Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tom Thomson death myth #10 - "Fishing line = murder."

A popular story relates that Tom Thomson’s body was found with fishing line wound around one ankle. A popular interpretation is that the line proves someone tried to hide Thomson’s corpse by tying a weight to his body before sinking the body in the lake.  

The fishing line story (and the conspiracy theory spun from it) is not supported by the evidence we have available about Thomson's corpse.

When Tom Thomson’s body was discovered in July 1917, two men examined his remains: a doctor holidaying in Algonquin Park, and an Algonquin Park Ranger. At the time, neither man recorded seeing fishing line around any part of Thomson’s body. The claim that fishing line was found on Thomson's body was first made in the 1930s - thirteen years after Thomson's death - by Park Ranger, Mark Robinson. Robinson's claim was never corroborated by any other witnesses, though. Robinson also never explained why his 1917 notes don't mention the fishing line. Complicating his claim further, in the 1950s, Robinson offered yet another version of his testimony: he claimed he had noted the fishing line in 1917 (which we know is false), reported different 'facts' about the fishing line than he had in the 1930s, and stated his conclusion about Thomson’s cause of death that was different from what he stated in 1917 or 1930.

All of these facts strongly suggest the ‘fishing line story’ is suspect, and raises the prospect that one of the pillars supporting murder theories is weak.


We know that Tom Thomson’s body was discovered on the morning of July 16, 1917.

We know this from several documents produced that day, and in the days that immediately followed. The daily diary of Mark Robinson, the local Algonquin Park Ranger, is one of the key records we have from July 1917 (worth noting: his diary is the only record Robinson produced in 1917). In his diary, Robinson recorded the search for Thomson, as well as discovery and displacement of Thomson's remains.

For the July 16 entry, Robinson states that Thomson’s body was discovered floating in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake about 9 a.m. He writes that George Rowe and ‘Lowrie’ Dixon, “took same and brought it to shore.”

The following day, Robinson records that Thomson’s body was removed from the lake. He and Dr. G. Howland, who was holidaying at Canoe Lake, examined the corpse. Later that day, Robinson recorded observations about Thomson’s remains. Nowhere in these notes – nor anywhere else in his 1917 diary entries – is there mention that he found a fishing line around any part of Thomson’s corpse.

A transcription of Howland’s 1917 notes, provided to researcher Blodwen Davies by the Nipissing Crown Attorney’s office in the 1930s, doesn’t include any mention of suspicious fishing line on Thomson’s remains either. Similarly, a transcription of Howland’s observations held by George Thomson – Tom’s brother – also supplied to Davies in the 1930s, doesn’t mention fishing line.

That no 1917 account makes any mention of suspicious fishing line is important. Clearly, in 1917, either no fishing line was observed, or if it was observed, it was not regarded as in any way important to Thomson’s disappearance and death.

If the fishing line wasn’t noted in 1917, we can learn much about the claim by tracking when it first appeared, and how the story evolved.

Only one person - Mark Robinson - ever claimed that fishing line was found on Tom Thomson's corpse. Robinson mentioned the line for the first time in a 1930 letter to Blodwen Davies, thirteen years after Thomson’s death. At this time, Robinson suggested the line was not Thomson’s regular fishing line.

Why Robinson would wait thirteen years to offer this insight, particularly if he felt it provided evidence that Thomson might have died by foul play, is difficult to understand. Making Robinson’s testimony even more suspect, in the early 1950s, he added details to his story about the fishing line. Robinson stated that when he examined Thomson’s corpse, he found the line was “carefully” wound “16 or 17 times” around Thomson’s ankle. Robinson noted that he could prove this claim because he recorded his observations in his diary. We know, however, that his diary says nothing of the sort; it doesn’t mention fishing line at all!

Robinson’s ‘fishing line’ stories from the 1930s and 1950s do not agree with any 1917 evidence (even evidence recorded by Robinson himself in 1917). This should raise our suspicions about the tale. That Robinson’s accounts gained new elements and more details over decades also suggests skepticism about Robinson's claims 
– particularly those furthest from the experiences he describes - is necessary.

So, is the fishing line story purely fiction? Did Robinson invent it out of thin air? What if the fishing line existed, but has an innocent explanation?

Robinson was not present when Thomson’s body was discovered, or when it was brought to shore. His diary doesn’t mention how the guides brought Thomson’s body to shore, or to anchor the body once it was brought to shore. If the guides used fishing line to tow or anchor the body, as time passed Robinson might have forgotten this entirely logical explanation. If this is the case, however, it does not explain why Robinson would not have asked questions about it in 1917. The record he produced at the time Thomson’s body was discovered suggests that Robinson’s suspicions were not raised, either because the fishing line had a reasonable explanation, or because he never saw it all.

Gregory Klages - © 2017

Perplexed? Challenged? Interested in reading more?

To read more evidence about Tom Thomson's death, and to learn how story-telling about Thomson's death has diverged further and further from the evidence, read The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press, 2016). 

Gregory Klages was Research Director for Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, part of the international award-winning Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project. 

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