William Little's gossip and photos of a married womanLittle'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 gossipIn 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 gossipThe 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.
Trainor's perplexing silenceIf 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.
Roy MacGregor's unsupported claimJournalist 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.”
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!
ConclusionsSimply 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).