Edwin C. Guillet, "Chapter III — Reflections", The Death of Tom Thomson, Canadian Artist, Oct. 1944
The sudden tragic death of Tom Thomson was unquestionably a great misfortune from the point of view of Canadian art. In a few years he had risen to the peak of near perfection as an interpreter of the northern landscape, and at his death he had hardly attained middle age; the loss of his potential production is consequently the more deplorable.
The condition of his body when discovered suggests two causes of death that would appear much more probably than that which resulted from the inquest. The first is foul play, and the second suicide during temporary mental derangement.
The four-inch bruise over his right temple might have been made by a hard blow from a rock, a stick, or the blade of a paddle; apparently resulting from it was the bleeding from the right ear. Among the certainties would seem to be that the blow and the bleeding occurred before death, for blood does not flow from a dead body. Some of those who knew him – for example, Jack Christie of Sundridge – have expressed the belief that he was murdered. Had he any enemies with an overpowering motive to kill him?
The suicide possibility is not unreasonable, for Thomson is known to have been moody and morose at times, though usually when he was in the city, not in the wilds. Sudden derangement might have led to his diving from his canoe into shallow water and striking his head upon a rock, but it seems unlikely.
Thomson was known to prefer his own company to anyone else’s, and to be so shy of women that he refused to call upon fellow-
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artists who were married. It has been suggested, on the other hand, that there was once, perhaps twice, a romance in his life; and other hints might be taken to suggest a motive for his murder. No one, whether directly concerned or otherwise, cares to divulge anything further. The late Sir Frederick Banting, a great admirer of Thomson, made considerable efforts to learn more in the vicinity of Algonquin Park, but the sum total of the result was little more than an old forest ranger’s statement that Thomson was murdered; and when asked to give details the old man did not choose to do so. The late A. H. Robson also made some investigations, but not definite proof of anything was available. From what he could learn, however, Thomson and a guide or forest ranger were in love with the same girl, possible a half-breed; and that through jealousy Thomson was murdered by his rival.
As for the verdict itself, one wonders how a man is drowned without water in his lungs, and why so little effort was made to explain the bruise and the bleeding, which could not occur after death. It would seem that the state of decomposition of the body led the inquest to be concluded in much too hurried a fashion.
A noted fellow-artist, C. W. Jeffreys, has suggested, on the other hand, that is it perhaps natural for the mysterious to be related to Tom Thomson in the public imagination:
‘He almost became a legend even while alive. Genius is always something of a mystery. His sudden attainment to a masterly technique and a penetrating interpretation of our northern landscape, his recluse habits, his general reticence, all marked him as an original character.’
In general, his fellow artists, and particularly those who knew him best, like A. Y. Jackson, his studio mate, are reticent to discuss the tragedy. The writer does not know whether this is
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entirely due to the weight of sad memories, or bears some relation to the mystery of his death. His family, too, while recognizing that there are serious discrepancies between the condition of Thomson’s body and the recorded cause of death, prefer that there be no resurrection of the issue at this late date.
Barring some belated confession of complicity in the tragedy, or some other evidence that has been well hidden for twenty-seven years, it is certainly far too late to re-open the inquest upon the tragic death of Tom Thomson, ‘the poetic painter’. But inured as he was to hardship, and reputed the best canoeist, fisherman, and guide in the district, he would hardly seem to be a fit subject for accidental drowning – even if all the signs did not suggest a very different conclusion.