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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[Review] Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez

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Alva rushes through the trees in the dead of night with her sniffer wolf, Fen. Being out alone when there’s a kidnapper on the loose is reckless, but if she ever wants to be an investigator like her Uncle Magnus, she’ll need to be first to the crime scene. But what Alva discovers raises more questions than it answers, drawing her into a dangerous search for truth, and for treasure.

I’ve been a fan of Dr Janina Ramirez’ work for a long time so when I found out that she was writing a novel, I knew that I just had to read it. Riddle of the Runes is Ramirez’ debut novel and although it is marketed as a children and young adults’ book, let me tell you – it’s a bloody good read for grown-ups, too!

I cracked this delightful little book open on the day it arrived and utterly devoured it within a couple of days. It tells the story of a young lady named Alva who lives in the Viking town of Kilsgard with her mother Brianna, her little brother Ivan, her uncle Magnus and her wolf Fenrir. This young lady has the spirit of a shieldmaiden and a quick mind that makes her a brilliant investigator. And when two outsiders go missing, when she finds a piece of a casket covered in runes, she knows that she has to get to the bottom of the whole mystery before anyone else gets hurt.

This book is wonderfully written in fast paced prose that is both easily understandable to young adults and language that will delight the older reader too. The descriptions of the landscape surrounding Kilsgard is utterly beautiful and you find yourself transported into Alva’s world, living alongside her as she takes on this mystery. I was particularly delighted with the absolutely beautiful illustrations that are dotted throughout the book, too.

Riddle of the Runes is truly a masterpiece of a book and one that will delight both young and old alike. I, for one, can’t wait to read the next one!

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24 June 1519 – Lucrezia Borgia dies

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On 24 June 1519, Lucrezia Borgia passed away after a difficult pregnancy. She had given birth to a daughter, Isabella, on 14 June who had been so weak that Lucrezia’s husband had almost immediately had the child christened. Immediately following the birth, Lucrezia suffered with a mild fever but it was thought that she would quickly recover – it was not to be.

By 20th June she was in such a dangerous state of health that her doctors feared for her life, particularly as she had not been purged of the ‘bad material’ (believed to be the accumulation of menstrual blood during pregnancy). Lucrezia suffered from fits so the doctors bled her and shaved off all of her beautiful hair. Incapable of speech and having lost her sight, her husband Alfonso despaired. She briefly regained some of her strength and the doctors believed that if she did not suffer another fit then it was likely that she would survive. But Lucrezia knew that she was on death’s door and dictated a final letter to the Pope (Leo X) in Rome.

On the morning of the 24th June, Lucrezia barely clung to life. She had more and more fits and her doctors tried everything they could to save her life. Nothing worked. She died later that night, at the fifth hour, just two months after her thirty ninth birthday.

All her life she had been used as a pawn in the dynastic ambitions of her father and brother and in Ferrara, as wife of Alfonso, she had finally found some peace surrounded by her children. She had grown to be an incredibly pious woman who was haunted by the sins of the Borgia and the vicious rumour that followed her everywhere she went. Even after her death her name was vilified as that as an incestuous, poisoning harlot – none of which was true in the slightest.

Lucrezia Borgia was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara where she was later joined by her husband and two of their children.

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21 June 1527 – The Death of Niccolò Machiavelli

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On June 21, late in the evening, Niccolò Machiavelli passed away after suffering with severe abdominal pain brought on by what his son believed was an overdose of a homemade remedy. Just two weeks previously he had been riding about, vigerously working on government business for the Florentine Government.

Machiavelli’s life had certainly not been an easy one. A contemporary of Cesare Borgia, he spent time in the company of the man who would come to be known as (thanks to Machiavelli’s own work) The Prince and had been accused of, and tortured for, treason against the Florentine Republic.

His son Piero wrote of his father’s last moments:

“I can only weep in telling you that our father, Niccolò, died…from pains in the stomach caused by medication he took on the 20th. He confessed his sins to Brother Matteo, who kept him company until his death. Our father has left us in the deepest poverty, as you know” (Unger 2011, 332)

At the time of his death, Niccolò Machiavelli was just 58 years old. He was interred in the family crypt at the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. The original tomb was an unassuming one, a far cry from the sumptuous and beautiful memorial that greets visitors to the basilica today – his body was moved in the eighteenth century after a good few centuries of having faded into the background of history, and after his name became the epitome of realpolitik. The tomb today, an echo of his explosion to fame in the eighteenth century, is inscribed with the words, “For so great a name, no words will suffice”

Check out my article on Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia over on AISR.

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Dee Yates on the Historical Background to A Last Goodbye

Today I am absolutely thrilled to have Dee Yates on the blog as part of her blog tour for the release of her wonderful (and super heartbreaking) new novel, A Last Goodbye. Honestly, I cannot recommend this book highly enough so please do check it out.

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The story starts in 1913 and continues to 1919. It is therefore set against the background of World War 1. Before this war there was a regular army in which men served for seven years, following which they were put on the National Reserve for a further five years and called back if the situation required. Following the declaration of war there was a call for volunteers to enlist to increase the size of the army. These volunteers would be between 18 and 38 and would only have to enlist for the duration of the war. At first there was a big response to the appeal but this gradually died down and it became clear over the following months that voluntary recruitment was not going to bring sufficient men to fight the enemy.

On 27th January 1916 the Military Service Act was introduced. British males between 18 and 41 were conscripted if they were unmarried or a widower on 2nd November 1915. The act was extended to married men on 25th May 1016. Some trades were considered vital to the war economy and some but not all of men in these trades were exempt from conscription. This included farm workers.

East of Crawford in South Lanarkshire lay the peaceful and remote Camps Valley. Through its base the Camps Water flowed east to west to join the upper reaches of the Clyde. In the valley floor a few cattle were to be found but the hills were suitable only for the grazing of sheep. It was these hill sheep and the harsh weather in which the farming families lived that governed the farmers’ year.

In the second decade of the 20th century the towns of Motherwell and Hamilton and their surroundings were expanding rapidly. More water was needed, both for the growing population and for industry. It was decided that either a new reservoir or expansion of existing ones would be needed. After consultation it was decided to build a new reservoir in the Camps Valley. The period for completion of the project was to be ten years from when the site was chosen in 1913. Some of the farms in the base of the valley would be lost when the reservoir was filled. The owners of these farms would be given other land on which to farm.

As plans got underway, World War 1 began. This increased demands on the water supply because the production of munitions, begun in the aforementioned towns, needed extra water. At the same time many of the available young men who might otherwise be engaged in building work, enlisted.

In May 1916, with work falling way behind schedule, it was arranged with the government that Prisoners of War would be employed on the project. One hundred German POWs arrived on 22nd August 1916 and a further one hundred and twenty on 7th September. They were paid the standard rate of wages. At first they lived in tents erected midway along the valley. As winter approached and, with it, harsh weather, they were put to building huts for themselves near to where the reservoir embankment would be. These huts contained sleeping quarters for more than two hundred men, dining and recreational facilities, a kitchen, wash houses, bathrooms and a hospital. The complex was surrounded by a high, closely fixed barbed wire fence and had a military guard.

The POWs were not allowed to work on the main road or to handle explosives. Instead they were employed in building the combined road and railway through the valley (these would carry all materials needed for the work) and in the construction of the huge embankment. One of the POWs was killed during construction work. Shortly after the Armistice was signed, POW labour was dispensed with and work continued by British workmen.

Such industry necessarily brought change, much of it unwelcome, to this peaceful and unspoilt valley, where little had changed since the time of the Roman invasion. The novel seeks to explore the effect of the changes on the local population and the relationships between the farming communities and the German ‘invaders’ who are brought in to help with the building work.

Be sure to follow Dee on the rest of her blog tour!

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