Grace Marks - fairest of the fair at heart of brutal murder case
Margaret Atwood swaps future dystopia for the murky past in a tale of an Irish woman convicted of murder, says Rosa Silverman
The comparisons were inevitable; and not just for the bonnets. The second Margaret Atwood adaptation to reach our screens this year tells another story of female subjugation (sexually and otherwise) in a brutally class-riven society, rich in contemporary resonance.
But while The Handmaid's Tale foretold a dystopian near-future that felt like it could come to pass, Alias Grace depicted a grim past that certainly did. And given the runaway success of the former for Channel 4 this summer, the latter looks equally assured to grip us, in our vantage point between both worlds, after hitting Netflix last Friday.
Published in 1996, Atwood's novel centred on the eponymous and inscrutable Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Irish immigrant maid convicted of murdering her boss, Thomas Kinnear, and suspected of murdering his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in 1843.
The case was one of the most high-profile murder trials in Canada at the time - Marks's guilt polarised opinion and she was declared one of the country's first criminally insane women. Atwood's genius was to invent Dr Simon Jordan, a protopsychologist, to interview her, 15 years later, to determine her innocence.
Guilty or not, who was this maybe murderess and what do we know of her crime; its genesis, execution and aftermath? Why, moreover, does her mystery endure 174 years later?
A clue to its appeal is offered by Atwood in her afterword: "The details were sensational: Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and extremely young; 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 James McDermott, her fellow servant, had run away to the USA together and were assumed 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."
Marks, indeed, is described in the official, contemporaneous account of the trial as "rather good-looking than otherwise". Public fascination with crimes committed by the fairest members of the fairer sex are well-documented; and, arguably, little has changed.
What we know of Marks's early life suggests it was not a happy one. She was 12 when she set sail for Canada from Northern Ireland with her parents and eight siblings in the early 1840s. Her father, John, a stonemason, was a violent alcoholic and her mother died on the arduous crossing.
It was against this backdrop that Marks, having previously worked for several other households, entered the home of Kinnear, near Toronto. An unmarried man, Kinnear hired her as a maid for the princely sum of $3 a month to assist his housekeeper.
Several days earlier - fatefully, as it turned out - Kinnear made another appointment: 20-year-old stablehand James McDermott, who had also arrived in Canada from Ireland and served with the Glengarry Light Infantry. In the historic account of the trial, he is described as "a slim man... with rather a swarthy complexion, and a sullen, downcast and forbidding countenance".
The two new staff members hit it off, and were later assumed to be lovers; a supposition supported by Marks's confession in which she says that after the murders, McDermott "said we would go to the States and he would marry me". But if the pair took a shine to each other, neither had much sympathy for Montgomery.
In her voluntary confession to the court later, Marks said: "Everything went on very quietly for a fortnight, except the housekeeper several times scolding McDermott for not doing his work properly, and she gave him a fortnight's warning that when his month was up, he was to leave. After this he often told me he was glad he was going... but would have satisfaction before he went."
The two established that Montgomery was much more than a housekeeper, for she was also sharing Kinnear's bed when he was at home.
Here, the pair's accounts diverge. According to Marks, McDermott planned and plotted his revenge, merely asking that she be his accomplice. "He said Mr Kinnear was going to the city, and would, no doubt, bring plenty of money with him. He would kill Nancy before Kinnear came home, then he would shoot him, take all the money and valuable things, and would go over to the United States."
With a convincing degree of detail, she describes a sequence of events in which McDermott first attacks the housekeeper (the plan was to use an axe), dragging her still breathing body to the cellar, and finishing her off with a handkerchief before shooting Kinnear dead on his return. She also said McDermott had fired at her too, a claim borne out by a bullet mark found in a door jamb by police.
McDermott had a different account. "Marks and the housekeeper often quarrelled," he said in his confession. "She told me she was determined, if I would assist her, to poison Kinnear and the housekeeper by mixing it with porridge. I told her I would not consent." It was Marks's idea, he said, to "plunder the house... and go to the States" and when he declined she branded him a coward.
He added, enigmatically: "I will not say how they were killed, but I should not have done it if I had not been urged to do so by Marks... she was the means from beginning to end."
If the truth of the matter remains muddled, the evidence, as heard in court, was this: Kinnear's body was found in the cellar with a wound to the left breast and blood on the floor. Montgomery's body was also found there, concealed beneath a tub, in a state of decomposition.
Both were apprehended, convicted of Kinnear's murder and sentenced to death.
It was found to be unnecessary to try them for Montgomery's murder.
McDermott hanged, but Marks - who fainted on hearing her sentence - had her punishment commuted to a jail term, which she served in Kingston Penitentiary, as one of its first female inmates. However, she also spent 18 months in Toronto Lunatic Asylum.
"Approximately eight and a half years into her sentence, Grace began to exhibit signs of insanity," wrote Kathleen Kendall in Beyond Grace: Criminal Lunatic Women.
A lawyer told Susanna Moodie, an author, that Marks could not banish the sight of the housekeeper's eyes, saying: "They glare upon me night and day.
"When I close my eyes, I see them looking into my soul... When I sleep, that face just hovers above my own, its eyes just opposite to mine."
In 1872, Marks was pardoned and released, and moved to New York, where she adopted the alias Mary Whitney and vanished from record. The haunting question of her complicity - was she murderer or accessory? - is sure to resonate today as much as it did back then.
©Telegraph. Alias Grace is available now on Netflix