On January 14, 1977, an Algonquin Park bird expert stumbled upon evidence that
Winnifred Trainor was pregnant with his child when Canada’s most famous
landscape painter, Tom Thomson, drowned in the Park Canoe’s Canoe Lake in
Ontario on July 8, 1917. As part of a project to collect tape-recorded interviews with
people familiar with the human history of Algonquin Park, then 30-year park naturalist
Ron Pittaway was assigned over the winter season to interview, among 75 others, a
very elderly Mrs. Daphne Crombie at her Toronto home.
She was one of the few persons still alive who was staying at the Mowat Lodge
during Tom Thomson’s last spring. Mrs. Crombie and her husband, Lt. Robert
Crombie of the Canadian Royal Engineers, spent the winter of 1917 there as he
recuperated from consumption (tuberculosis) in the Park’s fresh clean, cold air. Each
day, she put her husband out under a blanket as recommended for his recovery and,
among other distractions, watched Thomson paint.
Park Ranger Mark Robinson’s journal, the most reliable written record of daily events
during Thomson's last spring, records that Lt. and Mrs. Crombie left Mowat Lodge on
May 31, 1917. She told Pittaway that she returned in November 1917. She and her
husband probably stayed all winter of 1917-1918. During this visit, Mrs. Shannon
Fraser, co-owner of the Mowat Lodge, told her a story Mrs. Crombie later said she
repeated in Toronto to Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.D., wealthy ophthalmologist and
Thomson art patron.
Pittaway’s interview was routinely transcribed and filed away in Algonquin Park
Museum Archives, where, a few months later, a bright, young journalist researching
an article in the Archives for The Canadian magazine and also working on a novel
about Tom Thomson’s death, immediately realized the interview as sensationally
new. That journalist was Roy MacGregor, who today is a national columnist for the
Globe & Mail and a winner last year of the country’s highest civilian award, The Order
The Order of Canada website says: “One of our most gifted storytellers, Roy
MacGregor is renowned for evoking the subtle nuances of our Canadian identity in
his columns and books. For more than 30 years, he has covered everything from
news to politics to sports for newspapers such as the Toronto Star, the Ottawa
Citizen and the Globe and Mail. His insightful columns have taught us about our
country, as he guides us through Canada's out-of-the-way places, rural areas, small
towns and Aboriginal communities. Readers of all ages have also been captivated by
his passionate love for hockey and for our geography, the inspiration behind many of
his books, such as A Life in the Bush and the Screech Owl mystery series for
What gave MacGregor greater insight than Pittaway was that he is the great nephew
of Winnifred Trainor. His great uncle, Dr. Robert R. McCormick, married Winnie’s
younger sister, Marie. During the writing of Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last
Spring, I frequently corresponded with him and he offered me invaluable advice,
guidance and encouragement as well as the blurb, which appears on the back
cover. Especially helpful to me since then – but not before publication – was his
warning that most people, who become gripped by Tom Thomson’s story and
undertake its investigation in any depth, come away thinking they have figured it out
and that they own it. This essay is humbled by his personal experience and advice.
Rumors that Winnie and Tom were secretly engaged had circulated ever since his
drowning as first reported by Ottelyn Addison in 1969 and Judge William T. Little in
1970. Pittaway asked Mrs. Crombie a simple question.
“Could you tell me about Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor?”
Mrs. Crombie’s immediate response would have ignited a fire under anyone familiar
with the myths and legends of Tom Thomson’s story.
“I could start in by Annie and I having a walk, and about the letter she had read and
about Winnifred’s desire to come up the following week. She said, ‘Please, Tom, you
must get a new suit because we’ll have to be married.’ This came right from the
mouth of the horse, if you will. She read this letter you see. Anyway, she did come up
and when she came up, Tom had been drowned in the lake.” (Emphasis Added.)
This essay will focus only on this stunning first part of Pittaway’s interview with Mrs.
Crombie and other evidence found by MacGregor and me, from which it can be
concluded that Winnie Trainor, indeed, was pregnant with Tom Thomson’s child
when he drowned on July 8, 1917. Such evidence needs to be put into its proper
historical context and, then, tested as reliable even if circumstantial and hearsay. A
researcher and writer of historical events must sort out such things routinely and
readers should be skeptical of such judgments.
In summary, Roy MacGregor found in the “Personals” column of the Huntsville
Forester mention that Winnifred and her mother had returned to their home there on
November 12, 1917, after spending several weeks in North Ontario. Further down in
that same column, it was reported that they had left for Philadelphia, where they
would spend the winter. The column did not record their return until Easter of 1918.
MacGregor added that the family then moved north to Kearney, Ontario, where they
stayed until the death of her father, Hugh Trainor, in 1932. “Only then did Winnifred
Trainor return to Huntsville to live the remaining thirty years of her life . . . .”
The first test of such evidence is to check the menstrual cycle and gestation period
against a calendar. Ms. Trainor left Mowat on May 25 and may not have returned until
July 17, as reported by Rose Thomas in another Pittaway interview. If the letter
reported by Mrs. Crombie suggests, as some believe, that Winnie knew she was
carrying Thomson’s child at least a week ahead of July 8-17, 1917, then she must
have become impregnated before May 25, probably late April or early May and missed
one, more likely, two menstrual periods. Otherwise, Tom would have received her
plea as hollow if not untrue. If true, by November 1917 she would have begun to show
(the fundus reaching her navel) and she would have delivered a child in February
1918. Easter was April 22, 1918.
MacGregor explained that the Trainor’s had no relatives living in Philadelphia and that
his uncle, later a physician, and aunt, who studied nursing, and lived in upstate New
York, would have known where to send Winnie if she was pregnant. My own historical
research suggested no particular reason why Winnie would have chosen
Philadelphia to give up a child other than to put distance between her home in
Huntsville and the shame of an unwed mother. No records were kept of the birth of
children at homes for unwed mothers at the turn of the century. What happened to
them in those days was disgraceful.
So, the menstrual cycle, gestation period and calendar shows that it is possible
Winnie Trainor was pregnant with Thomson’s child, departed Huntsville when it
would have been apparent to others, and returned following what was only a slightly
longer than usual recovery period after childbirth, although the some women of the
time spent three to four weeks in bed convalescing.
Upon learning of Pittaway’s interview, MacGregor went to talk with Mrs. Crombie
himself at her Toronto apartment. In his October 15, 1977 article for The Canadian
magazine, he described her as a tiny, stooped, remarkably bright woman, nearing 90
years old. “Now I’m only telling things I’m absolutely sure of,” she cautioned him. “But
this is the Gospel truth. Annie told me the letter said, ‘Please, Tom, you must get a
new suit because we’ll have to get married.’” (Emphasis added.)
Remarkably, those are almost the exact words recorded by Pittaway months before
MacGregor talked with her. Joan Murray interviewed Mrs. Crombie six years earlier.
“All I can add is that, when I interviewed Crombie about Thomson in 1971, she was a
careful witness. She did not seek notoriety for her version of Thomson’s death.
Indeed, she did not mention one word about it, though, of course, as a serious art
scholar, I did not ask.”
What’s peculiar is that neither did Ron Pittaway. He asked an opened-end question.
“Could you tell me about Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor?” To Pittaway, she
immediately divulged what Annie Fraser said she stumbled upon in Thomson’s
Mowat Lodge room. Why, then, did she not tell her story to Joan Murray as she said
she had in 1918 to Dr. MacCallum?
In Mrs. Crombie's interview with Pittaway she said, “I don’t know what happened after
they picked him out of the water because I wasn’t there. I do know that we were there
shortly before that, and I went down to MacCallum. The first thing that MacCallum said
was you don’t think he committed suicide, do you? I said utter bosh rubbish. He was
getting all excited about his paintings because they were being recognized. He told
me with big round eyes that he’d just sold one to the government for $500.”
Mrs. Crombie certainly met Dr. MacCallum when he visited Thomson at the Mowat
Lodge on May 24 and she probably looked him up in Toronto to seek his
help selling a Thomson painting that today’s art dealers would describe as very
valuable. It was a rare, personally signed ten by eight-inch oil on wood painting,
Path Behind Mowat Lodge. Thomson gave it to her that last spring of his life.
Otherwise, when, where, why and how she looked him up in Toronto would be
difficult to understand, especially considering the fact that the full story she gave
Pittaway and MacGregor involved not only Winnie’s pregnancy but of a fight between
Annie’s husband, Shannon Fraser, and Thomson over money Fraser owed him
“because he had to go get a new suit.” She said Fraser struck a blow and Thomson
fell, striking his head on a fire grate, knocking him unconscious.
“Shannon Fraser was terrified that he was dead. I believe that Annie helped him pack
the canoe and he went off into the lake with Tom’s body because she always helped
him pack his canoe quite often,” Mrs. Crombie said. “My conception is that he took
Tom’s body and . . . dropped it in the lake. That’s how he died.” (Emphasis Added.)
Dr. MacCallum might have responded as she said he did to a rumor about Winnie
Trainor’s pregnancy but the full tale would have brought an exclamation not of suicide
but rather of murder. What would she remember 60 years later -- suicide or murder?
Neither Mrs. Crombie nor Dr. MacCallum ever informed park rangers or provincial
police of a murder accusation. So, I do not believe that Mrs. Crombie said anything
more to Dr. MacCallum than repeat Annie Fraser’s rumor of Winnie Trainor’s
possible pregnancy. What she told Pittaway and MacGregor about a fight is but one of
many possibilities conceived by her and many others over the previous 60 years.
Since writing the book, I have convinced myself that Winnie Trainor did, indeed, write
such a letter to Tom Thomson, from which Annie Fraser implied she was pregnant
with his child. The closest I can get to verifying this is a letter written by Thomson
brother-in-law Tom Harkness, executor of Tom’s estate, to Dr. MacCallum on
November 3, 1917. “I at last received the burial order from the coroner at North Bay,
and I am going to write him about the letters produced at the inquiry.” (Emphasis
If contents of the letter Annie read were raised at the coroner’s inquest conducted by
Dr. Arthur E. Ranney, M.D., late into the night on July 17, 1917, it failed to upset his
verdict that Thomson’s death was by accidental drowning. However, legally and
publicly drawing such an implication from the vaguely- worded letter would have
devastated not only for Winnie Trainor's father, who was among those present at the
inquest, but the entire Mowat community. A terrible social stigma had to be carried by
an unwed mother.
Nonetheless, I have often asked myself why Hugh Trainor was called upon to testify
and what he was asked and what he said. He may have participated in the search for
Thomson's body and viewed its condition along with many others but what could he
testify to of any significance except his daughter's relationship with Thomson?
Robinson said he recovered at least 33 of Thomson's painting from the Trainor
cottage on July 16. Most all of Thomson's other personal property was missing.
Perhaps, he was asked about how and why these last spring sketches came to be
stored there or the whereabouts of Thomson's other property.
Of more interest might be a more sensitive line of inquiry. Winnifred Trainor had
returned to Mowat and was present at the earlier afternoon burial on July 17. She
traveled to Canoe Lake with the daughter of her neighbor, Dr. Terry. They boarded the
next westbound train for Huntsville immediately following the funeral. I suggest that
they hurriedly left to avoid any possibility that she could be asked at the inquest about
rumors of her pregnancy.
I believe so because Mark Robinson's journal entry on July 17, 1917 said: "I reported
to Supt. Bartlett by phone and he ordered him buried which we carried out at the 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."(Emphasis added.)
I earlier concluded that he mischievously used a small "t". That may not have been
the case because Robinson's handwritten "T" and "t" are indistinguishable and he
frequently capitalized many words in mid-sentence at seeming random. (A clueless
Ottelyn Addison and Judge Little rewrote the phrase as "Mrs. Terry.") Nonetheless, I
still believe that what Mark Robinson wrote was not only a very clever pun playfully
inserted in Thomson lore but a wink and a nod to future Thomson researchers that
Winnie took the "mystery" of his death away with her on the evening train.
Was Winnie Trainor pregnant?
MacGregor’s original book, Shorelines, notes that her physician, Dr. Wilford T.
Pocock, MD, doubted that she had ever been pregnant. In 1920, Dr. Pocock set up a
medical practice in Kearney, where the Trainor family lived. However, among all the
possibilities, pregnancy best explains a long winter trip to Philadelphia. Dr. Pocock,
however, bound by the patient-doctor privilege and the fact that he administered her
estate, was certainly an unavailable if not inadmissible and unreliable witness to
contradict anyone's conclusion that Winnifred Trainor was pregnant with Tom
Thomson’s child when he drowned on July 8, 1917, in Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake.
I now believe that Mark Robinson wanted us to know he believed Winnie Trainor was,
indeed, pregnant with Tom Thomson's child and that the inquest heard evidence of
Winnie's letter pleading for their marriage. That probably better explains then anything
else the complaint recorded by Mark Robinson in his journal the following day. He
wrote, “There is considerable adverse comment regarding the taking of evidence
among the residents.” With what were they upset?
The likely possibility is raised by Dr. Gregory Klages, Research Director of the
Canadian Mysteries website where he wrote: "In a letter to Fraser, written December
25, 1917, George Thomson states that the testimony Fraser and his wife made to the
coroner – that Thomson committed suicide – was groundless. Could the adverse
comment Robinson notes on July 18 . . .have anything to do with Fraser’s testimony,
and the suggestion that Thomson committed suicide?"
I can answer that question with confidence.
Nothing else could have generated more upset in the close-knit community of Mowat
than hearsay evidence at the inquest asking the coroner to conclude that an
unmarried woman's handwritten plea for marriage made a few days before because
of her pregnancy prompted the father's suicide by drowning in the cold waters of
Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917.
A 1966 letter by Thomson friend and painter, A.Y. Jackson said: "D[r. James]
MacCallum said they believed it was suicide and they brought in a verdict of
accidental drowning [at the inquest on July 17, 1917] to make it easier for the family."
It should be apparent that the official verdict made it easier not only for the family of
Tom Thomson but also for Winnifred Trainor and it would leave for future historical
researchers to decide if the key to solving the mystery of his death went out on the
And the mystery went
out on the evening train