The story of the Irish 'murderess' behind 'Alias Grace'

Grace Marks emigrated from Ulster to Canada where she was accused of double murder

The Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel Alias Grace has been praised for its suspenseful script and hard-hitting social commentary - but some viewers have admitted to being discombobulated by its refusal to supply all the answers and tie up all the loose ends. In this, however, the series is staying faithful not just to the book, but also to the Canadian true-crime drama on which it's based.

On July 23rd, 1843, a wealthy Ontario farmer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, were murdered in a village 16 miles outside Toronto. A stable hand, James McDermott, and 16-year-old maid, Grace Marks - both Irish immigrants who had been working at Kinnear's country mansion for just a few weeks - were arrested, charged with murder and convicted. McDermott was hanged: Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.

As all true-crime podcast devotees will know, however, it’s only when you start to look closely at murder trials that their complexities and inconsistencies come into focus. If Marks and McDermott were equally guilty, why was he sentenced to death while she was sent to a mental institution? Was it a case of a young girl being bullied by an older man - though McDermott himself was just 20 at the time of the killing - or was Marks, as McDermott insisted, an evil genius who masterminded the double murder, then feigned mental illness in order to avoid the gallows?

The trial attracted massive publicity at the time, not just in Canada but worldwide. As Atwood writes in her afterword to Alias Grace, "The details were sensational: Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear's mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers.


“The combination of sex, violence and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes,” Atwood concludes wryly, “was most attractive to the journalists of the day.”

It's no surprise that the figure of Grace Marks was equally attractive to Atwood, a novelist who revels in feisty and multilayered female characters. Little is known about Marks's Irish origins other than that she was born in "Ulster" and, in 1840, emigrated to Canada with her parents and her eight siblings. Grace's father was a violent alcoholic and, soon after the family had set sail from Ireland, her mother died and had to be buried at sea.

The murder trial, meanwhile, is ideal material for a novelist with an imagination as fertile as Atwood’s. Despite the huge press coverage the case received at the time, hard facts about it have never been easy to come by.

Atwood noted that in her research, the witnesses - even the eye-witnesses at the trial itself - “could not agree” on what they had seen. The defendants, Marks and McDermott, gave multiple, incompatible accounts of the crime though - significantly - neither claimed to be entirely innocent of it.

With the Netflix series attracting large viewing figures which will only increase in the months and years to come, the extraordinary story of Grace Marks has captured the imagination of another generation in another time and place.

Yet the real-life Grace remains an enigma to this day. Having emerged from the mists of the north Atlantic, endured the storm of a highly-publicised murder trial and survived 30 years of incarceration, Marks was pardoned in 1872. She crossed the border into the US - and then vanished.

The ultimate happy ending? Or did Grace Marks get away with murder? Dear reader, you’ll have to decide for yourself.