"Murder isn't that bad, we all die sometime anyway."
-- Mary Bell
Picture this. An idyllic scene in the English countryside, circa 1968. Some children, a girl and a boy, are playing in the grass by a railroad. Suddenly, the girl strangles the boy, then stabs him several times with a pair of broken scissors. Birdies are chirping. The girl skins the boy’s genitals and signs his belly ‘M’ with a razor blade. In the distance, a bunny eats some grass.
The girl in question? Mary Bell, an intelligent ten year old. The victim? Brian Howe, only three.
This was her second murder. Before, she had killed Martin Brown, a four year old, and tried to kill a variety of other toddlers. Martin Brown she killed by forcefeeding him a bottle of aspirin and then strangling him.
Most of her murder attempts were done with the help of her friend and accomplice, Norma Bell (oddly enough, no relation). Generally, Norma held the victim down. May 27, about a day after the murder of Brown, Norma and Mary broke into their nursery school and vandalized it, leaving a number of notes written in blood--such as, “I murder so that I may come back.”
This trait of advertising her crimes Mary displayed in other places too. On the playground, she would point to the house where she killed Martin and declare that she was a murderer. She would pry into the lives of her victims’ relatives, asking whether they missed him.
The Pursuit and Trial
When the police found Brian’s body, there was, of course, a massive investigation. Gradually, it zeroed in on Mary. Mary first totally refused to cooperate with the police--and then, wrote and signed an elaborate statement pinning the whole thing on Norma.
She had tried to do this earlier, too. She had announced to Brian’s mother that “Norma squeezed Martin’s neck and he just dropped.”
Eventually, the police did catch her--the detective had suspected it was Mary from the start.
At the trial, Mary was cunning and manipulative, while Norma broke down and cried. None of it did any good, though--the girls were sentenced, Mary to a indeterminately long prison stay for manslaughter (not murder, because she was judged to have ‘diminished responsibility’ and Norma to three years for the nursery breakin.
It came out at the trial, also, that Mary’s mother was an abusive prostitute and her father demanded he be called ‘Uncle,’ to get government benefits. When these and other circumstances of Mary’s life came out, they became a major factor in Mary’s reduced conviction.
Mary was released from prison in 1980. Nearly twenty years later, she received money from Gitta Sereny (who had written a book about her) to cooperate with her on a book about child murderers. The press discovered this, and started a furore. As Mary and her daughter became surrounded by press, it became apparent that her 14 year old daughter was hitherto unaware of her mother’s past.
Today, Mary Bell lives under lifelong anonymity. Her story confronts us with two questions: “To what extent does upbringing affect a serial killer?” and “Should murderers be allowed to profit from their crimes?” Neither of these has a clear answer.