at a secret address.

mary bell
Mary Bell, adult

Diane Downs
Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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