What is the real-life history behind Alias Grace?

Everything you need to know about the mysterious 19th century murder case that inspired Netflix’s new Margaret Atwood adaptation

Alias Grace (Netflix, EH)

Netflix’s new drama Alias Grace tells the story of a beautiful Irish servant, Grace Marks, who was convicted of murdering her Canadian employer and housekeeper in 1843.

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The series is an adaptation of the 1996 novel of the same name written by Margaret Atwood, the novelist of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Here, we lay out the real-life history – or what we know of the famously mysterious case, at least – that inspired Atwood’s novel and the Netflix series, as well as marking out the fictional characters brought in to dramatise the story…

Who was Grace Marks?

Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace (Netflix, EH)
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace (Netflix)

Grace Marks (played by Sarah Gadon) was born in Ulster in 1828 and emigrated to Canada with her mother, father and eight siblings in 1840 when she was 12 years old.

Her mother died during the long and treacherous journey to Canada and was buried at sea.

When did the murders take place?

Anna Paquin & Paul gross in Alias Grace (Netflix, EH)
Anna Paquin & Paul Gross in Alias Grace (Netflix)

Soon after her arrival, Marks began working for Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), a wealthy farmer in Ontario.

While there she met James McDermott, a stablehand and fellow Irish immigrant.

Kinnear’s had a housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), was also his mistress; Montgomery had previously given birth to an illegitimate child, believed to be Kinnear’s.

Kinnear and Montgomery’s bodies were discovered on the farm, and Marks – just 16 at the time – was arrested along with stablehand McDermott.

What happened in the aftermath?

Kerr Logan in Alias Grace (Netflix, UK)
Kerr Logan in Alias Grace (Netflix)

The case was one of the most high profile murder trials in Canada at the time and was hugely sensationalised by the press, given Marks’ youth and beauty and the assumption that her and McDermott were lovers because they ran away to America together.

At Montgomery’s autopsy, she was found to be pregnant – however, unlike the Netflix dramatisation, in reality she was not cut up into four quarters.

In the end, only the murder of Kinnear was tried in court; given the two convictions for his death, a trial for Montgomery’s murder was deemed unnecessary.

McDermott admitted to murdering his employer but claimed that he had been under the spell of Marks. “Grace Marks is wrong in stating she had no hand in the murder,” he said. “She was the means from beginning to end.”

Marks was described by lawyer Kenneth McKenzie as having “a slight, graceful figure” with eyes “a bright blue, her hair auburn, and her face would be rather handsome were it not for the long curved chin, which gives, as it always does to most persons who have this facial defect, a cunning cruel expression”.

In 1843, McDermott was convicted at trial and sentenced to be hanged. On the same day, Marks was also found guilty – she had given three different versions of the murders – and reportedly fainted when she was given the same sentence.

The judge recommended mercy to the jury, and Marks was sentenced to prison instead of execution by hanging. She was sent to an asylum and later transferred to Kingston penitentiary.

In the 19th century, it was common practice for tourists to visit prisons and insane asylums, and Marks was regularly brought out for people to gawp at.

During her time in prison, Marks claimed to experience psychological problems, including a multiple personality disorder. She said her body was possessed by the consciousness of other people.

After serving nearly 30 years in jail, Marks was granted a pardon in 1872. She was released at the age of 46 and moved to New York under the alias of Mary Whitney. There is no record of her life after that.

Did Grace Marks actually commit the murders?

Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace (Netflix, EH)
Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace (Netflix)

After screenings of Alias Grace at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Atwood said that no one knows for sure whether or not Grace Marks committed any murders.

“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not,” she said. “There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged and she was the one left. And she never told.”

Which fictional characters are brought into Alias Grace?

Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi and Rebecca Liddiard in Alias Grace (Netflix, EH)
Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi and Rebecca Liddiard in Alias Grace (Netflix)

Alias Grace contains many fictional characters who are employed to dramatise the case of Grace Marks.

Much of Atwood’s story is told through the lens of Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a fictional “alienist” psychiatrist brought in to determine Marks’ sanity. Jordan becomes wrapped up in her tale, and hopes to conclude that Marks is not a criminal.

Another key fictional addition is Jeremiah Pontelli (Zachary Levi), a peddler-cum-magician-cum-hypnotist who befriends Marks when she first arrives in Canada and foresees danger in her future.

Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard) – the alias that Marks used after her prison release – is also brought to life in Atwood’s version as a maid and Marks’ best friend.

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Alias Grace is available to stream on Netflix now