The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, Canadian Painter

[Image: Tom Thomson, public domain]

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is considered one of the greatest of Canadian artists. His spectacular landscapes of the New Ontario wilderness – composed with vivid colour, passionate brushwork and startling brevity and energy – are considered not only stylistically ground breaking but have become icons of the glory of the Canadian landscape. Alongside the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, Thomson is beloved by Canadians and enthusiasts of Modernist landscape painting worldwide.

Thomson worked in Toronto as a commercial artist, producing lettering and graphic designs for publication. He had been an enthusiastic artist from childhood but began painting seriously in 1913, travelling to the Algonquin Park to capture the sights en plein air, using oil paint on small boards. In 1914 he exhibited publicly for the first time in an open exhibition, meeting with success. Thomson returned to the park each summer, travelling out into the wilderness using a canoe, taking with him tent, survival equipment and provisions as well as painting supplies. According from companions, he was apparently an experienced and judicious outdoorsman, capable of setting fires, pitching tents, hunting, fishing and defending himself against wolves and bears. Due to his frequent visits and long stays, he was regarded as familiar with the landscape and the locals.

[Image: Tom Thomson, The Canoe (1912), oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, public domain]

Death on Canoe Lake

Supposedly, on 7 July 1917, Thomson spent the night drinking with friends at Canoe Lake. It is alleged that this ended in a fistfight, with Thomson fighting either Martin Blecher Jr or Shannon Fraser. Fraser owed Thomson money, though (apparently) they were on good terms. Regarding the war, Thomson was pro-Canada and Blecher pro-Germany and there was bad feeling between them. This was an awkward situation, as Thomson was staying at Mowat Lodge (a large guest house), run by the Blechers. However, this scenario was not mentioned in 1917, only in 1970.

On 8 July, Thomson helped Fraser carry a boat, then went fishing alone in his canoe or he departed for a two-week trip (reports vary). That afternoon, at 3:05 p.m., the undamaged canoe was seen floating upturned by Blecher Jr, who did not report it nor consider it significant. Searches were mounted and George Thomson, the artist’s older brother, visited to help. No trace of Thomson was detected; George was due back at his work and departed. On 16 July, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake by Dr Goldwyn Howland, a holidaymaker, and his daughter. As the coroner had not arrived by the following day, Howland was deputised to perform an ad hoc examination. Howland and Robinson examined the body and Howland concluded the cause of death was accidental drowning, perhaps caused by a blow which had left a bruise to the right temple and/or forehead (reports vary). A later report noted a short length of fishing line was wound around his left ankle and cut/snapped. (This was possibly from the rod of Howland’s daughter, who it was claimed had snagged the body underwater and causing it to rise. Others suggest the line was Thomson’s own. An obvious alternative is that it was the line that was used to tow the body to the shore or – more sinisterly – used to tether the body underwater.) No post-mortem was conducted. Due to decomposition and the hot weather, it was decided to inter Thomson in the village cemetery, Mowat Cemetery. The coroner, Dr Ranney, arrived but decided not to disinter the body to perform as post-mortem; instead, he took witness statements and recorded a verdict of accidental drowning.

On 18 July an undertaker sent by the Thomson family disinterred the body and placed it in a fresh coffin for removal to the family plot in Leith Presbyterian Church cemetery, Ontario. Although the formalities were not observed and the undertaker had worked hastily, the park warden permitted the removal of the body. Mark Robinson, a park ranger and friend of Thomson, noted that the excavation in the local cemetery was very shallow, which troubled him. On 21 July, in a closed-coffin funeral, Thomson was reburied in Leith, with his family in attendance.

The Aftermath

Fraser wrangled with the Thomsons over expenses he incurred regarding the recovery and return of Tom’s body. Gradually, the Thomson family became aware Fraser owed Tom the remainder of an unpaid personal loan. Locals did not consider Fraser trustworthy and Tom had become suspicious of him and his wife snooping on his personal life. Fraser had some of Tom’s possessions from his final trip, which he did not return until February. (They were all mundane items – clothing and cooking utensils – no art or writing.) By early 1918, the Thomsons, protective of their reputation and Tom’s legacy, were content to treat his death as a tragic accident.

By 1931, author Blodwen Davies decided to write an expanded appreciation of Thomson. Unbeknownst to her, rumours of suicide or foul play were circulating. Weather was mild, somewhat rainy. There was doubt that a sober man – particularly a known strong swimmer such as Thomson – would drown in placid inland water such as Canoe Lake. Contradictions became more numerous. The coroner recorded – second hand – that the head wound was on the left temple. Yet Dr Ranney cited Howland as recording the wound on the other temple and bleeding from the right ear. When manipulated, it was determined there was air in the lungs, which ruled out death by drowning. Blecher Jr claimed he did not recognise the upturned canoe, yet all Thomson’s acquaintances knew the canoe, which was painted a distinctive dove-grey (or green). The hasty burial of the body despite the imminent announced arrival of the coroner was highly irregular. There was scepticism that the man who exhumed Thomson’s body could have dug up the body, placed it in a metal coffin, soldered it shut and removed the coffin by lantern light in three or four hours at night. Davies pressed for an examination of the Mowat Cemetery in order to establish that it was Thomson’s body that had been exhumed from the small site which had multiple burials close to each other.   

Over the years, more reports emerged, some with perplexing details. One was that the Blechers had retrieved the canoe, which was found floating upright. Robinson’s audio-recorded account, recorded at the end of his life, adds further confusion, as they contradict his earlier statements. It seems that $50 was missing from Thomson’s body – or it was left at his lodgings and disappeared from there. Locals speculated that the affections of Thomson’s close friend or lover Winnifred “Winnie” Trainor (1885-1962) (a local woman) was the subject of rivalry between Thomson and Blecher Jr. However, some close to Thomson (and his family) suggest that Winnie was keener on Thomson than he was on her; Thomson had not mentioned engagement to Winnie to anyone, it seems. There are no reports from people who knew Thomson first hand to contradict this, though second- and third-hand assertions were published much later.

An Unauthorised Exhumation

Without permission, in 1956 a group of men (including William Little) decided to excavate the Mowat cemetery to settle the suspicion that Thomson’s was not the body transferred to Leith. They did find a body, with a skull that had a seeming bullet hole in the left temple. Forensic anthropologists concluded that the shape of the skull and dental characteristics suggested Mongoloid (First Nations/Indian) typology; bones indicated a height of about 5’8” (Thomson was estimated to be 6’0”) and aged 20-30 (Thomson was almost 40), therefore the skeleton was not Thomson’s. One doctor thought that the hole was the result of trepanning, not typical of a gunshot. No bullet was located in the skull, which had no exit wound. It seems impossible to belief that an experienced doctor such as Dr Howland could have missing a bullet wound to the head, especially where the hair would have been short.

The subsequent discussion and William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery (1970) foregrounded the suspicion of murder among the general public. Little suggests that he believed that Blecher Jr murdered Thomson by striking him on the head with a paddle by the lakeside. Little’s book – which summarised and published little-known sources – became a key book and powerfully influenced debate. Charles Plewman’s essay and talks in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Winnie regarding marriage had potential driven Thomson to desperation, even to the point of suicide. A still later theory was that Thomson had been killed by accident in the fight of 7 July and that his body was disposed so as to make it appear an accidental death. One of the last survivors of the era, Daphne Crombie, gave interviews in which she says that Fraser’s wife admitted that her that her husband had killed Thomson by accident during the supposed fight of 7 July. Fraser struck Thomson, who had fallen and hit his head on a fire grate, killing him. She had no corroborative evidence to add. By the 1970s, there was a cottage industry of articles, books and television films about Thomson’s death.

Determining the cause of death at a distance, relying on sources that are not full post-mortem examinations, is impossible. Was the bruise to the forehead or temple related to Thomson’s death or was it the result of the reported fight from the previous evening? Was it actually discoloration due to decomposition? Likewise, blood from the ear may be putrefaction fluid leaking from a body that was apparently very swollen and becoming rotten by the time Howland examined it.

In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Gregory Klages attempts to patiently unpick the way rumour and legend were added to the Thomson story over the years, with the changing information altering interpretations. Various individual writers became attached to certain theories and sought to defend them over decades, with subsequent books splicing in new snippets of information and paraphrasing information that was already unreliable. Klages rightly dismisses the idea of suicide by voluntary drowning and can see no plausible alternative method of suicide that explains the circumstances. Klages thinks murder is not proven (true), any culprit not identified (also true) and that “we can reasonably and confidently conclude that Tom Thomson was not murdered”[i] – which seems too definitive. With regard to death by murder, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Klages states there is not enough evidence to disbelieve the narrative of Thomson’s body removal from Mowat to Leith.

While Klages can be disparaging of authors, he is at times a little unclear himself. The most contentious point of Klages is “Thomson’s body did not have wounds that suggested trauma or violence.”[ii] Klages attributes the bruise or marking to the temple to post-mortem decomposition and – it seems – the ear blood to decomposition. Yet he also seems to hold out the possibility that these observations indicate the results of an accident. This is unclear. Contusion due to injury due to a fall on a canoe gunwale or rock is still “trauma or violence”, even if it is not deliberate or inflicted by a person. Whether the marks were due to man-inflicted violence, accidental injury or decomposition is indeterminate at this point – though it is possible to assign probabilities to each discrete possibility – and this uncertainty is not compatible with Klages’s definitive dismissal of “trauma or violence” and murder. Klages favours a scenario of Thomson’s canoe hitting a submerged log (common due to the logging industry) and causing Thomson to strike his head on the canoe or log, dying by drowning. There are two problems with this. Firstly, according the Fraser in 1917, the canoe’s two paddles were tied in for portaging. This means that the canoe was not in movement in the water to strike any log. Secondly, drowning is contradicted by the evidence of air in the lungs. Cerebral haemorrhage causing instant death would be feasible, as that would not entail drowning, but it seems that the bruise (if it was a bruise) did not indicate cranial fracture to the examining doctor. Such an injury would have to have taken place while the canoe was stationary. Klages, however, maintains that Thomson’s death was through drowning and not suspicious.

John Little, son of William Little, has written Who Killed Tom Thomson?, published in 2018. Little states up front that he believes the bones found by his father in Mowat Cemetery were Thomson’s. Little introduces new evidence from an elderly local park guide, Ralph Bice, who stated that he had heard that Thomson was a womaniser and a heavy drinker, in fact “a drunken bum”[iii] who “couldn’t paint unless he had a bottle of gin”. According to Bice, Thomson had fallen on his head while drunk and drowned. Yet, these disparaging comments came from an individual who resented Thomson’s celebrity and never spoke to him.    

Little accepts some later additions to the Thomson story – the drunken fight, the fishing line around the ankle (not mentioned by Howland, Ranney or Robinson in 1917), Robinson’s immediate opposition to the accident verdict – and presents some rather distant tales of Thomson as a womaniser. That is not to say these aspects are either impossible or unlikely, simply not contemporaneous. Little is correct in assessing the body buried at Mowat as anomalous. The oddity of the body being in what seemed to be Thomson’s original coffin is unexplained. Even a burial just before it becoming covering the empty coffin debris is hard to understand. There were two recorded burials at the period of Thomson’s burial, with a potential third. There was no record of an Indian being buried then. Yet the forensics report defies Little’s belief that the bones were those of the artist. Little does conclusively prove that no member of the Thomson family saw the body after the exhumation. Little outlines an idea that Thomson was shot, pointing out the weaknesses of the shooting theory.

Little asked a pair of retired police detectives to review the evidence. They rule out suicide and accidental death by drowning. They believe the Mowat body to be Thomson and suspect foul play. Little concurs. Short of DNA testing the reinterred Mowat bones or exhuming the Leith body (ruled out by the Thomson family), there is no way to end the debate over the body identities and no way at all to determine a cause of death.

Gregory Klages, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Read How You Want, 2017, paperback, 359pp + x, mono illus., £24.99, ISBN 9781525236884

John Little, Who Killed Tom Thomson?, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018, hardback, 409pp + xxxvii, 31 mono illus., C$24.99, ISBN 9781510733381

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] P. 285

[ii] P. 319

[iii] P. xv