Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mark Robinson's influential, but inconsistent, testimony about Tom Thomson

Over a period of almost four decades, Mark Robinson, the Algonquin Park Ranger who in July 1917 organized the search for missing artist Tom Thomson, produced multiple remembrances: anecdotes about the artist, accounts of Thomson’s last days, and descriptions of the days following discovery of Thomson’s corpse.

Robinson’s testimony - without much distinction being made between the various accounts provided over thirty-five years -  has often been portrayed as the definitive, authoritative account of the conditions surrounding Thomson’s death. While it is true that Robinson’s 1917 testimony regarding what happened to Tom Thomson must be considered – his daily diary is one of the few ‘on the scene’ accounts we have - inconsistencies and contradictions between Robinson’s 1917 account and his later accounts requires that all of his testimony should be approached with skepticism.  

What was Mark Robinson’s involvement in this case?
Mark Robinson. Undated. Algonquin Park Museum & Archives.
APMA 184

Mark Robinson first served as an Algonquin Park Ranger from 1909 through to 1915.

Robinson met Tom Thomson in 1912. His daily diaries for 1912, 1913 and 1915 include brief references to Thomson as one of many people moving through the park.

In fall 1915, Robinson took up service with the Canadian military, serving in Canada and Europe until the winter of 1916/17.

In April 1917, Robinson returned to service at Algonquin Park’s Joe Lake Station, within easy walking distance of Canoe Lake’s Mowat Lodge. As the presiding park authority for the area, when Tom Thomson went missing in July 1917, Robinson organized the search. He also attended the examination of Thomson’s corpse conducted by Dr. G. W. Howland on July 19, 1917.

Robinson would serve as a park Ranger into the early 1940s, and passed away in 1955.

What accounts did Mark Robinson produce?
We have, essentially, three accounts from Robinson.

One body of testimony was produced in July 1917. Robinson maintained a daily diary, in which he recorded observations about park life, including lists of tasks he completed each day, the conditions of animals and plants, and notes about who was moving through the park (along with where they were from and what their activities in the park would be). He also sometimes noted his own feelings or rumours, such as his comment in April 1917 that he believed Martin Blecher Jr. was a "German spy."

A second body of testimony is a series of letters Robinson exchanged with Tom Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies in 1930 and 1931. Davies had published a Thomson biography in 1930, and had sought out many of Thomson’s acquaintances, Robinson among them. Through his letters, Robinson provided anecdotes about Thomson’s art, his attitude toward nature, remembrances about the search for Thomson, and suggestions about who else might offer useful information.

A third body of testimony is an audio recording of Robinson, likely produced in 1953 by Taylor Statten at Canoe Lake (an Alex Edmison transcription is held by the National Gallery of Canada). The recording preserves Robinson’s story-telling about Thomson, including his ideas about Thomson’s disappearance and death. He was clearly relating his tales to a small audience, who can be heard applauding at the end of the recording.

What is it about Robinson’s testimony that isn’t trustworthy?
A regrettable tendency among commentators addressing Thomson’s death is to approach Robinson’s three bodies of testimony as consistent when they are not. The evolution in Robinson’s accounts and claims is critical to explain if we are to make sense of what Robinson contributes to our understanding of Thomson’s death.

For instance, let’s consider two critical examples of how key aspects of Robinson’s testimony changed from 1917 through to the 1950s.

Robinson's testimony about Thomson's injuries, and the conclusions these injuries suggesting about Thomson's cause of death, changed over decades.

In his 1917 daily diary, Robinson noted a bruise on Thomson’s temple, which he suggested was “evidently caused by falling on a rock.” He also states, “otherwise no marks of violence on body.”

In the 1930s, he backed away from his suggestion of accidental death, stating, “Tom was said to have been drowned. It may be quite true but the mystery remains.” While he perhaps speculated that Thomson suffered foul play, we don’t have any written records confirming this suspicion.

The first written record we have where Robinson suggests Thomson was murdered was produced in the 1950s. It was then that Robinson introduced the suggestion that Thomson’s temple “looked as if he had been struck – struck with the edge of a paddle.” 

Robinson’s inconsistent testimony about the condition of Thomson's corpse, and Robinson's conclusions regarding the condition of the remains, has provided much of the impetus for murder conspiracy theories.

Related to the 'murder' story, those who suggest Tom Thomson was found with fishing line around his leg owe this claim to a selective reading of Mark Robinson’s changing testimony. 

In 1917, Robinson makes no mention of a fishing line around any part of Thomson’s corpse in the notes he made after inspecting Thomson’s remains. (In fact, no 1917 account makes mention of fishing line found on Thomson’s corpse.)

This is important, because the first mention of the fishing line that we have comes from Mark Robinson. In 1930, almost fifteen years after Thomson’s death, Robinson mentioned the line for the first time to Thomson biographer, Blodwen Davies. At this time, Robinson suggested the line was not Thomson’s regular line.

Making Robinson’s testimony even more suspect, in the early 1950s, Robinson added details to his story about the fishing line, stating that it was “carefully” wound “16 or 17 times” around Thomson’s ankle.

That the two later accounts did not agree with any 1917 evidence (even evidence provided by Robinson himself) should raise suspicions. That over 35 years Robinson introduced new details into his accounts, and that contrary to how human memory works the accounts became more detailed, also suggests skepticism about Robinson’s claims is necessary.

What can we conclude? 
In his 1917 account, Mark Robinson does not indicate that he suspected that Thomson’s death was anything but accidental. Even his circumstantial testimony records no features pointing to Thomson having suffered foul play or committing suicide. Robinson certainly did not record that he raised any concerns with the coroner or park superintendent.

Thirteen years later, his accounts had evolved. While he does not challenge the conclusion that Thomson died by accident, he intimates that something about the story is not fully known.

By the early 1950s, his claims and conclusions had changed yet again. In the 1950s, he suggested that Thomson had clearly been murdered. Frustratingly, he doesn't provide any explanation why he offered no indication of this belief in 1917 or during the 1930s, or evidence to support such an interpretation.

We do know that working as the Canoe Lake park ranger for decades after Thomson’s death, Robinson was called upon to share his memories many, many times. Over decades, with retelling upon retelling of his stories, perhaps Robinson’s memories become fuzzy, perhaps he even confused memories with fanciful recollections.

For those who suggest that this suggestion unfairly besmirches Robinson’s reputation, we do have some evidence that he misrepresented facts. In the 1950s, he supports his claim regarding the number of times fishing line was wound around Thomson’s ankle with the statement, “I know this because I have it written down in my diary.” Robinson was fortunate that none of his friends were curious enough to ask Robinson to prove this. Why? As I mentioned above, Robinson’s daily diary includes no mention of fishing line at all. His 1950s statement - whether by error or lie - is simply wrong about a critical fact.

But, surely, some claim, couldn’t Robinson simply have remembered more about the story than he did in 1917? This is possible. Over time he may also have made different sense of what he remembered.

I believe we can explain some of the evolution in Robinson’s testimony by looking at the evidence. For instance, if Robinson’s memory about fishing line is correct, there is a far more simple, straight-forward explanation for it being found around Thomson’s ankle than an attempt to hide a corpse. For more on this topic, see Chapter 10 of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson.

Whatever the explanation, the inconsistencies in Robinson’s accounts regarding Tom Thomson’s death strongly suggest that all of Robinson’s testimony merits careful consideration. The ‘facts’ he remembers don’t always line up with contemporary accounts produced by others, and just as importantly, Robinson’s accounts produced over 35 years aren’t always consistent with each other. In this regard, the authority of any of Robinson’s accounts about the life and death of Tom Thomson is questionable.


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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