Charles Plewman Reflects

Charles F. Plewman, “Reflections on the Passing of Tom Thomson”,

Canadian Camping Magazine, Winter 1972

Much has been said about the mystery surrounding the death of Tom Thomson and, as time goes on, the myths increase.

Though I was present and acted as a pallbearer at his funeral, I have refrained up to date from making any statement.

Possibly the time has come now when I should throw more light on the subject.

When I arrived at Mowat Lodge, Algonquin Park, for a two month’s stay in July of 1917, Tom’s body had just been found. My health had broken down and it was originally suggested that I stay at Nomenigan Lodge but Taylor Statten, who was interested in my welfare, arranged for me to go to Mowat Lodge.

Not until I arrived did I discover what a tense atmosphere I was moving into. I was quite unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened and was consequently surprised to find everybody talking about the fact that they had just found the body of a man called Tom Thomson.

For over a week his upturned canoe had been found and they had searched in vain for the body. Not having found it they had about come to the conclusion that he could not have drowned. Had he done so, they reasoned, the body would have been found by that time.

Contrary to what many people suppose, Tom met his fate soon after he had left Mowat Lodge. By that I mean within an hour, or at the most, within two or three hours and this despite the fact they had been searching for him for 8 days. His body released somehow from its underwater anchorage was found close to the Lodge.

George, Tom’s brother, had been up the week previous to my arrival expecting that after Tom’s absence for more than four or five days he would have turned up dead or alive.

Tom Thomson’s burial was a sad and forlorn affair. The sky was overcast and the rain was falling. It had all the earmarks of a backwoods funeral. As a pallbearer, I along with the rest met outside of Mowat Lodge and lifted the wooden box on to the floor of a horse driven wagon. Then we fell in behind the vehicle as it made its way to the tiny cemetery on the knoll nearby.

The group that huddled around the graveyard was small, something like 12 or 13. No one from his immediate family was present, nor were any of the pals with whom he had painted. As for a minister there was none. The Stattens, whose cabin was nearby were absent, apparently away, and unaware that the funeral was taking place as were, I imagine, his other friends.

Mark Robinson, the Park Ranger, appeared to be in charge. On the surface it looked as if he had not been in touch with the family since locating the body or had received any instructions on what to do with the remains. I have since been told that there was a delay in reaching the family.

The Thomson family at Leith first heard that Tom’s body had been found late Tuesday night of July 17, 1917. His remains had been buried about ten hours before at Canoe Lake. They immediately decided to exhume the body and have it removed to Owen Sound for reburial in the family plot at Leith.

When I arrived back at the Lodge I was still quite oblivious to the fact that we had just buried a man who is now recognized as one of Canada’s foremost artists.

From what I had witnessed that day he might as well have been Algonquin Park’s “Unknown Man”.

Everything that happened on the day of his burial seemed so unimportant and so insignificant that I would have been absolutely flabbergasted had someone been able to tell me how much interest would be displayed in the event 55 years later.

When the body was found Miss Winnie Trainor, Tom’s girl friend from Huntsville, whose parents had a cottage on Canoe Lake in front of the Lodge, appeared on the scene and demanded the right to see the remains, saying that there must have been foul play as she was certain that Tom didn’t drown by accident in a small lake like Canoe Lake. This, Mark Robinson stoutly refused to grant. (The body had been in the lake about eight days and was not very presentable).

After the funeral, Shannon Fraser who operated Mowat Lodge where Tom had stayed, and who was more intimate with Tom than anyone else, confided in me what he felt had actually happened.

This was quite natural as there was considerable speculation as to how a man with Tom’s skill in handling a canoe could drown by accident in such a small lake. In no way did I foresee the interest that is now being shown in the real significance of his passing. Hence, I did not ask for information other than what Shannon offered.

Shannon said that at first he was not at all concerned when Tom failed to return on time. As Tom departed he had said to him what he had said on several previous occasions, namely, “Don’t worry if I am late getting back”.

Tom Thomson, Shannon continued, was engaged to marry Miss Trainor. She was pressing him to go through with the marriage. He intimated that she was coming up to see Tom to have a showdown on the fatal week.

He mentioned that Tom was a shy and sensitive person and that he felt he just could not face the music. The impression Shannon left me with was that somehow Tom had come to the conclusion that a settled, married life was not for him, but that he just could not say so to Miss Trainor.

Recalling Tom’s previous statements of not to worry if he didn’t return on time, Shannon said had made him feel that Tom had contemplated doing something on earlier occasions but had not mustered sufficient courage to go through with this intention.

Certainly from my conversations with Shannon there was little doubt in his mind as to what had actually happened. I have learned since that he expressed the same opinion to George Thomson.

During the rest of the summer I spent at the Lodge at no time did Shannon say anything to me about foul play, nor did I hear anything along that line other than the remark Shannon had said that Miss Trainor had made when they found the body.

I did get the impression from someone that Tom Thomson was somewhat of a pacifist and not interested in enlisting in World War One. Incidently, he had given up hunting.

As to the skeleton that was recently unearthed at Canoe Lake and which some people firmly believe was Tom Thomson’s, I am strongly of the opinion that it was that of an Indian. This was the verdict of the experts in this field. Apart from all of this, I am told that an Indian was buried in this cemetery around 1894 and probably other persons too.

Fifty-five years is a long time in which to recall with accuracy what happened at that time, but to the best of my knowledge, I would have to say that we buried Thomson inside the area enclosed by a small fence. The skeleton that was unearthed was found outside, not inside, the railing. In any event it is hard to imagine what ulterior motive would cause the undertaker not to follow the family’s instructions of sending the body to Owen Sound for interment in the family plot at Leith. After all he did make the trip to Canoe Lake for that purpose.

Incidently, Mowat Lodge was full of 8x1/2” x 101/2” sketches that Tom had painted. I could have had them for about a dime a dozen. Actually, at that time the few people who bought his pictures would only pay ten or fifteen dollars for a Tom Thomson original.

If I had gone up the creek I could have salvaged some of the ones that Tom had broken up and thrown away.

For many years I have refrained from making this statement. Meanwhile all kinds of rumours have been circulating regarding the nature of his death and burial. At 82 I now feel that I should say what I know. It is quite possible that I am the only person living who participated in Tom Thomson’s burial in Algonquin Park and to whom, at that time, Shannon Fraser talked about the nature of his passing.

A Matter For The Curious Only

“Tom Thomson family will bar exhumation of body”, Owen Sound Sun-Times, Feb. 8, 1969

A CBC TV producer’s demands that the grave at Leith, where most accept lie the remains of the world famed Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, pioneer of the Group of Seven school of Canadian art, have aroused considerable revulsion in Owen Sound.

Not only do people, many of them long time friends of members of the Thomson family, feel that opening the grave 50 years after the painter’s death would be in very bad taste and would cause surviving members of his direct family great anguish, but they can see no point, even should the unlikely suggestion he was murdered be indicated to be true.

The television film on Tom Thomson, shown Thursday night over CBC, caused great disappointment among local art circles and other interested in the Thomson family. It was quite apparently aimed solely at furthering the suggestion that Mr. Thomson was murdered and increasing the pressure to have the grave opened.

WON’T PERMIT IT

The final decision must rest with the surviving members of the family, two sisters and a nephew. The latter, Geo. Thomson, of the Brantford Art Gallery, stated that his aunts, himself, and other members of the family will not give permission to open the grave neither now nor at any time.

There has never been question in the minds of any members of the family but that Thomson died accidently, as stated officially following the inquest which found death by drowning.

His father, the late Geo Thomson, dean of artists here for many years and widely known for his landscapes, went to the scene immediately on learning that Tom had disappeared and was believed drowned, the son recalls. He spent six days searching for the body. Collecting the artist’s sketches, he returned home and shortly after the family was informed the body had been found.

Geo. Thomson sr. said he had been informed that Tom had suffered a sprained ankle just before his disappearance. He was of the opinion Tom had stepped out of the canoe onto his injured foot, had slipped, hit his head on a rock and rolled unconscious into the water to drown.

Geo. Thomson, asked by a Sun-Times staff members 10 or 12 years ago about the rumor, which had recurred at that time, definitely stated Tom’s body was in the coffin buried at Leith, and that his death was accidental.

PUBLIC OPINION

A number of Owen Sound residents, some of whom knew the family for many years, were asked for their opinion of the proposal. These opinions follow:

Mrs. S. H. Pearce: – “I feel the proposal is in very bad taste and cannot see where any good purpose could be served. We have a very fine memorial to Tom Thomson, the artist, in our Tom Thomson Art Gallery. I have a great admiration for his works and the part he has played in Canadian art and view the movement as most unfortunate.”

Mrs. Pearce, former women’s editor of the Sun-Times, was active in establishing the memorial art gallery. She feels strongly about the Thursday night showing of the CBC film on Tom Thomson. “Instead of watching what we thought would be a tribute to the wonderful art of Tom Thomson, we watched a group of ghouls at work.”

Ald. Clifford Waugh, city council representative on the civic gallery committee: – “The legend of Tom Thomson is something the people of this area have cherished for years and the CBC, in their stupidity, have deliberately tried to destroy the image of this revered artist which is causing anguish for the Thomson family.”

Mrs. John Harrison, president, women’s gallery committee: – “I thought the suspense in the film was well maintained but was disappointed more time was not devoted to his life and his paintings shown. It is my feeling it would be a good thing to get the mystery of his death cleared up.”

William Parrott, head of the art department at the O S C V I: – “The dead should be left in peace and no good purpose could come of opening the grave at Leith.”

Mr. Parrott said, “Christians do not feel they need to know beyond doubt where Christ is buried before they can honor him, so why should we feel we need to know the location of Tom Thomson’s grave in order to honor him.”

W. M. Prudham, former principal of the O S C V I: – “It would clarify the situation if the grave at Leith was opened. If it is not done the doubt will always keep coming to the surface from time to time.”

Mrs. John Rowe, member of art gallery committee: – “The McMichael Conservation Gallery officials a Kleinburg are anxious to collect the remains of the famous Group of Seven artists for burial in one plot. I think the idea of digging up graves is horrible. Lives remembered are more positive than bones.”

Mrs. K. C. Quirk, member of the gallery committee: – “Exhumation would be pointless. Let the poor man rest in peace. The wishes of the surviving members of the family should be considered.”

Stan Latham,CFOS radio: – “The resting place for Tom Thomson’s bones is a matter for the curious only. To me, it really does not matter. The real Tom Thomson still lives. It is expressed through his paintings. Let those who would honor and remember him do so in the manner of their choice. I would say we do him dishonor to wrangle over his bones. Let the mystery remain with him and the good earth he loved so well and held as sacred.”