One of the more fantastical rumours regarding Tom Thomson’s death is that he was killed in a fight over the First World War. 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 effort.
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!
This tale has no factual basis. 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 his lack of appearance was deemed ‘nonwilful’.
Despite the assurances of the US War Department to Davies, the rumour that Blecher was a draft dodge would continue to circulate. Decades later, it resurfaced as another possible explanation for a fight between Blecher and Thomson. 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."
Despite the facts, the story of Blecher as ‘draft dodger’ and German would persist, 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.”
In 1970, William Little added to Davies’ groundless claims. In The Tom Thomson Mystery, Little concocted a conversation between Thomson and Blecher Jr., 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).