When Grace Marks was released from Kingston Penitentiary in 1872, she was asked a series of “liberation questions.” A regular staple of Kingston Penitentiary, these questions were asked of all departing inmates, often by the prison chaplain or warden.1 One of the questions should have ostensibly had a simple answer:
“What has been the general cause of your misfortunes, and what has been the immediate cause of the crime for which you have been sent to the Penitentiary?”
But instead, Marks responded cryptically, “Having been employed in the same house with a villain.”
Marks’ answer to that inquiry, and the events that led to her incarceration beg the question, who was the villain?
That’s Quite the Morbid Start, I’m Guessing This Won’t be a Happy Story
Nope. Not really.
In July of 1843, in Upper Canada (now Ontario), lawyer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery were found dead in Kinnear’s home. The immediate suspects were Kinnear’s stablehand, 20-year-old James McDermott and his other maid, 16-year-old Grace Marks.
While James McDermott seemed to provide an open-and-shut case and confirmation of his guilt, Grace Marks, a delicate maiden with a difficult past, proved a bit more complicated. Though she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Marks’ involvement in the crime has been the object of much speculation as historians have continuously wondered if she acted as McDermott’s accomplice or his failed conscience.
More than a century after the grisly crime, Margaret Atwood (you might be familiar with another work of hers, Emmy award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale) wrote a fictionalized account of Marks’ side of the story. Alias Grace depicted Marks recounting the story to a prison psychiatrist. Though Atwood’s story doesn’t confirm whether or not Grace Marks was the mastermind or the scapegoat, it does attempt to provide a more nuanced look at young women in the 19th Century.
“Here you have this divided opinion and then you get people writing about her, projecting onto her all of the received opinions about women, about criminality, about servants, about insanity, sexuality,” Atwood told The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine. “All of these things just get projected onto her. So I was interested in that. I was interested in the process of public opinion and how it’s formed.”
Alias Grace recently got the web series treatment with a new show on Netflix, but before you plan your next binge-watching weekend, we thought it would be fun to debrief you on the real Marks case. Don’t worry, you can still bring snacks if you’d like.
Holy Sh*t, Netflix and Chill Just Got a Lot Creepier! So Where Did Grace Marks Come From and How Did She Even Start Working for Kinnear?
So first of all, despite the fact that the meat of this story takes place in Canada, Grace Marks is actually from Ireland. Marks, along with her family, which included her mother, an alcoholic stonemason father and eight siblings, immigrated to Canada in 1840. Marks’ mother didn’t survive the trip and soon after arriving in Canada, Marks began working as a housekeeper to help her family make ends meet.
By the time Marks arrived at Thomas Kinnear’s residence in 1843, according to her official confession, she had worked for at least five different men. Upon arriving at the Kinnear residence, Marks met and befriended stablehand James McDermott, who’d arrived about a week before her. Marks also encountered another maid, Nancy Montgomery. It became immediately apparent who the HBIC was at chateau Kinnear.
McDermott had reportedly been scolded several times by Nancy Montgomery for not doing his work properly. Montgomery warned James that he was to be let go after his first month because of his poor performance. Whereas Marks and McDermott quickly became confidants, Montgomery, despite being at the top of the totem pole, was very obviously the odd one out.
And why was Ms. Montgomery sitting atop the pyramid? Marks noted in her confession that her buddy McDermott suspected that Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery were carrying on a relationship.
Sounds More Like a Soap Opera than a True Story…
In her testimony, Marks claimed that McDermott intimated to her that he planned to kill both Kinnear and Montgomery. McDermott also reportedly intended to steal money that Kinnear was expected to bring when he returned from a trip, and escape to the United States.
Here’s where it gets hairy; Marks claims that on multiple occasions she begged McDermott not to carry out his crimes, but also admits to agreeing to be his accomplice. One early morning, after several false starts, McDermott finally killed Nancy Montgomery using an axe and dragged her body to the cellar. Montgomery was reportedly pregnant when she was murdered.
Marks says McDermott swore her to secrecy. In her testimony, Marks stated, “He said ‘Grace, now I know you’ll tell and if you do, your life is not worth a straw.’” Marks allegedly responded, “I could not help you to kill a woman, but as I have promised you, I will assist you to kill Kinnear.”
Despite her apparent resolve to help McDermott, Marks claimed that she again tried to dissuade him from murdering Kinnear when their boss returned from his trip. Shortly after seven o’clock, as Marks was cleaning up after tea, McDermott killed Thomas Kinnear with a gunshot to the chest. Marks claimed she was so shaken by McDermott’s actions that she ran from the house as McDermott shot at her (a claim that was reportedly confirmed by bullet holes found in the door jamb during the investigation).
Marks does admit to her and McDermott making off with Kinnear and Montgomery’s valuables and running away, planning to get married once they reached the States. The pair didn’t make it past Lewiston before they were arrested and returned back to Toronto.
Wow! This Court Case Must Have Been a Doozy
You’ve got that right. Like we said before, McDermott was a pretty easy conviction. He was sentenced to death and hanged. But his trial wasn’t without some controversy. During his hearing, McDermott claimed that Marks was the one who should be on the chopping block, as it was her who persuaded him to murder Montgomery and Kinnear, rather than the other way around as Marks alleged.
But Marks’ behavior easily stole the show (read: courtroom).
Marks wore the clothes she had stolen from Montgomery to court (nope, not weird at all) and remained stoic throughout her trial (although she did faint when she heard her sentence). Partly because she was only sixteen and partly because people couldn’t quite figure out what she was responsible for, Marks was sentenced to life in prison instead of execution. In 1852, Marks was sent to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. There, Marks’ honesty was once again called into question by the asylum superintendent who doubted her claims of insanity.
Marks was eventually sent back to Kingston penitentiary, where she would remain until she was pardoned in 1872 after numerous people appealed for her exoneration. Marks’ story ends, just as it began–shrouded in mystery. After her release, Marks supposedly moved to New York, where records of her existence seem to stop.
So…Did She Do It?
To this day, there is no consensus on Grace Marks’ guilt. Even during her research, Margaret Atwood noted that no one, even people who claimed to be first-hand witnesses, could say for sure what happened at the Kinnear household.
Since McDermott and Marks both pointed the finger at one another and never really told consistent stories, it’s not really easy to piece together a chronology of events or even use circumstantial evidence to determine what happened. However, neither of them claim to be completely blameless.
It remains unclear who the mastermind behind the murders really was. What is clear is that the sympathies of the time definitely favored Marks.
“If you had to choose, then instinctively you would think because [McDermott] was the man that he was more in control. They played down the possibility that she could possibly have initiated this, or figured it out, or had any control over this young man … And so therefore, he’s the one who is the more culpable,” York University history professor Susan E. Houston told The Smithsonian.
Whether Marks was truly a sympathetic victim of circumstance or a sociopath, her story continues to fascinate audiences. Atwood’s original novel won the Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Booker Prize when it was first published. Alias Grace the series has also seen success — it currently has a 99 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 8/10 on IMDB.
In his review of the series for The New York Times, critic James Poniewozik asked, “Is she innocent, guilty, crazy? Alias Grace is less about finding the definitive truth than watching Grace feel her way to the answer that could save her.”
And what is that answer? Well, it seems the only way to find out is to make some tea and cozy up in bed with Atwood’s novel, or fire up your (or your friend’s, let’s be honest) Netflix account and see for yourself. You may be surprised by what you learn, or don’t learn.
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- Hardwick, Martina L., SEGREGATING AND REFORMING THE MARGINAL : The Institution and Everyday Resistance in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Ontario, 1998