One hundred years ago this week a vacationing Toronto doctor was relaxing at his rented cottage on Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake . He looked out over the water and noticed an odd piece of flotsam.
The flotsam was hard to distinguish, but a canoe with two paddlers was passing by so he hollered for them to check it out. The paddlers were park guides George Rowe and Larry Dickson, and at first glance the flotsam appeared to be an animal carcass.
As they approached the object, the doctor, G. W. Howland, a neurologist at the University of Toronto, heard one of the guides shout: “It’s the body of a man.”
That was followed quickly by: “It’s Tom Thomson!”
It was July 16, 1917 and the discovery of the body was the beginning of The Great Canadian Mystery.
Tom Thomson was a commercial artist who fell in love with the Algonquin wilderness. He canoed it, fished it and painted it before dying just short of his 40th birthday. He is Canada’s most famous landscape artist and inspired the Group of Seven movement after his death.
Thomson had gone fishing alone the late morning or early afternoon of July 8. It was the day following a late night drinking party during which Thomson is said to have had a heated argument with Martin Bletcher Jr., a German-American summer resident at the lake. The argument apparently was about the war with Germany.
Thomson was not seen after he left for fishing and the next day his distinctive dove grey canoe was found floating empty in the lake. A land search was begun because Thomson was an expert canoeist and strong swimmer. The theory was the canoe had tipped and he swam to shore, or that he was on shore and the canoe had drifted away.
The guides Rowe and Dickson towed the body to Big Wapomeo Island, left it in the water but tied it to shore. This was a common practice to slow decomposition while a coroner travelled from outside the Park.
By the next day the coroner still had not arrived and the body was rotting in the July sun. It was decided that Dr. Howland would examine the body without waiting longer for the coroner, and write a report so Thomson could be buried.
There was a quickly-arranged funeral attended by Thomson’s friends, park staff, guides and staff and guests at Mowat Lodge, a summer vacation place on the lake. The body was buried in a small cemetery in the woods behind the lake.
The coroner arrived after the funeral, held an inquest and ruled the death an accidental drowning. It was noted that Thomson had a bruise on his left temple and blood in his right ear, indicating he had fallen or been struck before entering the water and drowning.
The Thomson family, when told of the burial, said Tom should be buried at home at Leith near Owen Sound and arranged for an undertaker to go to Canoe Lake, dig up the body and ship it home.
The undertaker arrived at night. There was speculation that he dug a little, tired, then quit and shipped an empty coffin.
In the 1950s some cottagers and their visitors went to the little cemetery and began digging for Thomson’s body to prove it was still there. They exhumed a skull and bones which forensic testing showed belonged to an indigenous man.
To this day arguments continue over how Thomson died and where he is buried. Books have been written, films have been made but all are based on speculation. No one really knows how Thomson died or where he is buried.
The Thomson family always said the coffin that arrived home contained the body of their son and brother. They always refused, and rightly so, to have it exhumed to settle the arguments once and for all.
Meanwhile, there also are theories that Thomson was murdered, perhaps the result of bad blood between he and Bletcher. Or by someone else for other reasons.
My view is in my 2003 book Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter. An updated version will be released by Formac Publishing this coming fall.