The Real Alias Grace

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Grace Marks

The other day I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace”, after thoroughly enjoying the Netflix adaptation – I hadn’t realised before I a) started reading and b) started watching, that the story is based on a real double murder and that Grace Marks was a real woman. I was immediately intrigued by this and began having a dig around for the real story behind Grace Marks and the gruesome double murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery.

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Grace Marks was a servant of Thomas Kinnear, living in his house just outside of Toronto. James McDermott, also a servant of Kinnear’s, also lived in the property. Both Grace and McDermott were Irish Immigrants – Grace had travelled to Canada with her alcoholic father and multiple siblings, whilst her mother had died on the trip over and had been buried at sea.

Following the murders – Kinnear had been shot twice in the chest whilst Montgomery had been struck in the head with an axe and then strangled – Grace and McDermott fled the house having stolen a number of Kinnear’s possessions. Montgomery’s body was found crammed beneath a tub in the basement of Kinnear’s home and it was later found that she was pregnant at the time of her death.

Their disappearance from the Kinnear home was immediately treated as suspicious. The two were found in Lewiston, New York, not long after the murders had taken place and were arrested. The two were taken back to Toronto where they were put on trial – McDermott was found guilty of first degree murder whilst Grace was found guilty of being an accessory to murder.

They were both sentenced to death.

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Grace and McDermott at the time of their trial

Grace was spared the hangman’s noose, however and her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. But whilst many of the witnesses at the trial gave differing statements, neither Grace nor McDermott confessed to being totally innocent of the crime. Grace insisted however that McDermott had forced her into helping him kill Kinnear and Montgomery and said that she had tried to run away from the house – McDermott shot at her and witnesses testified to finding a bullet from a pistol lodged in the kitchen door. McDermott, whilst standing on the scaffold where he would meet his maker, made out that Grace had been happy to help him and had even been the one to strangle Montgomery with a piece of cloth.

Grace Marks was imprisoned for a total of 29 years. 15 months of that were spent in the Lunatic Asylum before she was returned to Kingston Penitentiary. During her incarceration, many petitioned for Marks’ release. She was released from prison in 1872 and moved to New York – however after that point, Grace Marks disappears completely from the historical record. Perhaps she changed her name, got married and let herself fade into obscurity – after all, she had been the subject of much discussion and spent a good portion of her life locked away in a prison – the conditions of which can’t have been very nice.

One last question was asked of her before she was released back into the world – what has been the cause of the crime for which you have been sent to the Penitentiary? She answered clearly, and in my mind gave an answer that showed her innocence – “Having been employed in the same house with a villain.”

Atwood’s “Alias Grace” is of course a work of fiction – there is much about Marks’ life that is unknown and so Atwood has had some room to manoeuvre with artistic license. The book is absolutely wonderful, with a narrative that truly hooks you and reels you in. I lost many hours of sleep, just wanting to read that little bit more and know more of Grace’s story. Atwood gives us a character who you can truly sympathise with – Grace’s story is a sad one, her life full of awful events that have shaped her, and Atwood shows us a young woman who has been manipulated into helping with a crime so awful that it hardly bears thinking about. The Netflix series also shows this and is a wonderful adaptation of Atwood’s work.

Further reading:

George Watson, The Trials of James McDermott and Grace Marks for the Murder of Thomas Kinnear and his Housekeeper Nancy Montgomery

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