The following are the first 3 chapters from the book “Mary Flora Bell: The Horrific True Story Behind An Innocent Girl Serial Killer ”
Most Americans are familiar with the legend of the Bell witch, a tale that has spawned numerous books and movies. It centers around the haunting, and alleged murder, of the patriarch of a real family named Bell who resided in Tennessee in the 1800s.
Supposedly, the vengeful spirit of a former neighbor, the witch, creates turmoil and wreaks havoc on the family in such a terrifying manner that it affected them the rest of their lives, and 200 years later, the story is still being told.
One hundred and fifty years after the Bell family haunting, and an ocean away, a child with the last name Bell was making headlines. Her crimes would also effect the families of her victims for the rest of their lives. Called a witch, devil spawn, and bad seed, Mary Flora Bell will forever be the epitome of evil to some who hear her story and to those who lost a family member to her evil deeds.
Whereas the Bell witch was supposed to have the ability to shapeshift, it would be the English government that aided Mary to shapeshift and become invisible. Mary would be granted anonymity, as would the daughter she had years later; a controversial ruling. Although victims’ families understood the need to protect her daughter, it was Mary’s anonymity at the center of the debate.
Imagine, if you will, the horrific thought that a family member had been murdered, and you are notified that the killer will soon be released, but neither you nor anyone in the public will be privy to where they will be living after their release. Now, compound that thought by adding the fact that the convicted killer will also be given a new name and identity, which authorities refuse to reveal to you. How safe would you feel? When you stepped outdoors to check the mail, would you find yourself checking over your shoulder?
As happens so often, the grief and anger the victims’ families felt did not resolve after Mary was locked away, nor did the terms of her release heal any wounds. If anything, knowing that she was going about her own daily life unnoticed and unidentified made the families of both her victims feel bitter; as though they themselves were prisoners. Mary was free to work and raise her daughter out of the glare of the media spotlight, but the families did not have this same luxury.
Mary Flora Bell—whomever and wherever she is today—will forever be known as the little girl with the angelic face who brutally killed two small boys. In 1968, it was a crime which was quite unheard of, especially in her small corner of the world; Newcastle on Tyne, England.
When the young girl was called upon to speak at her murder trial, spectators were unable to fathom how such an innocent looking child could speak about cold-blooded murder with a completely flat voice devoid of sorrow or remorse.
The passage of five decades has not made this story any less incredible. It is a tale of sadness and brutality, as well as one of redemption. Mary Bell was a child damaged by the abuse she suffered at home and damaged by the lack of love and nurturing every child needs to grow and become a well-adjusted individual. Mary had been hurt so utterly deeply, that it seems pain was the only thing she had to give others.
The objective of this book is not to excuse any of Mary’s actions. Even most small children understand right from wrong, but in Mary’s case, it is difficult at times to discern whether she understood right from wrong and simply chose to do wrong, or if she was truly incapable of understanding the difference.
By studying Mary’s psycho-social background, crimes, and the punishment she received, we can possibly gain a better insight into what went wrong, if the punishment was sufficient to meet the crimes, and if the punishment appears to have been effective.
Get That Thing Away from Me
“I had a compulsion to do it.” This unapologetic reasoning was given by Ed Gein, aka, the Butcher of Plainfield, when confronted with evidence of the monstrous acts he had committed in 1968. The diminutive murderer with watery eyes was described as “childlike” by several people from his hometown in Wisconsin.
The real-life inspiration for movies such as Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was so trusted by townsfolk, he served as a babysitter to their children. Gein was convicted of some of the most heinous acts a person can commit against another. The butchering of women and corpses to make household items and a skin suit he would wear, while living out his fantasy of being a woman himself, are stomach churning.
In the penal system, the crime fellow prisoners find reprehensible and unforgivable are those committed against children. We have all heard the stories of child killers and pedophiles being confronted by other inmates — a prison version of justice for daring to harm a child. As far as anyone knows, Ed Gein kept his murderous activities to just grown women and never harmed a child. Ironically, in that same year of 1968, an ocean away, there were children being killed.
The town of Newcastle, upon Tyne in England, was being rocked by its own problem: a terrifying, faceless monster preying on innocent children. The killer was dubbed the, “Tyneside Strangler.” A cold and calculated killer, who told authorities, she had committed the crimes because she wanted to. Curiosity, they say, killed the cat. It also led to the killing of children.
Perhaps the most chilling part of this story, aside from the facts themselves, is the actual killer. Not only was the perpetrator a female, but this murderer of children was herself a child.
Coined a “bad seed” by the press, and psychopath” by court psychiatrists, Mary Flora Bell killed for the first time May 25, 1968; one day shy of her eleventh birthday. How could a child of eleven be judged by a jury of her peers? The short answer is; she couldn’t. Mary, and her friend, co-defendant, thirteen-year-old Norma Bell, no relation, were judged as adults, by adults.
The jury was not privy to all the facts when reaching a decision of Mary’s guilt or innocence. They wouldn’t hear the stories of mental, physical, or sexual abuse, Mary had been subjected to. Those stories would trickle out later, and while not an excuse for committing the atrocities she was found guilty of; they do give some insight as to what made her do such horrible deeds.
From early on, Mary was taught how to lie by the very person who should have been teaching her the value of honesty; her own mother, Betty Bell. It was an ominous beginning for Mary, when the nurse attempted to hand the newborn to her teenage mother, and Betty exclaimed, “Get that thing away from me!” Betty would often leave her daughter with family members while she traveled north to Glasgow, earning money by selling her body.
Betty’s family might have been bothered by some of her actions towards Mary, but they eased their conscience by telling themselves no matter how long Betty was gone, she always came back for her daughter. Mary might have had a better shot at life if Betty had never come back. Betty’s sister and brother-in-law even offered to adopt the beautiful little girl with big blue eyes.
Betty’s affection and attitude toward Mary were certainly bipolar and passive-aggressive; mostly aggressive and rarely passive, unless you count neglect. Betty also attempted to give; sell, her infant daughter to a German woman, who told Betty her and her husband had been denied a child via adoption. The woman wanted a baby, but couldn’t have one. Betty had a baby, but didn’t want her. Sensing something wasn’t right, Betty’s sister had followed her and was able to retrieve the infant. The family would later reveal that by age two, Mary had completely shut down emotionally; except when acting in anger. Mary herself would admit years later she refused to cry as a child because she viewed tears as a sign of weakness. Even standing before the court, awaiting the verdict, which would tear her away from her family and change her life forever, Mary would not cry. If anyone ever deserved to cry, surely Mary did.
Mary’s mother never allowed her to refer to the man Mary knew as her father as “dad,” instead forcing her to call Billy Bell “uncle,” so her mother could continue to receive government assistance. As far as the English government knew, and anyone she came in contact with, Mary was a bastard. One can imagine the confusion a child would experience. Although Mary doted on her father, or “uncle,” he was frequently absent from the home; a petty criminal often in jail. Adding to her already unstable life, Mary’s mother, a prostitute who specialized in dominatrix, often brought clients home and used her young daughter as a “sexual prop” in sadomasochistic situations as early as the age of four. In response to allegations of bringing her clients around Mary and her siblings, Betty replied, “at least I made sure the whips and stuff were hidden.”
Like the sadistic dominatrix she played for clients, Betty reveled in humiliating and degrading Mary. A chronic bed wetter, Mary was frequently grabbed by her hair roughly and face ground into the urine soaked sheets and mattress. Every day, Betty repeatedly chipped away any self-worth Mary might have developed. It seemed as if Betty felt this was part of her maternal duty to perform. The only worth Betty Bell seemed to see in Mary, other than selling her young body to grown men, was using her to get government aid. And even then, on numerous occasions, her mother allegedly tried to murder her daughter.
It has been suggested that Betty suffered from Munchausen by proxy; a condition in which a parent intentionally harms their child, or makes them sick in order to gain attention. On a couple occasions her mother summoned help, reporting Mary had ingested sleeping pills on her own, in an effort to commit suicide. No one ever questioned how such a young child gained access to the prescription drugs, or why she felt suicide was a solution.
Whether attempted suicide or attempted murder, the one certainty is little Mary had a miserable home life. Teachers, often the first to notice when something is amiss with children, definitely noticed something very wrong with Mary Bell. Repeated outbursts, however, were nothing compared to the day a teacher found Mary trying to choke another student on the playground. The teacher was shocked by Mary’s response to her admonishment. Mary told her teacher she didn’t understand why it was wrong to throttle a classmate. Would it hurt him? Would it kill him? Mary seemed to have no concept of just how dangerous the situation was. Mary would later tell counselors she was in a constant state of numbness, or nothingness. She longed to feel and the only way she could possibly feel something was by making others feel.
Children who knew Mary, told authorities that before the murders she was known to torment, and even kill, birds and small animals. She later, told authorities she enjoyed “hurting little things that can’t fight back.” These acts, we now know, are clear warning signs of a psychopath in the making. Many murderers and serial killers start out this way, and the violence continues to escalate until they start killing people. This was, allegedly, the course Mary’s life was taking, but in the 1960s, child psychology was still in its infancy.
Even after being found guilty of the crime of manslaughter, the question was what to do with eleven-year-old Mary Bell. She had been judged by adults, but should such a misguided child be placed in a prison system with adult criminals? Wouldn’t she possibly be victimized herself? Would Mary, as Charles Manson attested to concerning himself, learn how to be a career criminal, coming away even more bitter and hardened? The press’s assertion that she was a “bad seed,” leads to the question of “Nature vs. Nurture.”
Was Mary Flora Bell born “bad,” or were her early years of ridicule and abuse to blame for her actions? While we may never know the answer to that, what we do know is, Mary was no stranger to trouble. Schoolmates, neighborhood children, teachers, friends’ parents, all told stories of an intelligent girl, but also a child who lied compulsively and always needed to be the center of attention. Many of the lessons children must be taught, such as impulse control and handling emotions in a healthy way, were never taught to Mary. She acted and reacted without thought of any repercussions. Negative attention after all, is still attention, and when Mary attacked other children, at least she got noticed.
Even as the police were looking for a murderer, Mary was heard to boast, “I am a murderer.” Lack of having her emotional needs met at home caused Mary to crave attention, as a junkie craves the sizzle of the drug bubbling in the spoon over a flame. Ironically, no one paid much attention because they thought that’s all she wanted. Certainly, Mary lied often to get attention. Why would this be any different? But this time, she was telling the truth. Of course, once confronted with the truth, she began lying again. Mary Bell’s life was topsy turvy — up was down and wrong was right. Morality, wholesomeness, and truth had no place in Mary Bell’s childhood. Instead, perversion, sex, and other various vices were the norm.
Clues that Mary was headed for irreversible trouble were in abundance, but hindsight, be it in the 1960s or today, is always 20/20. For example, one of Mary’s schoolmates choked on the playground, or the accident of a toddler cousin Mary reported falling off a small ledge resulting in head injuries, or three girls Mary was seen taking turns strangling and threatening their lives, or attacking her best friend’s sister. In addition to the violence on other children, Mary and Norma were caught red-handed breaking into and vandalizing a nursery school. Mary easily talked her way out of the incident. However, not knowing the nursery school had installed an alarm after the first occasion, Mary and Norma were found once again on the property, where they had trashed the building; written notes found on the property, confirmed by handwriting experts, as belonging to both girls.
While Mary and Norma would point the finger of guilt at each other regarding the violence, they admitted to “joined writing,” taking turns alternating writing words in an attempt to hide their identities. They left notes signed, “Fanny and Faggot,” in which they took credit for the murders, and warned, “fuch (sic) off we murder.” Their reasoning was stated as, “good for a giggle.” Perhaps most disturbing of all was a note Norma took full credit for in which she; as Fanny stated, “I murder so THAT I may come back.”
Viewed in hindsight, these messages are in a category of creepy sector of letters from killers, such as Son of Sam and Jack the Ripper. More so because they were crafted by two seemingly adorable little girls. The authorities and school staff certainly didn’t view this as a simple childish prank, yet, they still didn’t view either girl as murder suspects. The two girls were remanded over to the custody of their respective parents, and a date for them to appear in juvenile court was set. They would never see a juvenile trial. Instead, they would be tried for murder, as adults, in criminal court.
I Wanted to See Him in His Coffin
On May 25, 1968, the body of four-year-old Martin Brown was discovered in a vacant house. At first, it was regarded as a sad and unfortunate accident. The criminal investigation division wasn’t even notified of the death; because no obvious marks or injuries were found. Two young boys, hunting for scrap wood, had entered the abandoned house and were confronted with the small corpse of Martin Brown lying under a window. Lying next to the boy’s body was an empty aspirin bottle. Police arriving on the scene speculated the child had ingested a fatal overdose and died.
Even though the boy had dried blood and saliva on his cheek that had run down to his chin, there were no signs of struggle and no marks on his body. He appeared to have just laid down and never gotten back up. This is something Mary Bell would state in class after the death.
For a class assignment, Mary drew a picture of a boy lying in exactly the same position Martin Brown was found in, along with a bottle next to him she’d simply labeled, “TABLET.” Mary’s caption for her picture stated, “There has been a boy who just laid down and Died.” Although Mary wasn’t the only child who knew of the boy’s death, she was most certainly the only student to draw a picture of it. Yet, her teacher didn’t seem to find it odd. After all, Mary had seen the body, so of course, she was affected by the incident.
The two boys who had found the body called out to some workmen nearby and soon found themselves surrounded by a crowd of children and adults. The workmen said they recognized Martin as the boy they’d shared some cookies with less than an hour before. Two of the children had managed to squeeze through a hole in the derelict structure to get a better view. When police officers arrived on the scene, they shooed the two kids, Mary and Norma, away.
Mary had brought Norma to the house to show off her handiwork, and she wasn’t done yet. Mary took it upon herself to run and find Martin’s aunt, telling the woman she knew they were searching for the child and knew where he was. She went on to tell the aunt to follow her, because she’d seen Martin’s body and he had, “blood all over.” The poor woman unwittingly followed her nephew’s murderer to the scene of the crime.
She would be tormented in the following days by both Mary and Norma, who would torture her with questions, asking if she was sad Martin was dead and if his mother missed him. Eventually, Martin’s aunt simply refused to open the door to the two girls.
A terrible accident…such a horrible thing to happen to a child. Initially, this was most people’s reaction. People from the neighborhood protested after the boy’s death, stating that such empty buildings in the area were found alluring to children, and further tragedies were imminent if they weren’t demolished.
In a photo taken at a demonstration, in which residents urged authorities to tear down the derelict houses and buildings that local children played in, two children can be seen holding up a banner, stating area residents wanted actions taken immediately to prevent future accidents. One of the children in the picture is Mary Flora Bell. Criminals, especially those involved in serial killing, often insert themselves into the investigation or find a way to be just on the fringe of the case, to satisfy their narcissistic ego.
Although no official criminal investigation began at the time of Martin Brown’s death, a doctor viewing the body did comment to officers that it would have been possible for another child to have strangled him to death without any signs of violence, since a child’s hands are so small. Furthermore, it wouldn’t take much strength or pressure to strangle such a small boy. This was noted by police officers, but not taken seriously. Not just yet. This is another example of incidents that only comes into focus and haunts those involved later — as in, too late. Too late for Martin Brown and too late for the next murder victim.
May 26, 1968, was Mary’s eleventh birthday, a day like any other day, at least as far as Mary was concerned. Norma’s father would report to the police the eleven-year-old had attacked his younger daughter and he’d had to physically remove her from the premises. This pattern of violence was not anything surprising to anyone who knew Mary. Mary’s attacks on other children and her braggadocio were so commonplace that even when she pointed to the house where Martin Brown’s body was found and told neighborhood children that’s where she’d killed someone, she was laughed at.
Mary Flora Bell was just attempting to steal the spotlight once again. At least that seemed to be the general consensus, until a few days after Martin’s body was discovered, when Mary’s callousness could no longer be ignored. If she could no longer torment the young boy, she’d simply continue tormenting the survivors.
Martin Brown’s mother was inside her home when a knock came at the door. Upon answering it, she found Mary Bell standing there with a sickly, creepy grin on her face. Mary asked Mrs. Brown if she could see Martin. Thinking perhaps the girl was somehow unaware of the tragedy which took her son’s life, she told Mary, “No, pet, Martin’s dead.” To which Mary replied, with her creepy smile still playing on her small mouth, “Oh, I know he’s dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin.” Martin’s mother gasped and slammed the door in Mary’s face. She was stunned a child could stoop so low to such painful behavior. She questioned herself only briefly regarding whether she had misunderstood the girl’s words, but she couldn’t dismiss the feeling of evil she had felt emanating from Mary’s smile. No, Mary definitely intended to wound her. She was certain of that. It would be Mary’s eerie grin that would eventually cause her ultimate undoing.
Little Martin would be laid to rest in a pauper’s grave with no headstone. Only the flowers his mother brought regularly, marked his grave. But, then, what epitaph could you possibly write about a child whose life had been snuffed out too soon? So many milestones would never get marked; never graduating high school, nor starting a family. What can one possibly say?
No one around Mary Bell could be at peace or rest well. No one was safe, nor spared from her angry wrath. The beautiful angelic face with startlingly big blue eyes framed by a page boy haircut, was a deceptive façade. After Martin Brown’s tiny coffin was laid to rest, Mary turned on her best friend Norma and viciously attacked her. Clawing at her face and kicking her in the head, Mary issued a warning that she was a murderer, who would kill again if provoked.
Children who witnessed the scuffle laughed it off as just Mary being Mary. No one took her admission of guilt or warnings seriously. That grievous mistake would soon haunt every adult and child who shook their heads and did nothing.
Of course, Mary was to blame for her actions, but is it not the weight of guilt shifting slightly on to those who stand idly by? No one protected Mary from the abuse at home and no one protected the neighborhood children from Mary, that is, until she killed a second time.