An 11-year-old in Jefferson County, Tennessee this week shot dead his 8-year-old neighbour because she wouldn’t let him play with her puppy; the shotgun belonged to his father. Across the Atlantic almost fifteen years earlier, Bristol Crown Court heard a case in which a 12-year-old had stabbed his six-month-old baby brother as he lay in his cot and also cut off his left hand with the same kitchen knife. Both children who committed these gruesome crimes were of an age when an awareness of the difference between right and wrong should have been a given, but some form of psychotic mental illness undoubtedly played its part, certainly in the case of the latter.
Whenever a child murders a child, the equilibrium of universal order seems to be knocked off-kilter a little. Yes, infanticide and patricide are regarded as crimes against human nature, but the notion that a person yet to even reach physical, let alone mental, maturity is capable of ending the life of another never ceases to shock. Every few years, British society undergoes convulsions when a story breaks that the callous killing of a child was carried out not by a fully-grown adult, but by someone belonging to the same generation as the victim. The first such case to receive widespread media attention in the modern era was that of Mary Bell.
It’s become something of a cliché for defence lawyers or the accused themselves to cite a poor upbringing as the root cause of a criminal act, but Mary Bell’s upbringing was hardly ideal preparation for an ordinary life. Born to a prostitute in a rough inner-city Newcastle neighbourhood, Mary believed her father to be a convicted armed-robber her mother married, though it seems more likely she was illegitimate. Mary’s early childhood was the stuff of nightmares. Her mother allegedly plied her young daughter with sleeping tablets, and a fall from a window was suspected of being foul play on her mother’s part. Details of sexual abuse at the hands of Mary’s mother’s clients later emerged.
The murders of two boys aged four and three respectively two months apart from each other in 1968, both found in derelict houses, came just a couple of years after the Moors Murderers were sentenced, and the public feared something similar was poised to be uncovered; when police joined the dots, the nation was shocked to find two little girls being charged with manslaughter. One was Mary – then aged eleven – and the other was a 13-year-old friend. Her friend was acquitted when the trial took place at Newcastle Assizes in December 1968, but Mary was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, following a psychiatric assessment that summarised she was a serious threat to other children.
As Mary Bell began twelve years of incarceration in secure units, her mother exploited the notoriety of her daughter, selling stories to the press and making money off the back of the life she had engineered the ruin of. When Mary was released amidst an anticipated outcry in 1980, the then-23-year-old was given a new identity and attempted to build a new life for herself. She managed to maintain anonymity until 1998, when the press tracked her and her 14-year-old daughter down; up to this point, Bell’s daughter had not been made aware of her mother’s past. The same year, Bell received payment for participating in the publication of a biography called ‘Cries Unheard’, the revelation of which provoked another public outcry. In 2003, a High Court battle resulted in Bell guaranteeing lifetime anonymity for her and her daughter.
By the time Mary Bell secured her secret identity, a decade had passed since an even more infamous child murder, that of two-year-old James Bulger. Abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the infant was captured on CCTV being led away from a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside by his killers. The chilling, low-resolution image taken from the CCTV – reused in newspapers and on television throughout the hunt for Bulger’s killers and their subsequent trial – seemed to bring an unsettling new dimension to the crime; the precise moment a child’s life took a fatal turn could actually be seen, the toddler’s trusting innocence poised to be his tragic undoing.
Unlike Mary Bell, Thompson and Venables were charged with murder and when found guilty, became the youngest convicted murderers in modern legal history. The saga of their sentences, parole, release and fresh identities would constitute an entire post on its own; the press and public’s incredulity that two ten-year-old boys could be capable of such a repugnant crime has been routinely manifested as baying for the blood of Thompson and Venables, as though the absence of a concise answer as to why they did what they did as children in 1993 can only be resolved by their public execution. But even that wouldn’t bring James Bulger back.
Sixteen years after the Bulger murder, an attempted murder of two brothers aged eleven and nine by two other brothers aged ten and twelve again posed the same questions. Mercifully, the Edlington Attacks that took place in 2009 didn’t result in any deaths, but what were perceived as the uncharacteristically violent actions of children against children once more claimed the headlines and provoked public debate. While the vast majority of children are indeed innocent of acts that left the likes of Mary Bell, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables with immortal infamy, many adults seem to suffer from selective memory loss where children are concerned. It’s understandable they only view children through the benign eyes of the parent, but by doing so they are conveniently forgetting the often unpleasant realities of the child’s world and other children’s place in it.
I’ve never encountered any adult as frightening, horrible and cruel as some of the children I personally knew back in my junior school days. The amount of nasty, sadistic little bastards who made my life (and the lives of many others) hell were legion; and at the time I wouldn’t have put anything past them. I even had moments myself where rage got the better of me and I sometimes wonder how far I would have gone had the opportunity presented itself to me.
Once engaged in a row with the boy who lived next-door as a seven-year-old, I marched into my home and demanded a knife to stab him with. My grandmother had recently holidayed abroad and brought me back a fancy dagger as a present – yes, seems mad now, doesn’t it – and it was this I surmised would be the best means of curtailing the argument. Thankfully, my parents were present and wouldn’t allow me to have it; I don’t recall ever seeing again after that day. But what if my parents had been out and I’d located the weapon? Would I have used it? Would I have killed the boy-next-door? A year or two later, a quarry I used to cut through to and from school was sometimes inhabited by a scrawny bully who wasn’t always welcoming when I encroached upon his territory. There were some quite severe drops in that quarry and I remember fantasising about pushing said runt over the edge as a means of eradicating him from my life for good. If he’d caught me on a bad day, would I have done it? Quite possibly. Children are capable of acts of cruelty, even ones without psychopathic tendencies, and until adults accept this uncomfortable truth, we’ll never be any nearer to understanding why this cruelty can sometimes have terrible consequences.