Contrary is putting it very mildly. Bell (who is still alive and is a grandmother) grew up in a slum in Scotswood, a suburb of Newcastle Upon Tyne. At the age of 11, she strangled two young boys, Martin Brown, 4, and Brian Howe 3, to death with the aid of her friend, Nora Bell (no relation), who died in 1989.
Mary Bell had a dreadful upbringing that likely contributed to her horrific acts of murder. Her mother, Betty (nee ||Cricket) gave birth to Bell when she was only 17. Bell believed for most of her childhood and teen years that her father was Billy Bell, a criminal and alcoholic, who was in and out of jail for assault and armed robbery. However Bell married her mother when Mary was a baby, and evidence suggested he met Betty after Mary was born. It is possible Bell was the result of a sexual encounter Betty had with a client. Bell often beat Betty when he was drunk. Not an auspicious beginning for a little girl.
Betty was a known prostitute who specialized in acts of BDSM. She left Bell with relatives for weeks at a time while she traveled to Glasgow to “work.” She forced her daughter to participate in these painful, humiliating acts on several occasions. Family members suggested that Betty attempted to kill her daughter and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life.” Her family was suspicious when Bell ‘fell’ from a window, and when she “accidentally” consumed sleeping pills.
On one such occasion, an independent witness saw Betty giving the pills to her daughter as sweets.Bell herself said she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with men.
Bell displayed anti-social behaviours from an early age on the schoolyard and in playgrounds. She often stared at another child for no particular reason, a glazed look in her eyes, and soon after she attacked that child and tried to kill him or her through strangulation and on one occasion, stuffing sand into a little girls mouth until she nearly asphyxiated. The child’s mother called the police but no further investigation occurred and the matter was dropped.
On another occasion Bell brought a cigarette to school, lit it and burned a little boy. Her teacher asked her if she committed the act and she freely admitted she had. He simply told her not to repeat it. Children remained terrified of Bell and most tried to avoid her.
Bell met Nora Bell, a neighbourhood girl, who was of low intellect and easily influenced by Bell. They became fast friends, with Bell convincing Nora to engage in cruel acts against other children. Bell’s typical approach to a child was to pretend to “massage” the child’s throat then to proceed with attempted strangulation. Nora stood by and offered no help.
Bell’s neighbourhood was a poverty-stricken slum and many houses were either abandoned or being bulldozed to the ground. Bell’s family lived in White House Row, the roughest part of the area. Bell was left to play for hours unsupervised. Most houses had “bits and pieces of furniture but…it didn’t seem to bother” the families. Washing wasn’t hung up outside on clotheslines in case it was stolen. Children played in derelict houses on many occasions. Newcastle was in the middle of massive re-development.
The worst slums, some of them near Bell’s neighbourhood, were being destroyed to make way for new high-rises. “Rat Alley“, Scotswood, became a playground for children. Vandalism was rampant. Strangely, people were quite friendly to one another. Everyone checked on everyone else’s children.
The Murder of Martin Brown
On May 28, 1968, she encountered Martin Brown and led him into one such house. There she strangled him to death. It was believed she committed this crime alone. An open verdict had originally been recorded for Brown’s death as there was no evidence of foul play; although Bell had strangled him, her grip was not hard enough to leave any marks.Media headlines claimed that “Rat Alley Boy May Have Died of Fright.” Brown’s mother was devastated by the headline, claiming that linking Martin to rats “was a terrible thing to do to a small child.”
Bell broke into a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. One letter read, We did murder Martin Brown fuck off you bastard. but the police dismissed them as a prank, possibly because they found it difficult to believe that a child was responsible for the murder. Bell also wrote about the killing in her school journal, drawing a picture of the child’s body and tablets found nearby, but the teacher didn’t report the information. One of the pictures Bell drew included Brown’s body and a bottle of tablets nearby, information that hadn’t been released to the press.
Bell and Nora often asked Brown’s mother how she was feeling after her son’s death. On the day he was to be buried they attended her house, asking if they could see him. When Browns mother answered “you can’t see Martin, Martin’s dead,” Bell replied, “I know he’s dead, I want to see him in his coffin.” Brown’s death was blamed on the dangerous conditions in the Rat Alley corridor and there was no further investigation.
The local population held a march protesting the conditions in Rat Alley, insisting the demolition of the area wasn’t being done “properly and effectively.” At the front of the march was Bell, carrying one of the banners. Despite all of the signs that there was a young killer on the loose, no one recognized the signs. It was inevitable that another killing would occur.
The Murder of Brian Howe
Two months later in July of 1968, Bell struck again, murdering Brian Howe in a wasteland called the Tin Lizzy in Scotswood, close to the area where Brown had been killed. Hours later, Bell returned alone to carve her initial into the child, cut off some of his hair and mutilate his genitals.
Eventually police associated the two murders, now believing Brown had been murdered. Bell seemed to want to draw attention to herself. Whenever the police held a conference, she appeared in front of the crowd, listening to what was being said. Her attentiveness led to an investigation, when it was discovered that a 9-year-old boy was proven to be a witness to the murder. Bell and Nora were arrested with two counts of manslaughter.
A child psychiatrist was consulted. The psychiatrist described her as “impervious.” Bell displayed concern for her dog and her mother but not for the murdered children. Bell sparred with the police when being questioned, believing her answers would leave her “unscathed.”
Mary and Nora
Nora was not bright. She was obviously led by her friend. Her answers were simple-minded and she had difficulty following the questioning. It was generally believed that Bell was the killer and Nora a bystander. It was also believed that Bell had misled Nora. Generally, the feeling for Nora was one of sympathy.
Bell on the other hand had considerable intelligence, a typical trait of psychopaths. She was very confident and believed she would be released after the trial.
The courtroom was packed during the girls’ trial. The girls looked like tiny figures with dark hair and innocent large eyes. Bell showed no emotion. She gave her answers straightforwardly. She insisted she wasn’t guilty of the killings. The lawyers sat with Bell and Nora in an attempt to remove the impersonal atmosphere in the courtroom.
During the trial, Bell and Nora sat near each other and giggled. They seemed to have no concept of the seriousness of their crimes. When the prosecution asked Bell if she had strangled a pigeon to death, she became very distraught and the judge called for a break. While incarcerated, Bell’s mother was permitted to visit her. While she was with her daughter, Betty made cruel remarks and pinched her several times.
On 17 December 1968, at Newcastle Assizes, Nora was acquitted and sent home to her family in Scotswood. Bell was convicted of manslaughter (rather than murder) on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy“. Bell turned to her lawyer in shock, with tears in her eyes, having believed she would be acquitted of the charge against her.
The judge described her as dangerous and said she posed a “very grave risk to other children“. She was sentenced to be detained to an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was sent to Red Bank, a school with a secure unit in St. Helens, Lancashire, the same facility that housed Jon Venables, one of James Bulger’s killers, 25 years later. It was believed that Bell would be given the love she so obviously lacked in her life.
After her conviction, Bell was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press and also from the German Stern magazine. Her mother repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter.
It is highly unlikely that Betty sold a letter from her daughter written in her teens that stated the reason for her crimes was the vile treatment she received from Betty as a child. She wrote, “it was you mum. All along it was you.”
In 1980, Bell, aged 23, was released from Askham Grange open prison after having served 12 years and was granted anonymity, allowing her to start a new life. Four years later she had a daughter, born on 25 May 1984. Bell’s daughter did not know of her mother’s past until Bell’s location was discovered by reporters in 1998 and she and her mother had to leave their house with bed sheets over their heads. Bell told the author who wrote her biography that her child threw her arms around her mother and stated “you didn’t know any better, mum!” Incredibly Bell reunited with her mother and introduced her to her grandchild. Betty was enchanted with the little girl and while watching her play she even “laughed out loud.” Bell reportedly stated was “in awe” of this exchange.
Years later, Betty Bell was found dead in her living room, nude, seated in a chair. It was believed that she herself was a victim of child abuse and had continued the tragic cycle with her daughter.