Roy MacGregor, "The Legend", The Canadian, Oct. 15, 1977
New revelations on Tom Thomson’s art – and on his mysterious death
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“Someday they will know what I mean.”
– Tom Thomson
(Well, Tom – we just might be getting closer. This fall, 60 years since your body surfaced in Canoe Lake, we do have news. Not only has the best collection yet published of your paintings recently appeared, but we have also – surprisingly and unexpectedly – stumbled onto a fresh explanation for your death. It’s taken a long time, Tom – you would have been 100 this past August – but today we just might understand better than ever what you do indeed mean to us.)
Such a perfect blend: one new lead towards understanding his work, another towards perhaps understanding his death. The two – the art legacy and the legend – have always gone hand in hand in the past, after all, but never quite so simultaneously. In the new book on Thomson – Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm by Harold Town and David P. Silcox – we are advised, “Our concern should remain with their work” when discussing such artists, but that is an unfair restriction in this case. Just as Thomson himself was dissatisfied with his execution of The West Wind[…], a painting that now haunts us with its familiarity, so too have we been dissatisfied with the murky explanations of his mysterious death in Algonquin park on July 8, 1917, and that puzzle haunts us as well. We know the man’s work and his story are inseparable.
What the new book can and does offer is the most comprehensive look at Thomson’s brief painting career yet
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assembled: he was 34 when he bought his first real oil sketch box and 39 when he died; and the more than 200 works, combined with Harold Town’s impressive art knowledge, perfectly show how in less than a decade Thomson could move from the imitative clumsiness of, say, Team of Horses, to the recognized brilliance of, say, The Pointers […].
But while it is indeed a visual feast, the new book is seriously flawed once it enters Algonquin Park, where Thomson’s best paintings – Jack Pine, Northern River, Northern Lights – were all done. David Silcox writes that Thomson might well have said of the park, as he had of a friend’s cottage on Georgian Bay, that it was “getting too much like North Rosedale [in Toronto] to suit me.” Algonquin Park, 1912-1917, was actually as much like North Rosedale as Canoe Lake was like the Atlantic. While Thomson did spend much time around Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake […], a former guide form those days says, “It took only a five-minute paddle to take you into total wilderness.”
And concerning Thomson’s secret engagement to Winnifred Trainor, Silcox uses, as his gauge for the strength of their relationship, the writings of Charles Plewman of Toronto. While Plewman was indeed a pallbearer at Thomson’s funeral, he arrived at Canoe Lake only after Thomson’s body had been recovered and not only never met Thomson but likely never spoke a word to Winnie Trainor either.
What Plewman’s writings did do for the Thomson mythology, however, was promote the theory that the artist had committed suicide. In 1972, at the age of 82, Plewman publicly stated that Shannon Fraser – the proprietor of Mowat Lodge – had confided that Thomson had been under tremendous pressure to marry (many took this to mean Winnie was pregnant) and had taken his own life rather than follow through with it.
Silcox, not buying that, offers his own theory on the death: Thomson, having sprained his ankle, had wrapped fishing line around it for support, and when he attempted to urinate while in the canoe, had slipped when his ankle gave way, hitting his head on the gun-whale before going overboard, perhaps later surfacing with his fly open. Cute, but facile. No
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one who was there ever mentioned Thomson having an open fly or a sore ankle, and when I asked a man who had guided 60 years in the park whether anyone would ever treat a sprain that way he answered with a huge laugh.
Apart from suicide and accident, of course, there has also been the murder theory, best put forward by Judge William Little in his 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery. Judge Little built a much-researched and complicated case against Martin Bletcher, an American who had a cottage at Canoe Lake and who was said to have argued violently with Thomson over the war the night before the artist went missing.
All that ever seemed certain was that there was a party at a guide’s cabin near Mowat Lodge on the night of July 7, 1917. There was a lot of drinking – not unusual for Thomson – and perhaps a fight. The next day, a dull and wet Sunday with a fine rain tapering off, Shannon Fraser and Thomson were together until Thomson decided to go fishing. According to Judge Little’s book, they were seen together by Mark Robinson, the park ranger stationed at Canoe Lake and Thomson’s good friend. Shannon Fraser later said he checked his vest watch – 12:50 p.m. – when Thomson paddled away, the last time he was ever seen alive.
Once the empty canoe was found the confusion started. Was the canoe upside down or upright? Did they find it one or two days later? Mark Robinson wrote in his ranger’s diary shortly after that, “There is considerable adverse comment regarding the taking of the evidence among the residents.” The only things they all agreed on were that Thomson’s favorite paddle was missing and couldn’t be found, despite repeated searchings of the shoreline, and that his spare paddle was strapped awkwardly into portaging position, not at all the way Thomson would have had it. Eight days after he disappeared the body rose – an unusually long time – and there was a violent mark on the temple, some bleeding from one ear, and the fishing line around his ankle.
Along with the controversy over just where Thomson’s body rests – still at Canoe Lake, where it was first buried, or in the family plot at Leith, Ontario, where it was supposed to have been moved – the accident/suicide/murder has been debated ever since. All who knew him well discounted both accident and suicide, but apart from Judge Little’s valiant effort and a 1969 CBC television program, Was Tom Thomson Murdered?, there has never been a truly promising murder theory – until now, perhaps, when someone who was actually at Mowat Lodge in 1917 has come forward.
She is Mrs. Daphne Crombie, a tiny, stooped, remarkably bright woman who is nearing 90 in her pin-neat Toronto apartment. She is the Forgotten Lady in the Tom Thomson story, someone who has a story to tell but has never done so publicly, partly for her own reasons, and partly because no one – until I came across her – has ever asked her.
Daphne Crombie arrived at Mowat Lodge in the winter of 1916-17 with her new husband Robert, a war veteran who had come hoping to recover from tuberculosis, and she became fast friends with the only other woman there, Annie Fraser, Shannon Fraser’s wife. Another friend Daphne Crombie made was Tom Thomson, who arrived around the spring breakup. Often she would sit and watch him paint and talk with him; he painted her into his well-known The Artist’s Hut, and he gave her a painting he claimed was “the best of the year.”
Twice a gossipy Annie Fraser confided in her friend Daphne Crombie. They were out walking the first time and Annie said she’d been snooping in Tom’s room and found a letter from Winnifred Trainor. “Now I’m only telling things I’m absolutely sure of,” cautions Mrs. Crombie, aware that such evidence is hearsay, “But this is the gospel truth. Annie told me the letter said, ‘Please, Tom, you must get a new suit because we’ll have to get married.’” Mrs. Crombie took that to mean a baby was coming, “but it never materialized.” It may also be that Winnifred Trainor, then 32 and petrified of the prospects of spinsterhood in her small town of Huntsville, Ontario, was simply forcing Thomson to live up to an earlier promise and chose an unfortunate way to word it. According to Mrs. Crombie, Annie Fraser also said the letter advised Tom to get back the money Shannon owed him. (Ottelyn Addison, ranger Mark Robinson’s daughter and the author of Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years, believes that Fraser was indeed in debt to Thomson.)
Daphne Crombie and her husband, who had recovered, were back in Toronto when Thomson died, but they later returned to Canoe Lake – a fact verified by Mark Robinson’s diary – and Annie again had something to say to her friend. “She told me about that party,” Mrs. Crombie recalls. “Well, they were tight – all of them were pretty good drinkers – and Tom asked Shannon for the money. Anyway, they had a fight – Shannon Fraser had a furious temper [this is true enough: Fraser was known to get very moody when drinking, even suicidal] – and he hit Tom and Tom fell and hit his head on the fire grate.”
By Daphne Crombie’s account, Annie Fraser’s story went this way: Shannon Fraser panicked and hauled the unconscious Thomson out to a canoe. (She never said whether anyone else saw this or not.) He paddled the short distance to the Mowat Lodge dock – it was quite dark and roused a frightened Annie to help lift Thomson into his own canoe and make it appear as if Thomson had been going off fishing. Shannon Fraser then towed the canoe out beyond the first islands and dumped it, perhaps first tying a weight to Thomson’s ankle.
The main problem with this theory is that it contradicts the previously accepted accounts of the morning of Sunday, July 8, when Shannon Fraser walked and talked with Thomson and Mark Robinson saw them. Fraser, of course, is easily discounted (as is another witness who came forward in 1956 with other key facts totally confused). That leaves only Mark Robinson, who claimed only to have seen Thomson, not spoken to him, and that at a quarter-mile distance. But Daphne Crombie’s account is still only theory, not fact.
“It’s gone through my mind more than once that Little’s got the wrong man in Martin Bletcher,” says Ottelyn Addison.
If we only had the coroner’s report – a Dr. Ranney went to the park from North Bay after Thomson was buried – but it has somehow disappeared. What we do know is that Ranney did no autopsy, did not, in fact, even see the body, and accepted the “accidental drowning” verdict of an informal inquest that Shannon Fraser graciously sat in on. As for Annie Fraser, she didn’t even attend. And now that both are dead, neither will we get to ask our brand-new questions, nor will they have the opportunity to defend themselves. They might well have yet another version.
All we can be certain of is that today, in the centennial year of Tom Thomson’s birth, both the man’s work and his death are more tantalizing than ever.