The new Netflix show Alias Grace is already being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale. In other words, it’s expected to be good. Really good.
The six-part miniseries, which premieres on Netflix on Nov.3, tells the story of an Irish immigrant and servant named Grace Marks, who is accused of murdering her employer in 1843, though she claims to have no memory of the event. She was just 16 at the time.
This show isn’t going to be a must-watch for the mere storytelling aspect, but because it’s also based on a real-life case, which was first adapted as a novel by Margaret Atwood, the same woman who authored The Handmaid’s Tale.
According to The New York Times, few facts about the real-life murder are known. Atwood took liberties with the real-life case, such as adding the fact that Marks claims not to have any memory of the events. In actuality, she confessed to being present for the crime but places a majority of the blame on fellow servant James McDermott.
McDermott, in turn, said he was under Marks’ spell.
“Grace Marks is wrong in stating she had no hand in the murder; she was the means from beginning to end,” McDermott reportedly stated in his signed confession to George Walton in The Trials of James McDermott and Grace Marks.
Here are the important facts we have:
- Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy Ontario farmer, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, were murdered on July 28, 1843. One was strangled and one was shot.
- Marks and a stable hand James McDermott were convicted for the killings. McDermott was hanged but Marks’ sentence was commuted because of her young age and her sex. It seems apparent that people didn’t really know what to do with us weak-minded females back in the day. (I say this with a heavy helping of sarcasm.)
- Marks entered the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario, on Nov. 19, 1843.
- Eight-and-a-half years into her sentence, Marks reportedly began to act mentally unstable. It is unclear if Marks was actually insane or if she simply used that as a method to get a lesser sentence. It has been theorized she suffered from bipolar disorder.
- Marks was reportedly especially haunted by the death of Montgomery.
- She was pardoned and released in 1873. After that, she moved to New York, where all trace of her was lost.
Atwood writes in the afterward of her book, “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 was most attractive to the journalists of the day.”
Questions about Marks’ guilt still remain to this day. They are questions we will most likely never answer. But thanks to Atwood and the Netflix show coming our way, we will at least have an entertaining way of fitting the puzzle pieces together in this case.
“When there are crimes of violence involving both a man and a woman, it usually goes as follows: nobody ever says the man is a nice guy, but opinion often splits about the woman,” Atwood explained to The Guardian. “Either she’s the villainous instigator of it all, or else she’s a terrified victim and she only did it because she was frightened for her life. That’s the pattern with Grace. And there’s evidence supporting both sides.”