Mary Bell: The Eleven-Year-Old Serial Killer

Throughout history, plenty of evil, ignoble characters have come and gone. From murderers and thieves to the unspeakable acts of history’s most prolific serial killers.

However, when one pictures such a character, it would be unthinkable to imagine a child. One as young as eleven-years-old, carrying out such deeds – but, alas, such a case exists.

The haunting chronicles of Mary Bell detail a chilling story. One where innocence becomes malevolence. How could a child, so young and innocent, commit such unfathomable acts of brutality? What twisted forces sent her down such a path?

The case of Mary Bell, the eleven-year-old serial killer, is a puzzle that defies simple answers. It is an unsettling account. It invites us to navigate the murky depths of her story and delve into the complexities of human nature.

Mary Bell at the age of 16.

Bell’s Troubled Upbringing

Mary Bell’s early life was marred by a tumultuous and disturbing upbringing. Born to a young, mentally unstable mother named Betty, Mary entered the world under challenging circumstances.

Her mother worked as a prostitute and often left the family. She left Mary to fend for herself without the comfort of a stable home life. Family accounts also reveal a horrifying picture of Betty’s treatment of Mary during her formative years.

Disturbing allegations say Betty attempted to end Mary’s life on multiple occasions. She disguised the attempts as accidents. Mary was subjected to repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her mother. The trauma began at just five years old.

Mary grew up in the poorer Scotswood area of Newcastle. She was exposed to a harsh environment rife with domestic violence and criminal behavior. This only normalized her acts of aggression towards other children, as well as vandalism and theft.

She had disruptive behavior and gained a reputation for attention-seeking. This made it easier to dismiss her alarming proclamation, “I am a murderer,” as just another one of her idle boasts – unfortunately, it was no empty claim.

The First Murder

On May 25, 1968, just a day before turning eleven, Mary Bell committed her first murder.

However, Bell displayed a propensity for violence earlier than that. Weeks before, on May 11, Mary and her friend Norma Joyce Bell were playing with a local three-year-old boy. Supposedly, the boy fell and suffered severe injuries. The incident was labeled an accident, and both girls escaped punishment.

The next day, May 12, the mothers of three young girls informed the police that Mary had attacked and choked their children. Mary was quickly interviewed and lectured by authorities. But no juvenile charges were filed.

Less than two weeks later, Mary Bell would become a murderer. According to evidence gathered later, she brutally strangled four-year-old Martin Brown in a run-down house in Scotswood, not far from her home in Newcastle.

Authorities believed she committed this crime alone. The murder of Martin Brown was particularly violent and gruesome. Mary’s behavior before and after the murder was puzzling and disturbing.

Afterward, Mary and Norma broke into and vandalized a nursery in Scotswood. They left notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. However, Mary’s propensity for violence wouldn’t end with the killing of poor Martin.

The Second Murder

Mary Bell’s second murder occurred two months after her first. And it shocked and appalled the community even further.

On July 31, three-year-old Brian Howe disappeared from a vacant lot near his home. When police searched the area, they found his lifeless body among the concrete blocks. The young boy had been strangled. His legs and stomach were mutilated by a razor and scissors that were found at the scene.

Disturbingly, police reports concluded that an “N” was carved into his stomach. But this was then changed by someone else to an “M”. The force used in the murder indicated that the culprit was likely a child. So the police started investigating local children.

They discovered that Mary and her friend Norma Bell had contradictory accounts of their whereabouts at the time of the murder. Eventually, both girls were implicated in the killing, which they had committed together. Once again, they used strangulation as their method of murder.

These highly publicized crimes, disturbing details, and Mary’s age made this case one of the most infamous in England’s history. It left many people wondering what could lead a child to commit such cruel and heinous acts.

Charged and Convicted

There were no visible signs of foul play following the chilling discovery of Martin Brown’s lifeless body. This left investigators perplexed and with an open case on their hands.

However, the truth would soon come to light. Investigators would start to put together the case between Martin’s tragic fate and the killing of Brian Howe.

The two girls at the center of the investigation, Mary Bell and Norma Bell, were ultimately charged with two counts of manslaughter. The court proceedings, however, took a dramatic turn on December 17, 1968. Norma Bell walked free after being acquitted. But Mary Bell faced a different fate. 

The jury was guided by the assessments of psychiatrists. They identified Mary as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy.” The jury ended up convicting Mary of manslaughter. The presiding judge described her as a dangerous individual. They emphasized the grave risk she posed to other children.

As a consequence, Mary was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. She began her detention at the Red Bank secure unit in St. Helens, Lancashire.

The media’s voracious appetite for Mary’s story consumed public attention after her conviction. The British press fervently pursued her narrative. Even her mother, Betty, shamelessly capitalized on the tragedy. She sold stories to the press and provided reporters with writings she claimed were Mary’s.

Mary managed to make headlines again in September 1977 after she briefly escaped from prison. But she was caught just days later.

Mary Bell’s Life After Prison

After a long twelve years, Mary Bell was finally released from prison. Now 23 years old, she embarked on a new life under anonymity and with a different identity.

She even welcomed a daughter on May 25, 1984. Eventually, though, reporters unveiled their whereabouts. The duo had to flee their home.

In a significant legal victory on May 21, 2003, Bell secured lifelong anonymity for herself and her daughter by a ruling of the High Court. Subsequently, court orders permanently safeguarding someone’s identity became known as “Mary Bell orders.”

In 2009, it came to light that Bell had become a grandmother. This marked another final chapter in her twisted, intriguing life.


Blanco, Juan Ignacio. “Mary Flora Bell.” Murderpedia. Accessed May 18, 2023.

Doughty, Sophie. “Who Is Mary Bell? How a Schoolgirl Became One of Tyneside’s Most Notorious Killers.” ChronicleLive, May 25, 2018.

Freeman-Powell, Shamaan. “Legal Dilemma of Granting Child Killers Anonymity.” BBC News, April 18, 2019.

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