Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tom Thomson: Murdered? History of a flawed idea.

The possibility that Tom Thomson had been murdered was first raised in July 1917, before Thomson’s death was even confirmed. Newspaper coverage speculated that murder was among the possible reasons for Thomson’s disappearance.

In July 1917, Dr. G. Howland, who was holidaying in Algonquin Park and who was called upon to examine Thomson's remains, concluded that Thomson died by drowning. At the time, neither he, Park Ranger Mark Robinson (who supervised the search for Thomson), the coroner, nor the Park Superintendant recorded any suggestions that Thomson's death had been anything other than an accident (no one else recorded them making such suggestions either).

Going public with suspicions

The first investigator to publicly claim that Thomson had suffered fatal violence was Blodwen Davies. In summer 1931, she asked Ontario’s Attorney General to excavate Thomson’s original Algonquin Park burial place, on the grounds that the coroner’s conclusion of ‘accidental drowning’ was wrong. Davies argued that evidence taken in 1917 clearly pointed to Thomson having sustained a fatal blow to his head. She repeated this claim in her self-published book, A Study of Tom Thomson, the second she devoted to Thomson.

In the 1950s, a conversation with a group of people (likely at Canoe Lake) was recorded on audio tape. During this conversation, Mark Robinson offered that Tom Thomson's temple clearly showed signs of violence. This is the first record we have of Robinson offering such an assertion. He does not make similar statements in his testimony from 1917, or during the 1930s.

A conspiracy theory re-emerges

The murder theory really blossomed as an explanation during the late 1960s. A 1969 CBC documentary and a 1970 book suggested that Thomson had been killed. While the documentary - Was Tom Thomson Murdered? - is pretty much forgotten today, the book – William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery – provided many of the claims upon which proponents of the murder theory continue to build their case.

Acrobatic adaptations

The contemporary writer who stands at the forefront of proposals that Thomson was murdered is Roy MacGregor. MacGregor is Canada’s most prolific author regarding the case, having produced magazine articles, a fiction book (published twice, under different titles), and most recently, a non-fiction book devoted to Thomson’s death.

During the late 1970s, MacGregor suggested that Thomson might have been killed in a fight on the night of Saturday, July 7. This is an interesting theory, but evidence points to several people, Mark Robinson included, having seen Thomson on the following morning, July 8. 

In his 2010 book, MacGregor adjusted his argument that Thomson was murdered to fit with the evidence that Thomson was seen on the morning of Sunday, July 8. In his revised theory, MacGregor suggested that Thomson might have returned to Canoe Lake, seen by few, on the night of Sunday, July 8. Upon his return, according to MacGregor, Thomson was killed. This proposal leaves unanswered how Thomson's canoe would be seen floating, overturned, on the afternoon of July 8, hours before MacGregor suggests Thomson was killed.

The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson - The 'Mystery' Resolved?

In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, I subject Davies', Little's and MacGregor's claims (as well as those of others who have written about the case) to rigourous analysis. As they all argue that Tom Thomson could very well have been murdered, the strength of their arguments is critical to evaluating the case.


Image: Tom Thomson. c. 1916. The Fisherman. Oil on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of Alberta.

All of the links for this post direct back to excerpts of transcribed historical documents provided on the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy. Gregory Klages was Research Director for the site, 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).

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