Friday, September 29, 2017

Tom Thomson death myth #9 - 'Tom died over a debt'

Tom Thomson’s July 1917 death shocked his friends and family. Given that the man was only 39 years old, many found his death hard to explain. Those who examined Thomson’s corpse concluded that he drowned by accident. Nonetheless, gossip and suggestions of alternate explanations have fuelled a century of speculation.

In the 1970s, it was proposed that Tom Thomson died in a fight over a debt. The story - dependent on gossip and demonstrable errors - is wrong.

The story that Tom Thomson died over repayment of a debt can be tied to two persons. The first is Daphne Crombie, a woman who met Tom Thomson at Canoe Lake in 1917. The second is Roy MacGregor, a journalist and author who since the early 1970s has published a multitude of articles and two books regarding Thomson's death (one fiction and one non-fiction).

Although the roots of the debt story can be found in evidence recorded in 1917, the idea that Thomson was killed over a debt first appeared in 1977 (sixty years after Thomson’s death!). That year, Roy MacGregor wrote 'The Legend', an article in The Canadian magazine. In the article, MacGregor shared comments he claimed to have been told by Crombie.

In MacGregor's account, Crombie had speculated that Tom might have been killed by Shannon Fraser in a fight over money. (Fraser operated Mowat Lodge in Algonquin Park, where Thomson had been living since early April 1917.) Crombie apparently offered that Thomson had loaned Fraser money, and in July 1917, asked him to repay the debt. A fistfight ensued. During its course, Thomson fell, striking his head on the fire grate. The blow either killed Thomson immediately, or left him unconscious. Regardless, Fraser, assisted by his wife Annie, and out of fear of being charged with murder, hid the body in the lake.

In his 2010 book, Northern Light, MacGregor added to the story, stating that Winnie Trainor had told Margaret Thomson (Tom’s sister) that, “a $250 loan Tom had made to Fraser two years earlier had not yet been fully paid back.” *

An unpaid debt, a fight, murder, and a hidden corpse... compelling anecdotes that make a tantalizing story. The story, as told in MacGregor’s 1977 and 2010 accounts, directly contradicts the evidence from 1917.

After Thomson’s death, several members of Tom’s family were in contact with Winnifred Trainor, a Huntsville woman whose family leased a cottage at Canoe Lake. In late August or early September 1917, Trainor met one of Tom’s sisters, Margaret Thomson, in Toronto. They discussed Tom’s life, and of course, his death. In early September 1917, Margaret wrote Tom’s patron, Dr. James MacCallum, sharing with him what she had learned from Trainor.

By the time the two women met, Margaret was aware that Tom had loaned Shannon Fraser $250 to buy canoes. She inquired with Trainor about the loan. Trainor told Margaret that, “she had asked Tom this spring if he ever got that money, and he said he got it all but in very small amounts.” **

Tom Harkness, Tom Thomson’s brother-in-law and executor of Tom’s estate, pursued the issue with Fraser in September 1917, asking, “did you pay Tom for the canoes he bought for you and when.” [sic]

The same month, Winnie reported to Harkness what she had told Margaret, stating, “Tom said this spring while at our house that he had loaned Fraser $250.00 for canoes, but that he had got it all back but in little bits though.”

Trainor’s report that the debt had been repaid seems to have satisfied Harkness, who did not pursue the issue of the 'canoe debt' any further.

Following on Trainor's two statements that Fraser's debt to Tom had been repaid, no one closely involved in Tom's life suggested that Fraser owed Tom an outstanding debt. None suggested Fraser and Thomson had a fight over money. None suggested Tom had died seeking repayment of the debt.

It would be easy for us to hold MacGregor culpable for his 1977 error. This is not an entirely fair assessment, though. While he reported Crombie’s claim, we know her speculation is contradicted by Trainor’s 1917 claims. In 1977, however, Trainor’s letter was still held privately by the Thomson family. It was not made publicly accessible until the 1990s, when it was donated to Library & Archives Canada. In 2008, 'Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy' project made excerpts from the letter available freely on the world wide web.

MacGregor’s 2010 claim - that Trainor claimed the debt had not been repaid - is simply wrong. Trainor’s letter clearly indicates the debt was repaid. (See Notes below.)

Writers who have retold and expanded on Crombie/MacGregor’s ‘debt story’ since the 1990s – including MacGregor -  have overlooked or ignored Trainor’s 1917 statements that the debt was repaid, and perpetuated what is a demonstrably untrue myth about Tom Thomson’s death.

* MacGregor's statement can be found in Chapter 9 of Northern Light: The Story of Tom Thomson and The Woman Who Loved Him. For more, see the note below. Once again, he writes: "a $250 loan Tom had made to Fraser two years earlier had not yet been fully paid back.”

** The quoted passage from Margaret Thomson's 9 Sept. 1917 letter directly contradicts MacGregor's 2010 account of what the letter says. Once again, she writes, "[Trainor] had asked Tom this spring if he ever got that money, and he said he got it all but in very small amounts.”

Gregory Klages - © 2017
Gregory Klages was Research Director for the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, 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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