Thursday, March 31, 2016

What is the Many Deaths of Tom Thomson about?

Painter Tom Thomson is widely regarded a Canadian national hero. His paintings regularly fetch more than one-million dollars at auction. Children across the country learn about him and his peers, the Group of Seven. His iconic landscapes are ubiquitous, having been applied to a wide range of products including calendars, jigsaw puzzles, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and a multitude of book covers. A gallery is devoted to his artwork and preserving his memory.

When he died almost one-hundred years ago, Tom Thomson was a relative unknown, however. He had only been painting for a few years. Beyond a few devotees of the Toronto art scene, he was perhaps more widely known as a bohemian adventurer. For those who paid attention to his artistic development, it was believed that he showed great promise. Unfortunately, he potential he showed would never come to full fruition.

In the summer of 1917, during a canoe trip across Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake, Thomson went missing. His overturned canoe was sighted floating on the lake within hours of his departure. A search ensued. Over a week after his disappearance, his body surfaced in the lake, not far where he was last seen.

Thomson’s body was buried at the lake before the coroner arrived. Based on the testimony of those who viewed the body, the coroner reported the official cause of death as ‘accidental drowning’. As the Algonquin Park Ranger responsible for the search for Thomson observed in his diary, the way this conclusion was arrived at gave rise to some dissatisfaction within the community Thomson lived.

It did not take long for darker explanations for Thomson’s death to surface. Suggestions were whispered by some of Thomson’s friends that he might have committed suicide or been murdered in a drunken brawl. His family hotly attacked such rumours, taking anyone who suggested them to task for their disloyalty to his memory.

Theories about Thomson’s death were complicated further in the 1950s. His body had initially been buried in Algonquin Park, but within a few days his family had the body exhumed, and transported by rail to Leith, Ontario (a village outside Owen Sound) for reburial in a family plot. In the mid-1950s, a group of weekend explorers – without seeking approval from Park authorities – dug up Thomson’s original, supposedly empty, Algonquin Park gravesite. Much to their surprise, they discovered a corpse. The Ontario Provincial Police concluded that the body was not Thomson’s, but that of an unknown Aboriginal. They reinterred the remains. In 2011, Canadian journalist Roy MacGregor claimed that an analysis of photos of the remains by a forensic artist confirmed that the body in the grave was Thomson's.

Two key questions thus remain:
How did Tom Thomson die?
And, where is he buried?

The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact and Fiction takes on the rumours and hearsay related to the case, and challenges the findings based on incomplete and sometimes superficial assessment of the evidence. It systematically evaluates each of the major theories related to Thomson's death using the most complete assessment of evidence gathered to date. Most importantly, it provides the clearest, most authoritative conclusion regarding this mysterious century-old cold case.

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