The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thompson’s Death


I’ve mentioned Tom Thompson on this blog before and his connection to a near-ghost town in Algonquin Park. 

Tom was born in Claremont, Ontario in 1877 and by 1905 was working as a designer and illustrator in Toronto. His friends and co-workers encouraged him to explore a part of the province known as ‘New Ontario’, the part of the province lying between Georgian Bay and Ottawa, by canoe. He fell in love with the land and returned often to Algonquin Park to paint scenes he saw there. He also encouraged his friends to come and paint as well. 


Tom Thompson, ‘Drowned Land’ 1912

Tom was an avid outdoorsman, despite being employed The Photo Engraving Co. in Toronto. Many artists during that time needed to have ‘day jobs’ to support them while they painted in their spare time. But in September of 1912, Tom and his friend W.S Broadhead spent two months in the wild region of ‘New Ontario’. A journalist interviewed them for an article in the Owen Sound Sun that was printed on Sept 27th of that year. What follows is an excerpt from the article that captures perfectly the wildness of the region back then.

‘Wolves are plentiful all through the Reserve and Mr. Broadhead was fortunate enough to be within about five feet of one, a splendid specimen of the Canadian timber wolf and of which he got a photograph. Deer and bear are also plentiful and ducks and partridge are in abundance. The fishing was not very good although the two young men got some fine speckled trout in Clear Lake. In the upper waters of the Hudson Bay only pike are to be caught and the trout and bass are a minus quality there.’

Thompson is recognized across Canada as an important artist, even though he was only active as a ‘creative’ painter for about five years. Although he had not sold many works by the time of his death, his reputation quickly began to grow soon thereafter. Is he more famous posthumously than he was alive? Many people believe so.

In the spring and summer of 1917, he was in Algonquin Park attempting to produce one sketch a day, so that he might show others the many faces of the park throughout the seasons. In a letter dated July 7th, 1912 mailed from Mowat, Ontario to Dr. James McCallum, he reported, 

I am still around Frasers and have not done any sketching since the flies started. The weather has been wet and cold all spring and the flies and mosquitos much worse than I have seen them any year and the fly dope doesnt have any effect on them. This however is the second warm day we have had this year and another day or so like this will finish them. Will send my winter sketches down in a day or two and have every intention of making some more but it has been almost impossible lately. […] Have done some guiding this spring and will have some other trips this month and next with probably sketching in between…’

On July 12th, mere days later another letter was written to Dr. McCallum by J.S Fraser.

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.

Yours Truly

S. Fraser

What happened? That’s a blog post for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

One thought on “The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thompson’s Death

  1. Sadly far too many artists are celebrated posthumeously. Van Gogh for one, who died in poverty and despair.
    And I thinking the ‘needing a day job’ is true of artists (whatever their genre) to this day. We have a nasty tendency to celebrate and support business in preference to artistry.
    Looking forward to the next post.

    Liked by 1 person

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