Winnifred Trainor's July
18, 1917 Telephone Bill
The Canadian Mysteries website has publishing a copy of Winnie Trainor's telephone
bill of July 18, 1917 on its wonderful well-documented website. The website says it
obtained the bill from the Library and Archives of Canada in the Tom Thomson collection,
Vol. 1 File 23 but does not explain how it came into the Library's possession or, more
importantly, who thought to request a copy from her or Bell Canada. The legal privacy
questions it raises are interesting but she died in 1962.
A member of the research team that put the website together, Gregory Klages, says
that the telephone bill in the archives obviously came from the Thomson family. They had
obtained the bill from Miss Trainor herself. Likely, at their invitation, she was seeking re-
payment from the family for telephone charges she incurred arising out of her role in
trying to arrange Tom's exhumation on July 18, 1917.
A careful review of the telephone bill and related correspondence between her and
family and notes of a 1973 telephone interview by Harold Town with Margaret Tweedale,
Thomson's sister, suggests some answers to the mystery of his death and Winnie
Trainor's possible pregnancy with his child.
The telephone bill upsets earlier interpretations of her apparently cranky
correspondence with Thomson's family in the weeks following his drowning on July 8,
1917, in Algonquin Provincial Park Canoe Lake.
Two of her letters can be found here and here. Notes of Town's telephone interview
are here. Putting the correspondence fully into context also requires a reading of two
other pieces of correspondence between the Canoe Lake burial undertaker, Robert H.
Flavelle and Thomson's brother-in-law, Thomas J. Harkness, who was executor of the
painter's estate. They can be found on the Canadian Mysteries website, too.
The handwritten $5.00 telephone bill from the Huntsville office of the Bell Telephone
Company of Canada records two calls by "Miss Traynor" from Huntsville to "Mr.
Thompson" in Owen Sound and four telephone calls to "Mr. Flavelle" in Kearney all of
them on Wednesday, July 18, 1917 after she had attended Thomson's late Tuesday
afternoon burial in the Mowat Cemetery and she returned on the evening train to
Huntsville. Evidently, she made no other telephone calls during the billing period, which
may suggest nothing about her personal life but something about telephone social
habits of 1917.
Her nephew, Globe & Mail national columnist, Roy MacGregor, suggests a
reasonable explanation for the bill coming from the Thomson family. First, he insisted
that there was no telephone service at her home in Huntsville, owned by the her parents,
in 1917. He believes she might have been using a telephone actually located at the
Huntsville Post Office or Western Union telegraph office that was available for public use.
He believes that she was simply engaged in the social convention of the day in sending
the bill to the family that ended up in the archives among their papers.
The telephone bill may confirm what I said in Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last
Spring -- there were no telephone lines between Canoe Lake and Huntsville. Park
Superintendent George W. Bartlett had a telephone line on which he could call North Bay
or Ottawa but not Huntsville. I reached this conclusion because Chief Ranger Mark
Robinson dispatched Fire Ranger Albert Patterson to Huntsville on the evening train, July
12, 1917, "to search into matters there," according to his daily journal. Furthermore,
Winnifred Trainor's bill records no calls to Canoe Lake.
Second, her two longer telephone calls ($2.50 and $1.10) to the Thomson family in
Owen Sound suggest to me that she already knew them well enough to talk regarding
his death. Therefore, more than likely, they had earlier contacted her by telegram or
telephone with news that Tom was missing because there is no evidence that anyone
from Canoe Lake ever notified her themselves before July 12 or 13, when she might have
been told by Patterson. If not, why would she have called the family only following his
All of the evidence strongly suggests that sometime between July 10, when the search
for Thomson's body began and July 16, when the body was found, the Thomson family
contacted Winnie Trainor for assistance. Even If the calls on her telephone bill are in
chronological order, they, nonetheless, suggest that before his burial Winnie Trainor was
asked by the family to help arrange for an undertaker to ship the body back to Owen
Sound for burial.
When she arrived at Mowat, plans were already underway to bury him there and were
carried out because the body was badly decomposed, double-embalmed and placed
into a plain wood coffin and rough wooden casket.
Contacted by Chief Park Ranger Mark Robinson, undertaker Robert H. Flavelle, and
his embalmer, Michael R. Dixon, Robinson's cousin, had arrived at Canoe Lake on,
Monday, July 16. (Flavelle billed for lodging from 3:45 p.m., Monday to 6:45 p.m., Tuesday
while Dixon stayed at Robinson's cabin ) Meanwhile, Winnie told Harkness in her letter of
August 11 that she departed Huntsville at 6 p.m.,July 16, for the Scotia Junction
connection to Algonquin Park. "I’m sorry I did not go up the day before – I suggested
things at Canoe Lake, but was refused. If I see you I can tell you all," she wrote.
Winnie added the following note to her letter between pages 1 and 2: "I acted on the
strength of the telegram of instructions which was found waiting at the train time 6.p-m. I
had quite a hard struggle to even see it. " It may be that the Thomson family tried to
telegraph Flavelle there with burial instructions because she told Harkness:
"After I got ans. to what was going on at Canoe Lake – I did all in my power to get
things righted. I was told there it could not be done, but I thought I’d have a try and I knew
that time was precious. When I got to Scotia arriving at 7:30 p.m. the wires were down
between Hville [Huntsville] and Scotia. So then I looked up the agent & sent out message
after message to Hville all free of charge, & perfectly lovely about it all. I had to wait there
till nearly 3. am."
Flavelle's bill to the Thomson estate for undertaking services probably explains
Winnie's frantic telegraph messages to Huntsville. Flavelle billed 30 cents for "phone
messages to Canoe Lake." This may be puzzling. If he could make a telephone call from
Kearney to Canoe Lake, why couldn't Canoe Lake call Kearney, connect to Huntsville and
Owen Sound? Also, who did Flavelle talk to at Canoe Lake?
It may be answered easily if Flavelle was doing by telephone what it Winnie Trainor
was doing at Scotia Junction -- actually contacting a telegraph agent in Huntsville to send
a message, in his case, to Canoe Lake.
Winnie's later telephone calls to him confirm that there was a telephone line between
Huntsville and Kearney. From Scotia Junction late at night, it seems likely Winnie was
trying to relay through the Huntsville Western Union office the family's burial wishes by
telegram to Flavelle, Fraser or Robinson at Canoe Lake.
When the coroner failed to arrive at Canoe Lake on the morning train, Tuesday, July
17, Bartlett agreed with Robinson and Fraser that the body should immediately be
examined by Dr. Goldwin W. Howland, M.D., embalmed and buried in the Mowat
Cemetery. Winnie Trainor likely arrived on that morning train, tried and failed to persuade
them against doing so.
There is a strong clue to why she failed in her correspondence to Harkness. Flavelle
had brought to Canoe Lake a fine wooden casket and rough burial box in which the body
could not be transported by train back to Owen Sound. She wrote:
"A copper lining costs more than the casket itself. So you see he [Flavelle] is billing a
good [illegible]. I would suggest to use your own judgement as you know the contents of
the first telegram. Thought [illegible] composed – and you know the tangle now that has
to be unravelled – owing to the thoughtlessness of not having a sealed casket – which
anyone knows is needed in a case of that kind and also required by law. If you knew Mr.
Fraser I think you would use your own judgement. "
The four telephone calls to Flavelle following the burial at Mowat evidently were
attempts by Winnifred Trainor to persuade him to return, exhume and ship to Owen
Sound. He refused but she prevailed on Huntsville undertaker Franklin W. Churchill to
board the train to Mowat with a copper-line casket the evening of July 18.
So, there is convincing evidence that Winnie's "enigmatic statements," as described
by myself, S. Bernard Shaw in his book, Canoe Lake Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson
and Other Mysteries, and others arose from no more than an unfortunate set of
circumstances aggravated by a lack of telephone lines resulting in some bad feelings
over the burial arrangements made by Shannon Fraser under the authority of Bartlett.
Winnie's July 18, 1917, bill from the Bell Telephone Company of Canada is a key to
understanding and sweeping aside all other speculation of any sinister motives or
events surrounding the burial of Tom Thomson at Canoe Lake.
Harold Town's long overlooked notes of his 1973 telephone interview with Margaret
Tweedale, however, strike deep to the twin-taboo of unwed pregnancy and suicide which
arose within the families of Winnifred Trainor and Tom Thomson following his death.
Town's notes said Mrs Tweedale told him:
"Got three letters from Winnie Trainor, somehow she found out that Margaret was
interested in finding out a few things about the accident and Winnie Trainor wrote to her
and she wrote back, at the dismay of her family, who told her not to write because Winnie
Trainor was not in her right mind. . . . I didn’t know what she was getting at, I was anxious
to find out anything I could, but I couldn’t make hear nor tail out of it. I didn’t kep them, I
suppose I should’ve but I didn’t. You couldn’t understand what she was driving at, she
was anxious to be a friend of Tom’s. . . .She went to my father (when Tom died) and
wanted a share in Tom’s estate, no one who was in her right mind would do a thing like
In 1917, neither the unwed mother nor the child had any legal claim against the
estate of the father. Winnifred Trainor, however, did harbor a claim for the recovery of at
least 33 paintings taken from her family's cottage at Canoe Lake by Mark Robinson,
which he gave to George Thomson, who would publicly never acknowledge having so
obtained them. In fact, he denied having even traveled to the park to get them, according
to William Little's book, The Tom Thomson Mystery.
Therefore, if Winnifred Trainor had gone to Thomson's father asking for a share of the
estate and was not only refused but cast by the family as "out of her mind" it explains the
still lingering bitterness between the two families as explained by Roy MacGregor, her
nephew, in his book, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the
Woman Who Loved Him.
This is especially poignant if she was, indeed, pregnant, and the Thomson family
cynically turned its back on her and the child both, consistent, perhaps, with the post-
Victorian morals of 1917 knowing she could make no timely claim against the estate for
the painting without exposing her pregnancy to which she responded by traveling to
Philadelphia, where MacGregor's book speculates she gave up the child at a home for
She gave up both his child and his paintings, neither of which his family would ever
acknowledge, cloaking his death, her loss and their greed in mystery .