Ronald Pittaway, Interview with Daphne Crombie, 14 Jan. 1977

[ Going to Canoe Lake station for the mail ]

Going to Canoe Lake station for the mail, Unknown, 1917, Algonquin Park Archives, APMA 2500, The lady seated in the sled is Daphne Crombie, who would later confess some provocative information she claimed Annie Fraser had told her about Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor's relationship. Mowat Lodge, operated by the Frasers, can be seen in the background

Crombie: What am I saying that would be worthwhile?

Pittaway: You are probably one of the few people alive who knew Tom Thomson, and you were at Canoe Lake when Tom was there, especially in the winter months when people become quite intimate when they are living together as you have said. You have a good understanding of who Tom Thomson was especially before and after the aura developed. There may be a lot of mystique revolving around his life right now. I’d like to hear the story behind the story about Tom. Could you tell me about Tom Thomson and Winifred Trainor?

C: I could start in by Annie (Fraser) and I having a walk, and about the letter she said she had read and about Winifred’s desire to come up the following week. She said, “Please Tom you must get a new suit because we’ll have to be married.” This came right from the mouth of the horse, if you will. She read this letter you see. Anyway, she did come up and when she came up, Tom had been drowned in the lake.

Previous to that, Tom and George and another guy had a party. They were all pretty good drinkers, Tom as well. They went up and had this party. They were all tight. Tom asked Shannon Fraser for the money that he owed him because he had to go and get a new suit. The family doesn’t like all this stuff to come out. Anyway, they had a fight and Shannon hit Tom, knocked him down by the grate fire, and Tom had a mark on his forehead. I don’t know where it was. Annie told me all this and also Dr. MacCallum. Tom was completely knocked out by this fight. Of course, Fraser was terrified because he thought he’d killed him. This is my conception, and I don’t know about other people’s. Although he was a big heavy Irishman, he was timid about those kind of things, devious if you know what I mean. My conception is that he took Tom’s body and put it into a canoe and dropped it in the lake. That’s how he died.

P: So you think Shannon Fraser may have killed Tom Thomson?

C: I know he hit him, but I don’t think that he was dead. I think he might have been unconscious. Shannon Fraser was terrified that he was dead. I believe that Annie helped him pack the canoe and he went off into the lake with Tom’s body, because she always helped him pack his canoe quite often.

P: That is Annie Fraser?

C: Yes. The daughter was away at school. She was a big tall red head just like Fraser, awkward and not at all good looking. Annie had skin just like a baby’s. She was kind, decent, and very honourable. She never told me lies, ever.

P: How did Martin Blecher ever get involved in this?

C: He used to come over to Mowat Lodge and we used to sit around. He was of German background and had a sister living there. Whenever he had nothing to do, he’d come over and sit down and we’d talk. Of course Tom would go over to the farthest corner of the room where there was no light. He didn’t join in so much. I don’t think Blecher had anything to do with it. It was simply a myth to me. They never saw one another during the day, and they didn’t seem to have any antagonism towards him. I’m damn sure that Winifred never went with Blecher. He was an unattractive blowzy sort of individual. He had a German accent. Why he was living up there, I don’t know.

P: Did Tom and Winnie see much of each other when they were at Canoe Lake?

C: Oh yes. He was with her all the time when she was there. She wasn’t always there. When she went home again, she wrote him and told him to get a suit, they had to be married. Annie told me from her own lips having read the letter. Annie and Shannon are dead. The daughter doesn’t know anything about it. The family were well removed from Mowat Lodge. They didn’t come up when we were there at all, not all winter when we were there. She used to come up in spring when it was passable and you could get around.

P: Why didn’t Winnie ever say anything about Tom Thomson after he died? She never officially said she was engaged to Tom Thomson or even going out with him.

C: The family was like that. They didn’t want anything repeated at all, according to Annie. Then all this about that must have been Shannon putting somebody else in his coffin, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know what happened after they picked him out of the water because I wasn’t there. I do know that we were there shortly before that, and I went down to MacCallum. The thing that MacCallum said was you don’t think he committed suicide, do you? I said utter bosh rubbish. He was getting all excited about his paintings because they were being recognized. He told me with great big round eyes that he’d just sold one to the government for $500. He was all up in the air about his paintings. It was nothing but that fight they had, and Shannon’s fist. It may have killed him, but I think it is very unlikely. What I would like to know when they found Tom, was he dead or unconscious when he went into the water. I don’t believe he was dead. I think Shannon was in such a hurry, that he was terrified he’d killed him. And, as I say, they found this blue mark on the temple when he’d fallen. The guides would have known, but I’m pretty sure they are both dead because they were a good deal older than I was.

P: Can you tell me the first time you met Tom Thomson?

C: My husband had this thing in his chest and he had to go there and he came back from France. The doctor examined him and said that he had this T.B. gland going into his lung, very serious. […] The only thing for him was to go up north where he could get fine air all the time, so we did.

P: Can you tell me about Tom Thomson’s personality?

C: Yes, I can because I knew him quite well. I’d go out and sit with Robin and talk, all wrapped up in the cold. When he’d get drowsy, I’d go in the old dining room at Mowat Lodge, and there was Tom Thomson painting. I’d just sit quietly and wouldn’t say a word until Tom talked to me, because I knew he didn’t want to be disturbed. I really could write a book about it if I had somebody to do it, and somebody who knew all the names of the people around. The only ones that were there were Robin and I, we had our rooms on the far side of Mowat. Then there was the middle room, and then over on this side was Tom’s room upstairs. He always joined us at night. He was a rather moody, quiet chap, and rather withdrawn. When I was with him, he’d talk away because we were pals. He evidently admired me because he gave me the painting of the year. I was a bride looking after my husband as I say. I was very interested in his painting. He would tell me about it. He would say, “now you see that bit of light down there, now where does that come from? Is that the true light? Now you have to get the true shade of light there that is coming down from the sky.” He’d tell me things like that which were very interesting to me. Then at night, of course, he’d just come into the room. He was so nice about making me this jam jar. He painted these things all the way around the jar for me when Annie broke the one I’d had. He also said that he wanted me to take the painting I liked best. I told him to choose it, because he was the expert. I asked Tom why his shadows were so blue. He said tomorrow morning you go out at about 11 and go up the pathway, and just notice them. When I would go out and the sun was coming down straight, the shadows weren’t really as blue as Tom made them, but when I came back a little while later, there was quite a difference in the shade of the shadows. I told you. At that time, they were terribly criticized and it was said that these paintings were alright to hang in the kitchen.

P: What painting did he give you?

C: Up here, there is a copy of it. He went and said that this painting was of the pathway that you and your husband used to go over to the other lake. I consider it the best of the year.

P: Did he have a name for it?

C: No, no name for it. […]

Source: Ronald Pittaway, Interview with Daphne Crombie, in Joan Murray, ed, Tom Thomson — The Last Spring (Toronto: Toronto, January 14, 1977), 94-96. Notes: Interview excerpt printed in Joan Murray, "Tom Thomson — The Last Spring" 1994. Original interview transcript held in Algonquin Park Museum Archives

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