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From the Second Storey: Murder, suicide, and the death of Tom Thomson

In his new book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, Gregory Klages attempts to separate fact from fiction in the various accounts of Tom Thomson's death
From the Second Storey by Andrew Vowles

Was it murder? Suicide? Or did Tom Thomson suffer an accidental drowning?

All three theories have been explored since the artist’s body surfaced in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park almost a century ago.

He had disappeared on the lake Aug. 8, 1917, and was missing for eight days before his decomposing body resurfaced. Thomson was 39.

A century later, Thomson continues to fascinate us. He produced landscapes – The West Wind, Jack Pine -- that helped to shape our own sense of ourselves and our environs.

His works are held in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

One well-known work called The Drive, showing lumbermen moving logs through a dam sluice, is held by the Art Gallery of Guelph. It was purchased with funds from students, faculty and staff of the Ontario Agricultural College in 1926.

Since 1914, Thomson had worked as a guide in Algonquin Park and had produced hundreds of sketches and completed works. Originally a graphic designer, he had become a painter under the patronage of Toronto doctor James MacCallum.

Thomson’s early death only made him more of a legend. And it wasn’t long after that summer nearly a century ago that questions began to bubble up over the circumstances of his death.

Plenty of writers have looked into his story and helped to fuel speculation in the intervening years.

Gregory Klages examines those tales in an effort to separate fact from fiction. His new book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson, has been published this spring by Dundurn Press.

The volume looks at the various stories told in books and magazines over the past century.

An instructor at the University of Guelph-Humber, Klages has been researching the story for the past decade. He finds most of those theories about murder or suicide to be lacking in evidence but well-stocked with speculation and innuendo.

According to some of those accounts, Thomson was killed in a drunken fighting at the lake. Other theories suggest he killed himself to avoid an unwanted marriage to a woman who might or might not have been pregnant with his child.

Klages acquaints us with the main characters around Canoe Lake during those days, including the park ranger Mark Robinson, who led the search for Thomson’s body; Shannon Fraser, the last person to have seen the artist alive; and Winnie Trainor, Thomson’s supposed love interest.

Immediately after his body was found, Thomson was buried near Canoe Lake. The body was exhumed for transport to its final resting place in the family cemetery plot in Leith, Ont. Klages sifts through the evidence involving the burial and exhumation and a long-held theory that Thomson’s body was never moved at all.

After weighing the often-contradictory evidence, Klages concludes something rather less dramatic than either murder or suicide.

His account includes dissections of many earlier works, including Tom Thomson: An Introduction to his Life and Art, by David Silcox; and Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter by Jim Poling Sr.

Klages also looks at work by Roy MacGregor, who beginning in the early 1970s wrote several articles about Thomson’s death and published the book Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him.

MacGregor is a perennial favourite among readers of his writing on sports and history in the Globe and Mail. He comes off less than favourably in Klages’s book. 

A cultural historian, Klages got involved in the story when he became research director for Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy.

That’s one of 12 archival websites produced by the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project.

Three years after he died, the Group of Seven formed. Although Thomson never belonged to the group, he knew several of its members, including A.Y. Jackson.

And Thomson’s work found echoes in their own paintings, many produced in the same New Ontario (between Ottawa and Georgian Bay) landscape where he lived and died – and where in a sense he will likely live on forever. 


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About the Author: Andrew Vowles

Andrew Vowles writes on arts, culture and connections in Guelph. He has written about science, environment, arts, culture, health and travel.
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