Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Bell


 "He called me a murderer and I grabbed his hair and smashed his face into his dinner."

                                                                                                       -- Mary Bell

Because Britain was not used to incarcerating little girls who murdered, the question of where Mary should be placed sent everyone scrambling. Prison was out of the question for an eleven-year-old. Mental hospitals weren't equipped to take her. She was too dangerous for institutions that housed troubled children. Eventually, the precocious murderess ended up in an "all boys" facility. There would be problems down the road when puberty hit.

Mary's incarceration is fascinating because at some point she apparently "reformed." When she was released at age 23, she went on with her life and had a daughter of her own. She claims to be a completely different person than the "psychopathic" child killer she once was. Can a violent sociopath be cured? Was it possible that, at age eleven she was still psychologically pliable? Was there a "moral awakening," as author Gitta Sereny suggests? Or is she putting on a really good act? Sociopaths are experts at duplicity. In any case, her experience while incarcerated is worth reviewing.

Mary Bell was housed at the Red Bank Special Unit from February 1969 until November 1973. Red Bank was a reform school, a portion of which was high security. By most accounts the institution was a well-designed and reasonably comfortable facility, with a supportive staff, headed by James Dixon, a former Navy man who was known for his strong moral influence. Mr. Dixon provided structure and discipline for Mary, and she came to respect and love him. If Mary had been in the stranglehold of an evil, immoral mother, Mr. Dixon filled the role of the benevolent, strong father figure which was lacking in her life. She loved Billy Bell (who was not her biological father, but was in her life from the beginning) but as a thief, he was not an ideal role model. When he was convicted of armed robbery in 1969, his visits to Mary ended.

Mary's mother was a disciplinarian, but not the kind generally advocated for family situations. As a prostitute with a specialty, she "disciplined" her clients with whips and bondage, claimed Mary. But Betty Bell did make some provisions: "I always hid the whips from the kids," she said. Betty visited her daughter often, and Mary eagerly awaited opportunities to see her mother, but she always appeared disturbed afterwards and acted out aggressively, according to the Red Bank staff. One doctor wanted Betty's visits to stop, but to suggest that a mother be kept from her daughter, was unthinkable in that era. The staff at Red Bank hated the overly dramatic and manipulative Betty. "She 'played' at being a mother," said one teacher.

Betty Bell profited from her daughter's notoriety, selling her story to the tabloids, and encouraged her daughter to write letters and poems that could be easily peddled to the press. Betty wanted her daughter to see how much she suffered as the mother of a famous juvenile murderer, said Mary: "Jesus was only nailed to the cross, I'm being hammered," complained Betty.

Mary Bell, Age 16, while incarcerated
Mary Bell, Age 16, while incarcerated
The philosophy of Red Bank was to focus on the present. Dwelling on past experiences was detrimental, and therefore Mary Bell's upbringing and eventual murders were not adequately acknowledged. One psychiatrist thought Mary was blocking out her troubled past, and was being discouraged from making any attempts to discover why she killed. "There is in her an extraordinary inner intensity... a neediness one can neither really understand nor handle," he said. She went through many counselors, very few of which got to know her well. She was manipulative and picked fights with the boys, and claimed to have had a twin sister named "Paula" ("I think I was inventing a twin who might have done what I really did," she said later.)