Over the last century, discussion of Canadian painter Tom Thomson’s 1917 death has included wild claims and poorly-grounded speculation. Over the last few decades, the claim has been frequently offered that Thomson was engaged or being pressured to marry a local woman, Winnifred Trainor. Trainor's family lived just outside Algonquin Park in Huntsville, Ontario, and leased a cottage at Canoe Lake, where Thomson spent time every summer from 1912 to 1917. In Chapter 11 of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction, I challenge the suggestion that Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor were engaged.
Recently, I took up this argument in an exchange on a social media platform. A comment by one of the discussion’s participants particularly caught my attention. It made reference to rarely discussed testimony from Trainor, recorded by Dr. Noble Sharpe. Those familiar with the Thomson case might recall that in 1956, Sharpe supervised exhumation of unidentified human remains found in Algonquin Park. Some have claimed those remains are Tom Thomson’s.
Sharpe's notes, written between the late 1950s and mid-1970s, record conversations he had with Winnifred Trainor in 1956, and perhaps in 1957. They indicate Trainor claimed to have been engaged to Thomson. In a 1970 article he wrote about the case, Sharpe published what Trainor had told him. Sharpe’s claims have not been widely discussed in writing about Thomson’s death. In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, I discussed Sharpe’s 1956 forensic conclusions about the unidentified remains, but I didn’t address his notes about conversations with Trainor. Given the reference to Sharpe’s claims in the recent conversation about Thomson's death, and my lack of comment in The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, I’ll consider his comments more carefully here.
Dr. Noble Sharpe was a bona fide forensic expert. In 1956, he had been the medical director of the Ontario Attorney General’s Laboratory (now Ontario’s Centre of Forensic Sciences) for five years. In October 1956, he was instructed to supervise exhumation of unidentified human remains that had been discovered near Mowat Cemetery, at Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park. As Sharpe relates it, when the remains were found, he was already headed to the area west of the park to conduct an inquest. Proximity may have played a factor in having the Lab’s Director supervise exhumation of the remains.
Sharpe had no personal history with Canoe Lake. He did not holiday there, or have friends who holidayed there. He did not personally know any of the people concerned with the 1956 discovery of human remains or the Tom Thomson case, Trainor included. Outside of his investigation of the remains, he had no cause to have conversations with Canoe Lake residents. In October 1956, he spent part of a day at Canoe Lake, most of which was spent at the exhumation site. There is no record that he met or talked with Winnifred Trainor while there. Sharpe's association with the case was easily discoverable, though; his leadership of the 1956 exhumation was reported in popular newspaper articles.
In the mid-1960s, a CBC staffer asked Sharpe if he might be willing to contribute his expertise to a television documentary regarding Tom Thomson’s death. Sharpe shared his reflections on the case, and offered substantial feedback on the CBC’s plans and scripts. A preliminary document he produced is a chronology of events around the 1956 case. The chronology states that on October 22, 1956, he received several calls from Winnifred Trainor. During these calls, he notes, Trainor claimed to have been engaged to Thomson. Sharpe repeats Trainor’s claim in later documents, although his notations regarding the number of times and dates he spoke with Trainor are not consistent.
Sharpe's record might be understood as evidence that Trainor and Thomson were engaged. Closer analysis reveals several critical problems, however, with the notes themselves and with the testimony they record. These problems suggest Trainor's claims, as reported, are generally untrustworthy.
1) Quality of evidence:
Sharpe’s notations record a recollection of events offered more than a decade after the fact. The 1968 notes might reflect documentary evidence from 1956 that Sharpe had at hand. They might, however, also reflect what he remembered. If so, differences between what he recorded in 1956 and what he recorded in 1968 should be carefully considered.
I point this out because differences do exist. None of Sharpe's notes produced in 1956 record calls from Trainor (see, for instance, his Oct. 30, 1956 notes about the case). Another set of notes he produced in 1959 doesn’t mention calls from Trainor, either. His 1968 insertion of calls from Trainor into the chronology of 1956 events (calls that don’t appear in his 1950s notes) suggests that in 1968 Sharpe was not strictly working from his case notes, but also from memory.
Of course, that Sharpe first mentions the calls more than a decade after the fact doesn’t mean that the calls didn’t occur. Perhaps they were recorded in a document that was not preserved. Perhaps he simply remembered them, only perceiving their importance later.
Assuming the calls were made, the absence of 1956 notes about conversations with Trainor is intriguing. It suggests that until the late 1960s Sharpe did not even feel Trainor's claim was significant enough to record. It is hard to believe that in the 1950s Sharpe would not have recognized that Trainor’s claim represented a significant departure from the usual stories of Thomson’s life. That he did not choose to record her claims then might be a good indication of how trustworthy he found Trainor’s claim.
The change in Sharpe’s accounts between the 1950s and 1960s should also serve as a strong reminder. We would be making a mistake if we granted the same evidentiary value to a recollection made more than ten years after the events in question as we do to a document produced at the time of the events. This point is important when we compare two sets of notes Sharpe made in 1968 with each other.
2) Inconsistencies in Sharpe’s 1960s notes:
We know that Sharpe’s 1968 notations are inconsistent with those he made in the 1950s. Interpretation of his claims is made even more difficult when we realize that two documents he wrote about the case in 1968, within a few months of each other, are not consistent.
Between February and August 1968, in a hand-written chronology regarding the case, Sharpe indicates that Trainor called him several times on October 22, 1956. These notes were likely for Sharpe’s personal use. In August 1968, Sharpe typed comments on a CBC television documentary ‘proposed scenario’. These comments sometimes restate verbatim what appeared in the hand-written notes. This second set of notes was likely for communication to the CBC program producers. In the typed comments, Sharpe states that Trainor “phoned me several times in 1956-7.” In his article published in the Canadian Forensic Science Journal in 1970, he does not detail how many times he and Trainor spoke. In a note produced later in the 1970s, he repeats his claim that he spoke with Trainor several times in 1956 and 1957.
In light of these varying claims, what can we make of Sharpe's comments? It seems reasonable to suggest that Trainor called Sharpe more than once in 1956, likely in October. If she called him again, later in 1956 or in 1957, she doesn’t seem to have offered any new information, or Sharpe dismissed the calls as so unimportant as not deserving even a note. Alternatively, after more than decade, perhaps Sharpe wasn’t sure when, or how many times Trainor called him. This suggestion might help explain the variations in his notes; he did not feel confident committing publicly or to the CBC producers exactly when or how many times Trainor had called him.
3) Contradictions in Trainor’s claims and 1917 evidence
Setting aside the inconsistencies in Sharpe’s record regarding how many times he and Trainor spoke, evidence suggests Trainor’s claims (as recorded by Sharpe) should not be trusted. Trainor’s claim about being engaged to Thomson was made among other claims that are very likely intentionally false. If one of the claims Trainor made is a lie, this should throw doubt on the trustworthiness of all of her 1956 claims recorded by Sharpe.
In both his handwritten and typed 1968 notes, Sharpe states Trainor told him that she and her father were present when the “second undertaker” returned with Thomson’s body, and that she was sure Thomson’s body was in the casket.
The reference to the ‘second undertaker’ presumably refers to the Huntsville undertaker, Churchill, who exhumed Tom Thomson’s corpse for relocation to the Thomson family plot in Leith. Park Ranger Mark Robinson's 1917 daily diary records that the undertaker arrived on the night of July 18th, and the casket containing Thomson’s exhumed body was loaded on the evening train at Canoe Lake Station the following night (July 19th).
Mark Robinson records that Winnifred Trainor left on the train from Canoe Lake Station on the evening of July 17th. Phone records, as well as her own August 1917 letters to Thomson family members indicate Trainor was in Scotia Junction on the morning of the 18th.
We do not have any records indicating Trainor returned to Canoe Lake in time to be standing on the train platform on the evening of July 19. In the months following Tom's death, when she described her attempts to intervene in decision-making about Tom's remains and beliefs about Tom's death, she never mentions returning to Canoe Lake for the 19th. She never suggested that she had seen Thomson’s casket being loaded on the train. Margaret Thomson, one of Tom’s sisters, met Trainor in Toronto in August 1917. Margaret’s notes about that conversation don’t include any mention of Trainor claiming to have seen the exhumed casket. Sharpe’s 1968 notes are the first mention we have of Trainor being present in Canoe Lake on July 19th. Logic suggests this exceptional claim was not produced by new rigour being applied to investigation of the fifty-year old case, or new primary evidence being located. It is also very unlikely that Trainor merely had previously overlooked mentioning that she had viewed Thomson's exhumed casket. Trainor’s testimony as recorded by Dr. Sharpe very likely indicates Trainor purposefully attempted to deceive Sharpe in the 1950s.
An additional piece of evidence, not produced directly by Sharpe, supports the conclusion that both Sharpe’s recollections and Trainor’s claims might be inaccurate, if not untrustworthy. In November 1973, Dr. Sharpe’s friend and peer, Dr. Doug Lucas, then Director of the Ontario Attorney General’s Laboratory, arranged a meeting between Dr. Sharpe and Charles Plewman. In 1972, Plewman wrote an article about Thomson’s death for the Canadian Camping Association magazine. In 1973, he approached Lucas after hearing him speak about the case at a Toronto Rotary Club meeting. In his notes about Sharpe’s and Plewman’s conversation, Lucas states, “Noble Sharpe said that Miss Trainor called him two or three times in 1956 and told him that she and her father were at the station when [Churchill] returned with the casket.” He also notes, “She also at another time told him that she and her father were present when the body was exhumed.
Given their hearsay nature, we should not give too much significance to Lucas’ comments. They are, however, consistent with the conclusions about Sharpe’s records reached above. Like Sharpe’s notes, Lucas’ indicate that Trainor spoke to Sharpe several times, although it is not clear whether these conversations all took place in 1956 or not. Lucas’ record of what Sharpe claimed about the calls further suggests that Trainor’s testimony might have been deeply, and perhaps to Sharpe, obviously flawed. If the suggestion that Trainor witnessed Thomson’s coffin being loaded on the train on July 19th lacks for evidence, the suggestion that Trainor was present when Thomson’s body was exhumed on the night of July 18th is even less plausible. To be present on the night of the 18th would have required Trainor to have returned to Canoe Lake from Scotia Junction almost immediately after speaking with the Thomson family and the Huntsville undertaker. This is physically possible, but no 1917 record mentioning the trip or Trainor’s presence at Canoe Lake on July 18th or 19th has ever been produced. Neither the letters Trainor wrote to the Thomson family in 1917 nor Mark Robinson’s daily diary record Trainor’s presence at Canoe Lake on July 18th or 19th. The claim only begins to appear in 1968, and only in documents produced by Dr. Sharpe, or reporting Dr. Sharpe’s claims. If Trainor was at Canoe Lake on July 19th or 20th, it is inconceivable that Trainor did not refer to such an important experience in any of her 1917 correspondence with the Thomson family, and that no one at Canoe Lake would refer to her presence for the exhumation or departure of Thomson's corpse in documents written at the time.
Where do these observations leave the suggestion that Winnifred Trainor and Tom Thomson were engaged? As I suggest in The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, hearsay and poorly-grounded speculation has come to dominate and displace evidence-based claims about Thomson’s death, particularly since the 1970s. In talk about whether Thomson and Trainor were engaged we have been offered gossip, guesses, faulty memories, and perhaps, as Sharpe’s notes about Trainor’s testimony suggest, lies. Certainly, Trainor’s claims of 1956, at least as recorded by Sharpe, don’t prove anything about Thomson’s marital status. They do, however, indicate something about the weaknesses of testimony made long after the events in question, even by those who might have been involved in Thomson’s case in 1917.
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).