There is a mystery surrounding painter Tom Thompson’s death. Last time, I shared with you a letter written by his friend to Thompson’s benefactor.
Tom left here on sunday about one o’clock for a fishing trip down the lake and at three oclock his Canoe was found floating a short distance from my place with both paddles tied tight in the canoe also his provision were found packed in the canoe. The Canoe was up side down We can find no trace of where he landed or what happend to him Everything is being done that can be done his brother arrived this morning Will let you know at once if we find him.
Thompson’s body was found July 16th.
Copy of Dr. G.W. Howland’s affidavit of July 17, 1917
Dr. G. W. Howland qualified medical practitioner of Toronto, Ont., Sworn, Said:
I saw body of man floating in Canoe Lake Monday, July 16th, at about 10 A. M. and notified Mr. George Rowe a resident who removed body to shore. On 17th Tuesday, I examined boyd and found it to be that of a man aged about 40 years in advanced stage of decomposition, face abdomen and limbs swollen, blisters on limbs, was a bruise on right temple size of 4” long, no other sign of external marks visible on body, air issuing from mouth, some bleeding from right ear, cause of death drowning.
(Sgd.) Gordon W. Howland,
Fraser sent Thompson’s father a letter dated July 18, 1917 (copied as it was written, spelling mistakes and all)
Mr. John Thomson
We found your son floating in Canoe Lake on Monday moring about nine o clock in a most dreadful condition the flesh was coming of his hands. I sent for the undertaker and they found him in such a condition [illegible] he had to be buried at once he is buried in a little grave yard over looking Canoe Lake a beautiful spot. The Dr found a bruse over his eye and thinks he fell and and was hurt and this is how the accident happend.
Today, a lot of controversy still swirls around Thompson’s death. Some believe he ran afoul of poachers, others believe his canoe hit an underwater stump left over from logging. There were no witnesses to the actual cause of the canoe overturning. But while he was buried in the park at first, he was dug up the next day and reburied in Owen Sound in his family’s plot.
T.J Harkness was tasked with settling the estate of Thompson. While doing so, he accused Fraser via letter of “not dealing square”. The letter seems to imply that Harkness thought Fraser was trying to profit from Thompson’s death. Here’s an interesting excerpt,
‘…Surely Tom had some personal property. Had he no trunk or grip or clothes except what you showed Geo Thomson and how do you account for Tom only having .60 cts when found. I know what he drew from the bank when he was away, and he was guiding a few weeks and no doubt was paid for it and where do you suppose his money went to. I tell you frankly Mr. Fraser I am suspicious that you are not dealing square and I hope you will be able to give a satisfactory explanation of everything…’
In a letter from Winifred Trainor (a friend of Thomspon’s, and some speculated a sweetheart) to George Thomspon, dated September 17th 1917, both Frasers characters are maligned. What follows are excerpts.
Dear Mr. Thomson
Your letter received this am. and would say I had the pleasure of meeting your sister Margaret in Toronto Aug 31 — together with her niece Jessie Harkness and a little boy Charles – and she asked me about the $25000 Tom loaned J. S. Fraser. I told her all I knew about it and that is at the time, May or June 1915, the loan was made — and in July 1915 Tom bought a new chestnut canoe silk tent etc. and went from Canoe Lake on a long trip coming out at South River about Labor Day. Anyway he said just in time to send your brother who was being married a telegram of congratulation. I do not think Tom got his canoe from Hville. Frasers got theirs here. I also heard at the time he was trying to make the raise of a loan in town and was even asked by the agent if I would like to put it up and my reply was no. I did not know until July 1915, that Tom had made it or I would have said no for him not too as the thing was risky. They also were charging him a $ a day for his board when he could have got it anywhere for $4. You see the Frasers were money grabbing as usual but it will all come back to them. It was awful of Shannon Fraser to charge cartage on the casket. When Tom the day he was drowned helped to cadge a boat for Shannon to rent. Never mind they’ll get it yet. As far as Frasers good faith he has none. Mark Robinson the Ranger hates him.
Well Tom said this spring while at our house that he had loaned Fraser $25000 for canoes, but that he had got it all back but in little bits though. Again if I had known, I could have got them all wholesale instead of retail and Tom might have realized $5000 on the out lay instead of nothing. I suppose Frasers thought he would board on till Fall with them. I did not know the amount until this spring. When we happened to bring up Shan’s financial standing.
About the overcoat I am enclosing a snap with the one he wore this spring. It was a green plaid Mackinaw. He also bought the Mackinaw trousers, socks & shoepacks he has on, here this spring. I would think the best way would be to have the executor send for all his belongings, saying the estate required them, as Shan will sell the things & keep the money. The things we have can be had next year when we go back. Your sister Margaret may go with me sometime. Hoping this will be some information to you. You could ask Frasers about it, saying you had come upon some correspondence about this transaction.
I am so sorry I burned my letters that I had left after our home was burned. I had this one where he left the Frasers dissatisfied but he did not tell the reason till the Fall 1915. Then again Tom did not care for Martin Blecher. […] Mrs. Fraser I think would see you got everything should you request it. I do not think Frasers deserve one thing. Tom no doubt was paying his board well, supplying fish work & etc. His canoes can be easily stored at the Lake. Tom ploughed and planted their garden & ploughed Larry Dixon’s garden too-
To add to all of this suspicion, a letter was penned by George Thompson to Fraser, dated December 25th, 1917. I find this letter both fascinating and very telling.
Dec. 25th, 1917
The Quinnipiack club
New Haven, Conn.
Dear Sir:- I am the brother of Tom Thomson who visited Canoe Lake last July. Only a few weeks ago I was informed for the first time that the coroner’s conclusion at the inquest was that Tom had taken his own life based on evidence given soley by you and Mrs Fraser. While I was there both you and Mrs Fraser protested over and over your great friendship for Tom, and from what I learn from various sources there was reason that you should entertain some such feeling, as a mighty good friend he had apparently been to you. […]
Now I want to say in passing that I have from various sources a pretty accurate account of what happened at the inquest and in common with other friends and relatives of Tom’s am more firmly convinced than ever that his death was caused either by accident or foul play and not by suicide. He had altogether too much to live for — many true friends and a remarkable success in his chosen profession.
The letters all seem to imply that the Frasers were not the wonderful friends they reported to be and that J.S Fraser may have had something to do with Thompson’s death. On Dec 29th, Fraser wrote back to say ‘There is not an atom of truth in your accusations & as sincere friends of Tom’s, it hurt us not a little that you, his brother, should accuse us of desecrating his memory.’ (Clearly the post moved faster in those days than it does today!)
TO THE MEMORY OF
WHO WAS DROWNED IN CANOE LAKE
JULY 8TH, 1917
HE LIVED HUMBLY BUT PASSIONATELY
WITH THE WILD IT MADE HIM BROTHER
TO ALL UNTAMED THINGS OF NATURE
IT DREW HIM APART AND REVEALED
ITSELF WONDERFULLY TO HIM
IT SENT HIM OUT FROM THE WOODS
ONLY TO SHOW THESE REVELATIONS
THROUGH HIS ART AND IT TOOK
HIM TO ITSELF AT LAST.
HIS FELLOW ARTISTS AND OTHER FRIENDS AND ADMIRERS
JOIN GLADLY IN THIS TRIBUTE TO
HIS CHARACTER AND GENIUS
HIS BODY IS BURIED AT
OWEN SOUND ONTARIO NEAR
WHERE HE WAS BORN
The official account lists Thompson’s death as caused by drowning. But all of the correspondence flying back and forth certainly makes one wonder if perhaps the painter’s death was not accidental, but came about as a result of money. Perhaps Fraser owed Thompson money and did not want to pay it back? Perhaps Thompson knew something he shouldn’t have? Many writers have investigated the matter, and as a result, there are a number of books that discuss Tom Thompson’s life and death. If you have found my brief series of blog posts concerning this mystery interesting, I encourage you to seek out the books.
Does your hometown have an unsolved mystery? Or perhaps one steeped in lore and controversy?