Mary Flora Bell,was convicted in December 1968 of the manslaughter of two boys, Martin Brown (aged four years) and Brian Howe (aged three years). Bell was ten years old at the time of one of the killings, and eleven at the time of the other.
Bell's mother Betty was a prostitute who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary was her first child, born when Betty was sixteen years old. It is not known who Mary's biological father was; for most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, an habitual criminal later arrested for armed robbery who had married Betty some time after Mary was born.
Independent accounts from family members suggest strongly that Betty had attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental more than once during the first few years of her life. Mary herself says she was subject to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her to engage in sex acts with men from the age of five.
Bell grew up in the Scotswood area of Newcastle, an economically depressed area where domestic violence and criminal behaviour was commonplace. As a result, her previous crimes, including attacks on other children at school, vandalism, and theft did not attract undue attention. She had also developed a reputation as a showoff, so her proclamation, "I am a murderer", was dismissed as just another one of her idle boasts.
Mary Bell was convicted of strangling toddler Martin Brown on May 25, 1968, when she was 10 years old. She was, as far as anyone knows, alone on this occasion. Between that time and the second murder, she and her friend Norma Bell (no relation) broke into and vandalised a Nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the Brown murder. The Newcastle Police dismissed the incident as a prank typical of the populace of the area.
On July 31, 1968, the two took part in the death, again by strangulation, of three-year-old Brian Howe. Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had gone back after killing him to carve an "M" in his stomach with a razor, as well as use scissors to cut off bits of his hair and scrape part of his genitals.
As the girls were so young and their testimony contradicted each other, it has never been entirely clear which of the two did what. Martin Brown's death was initially ruled an accident as there was no evidence of foul play. Eventually, his death was linked with Brian Howe's murder and in August, the two girls were charged with two counts of murder.
Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on December 17th, 1968. She was found guilty not of murder, but of "manslaughter due to diminished responsibility," the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying "classic symptoms of psychopathology". She was sentenced to be "detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure," effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. Norma Bell was found not guilty on both charges.
From the time of her conviction onward, 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 Mary's. Bell herself made headlines when in September 1977, she briefly escaped from the custody of Moore Court open prison.
Bell was released from prison in 1980 and was granted anonymity to start a new life (under an assumed name) with her daughter. This daughter did not know of her mother's past until Bell's location was discovered by reporters. The daughter's anonymity was originally protected until she reached the age of 18. However, on May 21, 2003, Bell won a High Court battle to have her anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life.
She is the subject of two books by Gitta Sereny; The Case of Mary Bell, 1972, an account of the murders and trial, and Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell, an in-depth biography based on interviews with Bell, as well as relatives, friends and professionals who knew her during and after her imprisonment. This second book was the first to detail Bell's account of sexual abuse by her mother and her mother's clients.
The publication of Cries Unheard was controversial because Bell received payment for her agreement to take part. The payment was criticized by the tabloid press, and the Blair 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 were unsuccessful. In a 1999 debate in the House of Lords, Lord Wakeham stated "the public interest oozes from every pore of the book".