Tom Thomson: Was It Murder?

In the early afternoon of July 8, 1917, Tom Thomson vanished from his canoe and mysteriously appeared upstream from where he had allegedly tipped. There is plenty of speculation over whether his death was accidental, suicide, or murder. And at the time of this writing, there is no concrete evidence to prove any theory. That being said, this paper will assert, an unfortunate, yet more reasonable theory about Tom’s final days on Canoe Lake and to answer the question, was it murder?

Photograph of Tom Thomson at Lake Scugog, Ontario from Wikipedia.

The Theories

You see immediately following Tom’s disappearance, Shannon Fraser owner of the Mowat Lodge, and to a lesser extent, his wife Annie Fraser went to great lengths in constructing false narratives about what actually happened that afternoon.

Tom Thomson’s death remains shrouded in mystery in large part because of a lack of evidence. But as you’re about to see the evidence is all in the telegrams.

Some theorized that his death was an accident, a drunken fall from his canoe. Some say it could have been suicide while others, others are asking the question, was it murder?

Was It A Drunken Fall?

Let’s take a quick look at some of the more popular theories, shall we? Could it have been an accident caused by a drunken slip?

A popular theory is that Tom Thomson’s death was partially his own fault, an alcoholic by definition, it’s possible but Annie has been publicly quoted as having had a late breakfast with Tom on the day in question and she had commented that he was “looking bright and chipper”, her words not mine. So unless he put back a bottle of Jack Daniels in the ten minutes it would have taken him to get from Mowat Lodge out onto the dock I’m afraid this is just not possible.

Well as you’ll see later, this is also one of Annie’s favourite theories and she tried to popularize this early on yet vehemently denied it later on in telegrams to Tom’s family. Several people at the time, including Shannon, had already verified that Tom was on his way to purchase a fish, that’s another story and of itself, so it should have been a short day trip. Tom had brought along a small amount of food to eat for when he got hungry, know I don’t know much about suicide, but I do know this, people don’t pack a picnic lunch if they’re planning to kill themselves. So enough said on that theory and so that leaves us with only one other possibility to ponder.

The Keith Cole Theory

Also known as the disgruntled lovers’ theory, which asserts that he was murdered by a jilted lover. While it’s true his wife had every reason to feel rejected as the if “I can’t have him no one will” frame of mind. But perhaps it’s better for you to hear the theory in Keith’s own words, “I think it was a total, a total crime of passion and I think it was like one of the young women who were unmarried. And it might have been like the town librarian or the town school teacher or the town kind of you know switchboard operator. And it was just kind of like you know he probably like ‘I’m of a certain age you’re of a certain age, you’re unmarried, I’m unmarried what’s your fucking problem dude, let’s get this going and he was like ‘no, you know what, I’m a bit of a misanthrope, I’m a gay guy, I just want to live in the bush, paint and drink. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hook up with any ladies.’ And then I think she was like, whoever she was, was totally like ‘well then if I can’t have you, no one can fucking have you.’ And she picked up the paddle of the canoe and smashed him across the front of the head at the back of the, you know, the temple area.

And now for why this doesn’t make sense. It’s to look at the plausibility of being able to pull off a crime of this complexity. Just consider what she would have had to have done in order to murder Tom and get away with it. She would have had to quietly paddle after him in another canoe, unnoticed by anyone on the lake, softly glide up behind him and very quietly raise one of her paddles, and with enough brute force strike him in the head hard enough to knock him in the water where he drowned. Not likely.

Was It Murder?

To answer this question we should first be looking at who had the motive means and opportunity to carry off such a crime. Turns out a lot of people had motive, from the newly rich cottage owners seeking decadence in the woods, to the park rangers and the superintendent whose job it was to protect the land at all costs. Not to mention the conflicts with the indigenous people over land use and his ongoing battles with American cottagers over the raising of their flags. Back then the rule was you can fly any flag you like on your property provided the Canadian flag was flown on top. And yes tom was a real stickler for these rules making him very unpopular.

The morning Tom left on his canoe trip, Shannon saw Tom off. In fact, Shannon helped Tom put the canoe into the water, and with an apparent wave goodbye, watched him paddle off.

So why wasn’t Shannon more of a suspect? It may seem like an obvious place to start in the investigation but remember that this all went down early in the nineteenth century when there wasn’t much in the way of forensic evidence, including DNA. That being said, in order for there to be a murder investigation, there has to be a reason to suspect it had been a murder. And Shannon had been doing a pretty good job at deflecting from that.

Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, c. 1914–16. He was enamoured with the Park, and many of his works were painted in the area.
Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, c. 1914–16, photo from Wikipedia.

Against The Tide

While it may be common knowledge that Shannon was the last person to be with Tom, what’s lesser considered is where Tom’s body and canoe ended up in relation to Mowat Lodge. The canoe washed up on the shores of Wapomeo Island, while Tom’s body was found 8 days later in the middle of the lake and upstream from the canoe. This all begins to make more sense if we consider where Mowat Lodge was located.

Tom’s body was found upstream from his canoe which would have meant it floated against the lake’s current. Or more likely, the body was untied from the dock at Mowat Lodge once the coast was clear and there was less chance they’d be caught by either the authorities or someone from the community search party.

Original map of Canoe Lake (and vicinity), Algonquin Park, Ontario, by William Little, The Tom Thomson Mystery, 1970. Colour additions, Raymond Helkio.

The Search Party

To add to Shannon and Anie’s suspicious behavior, when the community formed a search party to walk the area for signs of Tom, the Fraser’s declined to join the search party, further refusing anyone to search their property.

“It may come as a surprise to some, but at the time of his death, there was no police investigation into the matter. In July 1917, Thomson was not a famous icon, the country was in the midst of the Great War and the death occurred in an isolated section of the country.”

-John Little is behind a new, professional look at the death of a Canadian icon with his book “Who Killed Tom Thomson?”

How It All Went Down
(A Theory)

We know that Shannon was the last to see Tom, and if you’ve ever watched CSI then you know that the last to see a murder victim is first on the suspect list. Shannon did offer to help Tom into his canoe. With his back to Shannon, Tom steps into the canoe and Shannon grabs a paddle hitting him at the side of the head. Unconscious, Tom falls into the water and Shannon grabs some fishing wire and ties Tom’s legs, and then ties him under the dock. He sets the canoe free and leaves Tom’s lifeless body submerged in the cold lake water.

This is consistent with how decomposed the body was when the coroner came. It also explains why the fishing wire was wrapped neatly around his ankles, which also debunks the theory that Tom got tangled in the fishing wire and fell off the canoe. This theory also helps explain why Tom’s body turned up so long after his canoe was found. And the long bruise on the side of Tom’s head is certainly consistent with a canoe paddle. And since the crime was committed on the Fraser’s property they had an ideal hiding spot to store Tom’s body. ?

If you have thoughts or comments on this theory, please leave them below.

Tom Tompson timeline, Raymond helkio
Evidence Board by Raymond Helkio 2020

Thomson Tid Bits

Tom took night classes in painting at Central Ontario School of Art which is now known as OCAD University.

During the winter, Tom also painted in the Studio Building at 25 Severn Street in Toronto’s Rosedale area. He shared the studio with Alexander Young Jackson, founder of The Group of Seven. Their rent was $22 a month.

One of Tom Thomson’s business cards. Ink and watercolor on paper.
Tom Thomson Papers, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.

5 replies on “Tom Thomson: Was It Murder?”

Hello Gus, thanks for your feedback and I’ll check out The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson – I have read over the website “Death On A Painted Lake” and numerous publications on the subject, including Canoe Lake. I agree that there is no definitive answer to date, I can’t help but believe it was murder because of the bruise on the side of his head + when they had more dug up his remains there was serious damage to the side of his head, indicative of him being hot by a canoe paddle. I still feel like the most logical at this point is that it was Fraser, and while I agree, the debt factor has been debunked, Fraser and Thomson had, at times, a strained relationship and no other suspects seem to fit the bill (i.e. being the last to see and be with Thomson). I’m curious if you think it was murder, an accident or suicide?

Some of your claims seem to muddle the facts. . I don’t think anyone has ever suggested Thomson was killed by Winnie Trainor (the woman some have suggested was his love interest), primarily because she was not in the area at the time of his death. You might also note that any accounts we have regarding Annie’s perspective are hearsay produced after her death.

You might find it helpful to check out Gregory Klages’ “The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction”. The book assesses the various theories (accident, murder, suicide) and explains where and when many of the flawed claims offered today as ‘evidence’ originated. (For instance, the book debunks the claim, offered by Peter above, that Fraser had an outstanding debt to Thomson.)

Klages was the Research Director for the website ‘Death On A Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy’, which offers transcriptions of a lot of documents related to Thomson’s death.

Hmmm definitely gets the critical thinking cap going. Great article!
I think one woman could not move or tie up his body alone, even in water. So, maybe both women. Or he did get tangled up in fishing line, tipped and hit his head. A dead body does sink for sometimes 3-5 days( yes, I googled lol).

I’ve heard about Annie’s retraction and it’s also plausible given the shape of the bruise on the side of the head. I somethings thing her and Shannon were in it together in some way. Perhaps Shannon never did see him off the day he disappeared, instead he may have already been dead.

Great article and images, laying out of everything! Like what you did and how you worded your assertions about Shannon Fraser. There aren’t a lot of factoids about Tom Thomson’s death – even about his career. But I also read a theory that said that Annie witnessed an argument between Thomson and Fraser, when Thomson was visiting Fraser’s cabin on the evening of July 7th. Tom apparently came there to collect on the loan he had floated Fraser. During the highpoint of the argument, according to Annie, Fraser picked up a poker from the fireplace and felled Tom with it. She later retracted it when she disclosed the confession decades later, to whom I don’t remember. I personally believe he was killed on the 8th, the following day, by Fraser as he was setting out in his canoe. But I have also read theories to back up Keith Cole’s theory about the women. Great read, beautiful images. Thanks for posting!

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