Dear Col. Price,
I am enclosing the statement concerning the death and burial of Tom Thomson, which you would good enough to discuss with me last week. It is somewhat lengthy, but I have tried in include as much as I have been able to learn concerning the episode.
I shall appreciate it very much indeed if you can do anything concerning the case. I felt that I had too much material in hand to ignore the obvious inferences. However, the important thing to Thomson’s friends is to know whether or not he still lies in Canoe Lake, and to clear his name of the charge of suicide.
If there is anything more that I can do to help in any way, I shall be very glad indeed to do it. I expect to be in Canoe Lake early in September.
REGARDING THE DEATH OF TOM THOMSON
July 8, 1917
Tom Thomson, Canadian artist, who spent the greater part of each year in Algonquin park, was drowned in Canoe Lake on July 8th, 1917.
He was a retiring man, modest and exceptionally well liked by all who knew him. His headquarters were at Mowatt Lodge, Canoe Lake, kept by Mr. and Mrs. Shannon Fraser, who now run the hotel at Kearney. Thomson usually camped in a tent on Heyhurst Point opposite Mowatt Lodge, in the good weather.
He had been painting a record of the weather, one sketch a day, from the middle of April to the middle of June and had, as usual, ceased sketching during the mid-summer months. He was a great fisherman. An expert paddler, swimmer and woodsman.
For ten days or thereabouts prior to his death he had been competing with Mark Robinson, the park ranger in charge of the Canoe Lake district, in fishing for a big trout at the foot of Joe Lake Portage. He eluded them both. On the morning of Thomson’s death he rose rather late and breakfasted with Mrs. Fraser at Mowatt Lodge. He was in good spirits and came in “freshly shaved, hair brushed and shining.” He sat long at table, eating and talking in a leisurely way. Then lit a cigarette and wandered out. He joined Shannon Fraser and together they went across to Joe Lake Portage to have another try at the trout. Again they failed. It was nearly noon.
“I know what I’ll do,” said Thomson, “I’ll go down to Gill lake and get a big trout and lay it on Mark’s doorstep so that he find it when he comes out first thing tomorrow morning. He’ll think I’ve got this fellow.”
They returned to Mowatt Lodge. Thomson got out his canoe. He had no bread. Fraser went up to the Lodge got him a loaf and Thomson stowed it away, with a can of corn syrup, under the bow of the canoe. He took no provisions in addition as he did not intend to stay any longer than it took to get the fish. Some stories say that he was on his way for a camping trip. The bread and can of syrup were found in the canoe the next day.
Thomson left Mowat Lodge dock about twenty-five minutes to one o’clock on Sunday. He paddled down the lake and outside Little Wapomeo Island. There was an unoccupied cottage on the Island. He then passed out of sight into the stretch of water between Little Wapomeo and Big Wapomeo Islands. There his canoe was found and there, nine days later, his body was found. His watch had stopped shortly after one o’clock. It was not ten minutes paddle from Mowatt Lodge dock to the place where his body was found.
On Monday morning Martin Blecher, son of Martin Blecher, Sr. (German-Americans who have summer at Canoe lake for a great many years) reported that he had seen a canoe floating between the Islands on Sunday afternoon at three o’clock. He did not report it, he said, as he thought it was a canoe belonging to Colson at the Algonquin Hotel, Joe Lake, which had drifted away from Joe Lake Portage where Colson kept some of his canoes. However, it was Thomson’s canoe, which was familiar to all at Canoe Lake. It was painted a peculiar shade of green. Friends of Thomson’s immediately recognized the canoe as his. A search was instituted, but none of Thomson’s friends believed Thomson to be drowned. He was a powerful swimmer from boyhood. He had been traveling in a light east wind in a light rain. Mark Robinson tramped the woods for seven days whistling and calling, thinking Thomson had landed on shore and had fallend and injured himself. The Blecher family alone of all Thomson’s acquaintaces searched the lake from Mowatt Lodge to Tea Lake Dam, although Thomson’s canoe had been found between the Islands near home.
Dr. Golden Howland, of Toronto, arrived a day or two after Thomson’s death to occupy the Taylor Statten cottage on Little Wapomeo Island. On Monday morning, July 16, he discovered Thomson’s body when it became entangled with his fishing line. He informed the authorities. The body was towed to Big Wapomeo Island and anchored there.
Dr. Ranney, coroner, at North Bay was notified. The train leaving North Bay at 2.10 P.M. reached Canoe Lake at 9.12 P.M. that day. Dr. Ranney did not leave North Bay Monday.
Tuesday morning Mark Robinson decided to remove Thomson’s body from the water. Dr. Howland made an examination. The following is his statement as provided by T. E. McKee, Crown Attorney, North Bat [Bay], on June 5, 1931
An undertaker from Kearney had arrived. The body was embalmed and transferred to the mainland on Tuesday mornin and there buried in a sandy spot on the edge of a small hill.
Tuesday night on the 9.12 train Dr. Ranney arrived. He said he had wired his intention to arrive Tuesday. Those in charge of the case at Canoe Lake were unable to find any trace of such a message being filed. The telegraph files for that year have since been destroyed.
The inquest was held in the Blecher home instead of in the hotel nearby. The Blechers, who were not popular with the community, served beer and cigars to those who attended. Mark Robinson discovered that George Rowe, who had towed the body to shore, had not been summonsed to the inquest. He paddled across the lake to his cabin to get him.
Nothing came out at the trial of the quarrels between Martin Blecher, who was then about twenty-five years of age, and Thomson. The quarrels are said to have been violent. Thomson wrote Lismer, then at Halifax, one of his intimate friends, about the quarrels. The letters have not been preserved. Thomson was unhappy about the war. His friends, particularly Dr. James MacCallum, who was financing him by the sale of his pictures, put a great deal of pressure on him not to enlist. Other friends were putting pressure on him, some in order to induce him to enlist, others to prevent him from doing so. Thomson was becoming celebrated as an artist and was a sort of legendary figure in art circles.
Martin Blecher was subsequently a draft evader.
A letter from the War Department at Washington under date of July 27, 1931, describes him.
The story at Canoe Lake is that an agent of the War Department went to Canoe Lake in search of him and was persuaded to leave without taking action.
Martin Blecher was believed responsible for spreading a report of suicide. He repeated this statement as late as August of 1931 when he made a trip across the Lake to Camp Ahmek on the day of the Thomson Celebration and told Dr. Harry Ebbs that Thomson’s legs were bound together with a piece of rubber. This statement was untrue. He also stated that he body was cramped and rigid. This was also untrue. Blecher’s mother, when interviewed in the summer of 1930 refused to discuss Thomson.
The chief fact which the inquest failed to establish and which should have been obvious was this: that within ten minutes of leaving Mowatt Lodge dock, when out of sight of the cottages, Thomson was struck over the head with a weapon which inflicted a bruise four inches long on his temple and which caused bleeding from the ear. The bruise could only have been caused while Thomson lived.
The waters of Canoe Lake are mild enough for swimming by a children’s camp all July and August. Yet Thomson’s body, which should have floated in two or three days, did not come to the top until nine days later, although it was bloated to twice its natural size, — Unless it did come up and was sunk a second time. There was a fishing line tied around one ankle.
As related, Thomson was buried on the edge of a sandy hill not far from Mowatt Lodge. A few days later his family sent in an undertaker, Churchill of Huntsville, with a metal casket to exhume the body and carry it to Owen Sound. The undertaken arrived on the 9.12 p.m. train which may have been late, as the persons concerned have a recollection of him arriving “near midnight”. Mark Robinson was not informed of his arrival until some time later. Robinson rose at dawn, went to the grave, and discovered that the man’s job was done. Thomson, he said, was sealed in the metal casket. Robinson does not believe that the body was ever disturbed. The flowers that had been laid on the grave at the funeral were not moved.
George Rowe was with the undertaker on his way in to Mowatt Lodge. Rowe recalls that the man was anxious to be alone and refused offers of help. Shannon Fraser, who drove the man and the casket up to the spot, arranged with him that he was to answer the undertaker’s signal when he was through with the exhumation. He recalls that he was not long back at the hotel, before he saw the signal and at once returned to take up the casket again.
None of those concerned in the episode believe that Thomson was ever disturbed. There is no variation in opinion in any of those who have been questioned. Thomson’s casket was buried at Leith, where a stone has been erected over the grave.
The burying place at Canoe Lake is not a consecrated cemetery. There have been four or five buried there; there is only one small enclosure with a couple of grave in it. Thomson’s grave was outside the enclosure.
All of those concerned in this incident are still living. Mark Robinson is assistant Park Superintendent. His (Thomson’s) family were aware of the circumstances and debated taking action to clear up the situation. Thomson’s aged mother would have been disturbed by any such action and the matter was allowed to drop.
The Blechers, who are a quarrelsome family, are still in the same cottage at Canoe Lake.
The opening of Thomson’s original grave at Canoe Lake would lay at rest the rumors which are persistent in the north and which claim that he still lives there. His family now regret his removal to Leith and would be glad to know he had not been disturbed. Any action which would prove that Thomson died as the result of foul play would remove the stigma of suicide from his name.
Those who know Thomson could not believe that it was suicide. He was a sensitive and lonely soul, passionately devoted to the wilderness, and if he had been in a mood to take his own life, he would have gone off on a trip into the wilderness and been heard of no more. It is utterly at variance with Thomson’s character to suppose, that even in a fit of depression, he would have tried to commit suicide ten minutes from his own camp.