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Episode 2: Canada – The Tom Thomson Mystery, Part 2: Theories and Investigation

  • 1:23:12
  • December 14, 2021
  • Explicit Content

We’re back for part 2 of our episode exploring the Tom Thomson mystery. Make sure you listened to Part 1!

In Part 2, Brianna and Steph talk about the theories surrounding Tom’s death and the “investigation” that followed. With the full story before them, Steph guides Brianna through Tom’s chart with a new eye.

The Tom Thomson Mystery: Theories and Investigation

Theories on Tom Thomson’s Death

Accident

David Silcox, the author of The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, has argued that Tom, having sprained his ankle, had wrapped the fishing line around it for support, and when he attempted to urinate while in the canoe, he slipped when his ankle gave way, hit his head on the gunwale and knocked himself out before going overboard.

Tom Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, ON, Canada circa 1914–16. 
Tom Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, ON, Canada circa 1914–16. 

Gunwales are the part of the canoe that runs along the top edge of the hull. Canoe manufacturers often offer gunwales in different materials, each with different advantages and disadvantages.

Many have found this conclusion hard to swallow. Plus, no one ever mentioned Tom had hurt his ankle, this theory was the first time that was ever mentioned.

Tom’s friend, A. Y. Jackson, wrote in a letter to a friend that he thought Tom’s family was too comfortable with the accidental drowning theory and too dismissive about the potential of his death involving foul play. He thinks there should have been a police investigation because Tom’s death could have been a result of many things, even something as simple as a heart attack, but no one took the time to find out.

Some speculate the fishing line around Tom’s leg isn’t significant because some fishermen fasten their lines to their foot, or around one knee, as they use both hands while trolling, and he got tangled up as a result of wave action.

Suicide

People think suicide is a possibility because he was often melancholic, isolated, self-deprecating, and expressed the feeling that he was of no importance as a painter. He was also open about hating war, and some people have speculated that he was in Algonquin Park to avoid military service. He was also feeling pressure to marry Winnie. All of these factors weighed heavily on Tom, and he took his own life. MacCallum told Jackson it was widely believed at the time of the informal inquest that he died by suicide, but his death was ruled an accidental drowning to make it easier for Tom’s family. MacCallum did not believe it was suicide though, because he had received a letter from Tom written the day before his death, and Tom was cheerful and looking forward to painting.

Murdered by Martin Bletcher

Apart from suicide and accident, there has also been the theory that Tom was murdered. In his 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, Judge William Little built a complicated case against Martin Bletcher, an American who had a cottage at Canoe Lake and who was said to have argued violently with Tom over the war at a party the night before the artist went missing. Their altercation reached a peak when Tom accused the other man of being a deserter from the American Army. From this theory, the only thing that’s certain is that there was a party at a guide’s cabin near Mowat Lodge on the night of July 7, 1917.

Murdered by Shannon Fraser

In a 1977 Toronto Star article, Roy MacGregor suggested that Tom was murdered by Shannon Fraser, and that his wife, Annie Fraser, told the story to friends. MacGregor expanded on this theory in his 2010 book called Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him. In an interview on The Agenda called Roy Macgregor: The Tom Thomson Mystery, he discussed this theory and stories told by two key witnesses, Daphne Crombie and Annie Fraser.

A little about Roy MacGregor: he was named after his Great Uncle, and his Great Uncle was married to Marie Trainer. Marie’s sister was Winnifred Trainer, Tom’s fiancé. Roy noticed that Winnifred wasn’t mentioned in early books and biographies about Tom, and there was no mention of her until the 60s. Additionally, original photos of the supposed Winnifred used in these books weren’t even photos of her. So, he wrote articles and eventually published a book to correct this misinformation.

Daphne said Annie Fraser loved to gossip, and she confided in Daphne while they were out walking one day. Annie said she’d been snooping in Tom’s room and found a letter from Winnifred Trainor that told Tom he had to buy a new suit, so when she came to visit him the following week they could follow through with their plans for marriage. There’s speculation that Winnifred was pushing for marriage because a) she was pregnant or b) she was 32 and afraid of being a spinster. Annie also told Daphne that the letter advised Tom to get the money Shannon owed him. (the lodge was hit hard by the war – there were hardly any tourists, and I think this money refers to money owed to Tom by Shannon for working as a fishing guide).

Daphne Crombie and her husband, who had recovered, were back in Toronto when Thomson died, but they later returned to Canoe Lake – a fact verified by Mark Robinson’s diary – and Annie again had something to say to her friend. She told Daphne about the party on July 7 and said the men were drinking, and Tom asked Shannon for the money. Shannon was known to have a furious temper and they got into a fight. Shannon hit Tom, Tom fell, and he hit his head on the fire grate. Shannon panicked, thinking he killed Tom, so he hauled him out to a canoe. He paddled the short distance to the Mowat Lodge dock and woke up Annie to help lift Tom into his own canoe and make it appear as if he had been going off fishing. Shannon then towed the canoe out beyond the first islands and dumped it, perhaps first tying a weight to his ankle.

The main problem with this theory is that it contradicts the previously accepted accounts of the morning of Sunday, July 8, when Shannon Fraser was allegedly seen with Tom by Mark Robinson. Mark Robinson claimed only to have seen Tom from a quarter-mile distance, he did not speak with him that day.

Keep in mind that Daphne told this story after Shannon and Annie had passed away, so no one’s ever heard their side of the story.

Theories around Tom’s death prevailed for years. People were upset that no police investigation was conducted and frustrated that they would never know what really happened to Tom. Speculating turned into rumour when stories started circulating that an undertaker never truly removed Tom’s body from Canoe Lake. The family was notoriously tightlipped about the subject which added fuel to the fire. The family always refused to satisfy people’s morbid curiosity when they were repeatedly asked for proof that Tom’s body was in fact buried in Leith.

Investigation

Enter Judge William Little, previously mentioned when discussing the theory that Tom was murdered by Martin Bletcher. He began to seriously explore the mystery surrounding Tom’s death and conducted an unorthodox and controversial investigation which brought a bizarre twist to this story. The thing that always stuck with him the most, was the lore that Tom was never removed from Canoe Lake, and his remains were still in the Mowat Cemetery.

In October of 1956, William Little and his friend Jack Eastaugh left for Algonquin Park. In their youth, they had spent time at a local camp and were familiar with the land. They headed toward Hayhurst Point and stopped to view the fieldstone cairn erected in Tom’s memory. They moved on to the location where Mowat Lodge used to stand before it burned down in the 20s and climbed the steep ascent to a large birch tree shading a small picket fence enclosing the two graves at Mowat Cemetery.

It was getting late, but now that William and Jack knew exactly where the cemetery was, they agreed to return the next morning to see if Tom’s grave still exists and whether his body was truly removed. During dinner, that night William and Jack were discussing their plans with two other men, Frank Braught and Leonard “Gibby” Gibson who were very interested in the plan. Both men knew the Tom Thomson stories by heart and had always been captivated by them. They all agreed it was logical to begin investigating to the north of the two other graves in the cemetery. If they found no evidence of a rough box or casket, then they would know that the official version was indeed a fact, that Tom’s body was exhumed and sent back to Leith. If they did find a casket and body in the grave where there should be none, they would prove that Tom’s body was never moved from its original resting place at Canoe Lake, and the rumours were actually true. They knew the only graves present for sure was that of a child, Alex Hayhurst who died of diphtheria, and James Watson, a millhand or lumberjack (sources vary).

The men left for the cemetery the next morning. After reviewing the terrain, they agreed to start digging in the area to the north side of the fence – the approximate distance they believed would be a normal separation from the grave of James Watson. They found nothing and figured they had been digging too close to the picket fence. They filled in the hole and started a new dig approximately four feet north of their first. Again, they found nothing and began filling in the hole. Jack stopped shoveling and walked off a short distance while the rest of the men continued filling the hole. Jack, who was standing beside a small spruce tree, called William over. He was pointing at a perceptible depression about two-and-a-half feet across, projecting from under the spruce tree.

Together they examined the depression and found its northern location lay in exact line with the two existing graves and their recent excavations. The group took turns digging, and as William reached the five-foot level he removed a shovelful of dirt with a piece of wood in the soil. He handed it to the group and Gibby said it was probably part of a root. William resumed digging and picked up another piece of wood. They concluded it was pine, and likely a mortice from the corner of a box – such as a casket or rough box. William continued to dig and found a smooth piece of board. He pried it free from the soil and a hollow space was revealed. He jumped out of the hole and handed over the piece of board which was in an advanced state of decay but readily recognizable as machine-finished. Gibby jumped in to explore, reached his hand inside the hollow space, and pulled out a bone that appeared to be human.

The group was amazed, they actually found Tom Thomson’s body and proved the rumours were true – he was never exhumed and sent back to Owen Sound.

They dug out the spruce tree and opened the grave until they saw the remains of the rough box, which had caved in upon an oak casket, and the interior of the casket was filled with earth. In the soil at the end of the casket, there was a piece of a woolen sock. They saw parts of the casket lining and what appeared to be possibly a cotton or light canvas shroud.

They carefully covered the remains with a tarp and filled in the grave to protect the contents but took the bone with them for medical examination. Jack and William immediately sought the opinions of their longtime friend, Dr. Harry Ebbs. He was nearby spending the weekend at his log cabin. As friends who’d always been steeped in Thomson lore, it was a natural next step to ask for his opinion. He confirmed it was from a human. Jack asked if he could draw any conclusions from the bone, and Dr. Ebbs took the bone, matched it against his own left leg, studied it, and stated it was most likely the left tibia of a male.

They notified the authorities and agreed it wasn’t appropriate to advise the press without proper authenticity. The OPP sent a corporal to accompany Dr. Noble Sharp to exhume and eventually examine the human remains from the unmarked grave.

Dr. Sharp concluded the following:

  1. The length of time the remains were buried was impossible to definitively determine. The burial could be from 10 to 40 years ago.
  2. The bones were identified as being male.
  3. The skull had a 3/4″hole on the left side. Professor Eric Linnel of the Department of Neuropathology examined the hole and concluded it’s in the position where trephining would be conducted. Trephination is the surgical procedure in which a hole is created in the skull by the removal of a circular piece of bone, typically to drain infection or relieve pressure.
  4. There were no signs of foul play.
  5. The bones found were those of an indigenous male, about 5’8” tall, robust in stature, and in their late twenties.

Dr. Sharp consulted Professor Grant of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, who was given no information about the remains. He was asked to examine them and express an opinion regarding Race, Height, Sex, Age, and probable time of death and/or burial. His conclusions were the same as Dr. Sharps.

So far, the OPP have been unable to link the remains with any missing person, nor have they found any record of a missing or deceased person with a condition requiring a trephining.

Corp. Rodger returned the remains to the grave and a grave marker was erected.

So, the mysterious skeleton dug from an unmarked grave wasn’t Tom Thomson.

Tom Thomson's grave in Leith, Ontario Canada
Tom Thomson’s grave in Leith, Ontario Canada

Yet, the group who dug up the remains and other interested people do not accept these facts. They still firmly believe that the 4 men found Tom Thomson’s remains; and maintain he was shot to death because of the hole in the skull. The only way to quash this would be by opening the grave in Leith. If the skeleton is there, and there is no evidence of his death being attributable to gunfire, then the case ends. But there’s nothing to warrant an order to exhume the remains for examination and the family refuses. It’s always possible that a descendent at some future date may grant permission.

But, what of the unknown remains, and the skull with a three-quarter-inch hole in it? Was the bone removed in surgery? Is there truly no evidence of foul play? Who buried the man there? So many questions and no definitive answers…

Tom’s great-grandniece, Tracy Thomson, when asked if she wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery, said:

“The mystery and the art are tied together. Without one, the other doesn’t exist. Together they’ve helped create the Tom Thomson ethos and I hope the chatter never ends.”

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