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The Mystery of Tom Thomson's Death

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Tom Thomson was recognized as having considerable talent as a landscape artist. What happened to the painter whose upturned canoe was found in an Ontario lake in 1917?

Tom Thomson sometime between 1905 and 1910.

Tom Thomson sometime between 1905 and 1910.

A Fatal Trip

Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada covers 2,955 square miles (7,653 square kilometres), making it a fair bit bigger than the state of Delaware. The word “park” conjures up the wrong image; the area is a vast wilderness peopled by black bears, moose, wolves, and other critters that aren't always cute and cuddly.

Canoe Lake is a major access point for the interior of the park, and was a place that Tom Thomson knew well. He had worked in the park as a guide for fishing parties and as a fire ranger. But, for him, Algonquin Park was a special place where he did much of his painting.

In the middle of the day of July 8, 1917, he pushed off in his canoe on Canoe Lake; he was going fishing. A few hours later, his dove grey canoe was found upside down with no sign of Thomson. Eight days later, a decomposing body bobbed to the surface; it was Tom Thomson. He was just 39 years old.

There was a four-inch bruise on the side of his head and he had bled from his right ear. Fishing line had been carefully wrapped around his left ankle 17 times.

Thomson loved fishing. He is seen here with a catch of trout at Canoe Lake.

Thomson loved fishing. He is seen here with a catch of trout at Canoe Lake.

Accidental Drowning

An inquest ruled, in what seemed like unseemly haste, that Thomson died as a result of an “accidental drowning.” The theory was that he fell out of his canoe, hit his head on something and drowned.

But, why would an experienced canoeist fall out of his boat? One theory is that he stood up to urinate and lost his balance, something that happens surprisingly often in canoeing accidents. But, nobody seems to have noticed if his fly was open.

The theory continues by suggesting he hit his head on the gunwale of the canoe and knocked himself out.

Finally, what about the fishing line on his foot? Perhaps, he had sprained his ankle and wrapped the line around it for a makeshift form of support.

The inquest ruling was enough to preempt any investigation by police and Tom Thomson had been speedily buried beside Canoe Lake. However, not everyone was happy with the accidental drowning verdict.

Suspicions Arise

Only a few dozen people lived around Canoe Lake, and it seems there were some mutterings among them about the inquest getting it wrong.

Early gossip had it that Thomson had taken his own life. Perhaps, he was depressed because his paintings weren't selling well.

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His girlfriend, Winnie Trainor, was pressuring him to marry her, so the story went. But, Winnie Trainor was no scarfaced gorgon with the temperament of a puff adder to whom marriage might seem like a fate worse than death.

Also, those who knew Thomson said he was not the sort to take his own life. So, there's doubt cast on the suicide theory.

(In the winter following Thomson's death, Trainor and her mother were in Philadelphia. Did Winnie have a baby, fathered by Tom, that was put up for adoption so she could could her reputation intact?) Questions, but few answers.

Canoes are a bit tippy and people do fall out of them. But, highly skilled canoeists and accomplished outdoorsmen such as Tom Thomson would never stand up in a boat to take a pee. They would paddle to the shore and relieve themselves there. So, more doubt on the accidental drowning theory.

That left foul play and there are signs this was involved.

Nobody had ever heard of someone using fishing line to brace a sprained ankle, and nobody could recall seeing Thomson with such an injury. In normal circumstances, a body immersed in water will surface in three to five days. Why did Thomson take eight days to rise to the surface? Was he held down by a weight tied to that fishing line until it snapped? If so, who attached the weight to him?

Where was Thomson's favourite paddle? It was never found. Was it used to whack him senseless and then chopped up and burned in a wood stove? Again, questions and few answers.

The residents of Canoe Lake may have been inquisitive, but nobody else seems to have been and the story went dormant 15 years.

What Happened to Tom Thomson?

In 1935, author Blodwen Davies published A Study of Tom Thomson in which she asked some questions that should have been posed at the original inquest, all of them suggesting the painter was murdered. Ms. Davies started a cottage industry in Thomson investigations.

There have been numerous books, newspaper and magazine articles, and documentaries looking into the mystery. The definitive work on the topic is Roy MacGregor's 2011 book Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, although he leaves readers with no easy answers.

There have been a few wacko theories, such as Thomson being swept up in a water spout and then crashing down onto the gunwale of his canoe, or that he was murdered by German spies in some weird attempt to disrupt Allied troops in the First World War.

However, the majority opinion of the amateur sleuths is that Tom Thomson was murdered.

The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson. Painted in 1916 or 1917.

The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson. Painted in 1916 or 1917.

Prime Suspects

Two men loom large on the list of those who might have killed Thomson.

Shannon Fraser was the owner of Mowat Lodge, a boarding house close to Canoe Lake, and a place that Thomson often stayed at. The place was a bit run down but the rooms were cheap.

This is where we meet Daphne Crombie who was interviewed by writer Ronald Pittaway in 1977. She was at the Mowat Lodge and knew Shannon Fraser's wife, Annie, well. Ms. Crombie repeated a story she got from Annie Fraser.

On the night after Thomson disappeared, he and Shannon Fraser got into some heavy drinking, not an unusual occurrence, apparently. An argument broke out and punches were thrown, one of which knocked Thomson into a fire grate and laid him out cold. Fraser thought the painter was dead so, with Annie's help, he loaded him into a canoe and dumped him into the lake with a fire grate tied to his ankle.

This account is given little credibility on the grounds that it's hearsay. It also has a huge hole in it over timing if we are to believe that Thomson's canoe was found on the afternoon that he set out on his fishing trip; that is before the altercation with Fraser.

Martin Blecher is another Canoe Lake resident whose involvement in Thomson's death has been suggested by Judge William T. Little, a man who spent the better part of two decades looking into the incident.

In his 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, Little writes the two men had got into an argument the day before Thomson disappeared. There are also suggestions that Blecher was in competition with Thomson for the hand in marriage of Winnifred Trainor.

Judge Little also reported on an incident in which Blecher had swung a paddle at another boater. This happened after the death of Tom Thomson, but left the suggestion that he might have done this before.

In 2018, Judge Little's son, John, published his version of events in Who Killed Tom Thomson?: The Truth about the Murder of One of the 20th Century’s Most Famous Artists.

But, John Little does not back up his father's conclusion that Martin Blecher was the villain. Indeed, he feels as puzzled as most who have investigated Tom Thomson's death. He told The Globe and Mail “I kind of feel like Socrates, in that all I know is that I know nothing.”

Your Verdict

Bonus Factoids

  • The Group of Seven was founded in 1920 by Canadian landscape artists, some of them friends of Tom Thomson, who is often called the eighth member of the Group of Seven.
  • Little known during his lifetime, Tom Thomson's painting Early Spring, Canoe Lake sold for $2.7 million in 2009.
Early Spring, Canoe Lake.

Early Spring, Canoe Lake.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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