An Intro to The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson

An Intro to The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson

Posted on May 19 by Gregory Klages in Non-fiction
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

“Over the course of a century… facts, errors, and myths regarding Thomson’s life and death have become jumbled into provocative, entertaining, but ultimately untrustworthy stories.”

                Introduction, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson


The renowned Canadian landscape painter Tom Thomson likely died on July 8, 1917. We don’t know for sure.

Just like we don’t exactly know how he died.

A popular, though contested version of his last hours has him canoeing away from a dock on Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake for an afternoon fishing trip. He was never seen alive again.

Over a week later, his decomposing body would surface in the same lake about half a kilometre of the dock from which he had departed.

The few friends and acquaintances he left behind were so traumatized that they wanted to settle the matter as quickly as possible. A poor telegraph connection made getting the news to Thomson’s family difficult, just as it complicated summoning the coroner. Taking it upon themselves to act, a holidaying doctor and the local park ranger examined Thomson’s remains and offered a finding of “drowning by accident.” The body was laid to rest the day following its discovery.

Within hours, the coroner arrived to find that the body he was to examine had already been buried. He interviewed witnesses, and supported the doctor’s assessment.

The Thomson family was not entirely satisfied with what had been done, and within days had arranged for Tom’s body exhumed and reburied in a family plot near Owen Sound, Ontario.

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that gossip and speculation about Thomson’s death and burial place began to circulate. Some suggested that Tom had committed suicide. Others offered that he might have been murdered.

Claims were made that Thomson’s corpse showed he had suffered a blow to the head, and that fishing line was wrapped around one of his ankles. These were taken as clear indications of murder.

Suggestions were raised that he had been engaged to marry and got cold feet. Some speculated that his lover had become pregnant with their child. These stories supported the idea that Thomson had likely committed suicide.

Adding complication, in the 1950s, a group of curiousity seekers excavated the site where they believed Thomson had been originally buried. Much to their surprise, they encountered human remains. The find gave new impetus to suspicions that the commonly told version of Thomson’s death was not right. That provincial police investigators pronounced the remains to be those of an aboriginal man did little to squelch speculation.

Since the late 1960s, speculation about Tom Thomson’s death has risen to the level of a cottage industry. It has been tackled in a surprisingly large body of manuscripts, a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles, documentary film and television programs, treated as a fiction story, referenced in artworks and popular songs, and even been made the subject of a mystery dinner party game and a Twitter campaign. Tom Thomson’s death has made the transition from history into popular mythology.

In 2007, when I undertook to produce a book-length website reproducing many of the documents related to Thomson’s death, I was surprised to discover the wide differences between the first-hand historical evidence and the many accounts of Thomson’s demise produced over the last century. Witnesses changed their stories, or came forward decades after the events in question with “new” memories. Later accounts touting themselves as fact contained clearly concocted elements offered as truth.

As the 100th anniversary of Tom Thomson’s tragic death nears, the time is ripe to correct the record. In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction, I do three things.

First, I offer the clearest, most authoritative version of first-hand evidence we have available regarding Tom Thomson’s last days and death.

Second, I trace the trajectory of how Thomson’s death has been described over the last century, establishing a genealogy of theories that outlines how they have evolved, and how accounts often built upon each other’s flaws.

Third, by comparing the solid evidence with the stories, I offer a careful analysis of claims that Thomson was murdered, committed suicide, and died by accident, arriving at what I offer as the only plausible conclusion.

Gregory Klages

Posted by Dundurn Guest on July 14, 2015
Gregory Klages photo

Gregory Klages

Gregory Klages is the research director for Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, one of twelve archival websites produced by the international award–winning Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project. His research concerning Thomson has appeared in Canadian and American publications, and been talked about in national newspapers. He has also shared his insights on television and radio across the country.