Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Bell

Caught

 "Murder isn't that bad, we all die sometime anyway."

-- Mary Bell to one of her guards

The first night in their small jail cells in Newcastle West End police station, the girls were restless. "They kept shouting to each other through the doors," said one of the police women who watched the children. The police station was not accustomed to housing child offenders, and they had to make provisions as best as they could. "We finally told them to shut up. At one moment I heard Mary shout out angrily about her mother." Mary, who had been a chronic bedwetter, was terrified of going to sleep, for fear that she might mess her bed. "I usually do," she confided. At home, Mary's mother severely humiliated her whenever she wet the bed, rubbing her daughter's face in the pool of urine, said Mary, years later. She then hung the mattress outside for the entire neighborhood to see.

During the course of her incarceration, the women guards got to know Mary better, describing her as confident, intelligent and "cheeky." Some of Mary's casual comments would shock the police women, but others saw her as a scared little girl who had no comprehension of the enormity of her actions. In the middle of the night Mary would "bolt upright." Mary's hostility had an almost naive quality: while tightly grabbing a stray cat by the neck, a guard told her not to hurt the cat. Mary allegedly replied, "Oh, she doesn't feel that, and anyway, I like hurting little things that can't fight back." In another incident, a police woman said that Mary said she'd like to be a nurse, "because then I can stick needles into people. I like hurting people."

If her parents were somehow responsible for young Mary's behavior, she would not talk about it. She had been taught to keep quiet, especially around authority figures. Her father, Billy Bell, had lived with the family, but the children (Mary and her younger brother and sister) were instructed to always call him "uncle," so that their mother could collect government assistance. Billy Bell was a thief, and the mother, Betty Bell, was a prostitute who was often away in Glasgow on "business." Because of the family's shady vocations, Newcastle Welfare authorities knew very little about Mary's family. One detective who visited Mary's home described it as having "no feeling of a home, just a shell. Very peculiar... the only life one felt was that of a big dog barking."

Was it because Mary was unresponsive that the psychiatrists found her "psychopathic"? If she had broken her silence and told them of her abusive home life, would she have earned a more sympathetic analysis? "I've seen a lot of psychopathic children," said Dr. Orton, the first to see her during her incarceration. "But I've never met one like Mary: as intelligent, as manipulative, or as dangerous." During the murder trial, Mary's behavior would do little to harvest sympathy.

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