Bell’s mother Betty (née McCrickett) was a prostitute who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary (nicknamed May) was her first child, born when Betty was 17 years old. It is not known who Mary’s biological father was. For most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, a habitual criminal who was later arrested for armed robbery, but Bell married McCrickett when Mary was a baby.
Independent accounts from family members strongly suggest that Betty had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life. Her family was suspicious when Mary “fell” from a window, and when she “accidentally” consumed sleeping pills. On one such occasion, an independent witness saw Betty giving the pills to her daughter as sweets. Mary herself says she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with men.
It was reported after this “fall” that Mary experienced, that she had suffered from brain damage. At the time this was reported as a result of the fall, however we now know this may be due to the abuse she has experienced as a child, from her own mother. Mary had damage to her prefrontal cortex, an are associated with voluntary movements and decision-making.
On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled 4-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house. She was believed to have committed this crime alone. Between that time and a second killing, she and a friend, Norma Joyce Bell (1955–1989; no relation), aged 13, broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. The police dismissed this incident as a prank.[
On 31 July 1968, the two girls took part in the death, again by strangulation, of 3-year-old Brian Howe, in a wasteland in the same Scotswood area Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had later returned to his body to carve an “M” into the boy’s stomach. Mary Bell also used a pair of scissors to cut off some of Howe’s hair, scratch his legs, and mutilate his penis.
On 17 December 1968, at Newcastle Assizes, Norma Bell was acquitted but Mary Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy”. The judge, Justice Cusack, described her as dangerous and said she posed a “very grave risk to other children”. She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in Newton-Le-Willows, Lancashire – the same facility that would house Jon Venables, one of James Bulger’s killers, 25 years later.[
After her conviction, Bell was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press and also from the German magazine Stern. Her mother repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter. Bell herself made headlines when, in September 1977, she briefly escaped from Moor Court open prison, where she had been held since her transfer from a young offenders institution to an adult prison a year earlier. Her penalty for this was a loss of prison privileges for 28 days. For a time, Bell also lived in a girls’ remand home at Cumberlow Lodge in South Norwood (in a house built by Victorian inventor William Stanley).
In 1980, Bell, aged 23, was released from Askham Grange open prison after having served 12 years and was granted anonymity (including a new name), allowing her to start a new life.[ Four years later she had a daughter, born on 25 May 1984. Bell’s daughter did not know of her mother’s past until Bell’s location was discovered by reporters in 1998 and she and her mother had to leave their house with bed sheets over their heads.
Bell’s daughter’s anonymity was originally protected only until she reached the age of 18. However, on 21 May 2003, Bell won a High Court battle to have her own anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life. Any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict in Britain is consequently sometimes known as a “Mary Bell order”.