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

Tom Thomson death myth #9: 'Tom died over a debt'

Tom Thomson’s July 1917 death shocked his friends and family. Given that the man was only 39 years old, many found his death hard to explain. Those who examined Thomson’s corpse concluded that he drowned by accident. Nonetheless, gossip and suggestions of alternate explanations have fuelled a century of speculation.

In the 1970s, it was proposed that Tom Thomson died in a fight over a debt. The story - dependent on gossip and demonstrable errors - is wrong.

The story that Tom Thomson died over repayment of a debt can be tied to two persons. The first is Daphne Crombie, a woman who met Tom Thomson while she lived at Canoe Lake during part of 1917. The second is Roy MacGregor, a journalist and author who since the early 1970s has published a multitude of articles and two books regarding Thomson's death (one fiction and one non-fiction).

The debt story first appeared in 1977 (sixty years after Thomson’s death!), although its roots can be found in evidence recorded in 1917. In 1977, Roy MacGregor wrote an article, 'The Legend', for The Canadian magazine. In the article, MacGregor shared comments he claimed to have been told by Daphne Crombie.

According to MacGregor, Crombie speculated that Tom might have been killed in a fight with Shannon Fraser over money. (Fraser operated Mowat Lodge, where Thomson had been living in Algonquin Park since April 1917.) Crombie apparently offered that Thomson had loaned Fraser money, and in July 1917, asked him to repay the debt. A fistfight ensued and during its course Thomson fell, striking his head on the firegrate. The blow either killed Thomson, or left him unconscious. Regardless, Fraser, out of fear of being charged with murder, hid the body in the lake, assisted by his wife, Annie.

In 2010, MacGregor added to the story, stating that Winnie Trainor had told Margaret Thomson (Tom’s sister) that, “a $250 loan Tom had made to Fraser two years earlier had not yet been fully paid back.” *

An unpaid debt, a fight, murder, and a hidden corpse... compelling anecdotes that make a tantalizing story. The story, however, is demonstrably wrong. While it is rooted in facts, how the story as told in MacGregor’s 1977 and 2010 accounts directly contradicts the evidence from 1917.

After Thomson’s death, several members of Tom’s family were in contact with Winnifred Trainor, a Huntsville woman whose family leased a cottage at Canoe Lake. In late August or early September 1917, Trainor met Margaret Thomson, one of Tom’s sisters, in Toronto. They discussed Tom’s life, and of course, his death. In early September 1917, Margaret wrote Dr. James MacCallum, Tom’s patron, sharing with him what she had learned from Trainor.

Margaret was aware that Tom had loaned Shannon Fraser $250 to buy canoes. She inquired with Trainor about the status of the debt. Trainor told Margaret that, “she had asked Tom this spring if he ever got that money, and he said he got it all but in very small amounts.” **

Tom Harkness, Tom Thomson’s brother-in-law and executor of Tom’s estate, pursued the issue with Fraser in September 1917, asking, “did you pay Tom for the canoes he bought for you and when.” [sic]

The same month, Winnie reported to Harkness what she had told Margaret, stating, “Tom said this spring while at our house that he had loaned Fraser $250.00 for canoes, but that he had got it all back but in little bits though.”

Trainor’s report that the debt had been repaid seems to have satisfied Harkness, who did not pursue the issue of the 'canoe debt' any further.

Following on Trainor's two statements that the 'canoe debt' had been repaid, none of the primary persons involved in Thomson’s last days raised the issue. No one suggested that Fraser owed Tom an outstanding debt for the canoe loan. No one suggested Fraser and Thomson had a fight over money. No one suggested Tom had died seeking repayment of the debt.

It would be easy for us to hold MacGregor culpable for his 1977 error. This is not an entirely fair assessment, though. While he reported Crombie’s claim, we know her speculation is contradicted by Trainor’s 1917 claims. In 1977, however, Trainor’s letter was still held privately by the Thomson family. It was not made publicly accessible until the 1990s, when it was donated to Library & Archives Canada. 

MacGregor’s 2010 claim - that Trainor claimed the debt had not been repaid - is simply wrong. Trainor’s letter clearly indicates the debt was repaid. (See Notes below.)

Writers who have retold and expanded on Crombie/MacGregor’s ‘debt story’ since the 1990s – including MacGregor -  have overlooked or ignored Trainor’s 1917 statements that the debt was repaid, and perpetuated what is a demonstrably untrue myth about Tom Thomson’s death.

* MacGregor's statement can be found in Chapter 9 of Northern Light: The Story of Tom Thomson and The Woman Who Loved Him. For more, see the note below. Once again, he writes: "a $250 loan Tom had made to Fraser two years earlier had not yet been fully paid back.”

** The quoted passage from Margaret Thomson's 9 Sept. 1917 letter directly contradicts MacGregor's 2010 account of what the letter says. Once again, she writes, "[Trainor] had asked Tom this spring if he ever got that money, and he said he got it all but in very small amounts.”

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).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tom Thomson death myth #10: "Fishing line = murder."

A popular story relates that Tom Thomson’s body was found with fishing line wound around one ankle. A popular interpretation is that the line proves someone tried to hide Thomson’s corpse by tying a weight to his body before sinking the body in the lake.  

The fishing line story (and the conspiracy theory spun from it) is not supported by the evidence we have available about Thomson's corpse.

When Tom Thomson’s body was discovered in July 1917, two men examined his remains: a doctor holidaying in Algonquin Park, and an Algonquin Park Ranger. At the time, neither man recorded seeing fishing line around any part of Thomson’s body. The claim that fishing line was found on Thomson's body was first made in the 1930s - thirteen years after Thomson's death - by Park Ranger, Mark Robinson. Robinson's claim was never corroborated by any other witnesses, though. Robinson also never explained why his 1917 notes don't mention the fishing line. Complicating his claim further, in the 1950s, Robinson offered yet another version of his testimony: he claimed he had noted the fishing line in 1917 (which we know is false), reported different 'facts' about the fishing line than he had in the 1930s, and stated his conclusion about Thomson’s cause of death that was different from what he stated in 1917 or 1930.

All of these facts strongly suggest the ‘fishing line story’ is suspect, and raises the prospect that one of the pillars supporting murder theories is weak.


We know that Tom Thomson’s body was discovered on the morning of July 16, 1917.

We know this from several documents produced that day, and in the days that immediately followed. The daily diary of Mark Robinson, the local Algonquin Park Ranger, is one of the key records we have from July 1917 (worth noting: his diary is the only record Robinson produced in 1917). In his diary, Robinson recorded the search for Thomson, as well as discovery and displacement of Thomson's remains.

For the July 16 entry, Robinson states that Thomson’s body was discovered floating in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake about 9 a.m. He writes that George Rowe and ‘Lowrie’ Dixon, “took same and brought it to shore.”

The following day, Robinson records that Thomson’s body was removed from the lake. He and Dr. G. Howland, who was holidaying at Canoe Lake, examined the corpse. Later that day, Robinson recorded observations about Thomson’s remains. Nowhere in these notes – nor anywhere else in his 1917 diary entries – is there mention that he found a fishing line around any part of Thomson’s corpse.

A transcription of Howland’s 1917 notes, provided to researcher Blodwen Davies by the Nipissing Crown Attorney’s office in the 1930s, doesn’t include any mention of suspicious fishing line on Thomson’s remains either. Similarly, a transcription of Howland’s observations held by George Thomson – Tom’s brother – also supplied to Davies in the 1930s, doesn’t mention fishing line.

That no 1917 account makes any mention of suspicious fishing line is important. Clearly, in 1917, either no fishing line was observed, or if it was observed, it was not regarded as in any way important to Thomson’s disappearance and death.

If the fishing line wasn’t noted in 1917, we can learn much about the claim by tracking when it first appeared, and how the story evolved.

Only one person - Mark Robinson - ever claimed that fishing line was found on Tom Thomson's corpse. Robinson mentioned the line for the first time in a 1930 letter to Blodwen Davies, thirteen years after Thomson’s death. At this time, Robinson suggested the line was not Thomson’s regular fishing line.

Why Robinson would wait thirteen years to offer this insight, particularly if he felt it provided evidence that Thomson might have died by foul play, is difficult to understand. Making Robinson’s testimony even more suspect, in the early 1950s, he added details to his story about the fishing line. Robinson stated that when he examined Thomson’s corpse, he found the line was “carefully” wound “16 or 17 times” around Thomson’s ankle. Robinson noted that he could prove this claim because he recorded his observations in his diary. We know, however, that his diary says nothing of the sort; it doesn’t mention fishing line at all!

Robinson’s ‘fishing line’ stories from the 1930s and 1950s do not agree with any 1917 evidence (even evidence recorded by Robinson himself in 1917). This should raise our suspicions about the tale. That Robinson’s accounts gained new elements and more details over decades also suggests skepticism about Robinson's claims 
– particularly those furthest from the experiences he describes - is necessary.

So, is the fishing line story purely fiction? Did Robinson invent it out of thin air? What if the fishing line existed, but has an innocent explanation?

Robinson was not present when Thomson’s body was discovered, or when it was brought to shore. His diary doesn’t mention how the guides brought Thomson’s body to shore, or to anchor the body once it was brought to shore. If the guides used fishing line to tow or anchor the body, as time passed Robinson might have forgotten this entirely logical explanation. If this is the case, however, it does not explain why Robinson would not have asked questions about it in 1917. The record he produced at the time Thomson’s body was discovered suggests that Robinson’s suspicions were not raised, either because the fishing line had a reasonable explanation, or because he never saw it all.

Gregory Klages - © 2017

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. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Author talk - Sep. 26, 7 p.m. - Yorkville Public Library

Author talk and book signing -
Tue Sep 26, 2017 - 7:00 p.m.

Yorkville Public Library

22 Yorkville Avenue, 
Toronto, ON
M4W 1L4


Author talk - Sep. 21, 6:30 pm - Dawes Road Public Library

Author talk and book signing
Thursday, Sep 21, 2017 - 6:30 p.m.

Dawes Road Public Library

416 Dawes Road, Toronto, ON  
M4B 2E8