Mary Bell

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Mary Bell
Tricot 1999 - Mary Bell.jpg
"Mary Bell", oil on canvas post-modern painting by the Belgian artist Xavier Tricot.
Born (1957-05-26) 26 May 1957 (age 63)
Newcastle upon Tyne,[1] Northumberland, England
Other namesThe Tyneside Strangler
Parent(s)Betty McCrickett
Criminal penaltyQueen's pleasure

Mary Flora Bell (born 26 May 1957)[2] is an English woman who, as a child aged 10–11 in 1968, strangled to death two young boys in Scotswood, a district in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was convicted in December 1968 of the manslaughter of Martin Brown (aged 4) and Brian Howe (aged 3).[3]

Since her release from prison in 1980, she has lived under a series of pseudonyms. Her identity has been protected by a court order, which has also been extended to protect the identity of her daughter. In 1998, Bell collaborated with Gitta Sereny on an account of her life, in which she details the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her prostitute mother and her clients.

Early life[edit]

Bell's mother Betty (née McCrickett) was a prostitute who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary (nicknamed May)[3] was her first child, born when Betty was 17 years old. It is not known who Mary's biological father was. For most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, a habitual criminal who was later arrested for armed robbery, but she was already a baby when Bill married her mother.[4]

Independent accounts from family members strongly suggest that Betty had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during her first few years of life. Her family was suspicious when Mary "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.[4] Mary herself says she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with men.[5]

After the "fall" Mary experienced, it was reported that she had suffered brain damage as a result, but now this damage is attributed to childhood abuse from her own mother. Mary had damage to her prefrontal cortex, an area associated with voluntary movements and decision-making.[5]


On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled 4-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house.[3] She was believed to have committed this crime alone. Between then and a second killing, she and a friend, Norma Joyce Bell (1955–1989; no relation), aged 13, broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. The police dismissed this incident as a prank.[6]

On 31 July 1968, the two girls took part in the strangulation death of 3-year-old Brian Howe on wasteland in the same Scotswood area.[3] Police reports concluded that Mary Bell later returned to his body to carve an "M" into the boy's abdomen and used scissors to cut off some of his hair, scratch his legs, and mutilate his genitals.[7]

Conviction and imprisonment[edit]

On 17 December 1968, at Newcastle Assizes, Norma Bell was acquitted but Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The jury took their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying "classic symptoms of psychopathy". The judge, Justice Cusack, described her as dangerous and said she posed a "very grave risk to other children".[8] She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire – the same facility that would house Jon Venables, one of James Bulger's killers, 25 years later.[3][9]

After her conviction, Bell was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press and also from the German magazine Stern. Her mother repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter. Bell herself made headlines in September 1977 when she briefly escaped from Moor Court open prison, where she had been held since her transfer from a young offenders institution to an adult prison a year earlier.[10] Her penalty for this was a loss of prison privileges for 28 days.[11]

For a time, Bell also lived in a girls' remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood (in a house built by Victorian inventor William Stanley).[12][13]

Life after prison[edit]

In 1980, 23-year-old Bell was released from Askham Grange open prison after serving 12 years and was granted anonymity (including a new name), allowing her to start a new life. Bell allegedly came back to Tyneside on several occasions and had lived there for some time after her release.[14][15] Four years after finishing her sentence she had a daughter on 25 May 1984. The girl knew nothing of her mother's past until reporters discovered Bell's location in 1998 and the pair had to leave their home with bedsheets over their heads.

Bell's daughter's anonymity was originally protected only until she reached the age of 18. However, on 21 May 2003, Bell won a High Court battle to have her own anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life.[16] Consequently, any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict in Britain is sometimes known as a "Mary Bell order".[17] The order was later updated to include Bell's granddaughter (b. January 2009), who was referred to as "Z".[18] Bell's current whereabouts are unknown.

Books about the case[edit]

Bell is the subject of two books by Gitta Sereny: The Case of Mary Bell (1972), an account of the killings and trial, and Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell (1998),[19] an in-depth biography based on interviews with Bell and relatives, friends and professionals who knew her during and after her imprisonment.[20] This second book was the first to detail Bell's account of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, a prostitute who specialised as a dominatrix, and her mother's clients.[21]

The publication of Cries Unheard was controversial because Bell received payment for her participation.[22] The payment was criticised by the tabloid press, and Tony Blair's government attempted to find a legal means to prevent its publication on the grounds that a criminal should not profit from his or her crimes, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

Bell is one of thirteen child killers reported on in the book Children Who Kill: Profiles of Pre-teen and Teenage Killers by author Carol Anne Davis, published in 2004.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Children of Crime - The Mary Bell Case, first transmitted: 14 April 1998.
  2. ^ Children of Crime - The Mary Bell Case, first transmitted: 14 April 1998.
  3. ^ a b c d e "17 December: 1968: Mary Bell found guilty of double killing". BBC On This Day. BBC News. 17 December 1968. Retrieved 12 May 2010.
  4. ^ a b Sereny, Gitta (1998). Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell. London: Macmillan. pp. 330–34. ISBN 0-333-73524-2.
  5. ^ a b Sereny, Gitta (1998). Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell. London: Macmillan. pp. 334–36. ISBN 0-333-73524-2.
  6. ^ The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered, page 115, Gitta Sereny, 1972
  7. ^ The Case Of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered
  8. ^ SMITH, JOAN (3 May 1998). "For ever a child-killer". The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media Ltd. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  9. ^ Monacelli, Antonia (23 May 2016). "Murderous Children: 11-Year-Old Serial Killer Mary Bell". Owlcation. Scotswood, England: HubPages Inc. Retrieved 26 October 2017. Mary Bell, The Tyneside Strangler: "I Murder So That I May Come Back"
  10. ^ Fraser, Lorraine; Alderson, Andrew (24 June 2001). "How a 'terrified' Mary Bell walked back into the world". Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 27 October 2017. Bell, who had briefly escaped from prison in 1977, was in Styal prison in Cheshire when the Parole Board decided that she should be freed.
  11. ^ "Street parties for the Queen". Our Century. Express & Star.
  12. ^ Akpan, Eloïse (2000). The Story of William Stanley – A Self-made Man. London: Eloïse Akpan. p. 40. ISBN 0-9538577-0-0.
  13. ^ "Cumberlow lodge, approved school and remand home south Norwood; General LCC/CH/D/CUM/1 [n.d.]". The National Archives.
  14. ^ "The Short and Brutal Timeline". Crime + Investigation. AETN UK. 29 June 2017. Retrieved 26 October 2017. 1980 - Mary Bell is released from prison
  15. ^
  16. ^ Early, Chas. "December 17, 1968: Britain in shock as Mary Bell, 11, is found guilty of toddler murders". Retrieved 26 October 2017.
  17. ^ Edwards, Jeff (6 May 2012). "Shocked to the core: 10 crimes that shook Britain". mirror. MGN Limited. Retrieved 27 October 2017. ... a plea to a court that her identity should not be revealed by the media was accepted by the High Court under what became known as the Mary Bell law.
  18. ^ Irvine, Chris (9 January 2009). "Child killer Mary Bell becomes a grandmother at 51". Telegraph. Retrieved 4 September 2019.
  19. ^ "Understanding The Root Of Evil". staff. CBS Interactive. 21 October 1999. Retrieved 27 October 2017. Sereny contends Mary used evil conduct as a cry to be rescued from a horrific childhood.
  20. ^ Sereny, Gitta (1998). Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-73524-2.
  21. ^ KOTLOWITZ, ALEX (18 April 1999). "A Bad Seed?". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 27 October 2017. ... and that Betty, a prostitute, used her daughter as a sexual prop in some of her sadomasochistic encounters.
  22. ^ "The hounding of Mary Bell". The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited. 30 April 1998. Retrieved 26 October 2017. Inflamed by the publication of a new book on the case—and by the fact that Miss Bell accepted a substantial sum of money from its author, Gitta Sereny—Britain's tabloids have eagerly pursued their new quarry
  23. ^ Carol Anne Davis (2004). Children who kill : Profiles of Pre-teen and Teenage Killers. London: Allison & Busby. ISBN 9780749006938. Retrieved 26 October 2017.

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