Antoine Chouinard: An
Earlier Mowat Burial?
The two-fold mystery of Tom Thomson revolves around the cause of his drowning in
Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917, and the place of his final burial, either
the Park’s Mowat Cemetery or Leith’s Auld Kirk Cemetery. Roy MacGregor’s most
recent book, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman
Who Loved Him, offers new theories regarding both the circumstances of his death
and the whereabouts of his body.
This essay will focus on a recently found piece of evidence that casts some doubt
on earlier conclusions about the bodies actually buried in Mowat Cemetery and,
therefore, challenges MacGregor’s belief that Thomson's body still rests in the
Mowat Cemetery today.
The evidence I have found consists of a handwritten 117-year old official Ontario
government death record. At first revolutionary and now becoming widespread,
the digitization of old books and government records and their publication on the
Internet has made it possible to search and find historical data of all sorts. Such is
the case with the death record of Antoine Chouinard.
The burial ground at Mowat on Canoe Lake had never been an official cemetery for
which records were kept. Also, while Ontario deaths and burials were supposed to
be reported and recorded, compliance at Mowat in 1897 may have been spotty as
demonstrated by the case of Antoine Chouinard and the earlier death on May 25,
1897 of James Watson, known to have been buried in the Mowat Cemetery but for
whom there is no similar official Ontario government record.
It was not until 1956 that Thomson’s drowning in Canoe Lake, burial, exhumation
and reburial in the Auld Kirk Cemetery became an inextricable part of his legend as
Canada’s greatest landscape artist. Algonquin Park’s Mowat Cemetery, David
Silcox, wrote, “has ever since been muddied by the clubfooted wading of art ghouls
and plain fools, who turned Thomson’s creative adventure into the pedestrian plot of
a bad drugstore paperback novel.”
What happened in 1956 causing a sensation across Canada was the discovery by
Judge William T. Little of the skeletal remains of a body in an unmarked grave that
many believed should not have been there. Even greater astonishment resulted,
however, from the official forensic conclusion that the skeletal remains found were
not that those of Tom Thomson but instead possibly of a native Indian nobody knew
had ever been buried there.
It was not the discovery of the remains or their less than conclusive identification,
however, that gave the discovery its great significance. To those interested in Tom
Thomson’s death and final burial, the utterly remarkable fact was the condition of the
skull. On the left temple was a dime-sized ragged hole, an injury matching-up with
one of two old written reports of a four-inch bruise on the left or right temple of
Thomson’s skull when his body was found in Canoe Lake in 1917.
Thomson mystery investigators have struggled in disbelief ever since against Dr.
Noble Sharpe’s conclusion that the remains found were probably those of a nearly
full-breed Indian who was likely younger and certainly shorter than Thomson and
whose skull possibly had been opened by a rare surgical operation called
Never mind differing details of the location and extent of the actual physical injury
originally described to Thomson’s temple, the coincidence of the hole's existence
has ever since persuaded most writers and many readers that the body found in
1956 could only be that of Tom Thomson.
Why they so believe arose exclusively from their belief that only two other bodies
rested there when Tom Thomson was buried in the Mowat Cemetery without a
marker on July 17, 1917. The fact was that nobody then or ever since has produced
any evidence of a fourth burial before the 1956 discovery.
I have found such evidence. Before presenting it for examination, however, I should
provide some additional background regarding all of what is known today regarding
the burial, exhumation and reburial of Tom Thomson’s body.
Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson’s daily journal for Tuesday, July 17 reports,
in pertinent part: “Dr. Howland and undertakers advised having body buried. I
reported to Supt. Bartlett by phone and he ordered him buried which we carried out
at little cemetery at Canoe Lake. Mr. Martin Blecher Sr. reading the funeral service.
Miss Winnifred Trainor and Miss Terry went out on the evening train.”
Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake, on Sunday, July 8, having paddled away from the
Mowat Lodge on an afternoon fishing trip. His overturned canoe was seen a few
hours later by Martin Blecher, Jr., and his sister, Bessie. By Tuesday, alarmed
friends began searching. Charlie Scrim found the canoe on Tuesday, July 10.
Thomson’s body surfaced and was found by Dr. Goldwin W. Howland, M.D., in the
same general area of Canoe Lake on Monday, July 16.
Hurriedly preparing for burial of the badly decomposing body of his friend, Robinson
arranged for the services of his cousin, Michael Roy Dixon of Sprucedale, a small
village on the Grand Trunk railroad line passing Scotia Junction into Algonquin Park.
Dixon was trained as an embalmer and he, in turn, contacted Robert H. Flavelle of
Kearney, a furniture and casket dealer who also acted as an undertaker. Together,
they traveled to Canoe Lake, arriving the late evening of July 16. They brought with
them a fine oak casket and a rough cedar box suitable only for immediate burial.
Transporting the badly decomposing body by train would have required, instead, a
steel or copper-lined coffin that could be sealed by soldering the lid.
Thomson, therefore, was hurriedly buried in Mowat Cemetery even though
telegrams had earlier been sent to Thomson’s family in Owen Sound regarding his
death. A few hours later, the Ontario government coroner, Dr. Arthur E. Ranney, M.D.,
arrived by train from North Bay. He conducted an inquest, gathering from Dr.
Howland’s earlier examination of the body and the available witnesses his
conclusion that Thomson’s drowning was accidental. The four-inch bruise to his
skull, he wrote later, was caused when the body was drowning.
Robinson’s journal for Wednesday, July 18, continues: “Later in day . . . Shannon
Fraser received telegram that a steel casket was being sent in and Tom Thomson’s
body was to be exhumed and taken out by whose orders I am not at present aware.”
On Thursday, July 19, he explains: “Mr. Churchill undertaker of Huntsville, Ontario,
arrived last night and took up body of Thomas Thomson artist under direction of Mr.
George Thomson of Connecticut, U.S.A. The body went out on evening train to Owen
Sound to be buried in the family plot.”
Until 1935, when Blodwen Davies, self-published her book, A Study of Tom
Thomson: The Story of a Man Who Looked For Beauty and For Truth in the
Wilderness , nobody publicly questioned Thomson’s burial, exhumation, or reburial.
Miss Davies, however, ended her account of the burial at Mowat Cemetery by saying:
“And so the mystery laid its imprint upon the seal of Thomson’s death, -- and the
seal has not yet been broken. All that was earthy 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 his face again. Legend
in the north says that he still lies on the brink of the hill overlooking Canoe Lake.”
Her lyrically-expressed and unexplained conclusion raised little attention until 1956
when they were taken up by Judge William T. Little who dug up the Mowat Cemetery
and later wrote a book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, published in 1970. He insisted
that nobody had ever later opened the casket to identify the body which Churchill
never actually exhumed – a conclusion questioning the honesty of Churchill and
raising embarrassing doubts about George Thomson’s role at Canoe Lake.
So troubled was George Thomson that he denied ever having even been at Canoe
Lake when Churchill exhumed the body. Little said George Thomson told him that
he had directed the exhumation from home and he persuaded Little that nobody
from the family had ever re-opened the casket in Owen Sound before it was
reburied in the Leith Cemetery.
"Although family and friends were close to the metal casket from its arrival until it
was buried, not a single member of the family saw Tom's body after death," Little
wrote. "They were obliged to accept on faith the fact that the contents of the soldered
metal coffin that had been transported from Canoe Lake to Leith was the body of
Tom Thomson. George Thomson . . .related that he never had a chance to discuss
the strange details of death or exhumation with anyone at Canoe Lake until long
after his brother's burial at Leith."
What Blodwen Davies knew about the case that she did not put into her book in
1935 is particularly interesting because she formally requested the Ontario
government to exhume Thomson's Leith Cemetery grave in 1931. Her request has
never been discussed in light of her book's lurid speculation on his death. A copy of
her 11-page request to the Ontario Attorney General is available on the website,
Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy.
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. 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
In her summary to Col. William Hubert Price, Ontario attorney general, Miss Davies
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
Who had doubts about Churchill's exhumation and from what evidence did they
arise? Miss Davies did not explain and neither did the family. In fact, between 1931
and 1953, I can find no evidence of anyone with any such doubts. Mark Robinson
gave regular talks at the Taylor Statten Camps. A tape recording he made in 1953
included the following: “Now, perhaps he took it out, God forgive me if I’m wrong
about it, but I still think Thomson’s body is over there.”
This and the failed recollection of Churchill in October, 1956, following Judge
Little’s discovery, fueled irrational speculation. Immediately contacted by deadline-
chasing newspaper reporters, a 73-year-old Churchill told an outrageously muddled
story of his being instructed to exhume the body by Blodwen Davies, who was only
nine years old in 1917. Judge Little devoted four pages of his book tearing apart
everything Churchill tried to recall doing in 1917.
George Thomson’s refusal to admit his actual 1917 role – and his family’s quiet
acceptance of his doing so – can today only be understood only as a direct
consequence of the fact that none of them had every opened the casket shipped
from Canoe Lake. So, they took with shock and dismay the discovery in 1956 of a
body they believed should not have been there if Churchill had exhumed Thomson’s
body late at night on July 18, 1917, and sealed it into a copper-lined coffin as
directed by George Thomson, who did accompany it on the train back to Owen
Sound. Churchill's use of a copper-lined coffin was confirmed to the Thomson
family in a letter from Winnifred Trainor dated August 11, 1917.
A 1969 CBC broadcast documentary further questioning Churchill's exhumation
prompted the Owen Sound Times to interview two elderly sisters, Agnes and
Margaret McKeen, for a 1969 story. They came forward with information that their late
cousin, John McKeen, a Thomson family neighbor, had stood by with Thomson's
father, John, as the casket top was removed before the reburial.
"Mr. Thomson," they said, "expressed relief that he no longer had doubts as to the
whereabouts of his son."
What nobody knew until recently is that the body of Antoine Chouinard had probably
been buried in the Mowat Cemetery since 1897. Ontario government registrar, J. A.
Diversey, (the handwriting is barely decipherable) made an annual report of deaths
for the Division of Murchison, District of Nippissing. On December 31, 1897,
Diversey, second among four others, recorded the death of Antoine Chouinard on
September 25, 1897. Chouinard was described as a 42-year-old Gilmour Lumber
Company sawmill employee killed by accidental injury who resided at Canoe Lake.
The record also says he was a Roman Catholic born in Trenton but does not record
his place of burial. Gilmour Lumber was headquartered in Trenton.
Earlier that same year, on May 25, 1897, James Watson, a co-worker of Chouinard's
at the Gilmour Lumber Company sawmill in the village of Mowat, then populated by
more than 700 person, was killed and buried in a Mowat Cemetery grave his friends
marked with a chiseled headstone. In 1915, the remains of an eight-year old boy
who died of diphtheria, Alexander Hayhurst, was buried there, too. His grave is also
marked a simple headstone.
The reasonable conclusion which can be drawn from the recently discovered record
is that Antoine Chouinard suffered a deadly blow to his left temple in a Gilmour
sawmill accident and was buried in the Mowat Cemetery. Mowat was a company
village. The Gilmour sawmill was its only reason for existence and its closing in
1900 marked the beginning of the end for Mowat. Shannon Fraser did not come with
his wife, Annie, until 1907 to supervise the settling and dismantling of the sawmill. In
1913, they acquired a lease that included the old sawmill kitchen and boarding
house, which they turned into the Mowat Lodge, first visited by Tom Thomson in
1914. By then, Fraser had been named Mowat postmaster and he operated a
Western Union telegraph office there, too.
Only one gravestone stood in Mowat Cemetery when the Frasers arrived in 1900. An
engraved memorial marked the burial of James Watson, age 21, who was killed in a
Gilmour Lumber Company sawmill accident on May 25, 1897. Another chiselled rock
was added in 1915 after the burial of an eight-year boy, Alexander Hayhurst, who
died of black throat diphtheria. Those were the only headstones in the Mowat
Cemetery when Thomson was buried there.
The Globe and Mail of October 10, 1956, however, ran a long story by Don
Delaplante, headlined Long a Mystery of Art World: Body May Answer Riddle of Tom
Thomson's Death. MacGregor reproduced part of the article in his book. The excerpt
he edited ended as follows:
"Some residents think the body may be that of an unidentified lumberjack who
worked for the Gilmour firm many years ago. Mrs. Jean Chittendon said she had
been told there are several unmarked graves adjacent to those of Hayhurst and
That person can now be identified as Antoine Chouinard.
Jean Chittendon was a daughter of the Hayhurst family, which once owned the
cottage on Canoe Lake north of the Tom Thomson Memorial Cairn erected at
Hayhurst Point in 1917, according to resident expert Gaye I. Clemson, who wrote
Algonquin Voices - Selected Stories of Canoe Lake Women. Genealogical research
confirms that it was her brother, Alexander, who was buried in the Mowat Cemetery
when she was fifteen years old.
Nonetheless, among others, Judge Little wrongly believed that Watson and
Hayhurst were the only persons ever buried in the Mowat Cemetery. Little based his
conclusion on no more evidence than the existence of only their two headstones and
the hearsay of Canoe Lake residents since 1917 none of whom were there when
Watson was buried in 1897. If there were other persons buried in an unmarked
grave, such as Antoine Chouinard, Little’s 1956 discovery might have been readily
explained long ago and the conclusion he and others have since reached about the
skeletal remains would be thrown into further doubt as they should be today.
The death record I found using Ancestry.com , a highly regarding website
maintained for the Mormon Church in Utah, would have been available to Dr. Sharpe
in 1956. He apparently never reviewed the annual report of deaths from the Division
of Murchison, District of Nippissing, for the year ending December 31, 1897 from
which James Watson's death is missing and Antoine Chouinard's death is
If Chouinard, a 42-year-old Gilmour Lumber Company sawmill worker living at
Canoe Lake was, indeed, buried in an unmarked grave nearby his co-worker,
James Watson, and it was his body found by Judge Little in 1956, there's nothing left
to question about the actions and motives of Franklin W. Churchill and we can also
reasonably conclude that the skeletal remains found in 1956 belonged not to an
unknown Indian as proposed by Dr. Sharpe but rather to Antoine Chouinard.
If so, the rantings made by William T. Little against Churchill in his 1970 book, can
be laughed off as arising from an amateurish sleuth and nasty bully. Furthermore,
the recent facial re-construction drawn for Roy MacGregor's new book from
photographs of the skull found in 1956, could just as easily depict the 42-year old
Chouinard as it might the 40-year old Thomson.
The possibility Chouinard's body was buried elsewhere could be the subject of
further research. He is not recorded in the burial records of the St. Peters Catholic
Church or the Mount Calvary Roman Catholic Cemetery in Trenton, Ontario, where
his death record says he was born and where the Gilmour firm was headquartered.
In the 1881 Canadian census, a person named Antoine Chouinard, age 25, and his
wife, Emelie, were recorded as living in Trenton with several children. He is
described as a laborer. The 1871 census suggests that his father was also named
Antoine Chouinard, born in 1852.
In 1936, an 84-year old man named Antoine Chouinard died and was buried at the
Mount Calvary Roman Catholic Cemetery. He is the only Antoine Chouinard who is
buried in any Trenton cemetery.
The 1871 Census records another Antoine Chouinard, age 17, living with his
parents, Francis and Virgina Chouinard in Trenton. So far, I cannot confirm which of
either of these two younger men or another may have gone to work for the Gilmour
firm. Nor can I find any record in Trenton of their death and burial.
A researcher searching a burial record for the man killed in Mowat would want to
begin by considering all that was necessary to arrange and transport his remains
elsewhere on his daily earning of $1.50 because rigorously doing so helps in
finding historical records. Considering the burial in Mowat Cemetery of James
Watson just a few months before his death, success in finding a burial record
elsewhere seems unlikely.