Murderous Mary

"Brian Howe had no mother, so he won't be missed."

-- Mary Bell

In 1968 amid Harold Wilson's "white heat of technological change" the folks of Scotswood and South Benwell were coping with the decaying remnants of the previous century's Industrial Revolution.

The housing stock, built between the latter part of the 19th century and the 1920s as utilitarian inexpensive homes for workers at the nearby armament works, was in its last throes before the major clearance of 1974.

A small, three-year-old boy with fair hair, Brian Howe, usually played close to home. Nine year old Mary Bell and her best friend, Norma Bell, not related, played with him in the summer heat of that July afternoon. They crossed the railway tracks onto "The Tank" a raised hillock of derelict land strewn with rubble and rubbish. Mary then strangled little Brian Howe, later mutilating his body with scissors and a razor blade.

Later that afternoon the two girls were eager to help search for him. They led his mother, Pat, through the neighbourhood, looking here and there, all the while knowing exactly where poor Brian lay. The scheming Mary was also eager that the search should veer away from the actual crime scene. Pat was worried as only a few weeks earlier little Martin Brown was found dead inside an empty house; a death that later would be attributed to Mary.

During that evening, after Mary was back at home, searchers found Brian  covered with grass and purple weeds. He had been strangled. Nearby, a pair of broken scissors lay in the grass. There were puncture marks on his thighs, his genitals had been partially skinned, and clumps of his hair were cut away. The wounds were bizarre: "There was a terrible playfulness about it, a terrible gentleness if you like, and somehow the playfulness of it made it more, rather than less, terrifying," said Inspector James Hobson. Brian's belly had been signed "M" with a razor blade. This cut would not be apparent until days later. It appeared that someone had imprinted an "N", and that a fourth mark was added (by a different hand?) to change the "N" into a "M".

Police flooded the community, interviewing kids between the ages of three and fifteen. The adults wondered if Martin Brown's "accident" was also murder. "We were realy nervous," said Martin's aunt, "but the kids themselves felt it too."

Eventually Mary was arrested and convicted of Manslaughter. She served her sentence firstly in a youth detention centre, and later in Styal prison, in the leafy Cheshire countryside near Wilmslow.

A consultant child psychiatrist, who did weekly group therapy sessions at Styal, observed that "[Mary] went a long way toward persuading her world that she was masculine. She strutted. . . and making up as if she had stubble on her face," and "rolled up stockings in the shape of male genitals and pointed this out to me in class. I think she wore these all the time." She asked a doctor for a sex change, but was denied ("It was the idea of not being me," she said.)

After being transferred to a less secure facility in 1977, Mary escaped. She, was picked up, along with a fellow escapee, by two young men. In her brief time out, Mary lost her virginity. The man with whom she had slept later sold his story to the newspapers, and claimed that she had escaped from jail so she could get pregnant. "As time went on, my nightmare was the press," said Mary. "I never could understand what they wanted from me." Mary was moved to a hostel a few months before her parole in 1980, and she met a married man who got her pregnant. "He said he was determined to show me I wasn't a lesbian," she said. "It was hard for me not to think of sex as dirty." When she found out she was with child, she had a moral crisis of sorts: "But if I think that almost the first thing I did after twelve years in prison for killing two babes was to kill the baby in me. . ." But Mary felt she had no choice.

Mary's brief childhood was a nightmare of abandonment, sexual abuse  and drug overdoses. Mary's mother, Betty Bell, was born in Glasgow in 1940, and was described as a deeply religious child, but later turned to prostitution. Betty was anxious to get rid of her daughter - she would drop her off with relatives, yet would always come back despite the family's pleas to let them keep her.

Betty Bell was a drama queen and loved to play the martyr. She may have suffered from "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy", thriving on the attention over her little daughter's tragic "accidents". This syndrome, first described in 1977, is characterised by caregivers intentionally injuring the person in their care to obtain the sympathy of others. Mothers with this disorder usually have an unwanted child, or are unmarried. This may explain why Betty, despite the harm she caused Mary, always wanted her back. Mary was later resentful of her mother's excessive complaints over her own sufferings, in fact she seemed more bothered by this tendency in her mother than the sexual abuse. This compulsive need for dramatic sympathy is illustrated by one incident: Betty tearfully told her sister that Mary had been run over by a truck, which generated an abundance of attention and sympathy. The next day Betty admitted that it was untrue; Mary was with friends who had temporarily adopted her.

The greatest tragedy was Betty's use of Mary during her prostitution. Her mother would use her young daughter as a lure and eventually as a sexual prop for her customers. No other relatives, including Mary's younger brother, will now admit to having been aware of this abuse, yet this would certainly help to explain Mary's erratic behaviour. If she had been violated herself, the need to violate others might incite her to the abuse of her own little victims.

Most commentators and experts who have examined Mary in her time in prison and later whilst resuming her life with her own daughter, agree that her compulsive and menacing behaviour will continue for the rest of her life, despite Mary's protestations to the contrary. Her daughter was made a ward of court to protect her from her mother's evil and dangerous influence.

Mary has recently published a book, putting her side of the story. It is a twisted and fantastical rambling, and has raised anger on two counts. In Britain it is illegal to profit from crime, and for a perpetrator to be paid for their story is immoral and wrong. Secondly, Mary's daughter has been subjected to enormous and bewildering media attention since learning of her mother's hitherto hidden past. She not only has to come to terms with the horror of those awful deaths, but also fend off the attention and hatred that accompanies the notoriety not of her making.

Mary Bell is a truly evil and wicked person who should be contained. I hope that the lessons of this tragedy are not lost on those who eventually have to decide on the future of poor Jamie Bulger's murderers.

If you should arrive here via a search, or be missing the navigation on the left hand side, click this button.

Little boy is missing

Searchers find Brian's mutilated body

Police swoop on Mary Bell

Mary continues to be a danger

Mary's early years may have been a cause, but not an excuse.

Mary's mother was a prostitute and a compulsive personality.

An agenda of sexual abuse.

Mary's book is an outrage to decency.


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