Blodwen Davies: Secret Story
The new website, Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy, exploring
the mystery of Tom Thomson's drowning in Algonquin Provincial Park's Canoe Lake in
1917 adds some fascinating detail to the story by making readily available for public
review many of the papers and correspondence of his first biographer, Miss Blodwen
What she knew about the case that she did not put into her book in 1935 is particularly
interesting because she asked the Ontario government to exhume Thomson's Leith
Cemetery grave in 1931. It has never been discussed in light of her book's lurid
speculation on his death. A copy of her request to the Ontario Attorney General is
available on the new website.
On July 27, 1931, Miss Davies wrote to William Herbert Price, who she addressed as
Col. Price. He was attorney general of Ontario from 1926 to 1934. Enclosed was an 11-
page summary of her investigation of circumstances surrounding Thomson's
drowning. Her one-page cover letter closes by saying:
"I shall appreciate it very much indeed if you can do anything concerning the case. I felt
that I had too much material in hand to ignore the obvious inferences. However, the
important thing to Thomson’s friends is to know whether or not he still lies in Canoe
Lake, and to clear his name of the charge of suicide."
She pointedly copied "Dr. Banting" with her correspondence to Col. Price. In 1930,
when she began her research, she was a struggling freelance writer living in Toronto,
whose circle of friends included the Group Seven artists. They had been close friends
of Thomson and Toronto art patron, Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.D. The Group formed
and began exhibiting together in the years following Thomson's death.
One of the Group was A. Y. Jackson. An account of what happened is reported in
chapters 9 and 10 of Banting: A Biography by Michael Bliss (University of Toronto
Press 1992). Miss Davies may have been introduced by him to Dr. Frederick Banting,
M.D. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for his discovery of insulin. Miss Davies
originally sought his medical advice on Thomson's death. He wanted help in
becoming a professional writer.
Sir Frederick took a great interest and important role in her research and writing of the
book that developed into a secretly sensational love affair. An archive of some of his
papers at the Library of the University of Toronto includes a typescript of her book
annotated by Sir Frederick and six folders of related papers. Their love affair exploded
into a sex scandal when Banting divorced his first wife in 1932. He later refused
marriage to Miss Davies.
She personally hand-set her Thomson book, printing 100 copies in 1935, hand
signed and sold them for $5.00 each. I have copy 62, missing page 21 and 22,
purchased for $252 in 2003. A later edition of 350 were published in 1937. The book
sold so poorly that in 1957 she remarked in correspondence to Judge William T. Little
that her dealers still had copies for sale at $12.00 each. She offered him a copy for
Another essay here observes that her book lacks any footnotes, references or
bibliography -- perhaps because doing so would have required too much detail work
in hand-setting the pages. However, she also very infrequently attributed anything to
anyone --except Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson -- even though her archives
reprinted on the new website reveal that she gathered a great deal of information from
very many members of the Thomson family, Canoe Lake community, government
records and officials. She was an extraordinarily diligent investigator.
Readers of the book in 1935 and today probably are mystified and, perhaps, even
offended, by what Bliss describes as its "theosophical gobbledygook." Canadian
newspaper columnist and Thomson expert, Roy MacGregor, more simply said her
book is "mostly mush." The evidence is that she genuinely believed that Tom
Thomson was among those few persons of genius who had achieved what she
understood Theosophy to describe as cosmic consciousness -- an awareness of the
connectedness of all things to the greater achievement of mankind -- along with
herself and Sir Frederick.
What Miss Davies did in her investigation and writing of the Thomson biography
appears to have been completely overwhelmed by her frantic love affair and final
rejection by Sir Frederick Banting. Bliss writes that she was not an attractive woman.
He says that she was a prematurely white-haired, droopy, 33-years old, innocent and
vulnerable. She was a woman who might never have known sexual passion. She was
what Bliss describes "as a kind of original groupie to the Seven."
Her 11-page request for exhumation to Col Price also lacks references. She does
include copies of correspondence regarding Dr. Goldwin W. Howland's statement on
the condition of Thomson's body and another regarding Martin Blecher's draft status in
the United States. Her correspondence about the case included on the Canadian
Mysteries website begins with a letter dated March 23, 1930 from Mark Robinson,
Algonquin Park ranger stationed at Canoe Lake when Thomson died.
The website includes 21 others, which must represent but a small portion of the
research documentation she gathered over the five years she worked on the book. But
most of the prodigious work she did and the conclusions she drew never made it into
print until Judge William T. Little gained access to them as early as 1955 and
appropriated them wholesale for his 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery.
For example, in the 1935 book she said only that Martin Blecher "reported that on
Sunday afternoon he had seen an upturned canoe drifting between Little Wap and Big
Wap, which might be the lost Coulson canoe." In her summary to Col. Price, however,
she pointed a finger of foul play directly at Blecher, later exploited in full detail by Judge
In her book, she never even mentions the exhumation of Thomson's body and its re-
burial in Leith but rather abruptly concludes her story with Thomson's burial at Canoe
Lake and Dr. Ranney's description of the inquest. She writes: "And so mystery laid its
imprint upon the seal of Thomson's death -- and the seal has not yet been broken. All
that earthly of Tom Thomson was lowered into a sandy grave in the country that he
loved and the broken turf was covered with wild flowers. No one who knew Tom
Thomson ever looked upon face. Legend in the north says that he still lie on the brink
of the hill overlooking Canoe Lake."
Nonetheless, in her summary to Col. Price she related what Mark Robinson, Shannon
Fraser and others told her about Franklin W. Churchill's exhumation of the body and its
shipment to Owen Sound on instructions from the Thomson family. She told Col. Price
that those involved, including the family, doubted or were aware of the questions about
Churchill's exhumation -- although none of the correspondence available at the new
website confirms anything of the sort.
One character is completely missing from both the book and her summary to Col.
Price -- Winnifred Trainor -- even though Mark Robinson's March 23, 1930 letter told
her, "Now I have mentioned a few things that will not do for a book but I felt would like
to know so as to write to a better advantage. A few friends follow . . . Miss Trainor of
Huntsville Ontario to whom it is said Tom was engaged could tell you a lot of fine
things about Tom if she will talk."
While, Miss Trainor rarely talked to anyone researching Tom's story, it is, indeed,
curious, that Blodwen Davies leaves her completely out of the story this crucial
romantic link to his death. Perhaps, however, there is a much more personal reason
explaining why she wrote nothing of Winnie Trainor. My conclusion will require some
Since 1977, when Roy MacGregor interviewed and published an article telling Daphne
Crombie's story of Thomson's death, some researchers and writers have speculated
that Thomson committed suicide, in part, propelled by Winnifred Trainor's pregnancy
and demand for marriage from Tom Thomson. MacGregor's new book, Northern Light,
developed his subsequent research for a semi-fictional 1980 book, Canoe Lake,
originally published as Shorelines, bolstered the theory with evidence that his great
aunt, Miss Trainor, and her mother, mysteriously visited Philadelphia over the winter of
1917-1918, where they had no family or other connection.
Another essay here, Mystery Went Out on the Evening Train, provides further evidence
supporting this theory, which would never have been published in 1935 against
lingering post-Victorian era social and moral convention. The Canadian Mysteries
website includes a 1966 letter from A.Y. Jackson to an unidentified woman suggesting
that Blodwen Davies could not find a publisher for her book because of its speculation
of foul play in Thomson's death. Nonetheless, Jackson acknowledges, "D. MacCallum
said they believed it was suicide and they brought in a verdict of accidental drowning to
make it easier for the family."
Michael Bliss reproduces part of a letter Blodwen Davies wrote to Sir Frederick dated
July 10, 1933, as their love affair was ending, in which she says:
"Now I am in trouble, the worst trouble I have ever known & you have neither pity nor
tenderness, even though I have begged you for help to get me over this difficult time . .
. If I am to carry out the thing I should do in the next six week it must be without any
recurrence of the distress I feel tonight."
Bliss adds a footnote asking if this hints at a pregnancy that was going to be
terminated, saying that Sir Frederick gave her $300.00 at about this time.
Could it be that Blodwen Davies, who seems to have throughly investigated all
other leads, did not contact Winnie Trainor? Rather is it more likely that she tried and
buried whatever evidence she had of Winnie's love affair with Thomson?
In correspondence with Judge Little dated October 8, 1957, she told Judge Little,
"One of these days I may make an appeal to Miss Trainor for help. I think she has the
key to the mystery."
Miss Davies love affair with Sir Frederick beginning in 1930 cannot be separated
from her research, writing and personal hand-setting of her book, A Study of Tom
Thomson: The Story of a Man Who Looked for Beauty and For Truth in the Wilderness.
Sir Frederick's relationship with Blodwen Davies that ended in 1933 was a
sensational sex scandal in Toronto and across Canada. Had she reported what she
knew about Winnie Trainor, it surely would have brought her personal disgrace and
ruin as an unwed woman who aborted the child and wrecked her remaining
relationship with the Toronto art and intellectual community she idolized.
In her introduction to the book, she includes an enigmatic statement entirely
lacking any factual support that can be read as referring not only to Thomson but Sir
"Thomson was quite capable of making unwelcome visitors realize their
intrusion," she wrote. "He was most truly unhappy when he was forced by
circumstances into congenial company. It was only when Thomson let down his guard
against those predatory influences that beset genius that he became involved in the
circumstances that lead to his death."
And so, I conclude by saying that the more I learn about the earlier researchers
and writers on Thomson's death, the more I respect the suggestion of Gregory Klages
of the Canadian Mysteries website who says that understanding their work requires
as much we investigate their story as his. Much of my own story is entwined with his in
Algonquin Elegy and my favorite fusion jazz album by Pat Matheny called Secret Story.