Friday, February 23, 2018

Tom Thomson Death Myth #6 - 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 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).

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 - 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 those 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 based purely on 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. Did he actually give the family paintings? We don't know that either. 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).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Tom Thomson death myth #8: 'The reluctant groom'

During the early 1970s, speculation around Tom Thomson’s death gained new momentum. William Little’s 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery seemed to provide strong evidence that Thomson had been murdered. In 1972, a new publication would turn speculation about Thomson’s death in an entirely different direction – suicide.

Charles Plewman arrived at Canoe Lake in mid-July 1917, between Thomson’s disappearance and discovery of his remains. Plewman claims to have acted as a pallbearer at Thomson's Algonquin Park funeral, and to have discussed Thomson's death with many people who lived around Canoe Lake in 1917. In 1972, 55 years after Thomson's demise, Plewman summarized what he learned in an article for the Canadian Camping Association magazine. While the publication might not have had wide readership, his article certainly helped provide grist for speculation that Tom Thomson might have committed suicide.

In the Canadian Camping article, Plewman described how he had heard from several people that Tom Thomson was engaged in the summer of 1917. His claim echoed gossip that had appeared a few years before, in William Little's The Tom Thomson Tragedy. Plewman, though, derived much different meaning from the gossip than Little. 

William Little's gossip and photos of a married woman

Little's 1970 book contained a story he claimed to have heard from A.Y. Jackson. The story was that Tom Thomson might have considered proposing marriage, or might even have been engaged to Winnifred Trainor. Trainor's family lived in Huntsville (west of Algonquin Park) and leased a cottage on Canoe Lake. Little's claim seemed to be supported by photos taken by Thomson, which were rediscovered and published in 1970. Two of these photos showed a woman - identified by a Thomson family member as Trainor - wearing rings on the finger traditionally reserved for matrimonial bands.

Plewman's gossip

In his 1972 article, Plewman stated one of the people who had told him about Thomson's engagement was Shannon Fraser. (Fraser was the operator of Canoe Lake’s Mowat Lodge, where Thomson was staying during spring & summer 1917.) After the engagement, according to Fraser (via Plewman), Thomson got 'cold feet'. Trainor, though, was apparently pressing the increasingly hesitant Tom to follow through with matrimony. Plewman related that he had heard Thomson, unable to see a way out of the situation, tried repeatedly to take his own life. Eventually, it seemed, he was successful.

Mark Robinson and engagement gossip

The idea that Thomson and Trainor might have been engaged can be traced to Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson. In March 1930, Robinson told Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies that if she wanted to know more about Thomson she might speak to Winnie Trainor, “to whom it is said Tom was engaged.” Robinson neglected to mention who was reporting the engagement, but it can be inferred from his statement that he did not know if it was fact.

Only a few months later, in September of 1930, Robinson suggested doubts about the gossip, stating to Davies, “I learned from another friend that [Trainor] assured him she was engaged to Thompson [sic]. Perhaps so but I did not see anything to indicate more than ordinary friendship.

Trainor's perplexing silence

If Thomson and Trainor were engaged, there is no record she raised the topic with anyone closely connected to Tom. She mentioned nothing of it to Tom’s sister, Margaret, when they met in late summer 1917. She also mentioned nothing of it in her letters to the executor of Tom’s estate, his brother-in-law, Tom Harkness. This is curious, as her letters to Harkness show she was certainly willing to broach many topics regarding Tom’s life at Canoe Lake, including his finances and living arrangements. She also didn’t mention anything about it in her correspondence with Tom’s patron, Dr. James MacCallum. If Tom and Trainor had been engaged, her silence about it in the months following his death, particularly with these people closely connected to Tom and to the disposition of his worldly goods, is rather perplexing.

Trainor was not always silent about the issue, apparently. Robinson gossiped that Trainor had claimed to be engaged to Thomson. In October 1956, Dr. Noble Sharpe was sent to Canoe Lake to investigate human remains found near Mowat cemetery. Sharpe was the chief forensic investigator for the Ontario Attorney General’s LaboratorySharpe recorded that Trainor had told him that she and Tom had been engaged. He published this assertion in a 1970 article. I explore some of the significant problems with this report in another post.

Roy MacGregor's unsupported claim

Journalist Roy MacGregor would repeat Little's and Plewman’s gossip that Trainor and Thomson had been engaged during the summer of 1917. In a 1973 Maclean’s article, MacGregor wrote, “Certainly they were engaged.” Supporting his assertion, MacGregor claimed, “In the spring before he died, Thomson had even reserved a cabin for a fall honeymoon.”

This statement makes 'evidence' out of hearsay. In The Tom Thomson Mystery, William Little related a rumour he claimed to have heard from A.Y. Jackson. Little's account of Jackson's story was that in early summer 1917 Thomson had booked a late summer honeymoon cabin at a resort near Algonquin Park. Little gave no indication of trying to substantiate the claim. MacGregor apparently did try, however, and was compelled to reverse the claim he had made in 1973. As MacGregor noted in his 2010 book, Northern Light, there "is no evidence of any such booking." So much for 'certainty'.

In 2010, MacGregor actually helped to undermine the engagement theory. He convincingly argued in Northern Light that the Thomson photos apparently showing Winnie Trainor - the ones where she is wearing wedding rings - don't actually show Winnie Trainor. The 'engagement ring' story was a case of mistaken identity!


Simply stated, despite the gossip, no evidence has been produced that Tom Thomson was engaged. 

Stories that Trainor was claiming to be engaged to Thomson are gossip, excepting Sharpe's intriguing account from the 1950s. We have no evidence that Thomson booked a honeymoon cabin. (No one even reported this as gossip until more than fifty years after Thomson’s death!) We also don't have any evidence that Trainor was wearing engagement rings before Thomson's death.  

Surveying the shaky origins of the ‘engagement’ story, it must be assessed as lacking any evidence.  

The evolution of talk about engagement, the 180 degree turnabout from Robinson’s 1930 denial of the ‘engagement’ gossip to MacGregor's bald-faced assertion of the story as fact in the 1970s (despite the absence of evidence), strongly suggests the story of Tom Thomson's engagement is very likely mere gossip.   
It certainly doesn't provide any support to speculation that Tom Thomson committed suicide to avoid being married.

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).

Friday, September 29, 2017

"Many Deaths of Tom Thomson" Toronto author talks, October 2017

Toronto author talks and book signings - October 2017

Wed., Oct. 18, 2017
7:00 p.m.
High Park Public Library 
228 Roncesvalles Avenue, Toronto, ON  
M6R 2L7 

Thurs., Oct. 19, 2017 
6:30 p.m.
College/Shaw Public Library
766 College Street, Toronto, ON
M6G 1C4

"Many Deaths of Tom Thomson" author talk - Shelburne Public Library, Sunday, Oct. 15

Author talk and book signing - 
Sunday, October 15, 2:00 p.m.
Shelburne Public Library
201 Owen Sound Street,
Shelburne, Ontario
L9V 3L2

Tel: 519.925.2168