Dr. Noble Sharpe, "The Canoe Lake Mystery", Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal, June 1970


Tom was socially inclined, and he was said to be interested in a local lady. (I had a telephone conversation with this charming person in 1956, and she told me she was engaged to him.) It was also said Tom had a rival and they had quarrelled. Their altercations reached a climax when Tom accused the other man of being a deserter from the American Army. Tom, incidentally, had been rejected on account of flat feet. Rumours relating to his rival’s implication were rife. It was stated that on the night before Tom Thomson disappeared that a man threatened him. Still later it was rumoured a shot had been heard coming from the direction Tom had taken when he was last seen.


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I do not criticize Dr. Howland for failing to make an internal examination. Decomposition would have masked indications of drowning as the cause of death. Even the absence of water in the lungs would not rule out the possibility. I am, however, puzzled by the bleeding from the ear. If this, whatever the cause, occurred in the water, it would in all probability have been washed away. Dried blood implies a time lapse before immersion.


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[...] Due to attend an inquest at Ahmic Harbour on October 5th. 1956, I had a telephone call from Corporal Rodgers asking me to advance the time of my arrival that I might be present with him during the exhumation. I attended with Dr. Ebbs, the Corporal, and two of the four men who opened the grave.


We exposed the remainder of the skeleton about four and a half feet down, in sandy soil. Old hazel nuts and rotted vegetation were found with the bones. Had the grave been shallower one might assume rodents had found their way to the coffin and the remains. It is doubtful if water erosion could, at this depth, be the cause of vegetable matter seeping through. We found a few fragments of rotted wood which were subsequently identified as oak and cedar. There were coffin handles, a metal plate marked “Rest in Peace”, a small fragment of cloth, identified as canvas, and a small piece of fabric later identified as part of a woolen sock. As might be expected this woolen material was attached to a foot bone. Most fabrics of this nature disappear in about twenty years in this type of soil. Despite careful sifting no buttons or other durable part of clothing were found. Only one skeleton was present.

Whether or not the skeleton had been in the coffin, or was placed on top to later fall to the level where we found the oak and cedar could not be determined. The rotting of the body and the coffin probably left the depression which attracted the attention of the men who opened the grave.

There was a round hole about three quarters of an inch in diameter in the lower left temple area of the skull. A superficial examination left one with the impression it was not a bullet hole.

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There being but the one hole steps were taken to safeguard both skull and contents pending a complete examination. The feeling among us at the grave was that these were Tom Thomson’s remains; that we had found them in his original grave; and by outward appearances that he may have died of a gun-shot wound.

All the exhibits were placed in cartons and I brought them away for further study. I was busy with court appearances at the time and it was October 11th. 1956 before I was able to commence a detailed examination. Dr. A. Singleton, a well known Toronto specialist, co-operated with me in the initial x-ray examination of the skull and contents. Finding no evidence of the presence of a projectile we cleaned out the skull to facilitate examination of both inner and outer surfaces. There were no radiating fractures around the hole and there was no beveling – a condition generally associated with passage of a bullet. Consulting with Professor Eric Linnell, the neuropathologist, it was agreed the aperture resembled a trephine opening rather than a bullet hole of entrance. Trephining was not as common in 1917 as it was some twenty years later. Had I been seized of the case ten years later I could have proven the point by neutron activation analysis of bony material in the region of the hole. Still more recent developments have made it possible to determine the length of time a body or skeleton has been buried.

To add to the mystery we found the skull was not the Caucasian type one would expect Tom Thomson to have. I consulted with Professor J.C.B. Grant of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He was given no information but was asked to examine the remains and express an opinion regarding (i) Race; (ii) Height; (iii) Sex; (iv) Age; and (v) probable time of death and/or burial. In due course, Professor Grant reported the skull was of the Mongoloid race and, under the circumstances, that of a North

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American Indian, full blooded, or nearly so; five feet eight inches (plus or minus two inches) in height; male; under thirty years of age and buried at least ten to fifteen years, but how much longer he could not say. Judging by photographs of the man, one would say Tom Thomson was Caucasoid; and from information obtained from his family that he was six feet in height and forty years of age at the time of his death. His family knew of no Indian blood in their family tree.

The profile and full face photographs of Tom Thomson made available to me in 1956 were none too clear, nevertheless, I found no evidence of Mongoloid bony points nor of agreement of bony points. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was able to find and reproduce excellent pictures. I requested and was provided with actual size prints for comparison with the skull. There was no bony point agreement. The skeleton was not that of Tom Thomson. I suggested Mr. Walter Kenyon of the Royal Ontario Museum be consulted. He agreed with my opinion.

The Ontario Provincial Police have been unable so far to link the skeleton with any missing Indian, nor have they found any record of a missing or deceased Indian with a condition requiring a trephining. The teeth were in excellent condition. They were the typical shovel type usually associated with Mongolians. Photographs of the jaws were shown to the artist’s family but they were not able to help. Dental charts were not kept in 1917 to the same extent as they are to-day. The skeleton was returned to the grave and a marker erected to deter further interference.

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The local group of artists and other interested persons do not accept these facts. They are still firmly of the belief Tom Thomson’s remains were found; and they still maintain he was shot to death.

On what do they base these views? They claim he was too good an outdoorsman to have drowned or to have slipped on a rock when portaging and to have come by his demise in this manner. They recall the threat made by his rival, and the report that one or more of the local folk had heard a shot fired. They also claim the fishing line and the manner it was tied around his leg indicated a weight had been attached to his body. They said the hole in the skull was a gun-shot wound – even if it were on the wrong side, as reported by Dr. Howland. His old cronies said the knots fastening the paddle to the canoe for portaging were not the type of knot Thomson used.

To add to the quandary, the local ranger who visited the grave on the morning after the body was supposed to have been removed by the undertaker, opined there was too little earth disturbance. It was claimed the undertaker commissioned to move the body to the family plot at Leith did not have time to take the body from the grave, place it in his steel casket and refill the hole in the ground. Furthermore, it was claimed the casket was too light to have contained an adult human body. It was also emphasized no Indian could have been buried there without someone witnessing the occurrence and, furthermore, it must be remembered the nearest portage Indians might use is a mile and a half distant.

Their criticism of certain aspects of the investigation may be justified. But, we must remember even a good canoeist may slip in the process of making a portage, and he could suffer injury or even death, as the result of the fall. The fishing line around Thomson’s leg may not be significant as fishermen do fasten their lines to a foot, or maybe around a knee, as they use both hands while trolling; and, we must remember, the possibility of entanglement as the result of wave action. The differences in knots is not particularly significant – there is no limiting factor in one’s choice. While the question relating to the condition of the surface of the grave site following the first exhumation cannot new be resolved, I must add I remember looking back as we departed the scene on that October day in 1956 and I was impressed with the tidiness of the surface. We left very little evidence of the operation in the sandy soil; nothing in fact that one shower and a slight breeze could not rectify. And, as for burial of an Indian at this particular site, it seems to be the logical locale for a secret burial, particularly following a brawl or a fight. What better place could one find than over or beside another grave? Location of the settlers’ grave site was common knowledge in the area. Besides, the depression marking the location of the settler’s grave would make for easier digging. An Indian burial with a coffin built of oak and cedar, without the knowledge of others in the district, would be nigh impossible. I have personal knowledge of Indians passing through the area – even

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at my cottage on Lake of Bays I had Indian visitors as late as 1940. So friendly were they, one left his dog sledge with me one Spring and picked it up again the following Winter; and, I might add, no one saw him come or go.

The second undertaker, he who was commissioned to transfer the body, in 1956, was indignant at the suggestion that he did not fulfill his obligations. He stated he had only to dig at the end of the grave, by the slope of the knoll, break open the end of the coffin and pull out the body. He did not have to expose the entire length of the coffin top.

The lady whom we believe was engaged to Tom Thomson told me, when I questioned her, that she and her father were at the railroad station when the casket was loaded aboard the train and they were certain the body was in it. Though I tried I never did determine by what means, or when or where, she learned Tom’s body was, in fact, in the casket.

The Thomson family agreed they were satisfied the body was in the casket at Leith. The odour was strong.

The case is now complicated by the finding of the skeleton of an Indian in the grave supposed to be that of Tom Thomson.

I am inclined to the opinion that Tom Thomson’s body lies in the family plot in Leith, Ontario. Proof positive might be had by opening the grave. If the skeleton is there, and there is no evidence of his death being attributable to gunfire, then that case ends. But, really, there is nothing to warrant an order to exhume the remains for an examination. The family refuse permission. Perhaps a descendent at some future date may grant permission. If I am wrong in my belief, and if and when the grave is opened no body is found, then, if circumstances so warrant, the investigation should be reopened in the Canoe Lake district.

But, what of the Mongoloid skull with the three-quarter inch round aperture in the lower left temple area? Was the bone removed in surgery? Is it evidence of some foul deed, of murder? Who were involved? How did the Indian die and at whose hands? [...]

Source: Dr. Noble Sharpe, "The Canoe Lake Mystery," Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal 3 (June 31, 1970): 34-40

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