Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tom Thomson death myth #10: "Fishing line = murder."

A popular story about Tom Thomson’s death is that his body was found with fishing line wound around one ankle. A popular interpretation of this claim is that the line shows someone tried to hide Thomson’s corpse by tying a weight to his body before sinking the body in the lake.  

The fishing line story (and the conspiracy theory spun from it) is not supported by the evidence we have available about Thomson's corpse.

When Tom Thomson’s body was discovered in July 1917, two men examined his remains. Neither man recorded seeing fishing line around any part of Thomson’s body. The story that fishing line was found wound around Tom Thomson’s ankle dates from the 1930s, almost 15 years after Thomson’s death. Only one person – Mark Robinson - ever described seeing this fishing line. After he first told the story in the 1930s, over the next two decades Robinson’s testimony evolved significantly, parallel to his decision to describe Thomson’s death as a result of foul play.

All of these facts strongly suggest the ‘fishing line story’ is suspect, and that it certainly doesn’t support suggestions that Tom Thomson was murdered.


We know that Tom Thomson’s body was discovered on the morning of July 16, 1917.

We know this from several documents produced that day, and in the days that immediately followed. The daily diary of Mark Robinson, the local Algonquin Park Ranger, is one of the key records we have from July 1917 (worth noting: his diary is the only record Robinson produced in 1917). In his diary, Robinson recorded the search for Thomson, as well as discovery and displacement of Thomson's remains.

For the July 16 entry, Robinson states that Thomson’s body was discovered floating in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake about 9 a.m. He writes that George Rowe and ‘Lowrie’ Dixon, “took same and brought it to shore.”

The following day, Robinson records that Thomson’s body was removed from the lake. He and Dr. G. Howland, who was holidaying at Canoe Lake, examined the corpse. Later that day, Robinson recorded observations about Thomson’s remains. Nowhere in these notes – nor anywhere else in his 1917 diary entries – is there mention that he found a fishing line around any part of Thomson’s corpse.

A transcription of Howland’s 1917 notes, provided to researcher Blodwen Davies by the Nipissing Crown Attorney’s office in the 1930s, doesn’t include any mention of suspicious fishing line on Thomson’s remains either. Similarly, a transcription of Howland’s observations held by George Thomson – Tom’s brother – also supplied to Davies in the 1930s, doesn’t mention fishing line.

That no 1917 account makes any mention of suspicious fishing line is important. Clearly, in 1917, either no fishing line was observed, or if it was observed, it was not regarded as in any way important to Thomson’s disappearance and death.

If the fishing line wasn’t noted in 1917, we can learn much about the claim by tracking when it first appeared, and how the story evolved.

Only one person - Mark Robinson - ever claimed that fishing line was found on Tom Thomson's corpse. Robinson mentioned the line for the first time in a 1930 letter to Blodwen Davies, thirteen years after Thomson’s death. At this time, Robinson suggested the line was not Thomson’s regular fishing line.

Why Robinson would wait thirteen years to offer this insight, particularly if he felt it provided evidence that Thomson might have died by foul play, is difficult to understand. Making Robinson’s testimony even more suspect, in the early 1950s, he added details to his story about the fishing line. Robinson stated that when he examined Thomson’s corpse, he found the line was “carefully” wound “16 or 17 times” around Thomson’s ankle. Robinson noted that he could prove this claim because he recorded his observations in his diary. We know, however, that his diary says nothing of the sort; it doesn’t mention fishing line at all!

Robinson’s ‘fishing line’ stories from the 1930s and 1950s do not agree with any 1917 evidence (even evidence recorded by Robinson himself in 1917). This should raise our suspicions about the tale. That Robinson’s accounts gained new elements and more details over decades also suggests skepticism about Robinson's claims 
– particularly those furthest from the experiences he describes - is necessary.

So, is the fishing line story purely fiction? Did Robinson invent it out of thin air? What if the fishing line existed, but has an innocent explanation?

Robinson was not present when Thomson’s body was discovered, or when it was brought to shore. His diary doesn’t mention how the guides brought Thomson’s body to shore, or to anchor the body once it was brought to shore. If the guides used fishing line to tow or anchor the body, as time passed Robinson might have forgotten this entirely logical explanation. If this is the case, however, it does not explain why Robinson would not have asked questions about it in 1917. The record he produced at the time Thomson’s body was discovered suggests that Robinson’s suspicions were not raised, either because the fishing line had a reasonable explanation, or because he never saw it all.


Perplexed? Challenged? Interested in reading more?
To read more evidence about Tom Thomson's death, and to learn how story-telling about Thomson's death has diverged further and further from the evidence, read The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press, 2016). 

Gregory Klages was Research Director for Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, part of the international award-winning Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Author talk - Sep. 26, 7 p.m. - Yorkville Public Library

Author talk and book signing -
Tue Sep 26, 2017 - 7:00 p.m.

Yorkville Public Library

22 Yorkville Avenue, 
Toronto, ON
M4W 1L4


Author talk - Sep. 21, 6:30 pm - Dawes Road Public Library

Author talk and book signing
Thursday, Sep 21, 2017 - 6:30 p.m.

Dawes Road Public Library

416 Dawes Road, Toronto, ON  
M4B 2E8  

Friday, July 7, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of Tom Thomson's disappearance

On July 8, 1917 - 100 years ago - Canadian painter Tom Thomson disappeared while canoeing in Ontario's Algonquin Park. He was never seen alive again. While then relatively unknown as an artist, his reputation grew significantly after his death. In 1920, his friends and peers went on to found the Group of Seven, arguably Canada's most famous cultural point of reference. The Group members cited Thomson's influence on their work, and gave him credit for inspiring their interest the landscape of Ontario's Canadian Shield. 

As Thomson's reputation grew, so did interest in his life, and particularly, in his death. Since the 1970s, a significant body of writing has been devoted to exploring Thomson's disappearance and demise. These works have offered arguments based on evidence, hearsay, speculation, and sometimes even outright fictions regarding what happened to Thomson in July 1917. While some have served to expand our knowledge, others have served to further confuse our understanding of what happened to Tom Thomson 100 years ago.



Myths have displaced the facts

When beginning the work that would become Death on A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, I surveyed much of the literature that has been written about Tom Thomson's demise, particularly over the last few decades. I encountered stories of drunken fights, unpaid debts, unwanted pregnancy, suicide coverups, and murder conspiracies. What I was surprised to discover, as I turned to the primary evidence - the documents written in 1917 - was how few of these claims had any evidence to support them. What I soon came to realize is that much of what we've been told of Tom Thomson's last spring and death is more myth than fact.

In particular, much of the writing claiming Thomson's death was the result of suicide or murder incorporates fanciful speculation rooted in gossip, misunderstanding, and entertaining but ultimately untrustworthy stories.


What are the roots of the mythology?  

Tom Thomson was initially buried in Algonquin Park. Much of the mystery surrounding Thomson’s death was initially fed by awkward communication regarding the Thomson family’s wishes for Tom’s remains. Evidence from the time indicates his family never wanted to have him buried in Algonquin Park, and tried to communicate their wishes to those at Canoe Lake, where his body was discovered and first buried. Technological problems and poorly worded telegrams from those in Canoe Lake produced delays that had repercussions for those living and working in the presence of their friend’s decomposing body. Without word of the Thomson family’s wishes, all at Canoe Lake agreed something must be done. The exceptional challenge of having to deal with a tragic death in the small community, and perhaps some insecurity about who should have responsibility for decision-making regarding Thomson's body, resulted in decisions being made on the fly. Anxiety was no doubt compounded when it was discovered that the decision reached by those at Canoe Lake did not accord with the Thomson family's desires.

Conflict over such an emotional issue clearly caused consternation and frustration all around. The exhumation of Thomson’s body from his Algonquin Park burial site within a day of his preliminary burial created fertile ground for hostility and suspicion over the decades to come. Eventually, these feelings would bear ill fruit.


How should Tom Thomson's death be remembered?

Over the last century, Thomson has often been characterized as a deft outdoorsman with natural skill at painting a unique, distinctively Canadian environment that he knew well. This is an image that Thomson’s friends and supporters worked to advance after his death. It was integral to the rise of his reputation. If Thomson died as a result of a canoeing accident in the middle of the day on a calm lake, this image would be significantly destabilized. It is not however, an image, that is necessary to appreciate Thomson’s contribution to the development of Canadian painting. As Harold Town observed, decades of speculation regarding how Tom Thomson died have done little but cloud our understanding of Thomson’s life and the importance of his art. Acceptance of what the evidence suggests about Thomson's death, that he died by accident and not suicide or murder, points to the importance of understanding his painting not through the lens of romantic myth, but as what it was, the inspiring efforts of a skilled and hard-working artist - an artist who could still, nonetheless, make mistakes and suffer accidents.

That Tom Thomson’s painting has become part of the national identity, one of the types of symbols that Canadians share as part of their common language, is a grand legacy for a man who had little art training, but who took the greatest pleasures in life from painting out under the open sky. That he died under that same sky, on the waters and among the trees and islands that populate his paintings is no doubt tragic, and will ever remain so. A hundred years on from his passing, however, he has not been forgotten, nor has the land he loved. Every year thousands of people flock to see his paintings, and to visit Algonquin Park. As a model, as inspiration, his influence lives on. Beyond ideas about his mental state, or his romantic life, or how he managed to get along with his peers, what Tom Thomson is remembered for is the passion that gave his life meaning.

Whether by accident or by natural causes, the fact is that death cannot be put off forever. We have no guarantee of how or when we will die, or what kind of legacy we will leave. Thomson likely cared little about the former, and would be heartily gratified knowing what role he played, and continues to play over a century later, in alerting Canadians to their artistic and natural heritage.

Tom Thomson - 1877-1917 - Rest in peace. 



July 8, 2017 - Observe 100th anniversary of Tom Thomson's disappearance

100th Anniversary of Tom Thomson's Disappearance

July 8, 2017 -- 2 p.m.

Join cultural historian Dr. Gregory Klages to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disappearance of renowned Canadian landscape painter Tom Thomson.  
100th Anniversary of Tom Thomson's Disappearance
Klages uses first-hand testimony and archival records to sort fact from popular legends in writing about Thomson's mysterious demise. His 2016 book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction, has appeared on the National Post Canadian non-fiction bestseller list, and was included in the Writers' Trust of Canada Best Books of 2016. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing. This is a free event.
Grey Roots Museum & Archives
102599 Grey Road 18, RR4, Owen Sound ON, N4K 5N6
Tel. 519-376-3690, Fax. 519-376-4654
Web: www.greyroots.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mark Robinson's influential, but inconsistent, testimony about Tom Thomson

Over a period of almost four decades, Mark Robinson, the Algonquin Park Ranger who in July 1917 organized the search for missing artist Tom Thomson, produced multiple remembrances: anecdotes about the artist, accounts of Thomson’s last days, and descriptions of the days following discovery of Thomson’s corpse.

Robinson’s testimony - without much distinction being made between the various accounts provided over thirty-five years -  has often been portrayed as the definitive, authoritative account of the conditions surrounding Thomson’s death. While it is true that Robinson’s 1917 testimony regarding what happened to Tom Thomson must be considered – his daily diary is one of the few ‘on the scene’ accounts we have - inconsistencies and contradictions between Robinson’s 1917 account and his later accounts requires that all of his testimony should be approached with skepticism.  

What was Mark Robinson’s involvement in this case?
Mark Robinson. Undated. Algonquin Park Museum & Archives.
APMA 184

Mark Robinson first served as an Algonquin Park Ranger from 1909 through to 1915.

Robinson met Tom Thomson in 1912. His daily diaries for 1912, 1913 and 1915 include brief references to Thomson as one of many people moving through the park.

In fall 1915, Robinson took up service with the Canadian military, serving in Canada and Europe until the winter of 1916/17.

In April 1917, Robinson returned to service at Algonquin Park’s Joe Lake Station, within easy walking distance of Canoe Lake’s Mowat Lodge. As the presiding park authority for the area, when Tom Thomson went missing in July 1917, Robinson organized the search. He also attended the examination of Thomson’s corpse conducted by Dr. G. W. Howland on July 19, 1917.

Robinson would serve as a park Ranger into the early 1940s, and passed away in 1955.

What accounts did Mark Robinson produce?
We have, essentially, three accounts from Robinson.

One body of testimony was produced in July 1917. Robinson maintained a daily diary, in which he recorded observations about park life, including lists of tasks he completed each day, the conditions of animals and plants, and notes about who was moving through the park (along with where they were from and what their activities in the park would be). He also sometimes noted his own feelings or rumours, such as his comment in April 1917 that he believed Martin Blecher Jr. was a "German spy."

A second body of testimony is a series of letters Robinson exchanged with Tom Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies in 1930 and 1931. Davies had published a Thomson biography in 1930, and had sought out many of Thomson’s acquaintances, Robinson among them. Through his letters, Robinson provided anecdotes about Thomson’s art, his attitude toward nature, remembrances about the search for Thomson, and suggestions about who else might offer useful information.

A third body of testimony is an audio recording of Robinson, likely produced in 1953 by Taylor Statten at Canoe Lake (an Alex Edmison transcription is held by the National Gallery of Canada). The recording preserves Robinson’s story-telling about Thomson, including his ideas about Thomson’s disappearance and death. He was clearly relating his tales to a small audience, who can be heard applauding at the end of the recording.

What is it about Robinson’s testimony that isn’t trustworthy?
A regrettable tendency among commentators addressing Thomson’s death is to approach Robinson’s three bodies of testimony as consistent when they are not. The evolution in Robinson’s accounts and claims is critical to explain if we are to make sense of what Robinson contributes to our understanding of Thomson’s death.

For instance, let’s consider two critical examples of how key aspects of Robinson’s testimony changed from 1917 through to the 1950s.

Robinson's testimony about Thomson's injuries, and the conclusions these injuries suggesting about Thomson's cause of death, changed over decades.

In his 1917 daily diary, Robinson noted a bruise on Thomson’s temple, which he suggested was “evidently caused by falling on a rock.” He also states, “otherwise no marks of violence on body.”

In the 1930s, he backed away from his suggestion of accidental death, stating, “Tom was said to have been drowned. It may be quite true but the mystery remains.” While he perhaps speculated that Thomson suffered foul play, we don’t have any written records confirming this suspicion.

The first written record we have where Robinson suggests Thomson was murdered was produced in the 1950s. It was then that Robinson introduced the suggestion that Thomson’s temple “looked as if he had been struck – struck with the edge of a paddle.” 

Robinson’s inconsistent testimony about the condition of Thomson's corpse, and Robinson's conclusions regarding the condition of the remains, has provided much of the impetus for murder conspiracy theories.

Related to the 'murder' story, those who suggest Tom Thomson was found with fishing line around his leg owe this claim to a selective reading of Mark Robinson’s changing testimony. 

In 1917, Robinson makes no mention of a fishing line around any part of Thomson’s corpse in the notes he made after inspecting Thomson’s remains. (In fact, no 1917 account makes mention of fishing line found on Thomson’s corpse.)

This is important, because the first mention of the fishing line that we have comes from Mark Robinson. In 1930, almost fifteen years after Thomson’s death, Robinson mentioned the line for the first time to Thomson biographer, Blodwen Davies. At this time, Robinson suggested the line was not Thomson’s regular line.

Making Robinson’s testimony even more suspect, in the early 1950s, Robinson added details to his story about the fishing line, stating that it was “carefully” wound “16 or 17 times” around Thomson’s ankle.

That the two later accounts did not agree with any 1917 evidence (even evidence provided by Robinson himself) should raise suspicions. That over 35 years Robinson introduced new details into his accounts, and that contrary to how human memory works the accounts became more detailed, also suggests skepticism about Robinson’s claims is necessary.

What can we conclude? 
In his 1917 account, Mark Robinson does not indicate that he suspected that Thomson’s death was anything but accidental. Even his circumstantial testimony records no features pointing to Thomson having suffered foul play or committing suicide. Robinson certainly did not record that he raised any concerns with the coroner or park superintendent.

Thirteen years later, his accounts had evolved. While he does not challenge the conclusion that Thomson died by accident, he intimates that something about the story is not fully known.

By the early 1950s, his claims and conclusions had changed yet again. In the 1950s, he suggested that Thomson had clearly been murdered. Frustratingly, he doesn't provide any explanation why he offered no indication of this belief in 1917 or during the 1930s, or evidence to support such an interpretation.

We do know that working as the Canoe Lake park ranger for decades after Thomson’s death, Robinson was called upon to share his memories many, many times. Over decades, with retelling upon retelling of his stories, perhaps Robinson’s memories become fuzzy, perhaps he even confused memories with fanciful recollections.

For those who suggest that this suggestion unfairly besmirches Robinson’s reputation, we do have some evidence that he misrepresented facts. In the 1950s, he supports his claim regarding the number of times fishing line was wound around Thomson’s ankle with the statement, “I know this because I have it written down in my diary.” Robinson was fortunate that none of his friends were curious enough to ask Robinson to prove this. Why? As I mentioned above, Robinson’s daily diary includes no mention of fishing line at all. His 1950s statement - whether by error or lie - is simply wrong about a critical fact.

But, surely, some claim, couldn’t Robinson simply have remembered more about the story than he did in 1917? This is possible. Over time he may also have made different sense of what he remembered.

I believe we can explain some of the evolution in Robinson’s testimony by looking at the evidence. For instance, if Robinson’s memory about fishing line is correct, there is a far more simple, straight-forward explanation for it being found around Thomson’s ankle than an attempt to hide a corpse. For more on this topic, see Chapter 10 of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson.

Whatever the explanation, the inconsistencies in Robinson’s accounts regarding Tom Thomson’s death strongly suggest that all of Robinson’s testimony merits careful consideration. The ‘facts’ he remembers don’t always line up with contemporary accounts produced by others, and just as importantly, Robinson’s accounts produced over 35 years aren’t always consistent with each other. In this regard, the authority of any of Robinson’s accounts about the life and death of Tom Thomson is questionable.


All of the links for this post direct back to excerpts of transcribed historical documents provided on the website Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy. Gregory Klages was Research Director for the site, launched by the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project in 2008. Klages is the author of the 2016 book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

June 21, 2017 - Historic Leith Church (site of Tom Thomson's grave)

As part of the Historic Leith Church's 'Tom Thomson's Wake: 100 Years Later' program:
Gregory Klages, speaking on The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction.

Date: Wednesday, June 21, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Historical Leith Church

Q&A session to follow.
Book will be available for purchase/signing.

Tickets: $10
Available at Roxy Theatre, Owen Sound

All proceeds from this event directed to the Leith Church Maintenance and Building Fund.

For more info: http://www.leithchurch.ca/Tom.pdf