Kids can be so cruel. It’s a well-worn cliche, which usually refers to a bit of name calling in the playground, or game of keep-away with a backpack. When you start plumbing the depths of juvenile true crime, however, all that schoolyard stuff seems like… well, child’s play.
Here you discover exactly what our beloved little cherubs are capable of, given the right conditions — and let me confirm that their crimes can be every bit as bloody horrible as anything a grown adult can inflict. While their peers are playing with dolls and finishing up their homework, these little terrors are sharpening their favorite knives, torturing the local cats, or worse.
The subject of today’s Casual Criminalist short is one such little ‘un: one of the youngest murderers in the history of the UK, whose crimes will make any parent shudder. But mainly, this episode’s for all you 30-something singletons out there — the next time someone asks why you don’t have kids, raise your finger to their mouth, sit them down, and recount to them the story of Mary Bell: the 11 year old serial killer.
The Murder of Martin Brown
It’s the evening of Saturday, the 25th of May, 1968. The parents of a four-year old named Martin Brown are starting to get worried, because their little boy hasn’t come home yet. Martin and his family lived in a working class neighborhood in Scotswood, Newcastle — in the northeast of England.
This was back in the days when it was normal to let kids roam the neighborhood from a young age, because apparently stranger danger wasn’t invented until the 1990s. Little Martin was in the habit of heading out on his own to play with friends, coming back home in the late afternoon for his tea (that’s what we lot call ‘dinner’, for all our non-Brit listeners).
His parents didn’t think they had any reason for worry on that sunny weekend; all of the local kids knew each other, and would generally look out for the younger ones among them. As things turned out, it was some of those local kids who ended up finding Martin’s body, just one day after his disappearance.
Martin had died in an abandoned house not far from his home. Two boys from the neighborhood had been playing there when they came across the body, and two girls joined them soon after. They reported what they’d found, and Martin’s parents were understandably devastated.
The police had little to offer them by way of consolation or explanation. When they inspected the body, they found no serious injuries to suggest the boy died violently — there was only a small amount of blood on his face. Near the body was an empty bottle of painkillers, suggesting that Martin had somehow got his hands on the pills, and accidentally overdosed.
That was enough for the police to rule the death as accidental, even though nobody could explain how Martin had acquired the pills in the first place. Let me remind you, this was 1968, and forensic science was very much a thing. It makes you wonder why the police didn’t bother with any of that fancy pants toxicology stuff we’re always talking about on the show.
Although to be fair, I’ve been to Newcastle before — in some parts the locals still think cameras steal their souls. It might be a while yet before they fully make it into the 20th century…
Regardless, there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious. Perhaps the most glaring was the incident at Martin’s nursery school. It was broken into and vandalized several weeks after his death.
Someone had smashed up the furniture and thrown tables around the classroom. When the police came to investigate, they found four scrappily-handwritten notes claiming that Martin’s death was not an accident. One read: “I murder so that I may come back,” and another said “We did murder Martin Brown.”
Those are slightly strange things for a bunch of four-year olds to draft up with their Crayolas, so it was clear they had been left behind by whoever trashed the classroom. The cops must have had their top detective pulling a 24-hour shift, staring endlessly at those notes on his pin board, wondering what does it all mean!?
All they had was four handwritten admissions of murder placed inside the classroom of a child who died mysteriously — who could have possibly known it meant he was murdered? Not the Newcastle police anyway; they decided it actually had nothing to do with the crime. Apparently the kids of Scotswood had a pretty dark sense of humor, as the police just wrote the affair off as an act of aimless juvenile vandalism. (In my day we used to just set fire to wheelie bins.)
However nonchalant the police might have been, Martin’s grieving family still held some reservations about the cause of death (you know, because all of the written messages explicitly stating he was murdered). What’s more, while they were preparing for the little boy’s wake in the days after his body was found, they received a visitor at their door.
This was little Mary Bell, a neighborhood girl who had just turned 11 on the day Martin’s body was found. Apparently she hadn’t heard the news; she was asking to see Martin. June, the heartbroken mother, had to explain to Mary that Martin had passed away — doing her best to explain it in a way that wouldn’t upset or frighten her.
But then Mary clarified: no, she didn’t want to play with Martin; she knew he had died. All she wanted was to see his body. June was horrified — she told Mary to stay the hell away, and shut the door in that creepy little corpse-hunter’s face.
What she didn’t know was that this wouldn’t have been the first time that Mary had seen Martin’s body. She had been one of the girls who arrived after the two local boys found him in the first place. The other girl was Norma Joyce Bell, who was no relation despite their matching surnames (although the gene pool up north is pretty small).
You’re already aware this episode isn’t called ‘Mary Bell: The Little Girl Who Liked Looking at Coffins’, so I’ll stop beating around the bush. When the two girls went to the abandoned house on the 26th, they had actually been returning to the scene of Mary’s crime.
She had lured Martin there the day prior, promising him sweets. Once inside, she strangled the little boy to death with her bare hands. She was just 10 years old at the time. The next day, she had told Norma, herself just 13, about what she had done, and took her to the crime scene to prove it.
When Mary returned to school the week after, she started bragging to her classmates about her crime. However, she was a renowned BS merchant, so like the police, her classmates just wrote it off as a bit of childish make-believe.
And let’s return to the police for a second. Mary had essentially committed the perfect crime, meaning Newcastle’s finest had been outwitted by a killer who wasn’t even old enough to buy cigarettes.
What happened next though, would make everyone start paying a bit more mind to the boasting of this troubled little kid…
The Murder of Brian Howe
It’s now several months after Martin Brown has been laid to rest, and several weeks since Mary and Norma broke into the nursery school. The first crime had gone basically undetected, despite their very best efforts, so the two girls started plotting an even more severe act of violence to follow it.
On the 31st of July 1968, the two girls went out playing together. They came across a little boy wandering alone around the streets. This was 3-year old Brian Howe. Yes, kids as young as three were let out alone in those days; I’m sure your grandparents will say it was a safer time, when nobody had to lock their doors and nothing bad ever happened.
But of course, that’s all fantasy. The past was just as awful as the present — probably even more so. Case in point: on that day Mary and Norma led the toddler out to a piece of wasteland, overgrown with weeds. They reached a spot hidden from sight by a scattering of concrete blocks. It was here that Mary strangled little Brian to death.
After the deed was done, the two girls left like nothing had happened, and waited for some of the infamy they apparently craved. When Brian’s panicked family sent out the word that he was missing, Mary and Norma even offered to help his older sister go looking.
They wandered around the neighborhood together, at one point walking through the scrubland where the girls knew the little boy’s body lay. When his sister suggested checking among the concrete blocks, Mary told her there was no chance of finding him there, so they continued on.
When Brian’s body was eventually found, there was no chance of the police ruling his death accidental. Fair warning: anyone already struggling with how heartbreaking and horrible this all is should skip about 10 seconds forwards… The boy had the letter M carved into his chest, his hair had been cut off in clumps, and his genitals had been mutilated.
Thankfully there wasn’t a bottle of paracetamol to throw the canny Geordie cops off the scent this time: they admitted that yes, someone had most probably killed this kid. Given the gruesome state of the body, they assumed a sexual predator was to blame, and started interviewing the local kids to find out if any strange men had been spotted in the area.
Investigation and Arrest
The community was understandably terrified. Martin Brown’s family were informed that their son’s death might not have been an accident after all. Oh so that’s what the handwritten murder note and nursery murder graffiti meant — I feel like we’ve cracked the Zodiac cypher.
The police were now on the hunt for a potential serial killer, but the murderer they wanted looked nothing like they expected. Rather than a creepy middle-aged gent with a dodgy mustache and a transit van, it was a girl who wasn’t yet out of primary school.
The detectives brought in both Mary and Norma to ask them if they had noticed anything strange on the days of the murders. All in all, they interviewed more than 1200 of the local kids, and more than a few of them had mentioned the strange behavior of these two girls (on account of the public confessions, and all that). In addition, Brian’s parents reported seeing Mary on the day of the funeral. She was watching the procession leaving their house, while laughing, and rubbing her hands together.
When Norma was brought into the interview room, she could barely contain her excitement at the mention of the murders. She smiled when told what had happened, but didn’t offer up any useful details. Treating the murder of a 3-year old like a joke was strange enough, but Mary was acting even stranger.
When detectives quizzed her on her schoolyard boasting, she wouldn’t give them a straight answer. Eventually she opened up a little, telling them that she had actually seen someone with Brian Howe on the day of his murder: a local 8-year-old boy was playing with him near the wasteland. As she walked by the two of them, she even saw the older boy hit the toddler in the face.
There was just one problem with that version of events though: the boy Mary had accused had actually been at the airport on the day of the murder. What’s more, Mary had curiously mentioned one thing which she had no right knowing — she told them that the boy was holding scissors. The details of the murder hadn’t been released to the public yet; the only people who knew Brian’s body had been mutilated with scissors were the police, and his killer.
As if that wasn’t incriminating enough, Norma had finally stopped giggling long enough to elaborate on the rumors surrounding her and Mary. She told the police that Mary came to her the day after the the first boy went missing, and admitted to the murder. She had described the feeling of strangling someone to death, and said that she enjoyed it, before taking Norma to see the body.
Mary denied it all, calling Norma a liar. After a time she admitted to being there when the second boy was killed, but asserted that Norma was the one who actually ended his life. Anyone with young kids will recognize this as the exact same game every little one plays when they get in trouble with their friends, just with somewhat higher stakes.
And at any rate, it seems like both of them went back later with the scissors to deface the body. Forensic analysis revealed that the M carved into the chest actually started as an N, before being modified.
In the end, both girls were arrested, and both were charged with murder. Eventually though, Mary confessed that she had in fact been the one who actually killed both of the kids, while Norma stood on the sidelines. Norma was eventually let off the hook as a bystander, rather than perpetrator, but I hope someone in the court system hooked her up with a psychiatrist regardless.
I mean, not to question the wisdom of a judge of the British crown and an esteemed jury of our citizens but, if Norma really had carved her first initial into the body, I’m pretty sure that in itself a crime. Maybe we can get some legal experts to look into the matter, but I’m 99% certain it’s not cool to cut corpses with scissors.
Whatever the case, it would be Mary who bore the brunt of the consequences in court…
Mary’s Home Life
Now, I’m sure you can imagine that the tabloids had a field day with this one when it went to trial. The only thing they love more than sports and gossip are stories about killer children. As far as they were concerned, this was a classic case of a bad seed: a young girl who was evil by nature, rotten to the core.
But we here at CC consider ourselves something of an anti-tabloid. You don’t come here for me to spew some fire and brimstone and condemn the wicked of the world to Hell. That’s what my upcoming channel is for: The Irate Evangelist.
Instead, we understand that monsters aren’t born, they’re made, usually in tragic circumstances beyond their own control. Perhaps it’s easier to dismiss the worst criminals as born evil, rather than face up to the ways that society collectively failed them. Early trauma can have devastating effects in later life, and Christ, it’s hard to imagine a more traumatic young life than Mary’s.
It started with the rather depressing episode of her birth. Mary’s mother was a teenage prostitute, only 16 years old when she gave birth to her. She had no idea who the father was and, amazingly for her age, this wasn’t her first child. Some reports state that Betty ordered the midwife to “take that thing away from me” when her newest bundle of joy was born.
Her attitude hardly improved as the years went on. Mary’s older sister once had to go recover her from another woman’s house, because her mother had tried to give her away. The woman who took her in had been unable to have children of her own, and was desperate to adopt. Still, when Mary’s sister knocking came she readily returned her to where she belonged.
All things considered, this was probably a terrible turn of events for Mary — missing out on her chance at a home where she might have been truly wanted. Even if the other woman had been an awful mother, she would have been a hundred times better than her biological one, and career criminal Billy Bell: the step father from whom she took her name.
Neighbors noticed that Mary was a particularly clumsy child, prone to falling down the stairs, and even one time falling out a window. In another incident, she swallowed a huge dose of sleeping pills and had to be rushed to hospital. Really, her mother was the one behind the vast majority of these misfortunes. Whether or not she was actually trying to end Mary’s life is up for debate; some psychiatrists would diagnose Betty with a condition called Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Munchausen syndrome is when a person feigns illness or injury, or even intentionally induces them, purely for the sympathy and attention it gains them. The same symptom by proxy is, as you can probably guess, when someone does this to someone close to them. Perhaps Betty was inflicting misery on her daughter because she was addicted to the soothing words of her friends and neighbors, or perhaps it really was just simple sadism.
That’s not the worst of it though. In later years, Mary revealed that her mother had actually forced her to work as a prostitute from a young age. It’s never been explicitly backed up by anyone who knew her back then, but if the story is true, it could have begun when she was as young as four years old. One can only imagine the kind of psychological trauma that would cause a kid.
It’s also reported that, when she was around that age, Mary watched as one of her friends was ran over and killed by a bus. Perhaps this planted the seed which led to her fascination with death in the years that followed.
By the time she reached double-digits, Mary had already suffered more than many people endure in a lifetime. Unfortunately, without anyone to save her from that environment, or help repair the damage it had caused, she turned to inflicting the same pains on other children — a desperately twisted way of reclaiming the power which had been so violently taken from her for years.
In May 1968, Mary was present when a little 3-year old boy “fell” off the top of an air raid shelter in Scotswood, suffering broken bones. Not long after, several mothers from the local area reported that the girl had tried to choke their children while they were out playing.
Mary got off with a light warning, which soon led us to the events that just had you losing your faith in humanity for the past  minutes…
Prison and Life After
Mary and Norma went to trial for what they had done. On December 17th, less than 6 months after the death of Brian Howe, Norma was acquitted, while Mary was convicted of manslaughter. Her defense argued that she could not reasonably be held fully responsible for her actions, on account of her age, and the fact that psychological evaluations showed signs that she was a psychopath.
So the charges were downgraded, and Mary received the most British sounding sentence imaginable: being “detained at her Majesty’s pleasure.” This essentially means you’re in for an indefinite imprisonment, until old Queen Liz decides she fancies letting you out (or more likely, the prison service that acts in her name). It turned out not to be as bad as it sounded for Mary, because she only ended up serving a little over 11 years behind bars (with a hiatus nine years in, due to a short-lived jailbreak).
Those quick with child-level maths will have worked out that this made Mary 23 at the time of her release, meaning she had her whole life still ahead of her. If that makes you angry, considering she herself took two young lives away, I’d encourage you to think about the whole context: this was an incredibly sick and miserable young girl, who needed medical help more than anything.
However, the judge at her sentencing lamented that: “It is a most unhappy thing that in all the resources of this country it appears there is no hospital available which is suitable for the accommodation of this girl.” So Mary was shipped off to an all-boys facility, where it was reported by the BBC that she had been “at the centre of a sex and pornography scandal.”
Hardly the environment that a mentally ill child needs. So she was moved to a more suitable juvenile prison in Cheshire, and several other facilities afterwards. By 1980 her psychiatrists ruled that Mary had been cured of her violent conditions, and was fit to re-enter society.
But the opinions of some fancy university folk weren’t going to make this fly with our old friends the tabloids. ..
Despite the fact that Mary’s release was subject to strict observation and terms, the papers were loath to let her off the hook with just 11 years. The authorities did their best to avoid a media circus by giving the young woman a new identity to live under, but that only delayed the inevitable. When a vulturous reporter puts their mind to it, there’s no ethical violation too great.
As if you needed any proof of that fact, for years the papers allowed Mary’s mother to turn a pretty profit from the tragedy — selling stories which often included letters and notes she claimed were written by her daughter. And the time the parasitic press found Mary herself, she wasn’t the only one whose safety was at stake.
Mary had given birth to a daughter, on the 25th of May 1984. The exact same day she had taken the life of a child 16 years prior, she brought her own into the world. Mother and child soon had to flee from their home when an investigative reporter tracked them down. After uprooting their lives and moving on to a new town, the family managed to live in peace for fourteen years before the papers found them again.
At this point, Mary’s teenaged daughter had no idea about her mother’s past. It wasn’t until the news vans and reporters descended upon their street en masse that she had to explain to her daughter who she was, and what she had done. They ended up fleeing that house as well, covering their heads with bedsheets, in an attempt to prevent their faces being broadcast to the public.
The people of Britain were worked up into a fresh frenzy over the case each time Bell resurfaced. Her story had left such a black mark in the memories of a whole generation, that some thought she might be subject to mob justice even after all that time had passed, should she or her daughter’s faces become known.
Her legal anonymity was expiring soon too, which would have opened the floodgates. So in 2003, Mary launched a successful court case to guarantee lifetime legal anonymity for her and her family, including her future granddaughter.
If you’re still angry at the fact that Mary Bell’s daughter and granddaughter escaped ongoing punishment for her crimes, then I don’t know what to tell you, except that I reckon you’ve got a promising career in the DPRK’s Ministry of Justice ahead of you.
We in the modern world don’t really go in for multi-generational sentences though, so it was probably for the best that the courts de-clawed the reporters who were set on shaming Mary Bell for life. She had been unmasked for the last time, and it’s thought that she’s still alive and well, living out her life… somewhere, under the name… Something Something. And that’s the way things will stay.
Whatever your opinion of the punishments handed out to Mary Bell, I think we can all agree that there are no winners in her story. Our sympathy goes first to the victims — little kids who never got a chance to grow up, go to school, get married, or have kids of their own. After that though, it’s only right to recognize Mary as a victim in her own right.
Because basically, kids don’t do this stuff. It takes a massive amount of deeply-inflicted pain to turn them towards extreme acts of violence, even if some might have more of a predisposition towards them than others.
What I mean is that even if you believe that some people are just born with innate violent inclinations, it’s undeniable that with a safe and loving home, the lives of these kids turn out very, very differently. Nurture trumps nature, in the end. But in Mary’s case, she was a child so horrifically treated that she likely forgot what it meant to be kind at all.
Today we’ve covered two stories, really: the first about a horrible pair of murders, the second a horrific study of childhood abuse and its consequences. With that in mind, we’ve dropped some important phone numbers in the description, to call if you believe a child you know might be suffering any abuse of any kind. The hotlines are completely anonymous.
Thankfully our attitudes and safeguards have evolved a bit since 1968, so a little bit of whistleblowing can go a long way, and might even save a life or two. That’s maybe a bit of a heavy note to end things on, but you are listening to a show about a child who killed children — did you expect to finish off with a spring in your step?
1. Mary Bell’s account of her horrific history of sexual abuse arose in a 1998 book by biographer Gitta Sereny, entitled Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell. The book caused a bit of a stir to say the least; it was revealed that Mary had received payment for the interviews within, which drew the ire of the papers and the government of Tony Blair, who tried to ban it before it went to press.
2. A quick word on that jailbreak I glossed over earlier on. In 1977, Mary was imprisoned at Moor Court Open Prison at Stoke-on-Trent, when she decided to just… leave. It was an open prison after all, so Mary and another inmate just decided to take a little hitchhiking and boozing trip. Police caught up with them after a couple of days, and slapped their unlucky new boyfriends with charges for harboring fugitives.
Note: thought it might be good to include these in the interest of social responsibility and all that.
NSPCC (UK): 0808-800-5000
National Child Abuse Hotline (USA): 1-800-422-4453