At the time, the police thought the break-in and the notes were nothing more than a prank, and the school, having had trouble with vandals in the past, installed an alarm system. These notes, however, would later prove to be more than just a bad joke.
On July 31, three-year-old Brian Howe went missing from his home. His older sister, Pat, was frantic with worry, going from house to house looking for him. A small boy who always stayed near home, Brian was unlikely to have simply wandered away. Mary Bell again appeared, with best friend (but no relation) Norma Bell, offering to help Pat look for her brother. Mary gradually led Pat up to an industrial area near the neighborhood, where older children often played. Mary motioned to a large stack of concrete blocks, suggesting that Brian might be playing "behind the blocks, or between them." Though she encouraged Pat to go and look around the blocks, Pat refused and soon left the site. Hours later, police found Brian's body in that exact spot.
Brian had been strangled, and his body showed signs of an attempted mutilation. His hair had been chopped off in big clumps, there were puncture wounds on his thighs, and bits of skin had been stripped away from his penis. A broken pair of scissors lay on the ground near his body. When they removed his clothes at the morgue, police discovered an "M" carved into his stomach with a razor blade. Speculation, oddly pointing directly to the murderers, was that someone had initially carved the letter "N", then changed it into an "M". Whether this was determined after the identities of the killers were made or before is significant, and will be discussed later.
|Evidence: Broken scissors|
Along with the other neighborhood children, Mary and Norma were interviewed by investigators. The pair immeditately stood out, due to their unusual interest in the two crimes. Stories began to emerge about both girls' actions during the time between the two murders. In one, a schoolmate observed Mary attack Norma on the school playground in the days following the break-in at the nursery school. Mary scratched and kicked her friend, yelling at her "I am a murderer! That house over there, that's where I killed!" At the time the boy ignored the "confession", since Mary was well known to be a show-off.
Incredibly, it also emerged that Mary had visited the Howe's home days before Brian was killed. Even then she was pointing a finger at her friend Norma, saying (inexplicably) "I know something about Norma that will get her put away straight away.... Norma put her hands on a boy's throat. It was Martin Brown -- she pressed and he just dropped." In telling this story, Mary put her hands around her own throat to demonstrate. Then she left.
The girls also displayed inappropriate emotion during the funerals of each of the victims. Norma was described as having smiled and been "oddly excited" throughout the funeral of Martin Brown. An officer stationed outside the Howe home reported that Mary was among those gathered in the street as Brian's coffin was removed for the funeral. She waited, watching the house in rapt fascination, and as the coffin was being carried out, "She stood there, laughing. Laughing and rubbing her hands," reported the detective.
|Norma Brown near the construction site where Brian was found|
Mary's demeanor at seeing Brian's coffin spurred authorities to move more quickly to get her off the street. Fairly certain of her involvement in the two murders, police grilled the girl, whose story changed each time she told it. She first told police that she had seen Brian going to the construction area with an older boy, who had hit him. She also said she had seen a broken pair of scissors in the boy's hand. Since the presence of scissors at the crime scene was confidential information, police assumed Mary could not have known about them unless she had either witnessed or participated in the murder of the boy.
Mary then said she had seen Norma kill the boys. Questioned again, Norma now reported that Mary told her she had committed the murders. Showing unusual savvy for an 11-year-old child, Mary told police she wanted to make a statement. The lengthly signed statement again placed the blame for the killings on Norma. Finally, police arrest them both, as they each know far too much about the murders not to have committed the crimes themselves.
|Mary Bell, after being taken into custody|
Both Mary and Norma are tried for the deaths of Martin and Brian. During the trial, Mary is consistently portrayed as the ringleader, with Norma described as the mentally deficient follower. In closing arguments, Prosecutor Lyons outlined the accepted version of the relationship between the two and of its role in the murders: " In Norma you have a simple backward girl of subnormal intelligence. In Mary you have a most abnormal child, aggressive, vicious, cruel, incapable of remorse, a girl moreover possessed of a dominating personality, with a somewhat unusual intelligence and a degree of cunning that is almost terrifying."
Not surprisingly, Norma was found not guilty of either murder. Mary was convicted, but on a lesser charge of "manslaughter because of diminished responsibility," indicating that her age and her lack of a stable family life made it impossible to convict her of murder.
In the years that followed, it is Mary Bell who is remembered as the evil child with no emotion or empathy, who killed because she "enjoyed hurting people." The first psychiatrist to examine Mary in prison, Dr. Robert Orton, stated, "I've seen a lot of psychopathic children...But I've never met one like Mary: as intelligent, as manipulative, or as dangerous." It is Mary who is remembered as the child with the dead eyes, the girl who told a guard at the prison where she was housed during the trial: "I like hurting little things that can't fight back."
But the duo of Mary and Norma bears further examination. The concept of folie à deux, a shared madness that causes two people to commits acts neither would undertake alone, is evident in this relationship. The duality of the girls is clear in the uncanny shared last name, the carving of the letter "N" turned into an "M", the way in which each girl claimed the other committed the crimes followed by an immediate reversal into taking sole responsibility...all point to a melding of identities of the two, both in how they are seen by authorities and on the part of the girls themselves and how they view each other.
Indeed, evidence brought out during the trial indicates a mixing up of the identities of the two at the level of their physical activity and their shared psychic connection. According to Gitta Sereny, whose book Cries Unheard has recently been republished after its controversial reception in Britain in 1998, Mary and Norma were seen on many occasions during their trial to kind of psychically "link up": "Their heads turned toward each other, their eyes locked, their faces suddenly bare of expression and curiously alike, they always seemed by some sort of silent and exclusive communion to reaffirm and strenghten their bond."
Also indicative of the increasingly blended identities of the two are the four puzzling "confession" notes left at the school. Though it was first reported that Mary wrote all but one of the notes, handwriting experts later examined the items and determined that the act of writing had been shared in what Mary and Norma called "joining writing." Each girl would alternate writing on the note, sometimes to the point of alternating each letter in a word, one being composed by Norma, the next by Mary. They shared as well the inspiration for writing the notes, or as Mary put it (using similar terminology as described their writing process), penning the notes was a "joint idea" planned as "a great big joke."
Furthermore, the initial(s) carved into Brian Howe's stomach indicate the public's own twining of the girls' identities. The much-accepted version of the story is that once the body was removed to the morgue and undressed, the letter on the stomach became evident. It appeared that it had originally been carved into the shape of an "N", then later the extra line was filled in to make it an "M." Several writers have speculated that "another hand" carved that line, shifting the guilt from "N" -- Norma -- to "M" -- Mary. This speculation, however fascinating and indicative of one or the other girl's desire to claim the crime, is not linked to any source. Possibly true, but more likely the fabrication of a public wanting to poeticize the crime, the visual link of the two letters serves to underscore the bond between the two girls, and as such, to strengthen the folie à deux at work in their psyches.
Further boosting the idea of shared madness is the existence of a fantasy world known only to Mary and Norma. According to Mary, the girls fantasized about becoming criminals, committing crimes, then escaping to Scotland. Their idea of "crime" was childish, based on movies they had seen, of bad guys full of bravado, powerful and afraid of nothing. Their entire juvenile crime spree was undertaken in a spirit of "naughtiness," to cause trouble and, if they were successful, to be sent away. "We built it up and up until, it now seems, we kept hoping we'd be arrested and sent away. We never talked about anything except doing terrible things and being taken away."
The fantasy world they created, their bonds to each other, and the crime they committed make Mary Bell and Norma Bell yet another example of the folie à deux couple, albeit the youngest one on record at the time. But does the diagnosis really point to an illness? Does folie à deux actually exist, or is it a convenient way to explain something we as outsiders cannot understand otherwise?