Grace Marks was a notorious Canadian murderer. Aged just 16, she was jailed for 30 years for the brutal murder of her boss and his housekeeper, while her boyfriend and accomplice James McDermott was sent to the gallows. But after 30 years behind bars she was suddenly exonerated. Had she been innocent all along? To this day some aren't convinced. In fact, the case has fascinated people for so long the story of her life and crimes is now being made into a six-part Netflix mini series due to be screened next year. So what's the fuss all about…..?
‘Based on a true life story’ – six simple words that instantly make any horror film, or crime novel much more terrifying.
Alias Grace – the 1996 best selling novel by Booker Prize winning author Margaret Atwood is a perfect example.
The book tells the tale of a wealthy farmer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, who are brutally murdered by two of Kinnear’s servants – young lovers Grace Marks and James McDermott.
While the book’s account of the murders is largely fictional, the crime itself was real. Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery really were murdered in 1843, and Grace Marks and James McDermott really were caught, tried and convicted of the murders. McDermott was hanged and Marks jailed for 30 years.
The murder and trial, which took place in Canada, was so scandalous it made worldwide news. Grace Marks was only 16 at the time of the killing. Could she really have been so evil as to help McDermott, 20, commit murder, or was she an unwitting accomplice?
Not much is known about Grace Marks, but history shows she was born and raised in Ulster, Northern Ireland. One of nine children, Grace hadn’t had the easiest of starts. Her father was a violent alcoholic, and just days after the family had set sail for a new life in Canada, in 1840, when Grace was 12, her mother tragically died on the ship and had to be buried at sea.
Did Grace’s traumatic and difficult upbringing leave her with mental health problems? Several theories appeared at the time of the trial. Some officials believed Grace to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. Yet others disagreed, painting Grace as a conniving schemer who was pretending to be mentally ill in order to avoid the gallows. There was another, even wilder theory, that Grace had been possessed by the spirit of her dead friend Mary Whitney at the time of the crime. Quite why Mary would compel her friend to commit a crime isn’t clear. Perhaps more credible was the theory Grace Marks herself had actually died, and Mary Whitney had stolen her identity.
Either way, Grace Marks was found guilty and deemed not to be of sound mind. She was committed to an asylum, and eventually transferred to an ordinary jail where she served the rest of her of her 30 year term.
Finally, when her term was almost up, Grace was pardoned, exonerated of all guilt. After, Grace moved to New York and simply vanished. No record of her has ever been found since.
So was she really innocent, a sweet 16-year-old who’d been coerced by her brutal partner? Or was she a cunning conniver who showed no remorse for her crimes?
Karla Homolka – A modern day Grace Marks?
When Atwoods’s novel was published in 1996, many in Canada pointed out a number of chilling similarities between the Grace Marks case and that of controversial Canadian killer Karla Homolka, In 1995 she was convicted of manslaughter for her role in the rape and murder of two teenage girls, and the rape and death of her own sister Tammy. In court Homolka made a plea bargain, stating she’d been suffering battered wife syndrome at the time of the crimes and had been under her husband’s control. But was that really the case?
So was Grace Marks innocent or guilty? Good or bad? These are some of the issues a brand new Netflix mini series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace will tackle. The show isn’t due to be broadcast until next year, but already there’s a real buzz about it. Not just because Atwood’s novel was so popular, but because the Grace Marks case has fascinated and appalled people for generations, and we reckon that’s not going to change any time soon!