Is 'Alias Grace' a True Story? Separate Fact vs. Fiction

Alias Grace, the new CBC and Netflix miniseries inspired by Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel of the same name, is based on a true story. But like most things "based on a true story," elements of the tale, written by Atwood and adapted for television by Sarah Polley, are fiction.

Atwood was fascinated by the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid convicted and eventually pardoned for the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Atwood made it her own, adding embellishments and filling in the holes of what was lost to history. Here's a look at what's real, what's speculation and what's invented in Alias Grace.

James McDermott

AG_EP04_D10-00381 Kerr Logan as James McDermott in Netflix's "Alias Grace." Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Portrayed by Kerr Logan, James McDermott was the servant convicted alongside Marks. His portrayal in both the novel and the series is perhaps the most historically accurate. 

In 1843, the real McDermott published "The Trials of James McDermott and Grace Marks at Toronto, Upper Canada, November 3rd and 4th 1843, for the murder of Thomas Kinnear, Esquire and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery," a document that can be seen in the first episode of Alias Grace and is the primary source of historical material for the story. In the document, McDermott includes a confession from Marks as well as descriptions and portraits from both of their trials.

McDermott was Kinnear's stable hand and was hanged for murdering him. He also was suspected of murdering Kinnear's housekeeper, Montgomery, but was never officially tried for it since he was sentenced to death for Kinnear's murder. James Walsh, a witness in McDermott's trail, testified to seeing McDermott "running across the yard with something white in his hand" on the suspected evening of the murder. Walsh saw him with a gun in his hand and wearing the victim's clothes—all of which become important to Atwood's tale.

In her confession (lines of which are quoted in the series), the real Marks testified that McDermott and Montgomery did not get along. Marks said McDermott confided in her his plan to murder the housekeeper, and that she promised to help him. The details of how McDermott kills Montgomery and Kinnear are the same in the novel and the series, including throwing the bodies down the trapdoor and the two running away together, eventually being captured by the police in Lewiston, Maine.

Grace Marks

11-6-alias-grace-01 Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in “Alias Grace.” Jan Thijs/Netflix

The details around Marks's trial and confession are all accurate.

Susanna Moodie's 1853 book Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush provides a historical record of Marks's life before the trial, and inspired Atwood to write Alias Grace in 1996. Marks's family emigrated from Ireland when she was 12, and her father was an abusive alcoholic, as we see in the series.

Marks (played by Sarah Gadon) was charged with murder, briefly committed to an asylum and then transferred to Kingston Penitentiary. After 30 years of imprisonment, she was pardoned and moved to northern New York. As for what happened after that—in the show she marries and is finally at peace—it's all speculation.

Dr. Simon Jordan

11-6-alias-grace-03 Actor Edward Holcroft plays the doctor Simon Jordan, a character Atwood invented, who researches the case of Grace Marks. Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

No one really knows why Marks was pardoned so many years later, and that's where Atwood's imagination came in. Atwood invented the fictional Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft in the series), an early psychologist determined to get to the truth of Marks's story through counseling sessions. Through this fictional doctor, Atwood explored the real debate among the general public after Marks was convicted: Was she an accomplice or an innocent accessory?

Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery

AG_EP02_D02-00071 Anna Paquin, center, and Paul Gross, right, as Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear, the victims of the 1843 murder. Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Atwood took what was known about Kinnear and Montgomery's murders to create characters based on their real-life counterparts. In the afterword of Alias Grace, Atwood wrote, "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."

Marks stated in her testimony that Montgomery often ordered McDermott about. Beyond that, the personalities portrayed by actors Paul Gross and Anna Paquin are fictionalized.

Mary Whitney

11-6-alias-grace-04 Rebecca Liddiard, left, plays Grace's friend Mary Whitney. Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

"Mary Whitney" is the name Marks gave herself when she went in hiding following the murders. There is no concrete evidence to suggest Mary Whitney was a real person.

Jamie Walsh

James Walsh was a real person and testified against both McDermott and Marks in their trials. However, there is no evidence to suggest he was in love with Marks or that he eventually married her, as he does in the show.

Jeremiah the Peddler

AG_EP02_D42-0437 Zachary Levi, left, as Jeremiah, a (fictional) friend of Grace Marks's. Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

This character, a magician played by Zachary Levi in the series, was completely invented by Atwood. His name was never mentioned in any historical records.

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