Thursday, August 9, 2018

In-depth interview on "Toronto Mike'd" podcast

In August (2018), podcaster Toronto Mike and I sat down to spend some time discussing some of the many popular myths, errors, and gossip that have muddled talk about painter Tom Thomson's death.

Topics touched on include:
- the 'fishing line' story,
- the 'fight' story,
- the birth of the murder theory, and
- tales of Thomson having been in a relationship with Winnifred Trainor.

You can listen here:

Sunday, July 1, 2018

In-depth interview on 'Murder Was The Case' Podcast

Murder Was the Case: Episode #34:
'The Art of Dying, Interestingly...'
With , historian & author of 'The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson.'


Thursday, March 8, 2018

How did David Silcox get Tom Thomson's death so wrong?

The Errors and the Flaws:
How did David Silcox get Tom Thomson’s death so wrong?

In 2017, HarperCollins released a thirtieth anniversary revised edition of David Silcox and Harold Town’s Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm. The book offers an abundance of attractive reproductions of Thomson’s art. The text, however, suffers from disappointing and surprising factual errors about Tom Thomson's death.

In the 1970s, Silcox (art critic and former Canada Council Arts Officer), and abstract painter Harold Town collaborated on the book, Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm. The work valourized Thomson, describing him as an inventor, innovator, and possible precursor of Canadian abstract painting. The book also rejected recent conspiracy theories about Thomson’s death, such as proposals Thomson had been murdered or committed suicide. In The Silence & the Storm, Silcox and Town indicated support for the official cause of death listed in 1917, that Thomson had died by accident. Silcox and Town offered that Thomson had fallen out of his canoe due to a sprained ankle. This theory had only been offered publicly once before, but seemed to explain a facet of the story depended on by murder theorists - that Thomson’s body was found with fishing line wrapped around one ankle (the fishing line worked as an ankle splint or brace, Silcox & Town claimed).

As Town died in 1990, Silcox edited the 2017 volume. Silcox repeats the ‘sprained ankle’ claim in his 2002 book, Tom Thomson: An Introduction to His Life and Art, and again in the 2017 republication of The Silence and The Storm. In the recent work, however, he attempts to buttress his claim with what might appear to the casual reader as convincing evidence. On pg. 49, he states:

“[Thomson’s] feet weren’t tangled in wire, as has been repeatedly suggested, because [Mark] Robinson noted at the time the body was recovered that Thomson had carefully bound copper fishing line around a sprained ankle to give it support."

This sentence offers two easily demonstrated errors about the facts of Thomson’s death.

1) In 1917, Mark Robinson did not record fishing line on Thomson’s corpse.

Mark Robinson, the eyewitness Silcox refers to in the quote above, was the Algonquin Park Ranger who led the search for Thomson, and who on 17 July 1917 was one of two persons who made notes about the condition in which Thomson’s corpse was found.

Robinson’s notes make no mention about Thomson’s corpse having fishing line around one ankle (see his diary entry here, on the website I helped produce in 2008, Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy). 

As I’ve explored at length in another post, Robinson first introduced his ‘fishing line’ tale in the 1930s, and expanded on it in the 1950s. As testimony, it is untrustworthy; it is uncorroborated by observations from any other observer (including the doctor who examined Thomson's corpse on 17 July 1917), and was first mentioned over a decade after the events in question (not to mention that Robinson changed the details between his 1930s and 1950s accounts). Additionally, if anywhere near true, the presence of fishing line around Thomson’s leg can easily be explained as the line that was used to drag Thomson’s corpse to shore.


2) Mark Robinson never mentioned anything about Thomson having an ankle sprain.

For anyone familiar with Robinson’s diary entries from July 1917, or the other accounts that Robinson produced in the 1930s and 1950s, Silcox’s claim about Thomson having a sprained ankle is incomprehensible.

Not only did Mark Robinson not record any mention of fishing line in 1917, he nevernot once, in the multiple accounts he produced over 35 years – mentioned Thomson having a sprained ankle. The claim is simply not true. (Read some of his post-1917 accounts here and here, on the Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy website.)


Where did the sprained ankle story come from, if not Mark Robinson in 1917?

As I detail in Chapter 8 of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, Silcox and Town’s original statement about the sprained ankle was based on testimony offered long after Thomson’s death. The first record we have of the ‘sprained ankle’ story appeared in 1969, not 1917. It was then that Tom Thomson’s nephew, George Jr., suggested to an Owen Sound newspaper a claim he said he had heard from his father; George Sr. had been told (not witnessed) that Tom had a sprained ankle in 1917. George Sr. never mentioned this claim in any surviving documents he produced (such as letters to researcher Blodwen Davies), and no one else – including eyewitnesses to Thomson’s last days – ever produced any corroborating claim.

In 1973, Elva Henry, another relative of Tom’s, repeated George Jr.’s sprained ankle claim to a researcher working for Silcox and Town (see excerpts from the interview notes here, on the Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy site).

In 1977, Silcox and Town offer the sprained ankle story as the most likely explanation for Thomson’s death, but don’t identify on what basis they arrived at this conclusion. Given that the story had only surfaced in the preceding decade, without any corroborating primary sources or witness accounts, their silence about the source of the story makes sense.


How could Silcox get it so wrong in 2017?

Silcox’s 2017 claim clearly shows a lack of attention to the evidence about Thomson’s death, and introduces two more errors into narratives of Tom Thomson’s demise.

How, in the process of editing The Silence and The Storm for republication, David Silcox could choose to offer new claims about Thomson’s death without at least checking them against easily available evidence (or even other secondary accounts) is baffling. 

For instance, Robinson’s diary entries are no secret. They were published in Ottelyn Addison’s Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years (1969). They were repeated in William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery (1970). In 2008, photographs and transcriptions of the diary entry in question were published on the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy. Similarly, some of Robinson’s later accounts were published by Little. They also appeared in the voluminous Art Gallery of Ontario/National Gallery of Canada Tom Thomson exhibition catalogue (2002), as well as on the Death On A Painted Lake site.

Although republication of The Silence and The Storm was likely intended to establish the book as a paragon of Canadian art historical writing, the revised edition undermines the credibility of the work. It is a visually attractive book, no doubt. That Silcox could misrepresent the facts of Thomson’s death so wildly certainly diminishes the impression that the visually attractive republication might otherwise make.

Gregory Klages - © 2018


Perplexed? Challenged? Interested in reading more?

To read more evidence about Tom Thomson's death, and to learn how story-telling about Thomson's death has diverged further and further from the evidence, read The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press, 2016). 

Gregory Klages was Research Director for Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, part of the international award-winning Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Tom Thomson Death Myth #6 - 'Tom Thomson: killed by a German sympathizer'

One of the more fantastical rumours regarding Tom Thomson’s death is that he was killed in a fight over the war that had been raging in Europe. These stories hinge on the idea that Tom Thomson, lover of nature, nationalist, & good-humoured prankster – the model Canadian man – was killed by a rude German-American who sympathized with the ‘Huns’. Smacking of period propaganda and stereotypes, these stories wildly misrepresent the facts.

In 1917, no one suggested that a foreigner murdered Tom Thomson, or even that he had gotten in a fight over the war.

So where does this story originate?

The closest contemporary (1917) documents come to suggesting a German sympathizer was skulking around Canoe Lake is a notation in the daily diary of Mark Robinson. In May 1917, Robinson wrote, “I am of the opinion that [Martin Blecher Jr. ] is a German spy.” Robinson, it might be recalled, was the Algonquin Park Ranger responsible for the Canoe Lake area where Thomson was staying in the spring and summer of 1917.

What were Blecher’s ties to Germany?
Before looking at some facts of Blecher’s life, it might be useful to contextualize Robinson’s comment. From November 1915 through March 1917, he had been serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Robinson had only returned to duties as a Park Ranger in April 1917, a few weeks before writing his comment about Blecher Jr., and three months after having returned from European military service.

What can we make of Robinson’s suspicions? As Mary Garland has established, Martin Blecher Jr.’s closest tie to Germany was through his German-born grandfather, Henry Blecher, who died thirty years before Martin was born. Martin Jr. was born a US citizen, as was his father. Both were life-long residents of Buffalo, New York. Nonetheless, Mark Robinson’s identification of Blecher with Germany would persist. In 1930, he would describe Blecher Jr. as an “American German tourist.”

Where did this sentiment come from? In 1910, Robinson had asked Blecher Jr.’s father to stop flying the US flag on his Canoe Lake cottage, a request with which the man complied. Could this have planted a seed of hostility towards the Blecher family? Alternatively, Robinson may have overheard Blecher suggesting the Germans could win the war and interpreted this as sympathy for the German side. We will likely never know what prompted Robinson’s perceptions.

Was Blecher a ‘draft dodger’?
Regardless, Robinson’s persistent biases would later affect how those interested in the Thomson case made sense of things. In 1931, after corresponding with Robinson, Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies would intimate that Blecher Jr. was hiding in Canada to avoid being drafted for the US Army. She reported a rumour she heard at Canoe Lake that a representative of the US War Department had actually visited the area to summon Blecher back to the United States!

The rumour does not make much sense once we know the history of how Blecher was drafted. Blecher Jr. registered for the United States draft in November 1917, seven months after the US entered the war (and four months after Thomson’s death). He was not called to service until August 1918. In 1931, the US War Department would outline Blecher’s draft record to Davies, indicating that it was correct that he did not report for the draft when called, but that upon investigation (during the winter of 1917/18) his lack of appearance was deemed ‘nonwilful’.

Despite the assurances of the US War Department to Davies, the rumour that Blecher was a draft dodger (and a German) would continue to circulate, being repeated decades later by commentators such as William Little, and Roy MacGregor, as well as ‘eyewitness’ Daphne Crombie.
Did Tom and Blecher get in a fight?
Davies certainly believed that Thomson had been in a significant fight before his death, and intimated that Blecher was involved. In her 1931 letter to the Ontario Attorney General, Davies reported that Thomson had gotten in a fight with an American tourist. Around this time, she likely inquired whether Tom’s brother, George, had heard anything about a fight when he had been Canoe Lake during July 1917. George responded that he had heard that “there was some ill feeling between Tom and some man in that region”, but offered no more details. George suggested that he had perhaps heard the story from one of the Rangers, but “I didn’t at the time attach any serious importance to the report.”

Decades later, it was suggested that Blecher and Thomson might have fought not because Blecher was a draft dodger, but because Thomson suggested he was a coward. In 1970, Dr. Noble Sharpe would suggest that Tom had gotten in a fight after having “accused the other man of being a deserter from the American Army."

Also in 1970, William Little added to the groundless claims about a fight between Blecher and Thomson. In The Tom Thomson Mystery, Little concocted a conversation between the men, writing that an angry exchange between the two men concluded with Blecher exclaiming, “Stay out of my way if you know what’s good for you.” This was the first time anyone had much such a blatant claim, let alone provided the dialogue that took place between the two men. Nonetheless, Little’s almost surely fictionalized account has since often been repeated as if it must be fact.

Suspicions about Martin Blecher Jr. are built upon misrepresentation and errors. In 2010’s Northern Light, Roy MacGregor stated that “almost all versions of the Tom Thomson story” include the fight. While this is not entirely true, the story has often been repeated since publication Little’s book. Perhaps most importantly, Roy MacGregor certainly gave the Little account credence. In 1973, he would repeat the comments Little likely imagined Blecher having said. He would repeat the doubtworthy statements in his 2010 book (although he did not use them to argue that Blecher killed Thomson).

These suspicions regarding Martin Blecher Jr.’s involvement in Tom Thomson’s death may have been, as Webb has suggested, a product of wartime anti-German sensibilities, as well as later anti-American sentiments. Aside from errors, gossip and groundless impressions, though, no evidence indicates Thomson and Blecher had anything other than occasional neighbourly interactions. Nonetheless, through repetition, flawed speculation about Martin Blecher Jr. has helped to give the false impression that the man is a viable suspect in the stories that Tom Thomson was murdered.

Gregory Klages - © 2018
Gregory Klages was Research Director for the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, launched by the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project in 2008. Klages is the author of the 2016 book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press).

Thursday, February 8, 2018

April 19 - Collingwood Public Library > Author talk & book signing

Many Deaths of Tom Thomson 
Author talk & book signing
Thursday, April 19, 7:00 p.m.  

Collingwood Public Library
55 Ste. Marie Street
Collingwood ON
L9Y 0W6

Friday, November 3, 2017

McMichael Collection of Canadian Art - 18 Nov. - author talk

Author talk at McMichael Collection of Canadian Art

Nov. 18 - 11:30 a.m.
10365 Islington Ave. Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada
L0J 1C0

Tel: 905.893.1121
Tel: 1.888.213.1121 

Included in General Admission.
Free for members. 

Offered in partnership with York University’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies.

For more information:

Tom Thomson Death myth #7 - 'Tom Thomson: the reluctant father'

The suggestion that Tom Thomson committed suicide because he was about to become a father is a relatively recent concoction. Like a few other flawed stories about Thomson’s death, this one originates with author Roy MacGregor’s penchant for spinning far-fetched conclusions from slim evidence.

In Tom Thomson Death Myth #8, I explored claims that Thomson was engaged in the months preceding his death. I showed how no records from 1917 indicate, or even intimate that Tom Thomson was engaged. Of course, Thomson did not need to be engaged to a woman for her to become pregnant.

When I investigated theories of Tom Thomson’s death, I was intrigued to discover that the two claims - engagement & pregnancy - developed along quite different timelines. This feature is critical for understanding flaws in the pregnancy story.

As I describe in Tom Thomson Death Myth #8, the engagement story began as gossip in the 1920s. It first appeared in a written account in 1930, and was offered by a man who knew Thomson and who lived at Canoe Lake in the summer of 1917. This suggests that the story at least seemed plausible to someone who had known Thomson and who lived in Canoe Lake. Speculation that Thomson might have impregnated a woman first appeared in 1973. No one who met Thomson or who lived at Canoe Lake in 1917 ever suggested such a claim.

The story can really be explored as the thinking of one man, Roy MacGregor, who has advanced and expanded on his theory since 1973.

As with the engagement claim, MacGregor’s story about an ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy is closely associated with Winnifred Trainor. Trainor’s family lived in Huntsville. Her family leased a cottage at Canoe Lake, where Thomson was staying from April 1917 until his death.

In his article, “The Great Canoe Lake Mystery”, published in Maclean’s magazine in September 1973, Roy MacGregor breezily introduced the idea that Winnie Trainor might have been pregnant. He states that Dr. Pocock, Trainor’s physician from 1919 until her death in 1962, had heard rumours that Winnie had been pregnant by Tom. Pocock rejected them, though.

MacGregor returned to the pregnancy story in 1977. His article, “The Legend”, printed in The Canadian magazine, referred to Charles Plewman’s 1972 claim that Thomson committed suicide to avoid Trainor’s insistence on getting married. MacGregor suggested Trainor was exerting what he called ‘tremendous pressure’. He suggested this indicated that Winnie was pregnant. He overlooked, of course, that a woman might press for marriage without being compelled by pregnancy. He also did not seem to consider that Plewman’s account was purely hearsay.

In 1980, MacGregor followed up his 1970s magazine articles with a novel, Shorelines. The book offers a scenario of what might have transpired if Trainor had been pregnant by Thomson. It was republished in 2002 as Canoe Lake. In a supplementary statement included in the 2002 version, MacGregor offered a new tidbit of information. He noted that in fall 1917 the Huntsville newspaper’s social pages included a notation that Winnie Trainor and her mother were leaving to spend the winter in the United States. He also notes Winnie was not mentioned again until Easter 1918. Working from these two newspaper notices, MacGregor extrapolates that Trainor might have left Huntsville to have a child. MacGregor also suggests that his grounds for the story go back to Charles Plewman, who he claims told a Canadian Press reporter in 1973 that Winnie was pregnant with Tom's child.

Finally, in 2010, in Northern Light: Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him, MacGregor again advanced his pregnancy theory. In this account, MacGregor repeats his claim that the only explanation for Winnie leaving Huntsville in the fall of 1917 was that she must have been pregnant. He also includes an interesting disclaimer about Plewman's 1973 claims, noting, "[Plewman] might not have made such actual 'statements', but he certainly had dropped all the necessary hints." (196)

Shortcomings in MacGregor's argument:
MacGregor’s argument is based on wild extrapolation from very thin evidence. Discussing the pregnancy story in 2002, he notes, “I have no proof.” (pg. 288) The absence of proof, however, does not stop MacGregor from offering wild speculation. Why might he pursue this line of speculation without evidence?

He is the only person to have ever suggested that Trainor was pregnant. Trainor lived her later years in Huntsville, where MacGregor also spent his childhood. As MacGregor notes in several of his works, Trainor’s sister married his uncle. In this regard, MacGregor might have very personal reasons to portray his distant relative as a central player in the story of Tom Thomson’s death.

He has yet, however, to prove that Thomson and Trainor were anything but mere acquaintances. He has not established that they had a relationship of any kind, beyond Thomson’s visits to the Trainor family home, and his claims that Thomson gave the family some art works. Were these gifts meant for Winnie, her father, or the family in general? We don’t know. Neither, apparently, does MacGregor (or presumably, he would produce evidence supporting his claims.)

What of Winnie’s trip away over the winter of 1917-1918? Should we assume that the only explanation for such a trip is pregnancy? Given what emerged later as Trainor’s emotional attachment to Thomson, might her family have decided it best to get her away from the reminders of Thomson for a while? Might she have entered some sort of sanitarium to receive mental health care? (There are certainly many reports – from MacGregor included – that her mental health was questioned by many, even in 1917.) These explanations are just possible as MacGregor’s pregnancy theory.


We certainly know that no one who was familiar with any of the central players in Thomson's last days ever suggested an unwanted pregnancy was involved in Thomson's death. The challenge the pregnancy story faces is it seems to have originated more than fifty years after Thomson's tragic accident, and to have only been offered by one person, who has not provided any convincing evidence to support it.
In the absence of proof, and with its untrustworthy origins, the pregnancy story must be regarded as wild, groundless speculation that only serves to further muddy the facts of Tom Thomson’s death. It certainly doesn't provide any solid support for the suggestion that Tom Thomson committed suicide.

Gregory Klages - © 2017
Gregory Klages was Research Director for the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, launched by the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project in 2008. Klages is the author of the 2016 book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press).