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1917: Painter Tom Thomson last seen alive

The Story

It is one of the greatest unanswered questions of Canadian history: what happened to Tom Thomson on July 8, 1917? That day, he paddled out alone on Canoe Lake in Ontario's Algonquin Park for an afternoon's fishing. Hours later, Thomson's overturned canoe was sighted in the water, its owner nowhere to be seen. His body was found eight days later. In this clip, a judge who has probed the mysterious death appears before the Front Page Challenge panel.

After his death, Thomson's sketches and canvases depicting the Canadian wilderness would make him one of Canada's most renowned artists. But that summer, he was working as a fishing guide to support his career as a painter. Thomson was an experienced paddler, so the coroner's conclusion - accidental death by drowning - seemed unlikely to many who knew him. And that wasn't the only mystery: as Judge William T. Little explains, no one is sure where Thomson's body is buried.

Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: Oct. 19, 1970
Guest: William Little
Host: Fred Davis
Panellists: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Percy Saltzman, Gordon Sinclair, Jr.
Duration: 10:29
Writer: Gary Lautens
Photo: Portrait photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / PA-121719. Fishing photo courtesy of Franklin Carmichael, from Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN ID number 3721120

Did You know?

• Tom Thomson grew up near Owen Sound, Ont., and spent part of his early 20s in Seattle. In 1905, he moved to Toronto and began working as a commercial artist.

• Thomson first visited Algonquin Park in 1912, and became a summertime guide and fire ranger there the following year. Each spring and fall he sketched the wilderness, and spent winters in a Toronto studio producing the large-scale canvases that would make him famous.

• Thomson was working at Canoe Lake's Mowat Lodge at the time of his disappearance. On the afternoon of July 8, 1917, a Sunday, Thomson loaded his canoe with his fishing rod, tackle and some food and paddled away from Mowat Lodge. It was the last time he was seen alive. On July 9, two cottagers reported they'd seen an overturned canoe the day before, but didn't investigate.

• The canoe was recovered on July 10, and park rangers immediately organized a search for Thomson. Cottagers and guides helped scour the lake, adjoining waterways and surrounding bush for any sign of him.

• Rangers noticed that Thomson's preferred paddle was missing. (It was never found, despite an extensive search.) Another paddle was lashed inside the canoe, as if for portaging, but it was tied in an "unorthodox" way.

• Thomson's body was found in the lake on July 16. Though the body had decomposed some, a local doctor who examined it the next day concluded Thomson had died by drowning.

• The examination also revealed fishing wire looped around Thomson's ankle 16 or 17 times. There was a 10-centimetre bruise on his right temple, and his right ear was bleeding.

• Those who believe Thomson's death was an accident theorize that he stood in his canoe to urinate, lost his balance, and struck his head on the gunwale.

• Murder theories speculate that Thomson died in a dispute with someone over a woman or some money. Thomson was hit over the head with a blunt object, then his body was dumped in the lake and sunk with weights attached to the fishing line around his ankle.

• Although the local coroner had yet to arrive to investigate, Thomson's friends insisted on an immediate burial due to the decomposing state of the body. On the afternoon of July 17, a small group gathered for the funeral at a tiny cemetery overlooking Canoe Lake.

• According to The Tom Thomson Mystery, an undertaker from nearby Huntsville arrived soon after the burial, on the request of Thomson's family. Overnight, he alone exhumed the body and placed it in a metal casket for reburial in a family plot at Leith, Ont.

• However, the man who helped the undertaker load the casket onto the train later remarked that the casket didn't seem heavy enough to contain a body.

• In 1956 Judge William Little began an investigation into Thomson's death. He and his group of investigators dug up the Canoe Lake gravesite and found a skull with a small hole at the temple.

• Forensics experts in Toronto determined the skull belonged to an aboriginal man less than 30 years old - a finding Little questioned in his book. Thomson, who had no aboriginal ancestry, was almost 40 when he died.

• Little's book concludes: "All persons directly connected with the case, medically or otherwise, have expressed the wish that the grave at Leith be examined to establish the truth - all but the Huntsville undertaker."

• Thomson's family has never given permission for the Leith grave to be examined.

Also on July 8:
1792: John Graves Simcoe becomes the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario).
1958: U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower starts a three-day visit to Canada for talks; it leads to the founding of the Canada-US joint committee on defense.
2000: Stockwell Day defeats Preston Manning for the leadership of the new Canadian Alliance Party.


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