Monday, September 19, 2016

Tom Thomson - Suicide? History of a flawed idea.

As I explore in The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction, three causes of death have been considered since Tom Thomson was found dead in July 1917: accidental drowning, murder, and suicide. His death was ruled as accidental at the time, but the possibility that he had been murdered was given some consideration. Suicide, however, did not appear as a believable option in discussions of the case until the 1970s.

The possibility that Thomson might have committed suicide was first raised in the fall of 1917. The only accounts are second-hand, though. In December 1917, two Thomson family members reported being told that stories of Tom having died by his own hand were circulating in Canoe Lake. The family likely learned of the gossip from one of Tom’s friends who had visited Canoe Lake in September to help build a cairn memorializing his friend. Thomson family members were angry and frustrated that such a damaging and groundless theory was being spoken of, and sought to have the rumours quashed.

Their efforts may have been successful, or perhaps the gossip was implausible enough that the idea gained little traction beyond a few residents of Canoe Lake. Whatever the reason, it was not until the 1970s that suicide reappears as a possible explanation for Thomson’s death. In 1972, Charles Plewman, a man who during the summer of 1917 had visited Canoe Lake occasionally, raised the prospect of suicide. He offered his memories in an article publishedby the Canadian Camping Association magazine. Plewman stated that he had been told by Shannon Fraser, operator of the lodge Thomson had been living in at Canoe Lake, that Thomson’s reason for suicide was that he was being pressured to marry a local woman. Thomson, apparently uninterested in marriage, could not conceive of how to escape the situation with honour except by killing himself.

Five years later, in 1977, Roy MacGregor added fuel to Plewman’s suggestion that Thomson might have committed suicide. MacGregor offered that Thomson’s girlfriend may have been pressuring him to marry because she was pregnant. He concluded this situation on the basis that the Huntsville newspaper noted in fall 1917 that the woman was leaving for an extended trip to the United States.

Over the last decade or so, an emerging line of thinking proposes that Thomson suffered from some kind of psychiatric or neurological illness, such as bipolar disorder or autism. These theories are provocative, but ultimately frustrating in that they cannot be authoritatively proven or disproven. They also don't answer the question of whether Thomson actually committed suicide.

Much of the suicide theory is based on such flimsy hearsay evidence that can simply be dismissed as groundless gossip. 

If Thomson was suicidal over his relations with a woman, there is much that remains to be proven. No documentation exists of letters between Thomson and the woman. No documents have been produced from before Thomson’s death where either Thomson or the woman in question even refer to each other! 

Charles Plewman waited more than fifty years to tell the story he said Fraser had told him. The delay should encourage scepticism. MacGregor surmises that because the woman left on a trip to the U.S. in the fall of 1917 that she might be pregnant. He does not explain, however, why the family would advertise her trip in the newspaper if she was leaving the community to have a child secretly. 

As I propose in The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, one critical concern that none of the suicide theories adequately answer (aside, of course, from the general lack of solid evidence) is regardless of all of the convoluted efforts to create a suicide motive for Thomson, why – in an environment with easy access to guns, axes, hunting knives, speeding trains, waterfalls, fires, rope, etc – the man might try to end his own life by rowing out into a relatively well-travelled lake in the middle of a Sunday and throwing himself overboard. 


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).