Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How did Tom Thomson die?: beginning a genealogy of theories

I'm an inveterate list-maker. I have a weak short-term memory, juggle several jobs, and am father to a small child; lists provide comfort that 'must do' tasks haven't slid off my radar! I also find that lists can make otherwise complex situations more approachable (at risk of oversimplifying them, of course).

Early in my thinking about Tom Thomson’s death, I started making lists.
"Who are the major thinkers?" I asked. "What did they write? When? What stories did they tell? What evidence did they draw on?"

What emerged for me was a kind of genealogical map of story-telling about Thomson’s death, one that illustrated the progression over time in narrative structures and purposes (for those so inclined, you might refer to Hayden White here).

Keeping with the genealogical metaphor, the three ‘branches’ of thinking about Thomson’s death propose that he either died:
1) by accident (drowning)
2) by his own hand (suicide), or
3) by foul play (murder or manslaughter).

Over the coming weeks I will explore each of these lines of thought, identifying the primary texts used to advance each theory. If you can't wait, or want even more information, see my new book, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction.

As a taste of what’s to come, I offer a brief accounting of some of the leading explanations:

- Thomson shot in head
  • while in canoe, by cottager Martin Blecher Jr., likely from the shoreline
  • by poacher
- Thomson clubbed over head with paddle
  • by Martin Blecher Jr.
  • by Shannon Fraser, operator of Mowat Lodge, where Thomson was living at the time
  • by poacher
- severe head wound sustained in fall during fistfight
  • with Martin Blecher Jr.
  • with Shannon Fraser

Those advocating suicide have offered little in the way of details regarding how Thomson killed himself. Their primary concern has been to provide arguments for why Thomson might have been suicidal.

Reasons that have been proposed:
- Morose due to:
  • Pressure from lover to get married
  • Possibility lover was pregnant
  • Lack of art recognition
  • Disappointment at not being able to serve in war

Theories that have been proposed:
- canoe hit deadhead and tipped
- fell while urinating and hit head
- passed out while urinating and hit head
- weak ankle gave way and hit head while falling out of canoe
- waterspout tipped canoe

Revisit this site in coming weeks to learn more about each of these theories.

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