Netflix's newest streaming series, Alias Grace, is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. But unlike Atwood's other major adaptation this year, The Handmaid's Tale over on Hulu, Netflix's has adapted a book that is based on real life events. Grace Marks lived in Canada in the 1840s. She was accused (and convicted) of the double murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housewife Nancy Montgomery. But what is the real story of Grace Marks? How much of this story is fictionalized, and how much is pulled from real life events?
In the series, Grace Marks tells her life story to Dr. Simon Jordan, an American who has come to study her as part of his work as a pioneer in the subject of mental health. She starts with her journey across the sea from Ireland to Canada in 1840 with four siblings, a father who is an abusive drunk, and a mother who dies on the trip.
Most of that is true. Grace Marks was born in Ireland, in the Provence of Ulster. This area is a divided land, with with six counties that belong to Northern Ireland of the UK. The other three are part of Ireland, the independent country. Massive amounts of immigration came from this part of Ireland to North American in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The Marks family was part of that, though the series does shrink them down a touch. Marks was one of nine siblings, not five – but her mother did die on the journey and was buried at sea.
Marks did use the name "Mary Whitney" when she and James McDermott tried to escape to America. But the story of Mary Whitney, on the other hand, is not grounded in fact. If it really was the name of her friend who died after an aborting the baby of their employer's son, that part has been lost to history, as so many lives of poor underprivileged women are.
Atwood imagines this might be why Grace used the name, but there's no evidence for it.
Thomas Kinnear & Nancy Montgomery
All the details about Thomas Kinnear are true. He was a wealthy landowner who lived far outside of town. As landed gentry, he would have been involved with putting down the rebellions of the underclasses that were happening in Canada at the time.
Nancy Montgomery was employed his housekeeper. When she was autopsied, she was discovered to be three months pregnant. The scandal surrounding this "crossing of class lines" was part of why the case got such attention.
As for Grace's memories of Kinnear attempting to sleep with her the way he had done with Nancy, that part is conjecture.
James McDermott was accused of the murders along with Grace. It's not clear if they were lovers. The press at the time assumed they were though. They committed murder and ran away together! It's only natural.
McDermott was sentenced to hang, and went to the gallows screaming Grace's name. Both confessions that Dr. Jordan reads are pulled from the records of the time.
Marks, as stated above, was also originally sentenced to hang with him. It was commuted to 30 years imprisonment, by reason of insanity. She spent a few years in an asylum (which we only see in memories in the series) before being transferred to Kingston Penitentiary.
Jeremiah The Peddler
Like, Dr. Jordan, the Jeremiah the Peddler/Dr. Jerome character is also completely made up, as are all the events in the parlor in the final episode.
But it is true that Grace claimed not to remember anything that happened that night. There are accounts by those at the time, both during her trial and after who claimed Grace had "multiple personality disorder" of which "Mary" was one. Others said the spirit of a dead woman named "Mary Whitney" had overtaken her, forcing her to do these deeds. Yet others thought she was faking the whole thing in order to avoid being hanged.
The constant jolt of Marks' memory contrasted with speaking coolly of something different suggests the series believes the latter. Jeremiah, in his offer to run away with her, makes it clear this "hypnotism" is snake oil. These cues tell the audience Grace must have been in on it too, playacting the Mary personality, finally allowed to say what she really thought under the guise of "being hypnotized."
As for Grace's fate, she did serve nearly all of her three years, from 16 until 45 years of age. She was let out about a year before her sentence would have been up, whereupon she left Canada and moved to New York.
Did she marry? Did she live out the rest of her life in peaceful days? That we don't know. Because once she crossed into the states, all traces of her were lost. We don't even know when she died.