William T. Little, "A Sketching Expedition and its Bizarre Development", The Tom Thomson Mystery, 1970

[ Leonard Gibson digging at Mowat cemetery site ]

Leonard Gibson digging at Mowat cemetery site, Unknown, 1956-09-30, Algonquin Park Archives, APMA 6754, This dig is likely just outside the cemetery fence (as indicated by the horizontal backer boards being on the other side of the vertical fence boards). In his 1970 book, "The Tom Thomson Mystery", William Little does not provide the exact date his group dug at the Mowat cemetery site. His narrative of the events, along with reports in the "Globe and Mail" and "Toronto Star", place the likely date of the dig as Sunday, September 30

[…] In October of 1956, Jack Eastaugh and I left Brampton for Algonquin Park [...] and the familiar landsites we knew from college days when we were counselors here at Camp Ahmek, even before any road came into the Park. Hickey’s Lake, a dark lush swamp, lay low to the right as we swung down the winding dirt road. Finally the stables, lying long, low and white, and the white-fenced corrals drifted past, and we were at the Bay Cabin on Wigwam Bay.


After breakfast we packed our gear and pushed off in our canoe towards Hayhurst Point. [...] We stopped to view the fieldstone cairn that stands above Hayhurst Point midway down the east side of Canoe Lake. Finally we moved into the shore at the point where Mowat Lodge was located before it burned down in the mid-twenties and walked a half mile through the heavy overburden of tall grass and a reforested pine woods section at the base of a rather steep ascent. Jack, having visited this area more recently than I, unerringly led the way to a large birch tree shading a small picket fence enclosing two graves. Decayed in many places, the pickets were supported by heavy wire fencing. I put down my sketching kit and looked around at the beautiful view. Canoe Lake was below us and about a quarter-mile away. […]

My return to this long-remembered location set me thinking back over the years on pieces of information collected both in memory and notes. I could hear the words of Mark Robinson as far back as 1930 answering my query, as to where Tom had been buried at Canoe Lake in 1917. “His grave is just to the north of the other two,” and his comment, like an echo from the past, “I don’t believe they ever took Tom’s body from Canoe Lake.”


In studying the ground surrounding the old graves we noted the heavy brush and large evergreens that surrounded the north sector of the hillside and concluded that it was hardly likely that any grave would extend beyond some twenty feet from the north side of the picket enclosure.

“Why don’t we check, and find out if this grave still exists?” I suggested.

“It sure would be interesting to know whether Thomson’s body was ever removed from here.”


Jack and I paddled back to Ahmek, which was deserted save for the workmen and kitchen staff. During our supper with the men, we again discussed our plans for the next morning. Two of them, Frank Braught and Leonard Gibson, were keenly interested. Frank was a retired school teacher from Guelph, Ontario, and “Gibby” had worked and lived in the area nearly all his life. Both men knew the Thomson stories by heart and had shared the common interest of all those who had knowledge of them. They were eager to test out my limited directions and concurred in the belief that it was logical to begin investigating close to the north side of the only other graves in the area.

[...] If we found no evidence of a rough box or casket, then we would know that the official version (now firmly accepted by the Thomson family, the Department of Lands and Forests, and the Attorney General’s Department) was indeed a fact. This would, we believed, forever stifle those unbelievers, including ourselves, who seriously questioned whether the alleged exhumation had ever taken place.

If, however, we did find a grave complete with casket and body in the location where Tom Thomson was originally buried – “to the north of the other two graves” – where now there should be no grave or body, we would prove beyond any doubt that Thomson’s body was never moved from its original resting place on the shores of Canoe Lake. We knew no other graves had been dug, or burials recorded other than those of the Hayhurst child, the millhand from Parry Sound, and Tom Thomson.

Once again we discussed the many and fragmented details with which we were all familiar, and came up with the same questions to be solved:

  1. Was Tom Thomson murdered?
  2. If so, by whom?
  3. Was his body ever exhumed and sent to Leith?


A Macabre Plan – The Dig

“You fellows ready to solve the mystery of Tom Thomson?” asked Gibby.

After a good workman’s breakfast, we gathered together our shovels and axes and proceeded the two and a half miles to the northwest shore of Canoe Lake – to the location of the two known gravesites. After reviewing the terrain, we agreed to start digging in the area directly adjacent to the north side of the paling fence – the approximate distance we believed would be a normal separation from the grave of James Watson.

The four of us cleared underbrush and then began to dig into the reddish-brown sandy soil. The birch tree Jack had sketched the day before protected us somewhat from a steady drizzle, but droplets falling from the leaves overhead beat steadily upon us. No one seemed to notice however, as our excitement increased. We periodically inspected the earth walls for any indication of previous workings. The soil was easily moved save for a variety of tenuous roots that seemed to enmesh the underground sections.

At six-foot depth there was nothing but clean stratified sand and loam; we could determine no indication of any previous movement of the soil. Although somewhat disappointed, we philosophically accepted the fact that there was more digging to be done before we could properly assess the situation.

Clinging to the assumption that the original diggers of the Thomson grave would probably keep the grave relatively in line with an equidistant from the others, we decided that our error had been in not digging at a more liberal distance from the picket fence. Accordingly the second site was selected some three to four feet north of our first try.

Again we cleared the underbrush and removed some tougher saplings. As Gibby and I began filling in our first excavation, Jack and Frank fell to steady digging. When the first location had been filled in, Gibby and I joined the others and we settled down to digging silently – our first effort had been punctuated throughout with speculative interjections regarding the possible discovery of the lost grave.

The rain by now was quite steady, and our trenchcoats and jackets were becoming heavy and moist on the inside. The exercise was keeping us warm in an otherwise very uncomfortable situation. Use of the axes became more frequent as we seemed to be digging in a heavier brush area than before.

We again reached the six-foot level and studied the side walls intently with no sign of any clue. Pausing, we faced the possibility that Tom’s casket and rough box had indeed been exhumed by the Huntsville undertaker and sent to Owen Sound.

We began filling in the hole we had just dug. Jack stopped shoveling and walked off a short distance as we methodically shoved shovelful after shovelful of the rapidly dampening pile of earth into the hole before us.

Jack finally called, “Bill, come here.”

I made my way around some brush to where he was standing beside a twenty-five or thirty foot spruce.

“What’s on your mind?” I inquired.

“Do you think this could mean anything?” he said, indicating with one hand a perceptible depression about two-and-a-half feet across, projecting from under the spruce tree.

Down on our hands and knees under the spruce boughs, we examined the contoured depression and found that it extended from one side of the tree’s branches to the other. The tree trunk lay dead centre in the depression. Checking due south of the location we noted that the ends of the depression lay in exact line with the two graves and our recent excavations.

“This would be consistent with Mark’s description, wouldn’t it?” Jack suggested.

“I think it would, but it sure hadn’t occurred to me that the grave would be this distance from the others,” I answered.

Frank Braught and Gibby hurried over to see the depression. Gibby, an experienced native of the area, studied the sloping sides of the noticeable hollow from end to end. Frank immediately concluded, “This looks like a real possibility, and it’s certainly right in line with the other graves and due north of them.”

The rain had petered out, but the dull grey sky was not particularly promising. Taking a brief rest, we viewed from different angles the position of the depression with respect to the key point of reference, the small picket enclosure surrounding the two lonely hillside graves. The more we checked the location, the more excited we became. Frank, the eldest of our small group, voiced all our feelings. “If we don’t find it this time, I think we’ll have to conclude that there is no casket, and Tom must have been moved.”

“I think you’re right, Frank,” Gibby admitted.

Jack and I nodded in agreement. We were all tired and wet. Digging was confined to the west side of the tree and it was slow going. The roots were much larger here – we used the axe as much as the shovel. Only one person could dig at a time, as the hole was only a cramped three feet in diameter. Each man took his turn, jumping into the small opening to dig, chop, dig and chop, using the axe in one hand and yanking out roots with the other. It was obvious that this would be our last effort this day, probably ever. The hole seemed to get narrower as the depth increased, largely because there was not the same enthusiasm or strength to waste on enlarging the opening.

It was my turn. I worked steadily, knowing that the hole was now of a depth and size that only a smaller-built person like myself was likely to be able to effectively continue this operation. Frank was showing visible signs of fatigue and Gibby and Jack watched with mixed feelings as I made slow progress at the five-foot level.

I pushed the shovel down as far as I could, removed a shovelful of dirt and saw a piece of wood in the soil. Picking it out, I handed it up to Jack, who examined it. Without comment he passed it to Gibby, who looked at it and, glancing around, pointed to an old stump a few feet away saying, “I think that’s a piece of the root of that old white pine stump; they stay in the ground a long time before they disintegrate.”

I resumed digging and finally reached down to pick up another piece of wood and stopped to examine it closer. “This is the first root I’ve seen with a beveled edge!”

The others agreed, “It’s a piece of pine – part of a box or something.”

It was Jack who said, “That’s a mortice from the corner of a box – likely a casket or rough box you’ve found!”

Digging with my hands I felt a smooth piece of board. As I pried it free from the soil a hollow space that could only be the exposed end of a coffin was revealed. I jumped out of the hole and handed over the piece of board which was in an advanced state of decay but readily recognizable as a machine-finished piece of wood. I explained what had been exposed at the bottom of the pit. Gibby jumped down head first to explore the opening. He thrust his hand into the aperture and pulled out a bone which appeared to be a foot bone of a human body.

“At last we’ve found the grave and body of Tom Thomson!” shouted Frank.

“We have really hit it,” exclaimed Jack.

Gibby rejoined, “This is it, fellows!”

I was speechless.

We dug out the spruce tree and opened the grave until we saw the remains of the pine rough box, which had caved in upon an oak casket which in turn had given way under the pressure of the ground above. As a result, the interior of the casket was filled with earth. The lead-coloured casket handles were still in good condition, as was the metal inscription plate that read, “Rest in Peace”. No name was inscribed. In the soil at the end of the coffin there was a piece of the heel impression of a woolen sock. There appeared to be no evidence of any metal pieces that could be related to a body that had a normal burial – buttons, belt buckle, suspender clips, shoe nails or pieces of clothing. We saw parts of the casket lining and what appeared to be possibly a cotton or light canvas shroud. […]

“By George!” Gibby exclaimed, “I always felt that grave would reveal something if we ever found it.” […]

The situation that confronted the four of us – and we were quite satisfied that the grave contained Tom’s body – was that we had to do more than just satisfy ourselves as to the validity of our find and conclusions. It was now necessary for us to obtain scientific confirmation:

  1. Was this Tom Thomson’s original grave?
  2. Was this Tom’s body we found in the grave?
  3. What was in the officially designated Thomson grave at Leith?

These basic questions now seemed answerable; we decided to check immediately the first two.

Jack and I knew that Dr. Harry Ebbs was at Little Wapomeo with his wife Adele, spending the weekend at their log cabin. These long-time friends were steeped in Thomson lore; it seemed natural that we should communicate with “Doctor Harry” and seek his opinions on our discovery.

After covering with tarpaper the decayed and collapsed rough box and casket with its skeletal remains, we returned to Camp Ahmek, taking with us a left leg bone (tibia) for medical examination. We found Dr. Ebbs and gathered behind the old cabin built in the early 1920s by the late Earnest Thompson Seton, the beloved Canadian naturalist. I handed the Doctor the leg bone we had just disinterred. “What would you say this is, Harry?”

He took the bone from my hand and stared at it incredulously. Finally he looked up at me. “You know very well what it is. This is a human tibia. Where did you get it?”

Before any of us could answer, his glance took in our dirty clothes and mud-covered shoes, our shovels and axes leaning against the cabin. “Have you fellows been digging for Tom Thomson’s grave?” he asked, breaking into a smile.

“Can you draw any conclusions from this bone?” asked Jack Eastaugh.

Dr. Ebbs took the bone, matched it against his own left leg, studied it carefully for a minute, and stated, “This is, in all probability, the left tibia of a male, approximately my own height.” Harry Ebbs is a tall, athletic-appearing man, over six feet in height. The four of us watched and listened while he explained the matching process he was demonstrating. […]

We agreed to notify the proper authorities, and that it was not appropriate to advise the press at this point. Such information without proper authenticity would be both premature and mere sensationalism. We carefully replaced the tarpaper and covered it with soil, finally completely filling in the grave pending further study of the contents. […]

Source: William T. Little, "A Sketching Expedition and its Bizarre Development" in The Tom Thomson Mystery, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1970), 110-127

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