A Footnote Missing in
Canadian Art History
While visiting Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake on an autumn trip in 1956, thirty-one year old
Graham Matthews said he heard that somebody had dug up what was believed to be Tom
Thomson’s grave in the old Mowat Cemetery. He and others went to see for themselves.
“There it was a four or five foot deep hole still open,” he told me over the telephone in early
June, 2011. “I jumped in and found this casket handle. I also saw what looked like an old
blue sock there in the bottom.”
I was incredulous, looking at an eight by ten-inch photograph of Mr Matthews holding a two-
and-a-half inch, decoratively-carved silver and brass-colored casket handle end cap. It looked
more like a drapery rod ornament rather than part of a casket handle.
“Little’s book said they covered over what they found with a few old shingles and went to notify
the authorities. When was this exactly?” I asked.
Today, I know that this part of the story began sometime on Sunday, September 30 1956,
when William T. Little, superintendent of the reform school in Brampton, Ontario, and Jack
Eastaugh, a public school principal, persuaded Leonard Gibson, a long time Canoe Lake
resident, and Frank Braught, a retired Guelph school teacher, to join them in digging Tom
Thomson’s grave to see what was there.
In 1973, I purchased my copy of Little’s book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, about the national
sensation created by what they found. It was my first canoe trip to Algonquin Park. The
paperback binding of Little’s book first published and printed in 1970 has since completely
fallen apart because I have opened it so often doing research or writing about the case.
On page 110 of his book, Little pointedly noted that it was a Friday in October of 1956 when
he drove up to Algonquin Park for the weekend with Eastaugh, a friend from boyhood when
they spent their summers at Camp Ahmek. He made his discovery two days later on Sunday.
That should have been my first clue something was wrong with his telling of the story
because later on page 138 he reproduced part of an official provincial government report
saying provincial investigators arrived at the gravesite on Friday, October 5, 1956 to see what
Little found, which is, at least, inconsistent.
Little was more than careless about the date of his weekend trip.
By 1970, Little was a provincial court judge assigned to the family division of York County,
Ontario, for which no professional legal degree was required of which he had none contrary
to what many have wrongly assumed over the last 40 years, including Professor Sherrill
Grace of the University of British Columbia in her 2004 book, Inventing Tom Thomson: From
Biographical Fictions to Fictional Autobiographies and Reproductions and myself.
Tom Thomson is Canada’s great landscape painter. When he drowned at age 39, in Canoe
Lake on July 8, 1917, he left behind not only at least thirty-three brilliantly colored and
magically beautiful eight by ten-inch oil painting on wooden panels of his last spring in
Algonquin Park. On the day his body was recovered, July 16, Chief Ranger Mark Robinson
seized these paintings from the cottage of Thomson’s close friend, Winnifred Trainor, age
32, who probably was a couple of months pregnant with their child.
I wrote Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring in 2005 and I have continued to
research and write about Tom Thomson’s story for this website ever since. This essay tells
about what actually happened in 1956 at a place of simple beauty and special reverence a
pleasant walk from the northwest shore of Canoe Lake across the old Gilmour Road,
following along an abandoned railroad siding and up the hillside into the woods to the
In 1973, my first wife in the canoe’s bow and Judge Little’s book in my backpack, we paddled
up Canoe Lake into Potter Creek, past the overgrown ruins of the Gilmour Lumber Company
town called Mowat, where as many of 500 people lived and worked in 1897, most of them
Most of the written history available today about Mowat begins after the Gilmour firm went
bankrupt and abandoned its many railroad sidings and sawmill served by a two-story
hospital, stables for fifty teams of horses, a large warehouse, cookhouse and a variety of
other storehouses, offices, farm buildings, and shacks. Little evidence of these structures
remains visible except the cemetery with its weathered grey wooden picket-type fence
surrounding a large and gnarly, old birch tree standing over two very old chiseled grave
The earliest granite marker contains all of what is known about James Watson. The stone
says he was age 21, a sawmill worker who died on May 25, 1897. “Engraved gratis by a
comrade, D.W. McCain” he carved across the bottom.
In Algonquin Story (1963) Audrey Saunders said “several plots” in the graveyard, “dated from
the time when lumbermen were operating in that region.” Ottelyn Addison’s book Early Days
in Algonquin Park (1974) said that when Watson was buried the cemetery was fenced into
two plots – only one containing his grave.
Mrs. Addison’s father was the chief park ranger, Mark Robinson, stationed at Canoe Lake
when Tom Thomson drowned. She said that when eight-year-old Alexander Hayhurst died of
diphtheria in 1915 medical authorities refused permission to transport his body home and
he was buried outside the original plot.
About 1940, according to S. Bernard Shaw’s Canoe Lake Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and
Other Mysteries, (1996) the fence was rebuilt, enclosing the Watson and Hayhurst grave
markers. Another essay on this website, Antoine Chouinard: An Earlier Mowat Burial?
describes my recent discovery of a long overlooked Ontario government death record that
may explain what these earlier historical researchers wrote about the cemetery having at
three plots and asserting that other bodies were buried in the vicinity.
One of those researchers was Blodwen Davies. In correspondence dated July 27, 1931,
she wrote to Ontario's attorney general. She said, "The burying place at Canoe Lake is not a
consecrated cemetery. There have been four or five buried there; there is only one small
enclosure with a couple of grave in it. Thomson's grave was outside the enclosure."
The old death registration says Chouinard was a forty-two year old lumber mill worker
living at Canoe Lake when he died of accidental injuries on September 25, 1897, a few
months following the death of his co-worker, James Watson, for whom, incidentally, there is
no official government death record verifying what was carved into his gravestone.
Chouinard's place of burial was not part of the death record.
When Judge Little and his three companions decided to try digging-up Tom Thomson’s
grave in the Mowat Cemetery they were risking the very real possibility of unearthing
Chouinard’s remains if he had been buried there as seems possible. As reform school
superintendent in 1956 when he led the desecration of Mowat Cemetery, Judge Little may
have had charge of boys institutionalized for vandalizing cemeteries.
“They rationalized any concerns about the legalities of opening a grave on the grounds
that, officially, no body should be there,” wrote Mr. Shaw because two days after Thomson’s
body was buried his family hired an undertaker to have it exhumed, placed into a copper-
lined casket and shipped by train for reburying in Owen Sound.
Dr. Goldwin W. Howland, M.D., had found the body floating in the lake on Monday, July 16,
badly bloated and rapidly decomposing. The body was eventually brought to shore, stripped
of clothing, examined by Dr. Howland for signs of foul play, embalmed, placed into a burial
shroud, pushed into a wooden casket and buried somewhere in the Mowat Cemetery on the
late afternoon Tuesday, July 17, in a grave dug by Thomson’s friends, park guides George
Rowe and Lawrie Dickson.
On Wednesday evening, an undertaker from Huntsville arrived with instructions to exhume
the body for shipment home to Thomson’s family in Owen Sound. Franklin W. Churchill
brought with him a copper-lined coffin that could be sealed with solder as required by law
before its loading on the Thursday evening train. Churchill and the casket were met at the
Canoe Lake station by Robinson, to whom he explained his instructions and, importantly,
that he had reburied the original casket after removing Thomson’s body.
A book privately published in 1935 by Blodwen Davies, Tom Thomson: The Man Who Sought
Truth and Beauty in the Wilderness, the first biography of Tom Thomson, questioned
whether Churchill actually had exhumed the body. She never explained why she thought so
Miss Davies wrote:
“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.”
By 1956, retired Mark Robinson, who had been telling campfire tales about the Tom
Thomson story at Camp Ahmek for at least twenty-six years, raised questions he never
adequately explained. 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
So, armed with shovels and axes, Judge Little, who had heard many of Robinson's stories,
gathered together his macabre crew and went digging in extra-legal search of the original
casket Churchill said was reburied. Judge Little was hoping he might find, in addition,
human bones proving the doubts expressed by Miss Davies and Robinson.
“We knew no other graves had been dug, or burials recorded other than those of the
Hayhurst child, the millhand from Parry Sound, and Tom Thomson,” Little wrote. “We believed
we had been thorough in our work and accurate in our facts regarding the location of the
gravesite and had valid confirmation regarding the number of persons buried on the hillside
since before 1896.”
In his book, Judge Little specifically cited Pete Sauve, George Chubb, Taylor Statten, Mark
Robinson and unnamed others who thought the only burials that had taken place since 1897
were those of Watson and Hayhurst. When his book was published in 1970, all of them were
dead. None of them had been there in 1897 when Watson, and, perhaps, Chouinard, were
buried. Sauve probably didn’t arrive until just after the First World War around 1914 to work as
a camp cook. MacGregor said Taylor Statten believed he had been there since the early
Chubb came to Mowat in about 1915. He had worked as storekeeper and postal
deliveryman at the Mowat Lodge. Taylor Statten did not buy his cottage on Canoe Lake until
Furthermore, to the contrary and never addressed by Judge Little, the Globe & Mail of October
10, 1956, ran a long story by Don Delaplante, headlined Long a Mystery of Art World: Body
May Answer Riddle of Tom Thomson's Death. It said some Canoe Lake residents thought an
unidentified lumberjack who worked for the Gilmour firm many years ago had been buried
“Mrs. Jean Chittendon said she had been told there are several unmarked graves adjacent to
those of Hayhurst and Watson,” the newspaper reported.
She was fifteen years old when her brother, Alexander, was buried there in 1915. No other
person was better suited to know if there were other burials. Of course, today the significant
possibility is that the death record I recently found identifies the Gilmour lumberjack Miss
Chittendon said she heard had been buried in an unmarked grave in the Mowat Cemetery.
Mrs. Chittendon died in 1960.
Judge Little said he and Eastaugh stayed at the Bay Cabin on Wigwam Bay on Canoe Lake
that long weekend. They went over to the Mowat Cemetery to paint and explore on Saturday,
stopping by to peer into the cabin of Winnifred Trainor, before returning for the evening to
Camp Ahmek nearby their cabin. While there, they persuaded two others, Leonard Gibson
and Frank Braught, to go out with them back to the cemetery the next morning.
On a Sunday, he said, Judge Little’s crew dug first a six-foot deep hole just north of the picket
fence on a line reaching about twenty-feet north into heavy brush and large evergreens.
Finding nothing, they moved several feet north with identical results. Searching out the
ground now twelve to fifteen feet away from Watson’s gravestone, under a thirty-foot tall
spruce tree growing in the center, they saw what they judged to be a thirty-inch wide
depression extending in both directions. Here, digging four and half feet deep with shovels,
picks and axes, they found fragments of wood with beveled edge or a corner mortice.
“Gibby jumped down head first to explore the opening,” Little wrote. “He thrust his hand into
the aperture and pulled out a bone which appeared to be a foot bone of a human body.”
“At last we’ve found the grave and body of Tom Thomson!” shouted Frank.
“We have really hit it!” exclaimed Jack.
Gibby rejoiced. "This is it, fellows!"
What was the immediate reaction reported from Judge Little himself – written, edited,
proofread, and published fourteen years later after he had been made a judge of the
provincial court, and worked with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation production crew on its
1969 documentary and consulted lawyers with whom he worked day-to-day or public
relations experts who were paid by his book publisher, McGraw-Hill Company of Canada
“I was speechless.”
Having adopted the pose of an unbiased, fair and thoughtful man withholding judgment until
all the evidence was presented, William T. Little continued, saying they had to dig out the
spruce tree to fully expose the grave.
Years later, a reliable eyewitness would explain to the contrary. In fact, Judge Little had
already gone home days before they actually removed the tree when provincial officials
arrived several days later, driving the Camp Ahmek jeep around to the site, an especially
untidy detail that would have wrecked the remainder of Little's completely fabricated narrative
of a careful disinterment.
“We saw the remains of the pine rough box, which had caved in upon an oak casket which in
turn had given way under the pressure of the ground above,” he said. “As a result, the interior
of the casket was filled with earth. The lead-coloured casket handles were in good condition,
as was the metal inscription plate that read, 'Rest in Peace'. No name was inscribed. In the
soil at the end of the coffin was the piece of the heel impression of a woollen sock. There
appeared to be no evidence of any metal pieces that could be related to a body that had a
normal burial – buttons, belt buckle, suspender clips, shoe nails or pieces of clothing. We
saw parts of the casket lining and what appeared to be possibly a cotton or light canvas
In a brief summary of what they found, Judge Little noted carefully that “there were pieces of
cloth that appeared to have enveloped the body and also the distinct impression of the
woollen ribbing of the heel of a sock in the sandy loam at the base of the casket. The wool
itself had long ago decayed and disappeared but the impression in the soil remained quite
clearly. The nails that had held the casket together were of the conventional round type, which
indicated that the casket was made well after the turn of the century.” (Emphasis added.)
"We agreed to notify the proper authorities," he continued. He said they took a left leg bone for
medical examination, covered the remains with tarpaper and completely filled in the grave.
Having cleared of brush and dug and refilled two six-foot deep holes in a steady rain before
finding wooden casket remnants, according to Judge Little's account, sunset must have
been approaching as they returned two-and-half miles to Camp Ahmek.
Judge Little said he knew that Dr. Harry Ebbs, M.D., camp medical director, was staying at his
cottage on Little Wapomeo Island that weekend.
"We found Dr. Ebbs and gathered behind the old cabin built in the early 1920s by the late
Earnest Thompson Seton, the beloved Canadian naturalist," he wrote. "I handed the Doctor
the leg bone we had just disinterred."
Judge Little said Dr. Ebbs returned with them to the gravesite and all agreed that Dr. Ebbs
would notify the proper authorities. Several days later, Little said, provincial police officers and
Dr. Noble Sharpe, M.D., of the Ontario Provincial Criminal Laboratory, came to Canoe Lake.
"The skeletal remains were gathered up and carefully packed," he said.
“The blank metal name plate and some casket handles with wood samples of both the
rough box and casket were also collected,” Little wrote. “These objects were placed in a box
and, after some cursory examination and discussion, prepared for shipment to the crime
laboratory in Toronto.” (Emphasis added.)
Missing from his description of what was taken by the provincial police is the “Rest in Peace”
plate and nowhere in his book does Judge Little mention what happened to that metal plate
or the casket hardware not taken by Dr. Sharpe, whose report mentions his having received a
second plate reading, "At Rest" not mentioned by Judge Little.
Roy MacGregor’s new book, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the
Woman Who Loved Him, provides some answers. Leonard Gibson had already taken home
at least one of the casket handles and the “Rest in Peace” plate, according to MacGregor.
"The thing is, everyone was grabbing memorabilia,” MacGregor told me. “Hugh Statten says
there are several pieces of coffin hardware in a drawer at Taylor Statten.”
MacGregor’s book said he talked with Leonard Gibson on February 4, 1973 and Gibby told a
surprising story about what else he found first reaching into the casket, different in two
important details from Judge Little’s account. He said:
“I felt something so I grabbed a hold of it and pulled it out and it was a foot. And there was still
part of an old blue woollen sock on it. Well, that was fine. We had the grave and he was there,
so we just put a few shingles on top and covered it up again and took the foot with us and
went back to camp.” (Emphasis added.)
Later, Dr. Sharpe’s official report would note that “[p]art of a sock remained on one foot.”
(Emphasis added.) Neither Dr. Sharpe’s report nor Judge Little’s or MacGregor’s book
describes what happened to the other foot. Dr. Sharpe sent some of the skeletal remains for
examination by Dr. J. C. Borleen Grant, M.D. Dr. Grant makes no mention of having received
any foot bones. The second foot, at least, is missing from the official medical reports
Furthermore, Judge Little highlighted by his emphatic description that the woolen sock he
saw evidence of "had long ago decayed and disappeared" even though that was directly
contradicted by both Leonard Gibson and Dr. Sharpe
Mr. Matthews told me he was surprised to find the casket handle and an old blue woolen
sock in the bottom of the open grave when he came along but that he could not be sure when
it was that he found them. He described the casket handle as brass-plated lead and looking
quite old. It is hollow inside. The opening was not threaded. Evidently, the casket end cap
would have been fitted over a wooden dowel rod serving as a handle for pallbearers. If so,
the rod had rotted completely away.
What happened to the old blue sock that he saw in the grave?
Mr. Matthews said he didn’t know.
Years later, in 1970, Dr. Sharpe published his recollections of the Thomson investigation in
an article for the Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal. What he had to say raised
"While the question relating to the condition of the surface of the grave site following the first
exhumation cannot now be resolved," Dr. Sharpe wrote. "I must add I remember looking back
as we departed the scene on that October day in 1956 and I was impressed with the tidiness
of the surface. We left very little evidence of the operation in the sandy soil; nothing in fact that
one shower and a slight breeze could not rectify."
Mr. Matthews, of course, remembers the gravesite scene quite differently. MacGregor recently
suggested an explanation -- Judge Little and his friends had not carefully covered the casket
and human remains and refilled the grave before taking the foot bones across Canoe Lake
to Dr. Ebbs.
Mr. Matthews said he was but one of several people that came along to see an open grave in
the Mowat Cemetery into which he jumped down four to four-and-a-half feet finding a piece of
casket hardware and a blue woolen sock. Evidently, there was at least some hours before
Dr. Ebbs went to see the location during which time Mr. Matthews and others descended on
Judge Little should have realized that the grave he had left open had been further disturbed
but he neither mentioned it in his book nor told the Ontario provincial government officials.
Instead, in his book, he created a phony time frame for his discovery as occurring on October
7, at least one week after it actually happened on September 30 and he falsely claimed to
have protected the casket and human remains from tampering, emphasizing that they had
twice covered with tarpaper and refilled the grave -- once before finding, leaving, and again
after visiting there with Dr. Ebbs.
"After covering with tarpaper the decayed and collapsed rough box and casket with its
skeletal remains, we returned to Camp Ahmek, taking with us a left leg bone (tibia) for
medical examination," he wrote on page 126.
That, of course, raises at least two interesting questions. Where in the woods on the
northwest shore of Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in the autumn of 1956 did he get a
sufficient supply of tarpaper to cover more than twelve square feet? It seems more than likely
that he had to search before finding enough tarpaper to bring back with Dr. Ebbs, taking at
least several hours.
However, Judge Little created a different story
"Upon arriving at the newly opened grave, we quickly showed him its location with regard to
the two well-known graves behind the picket fences," Little said on page 127, describing his
return visit with Dr. Ebbs and adding again. "We carefully replaced the tarpaper and covered it
with soil, finally completely filling in the grave pending further study of the contents."
Dr. Ebbs insisted in a taped interview on November 26, 1975 in the park archives, that he
vividly recalled Judge Little's visit because he said it occurred on Canadian Thanksgiving
and that Judge Little and Jack Eastaugh brought him a small box with the bones of a human
foot, interrupting a dinner he was enjoying with the family of Taylor Statten, owner of Camp
Ahmek, who went completely unmentioned from Judge Little's story.
In 1956, Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated on Monday, October 8. In Canadian history
it was once held only once on the first Monday in October and, perhaps, Dr. Ebbs was
himself doing so on Monday, October 1, closing up his cabin for the season. Dr. Ebbs
evidently was confused, nonetheless, about exactly when Judge Little found and then took
him across Canoe Lake to the grave in the swirl of exciting events surrounding Thanksgiving
Day because Dr. Ebbs also returned with government investigators on Friday, October 5.
Regardless, it is otherwise not possible that Judge Little came to him on Canadian
Thanksgiving because the official government investigators had by then already made their
inspection of the gravesite. The October 9, 1956 official report of Corporal A. M. Rogers
specifically says the original dig took place on September 30, 1956. This conclusion is
further confirmed by an interview given by Judge Little for the Globe & Mail article of October
10 already mentioned. It said:
"The discovery was made 10 days ago during a sketching trip by the four men. It was done on
chance, said Mr. Little from his home in Brampton."
Accordingly, I believe that Judge Little did not visit Dr. Ebbs immediately but rather waited at
least until dinner time on Monday, October 1, before bringing him not a leg bone but rather
several pieces of the foot bones found inside an old blue woolen sock by Leonard Gibson,
which was carelessly left in the open grave. Meanwhile, Judge Little and the others spread
the news of what they had discovered on Sunday.
In the fourteen years that he spent before publishing his book, Judge Little worried that his
new status in the legal and law enforcement community of Ontario would be shaken by the
true story of what he actually did and what he allowed to happen.
First, the old blue woolen sock was a key piece of evidence he'd simply ignored in his
excitement. Since then, he'd been trained and required to listen to courtroom testimony that
taught him to demand that police officers protect the crime scene and establish the chain of
evidence in the cases brought to him.
Moreover, he realized that without the old blue woolen sock he never could have convinced
anyone that he recognized the bones of a human foot because he was not medically trained
and experienced so he substituted a leg bone for its more direct and dramatic visual effect on
his reading audience, something he realized as he worked on the two-part 1969 CBC
documentary, Was Tom Thomson Murdered? It was released a year ahead of his book. The
scene he created for Dr. Ebbs is a fictional dandy:
"He took the bone from my hand and stared at it incredulously. Finally, he looked up at me.
'You know very well what it is. This is a human tibia. Where did you get it?'
"Before any of us could answer, his glance took in our dirty clothes and mud-covered shoes,
our shovels and axes leaning against the cabin. 'Have you fellows been digging for Tom
Thomson's grave?' he asked, breaking into a smile.
"'Can you draw any conclusions from this bone?' asked Jack Eastaugh.
"Dr. Ebbs took the bone, matched it against his own left leg, studied it carefully for a minute,
and stated, 'This is, in all probability, the left tibia of a male, approximately my own height.'
Harry Ebbs is a tall, athletic-appearing man, over six feet in height. The four of us watched
and listened while he explained the matching process he was demonstrating."
The scene was not only well-tailored to fit Judge Little's self-justifying belief he had found the
human remains of Tom Thomson, which his book had earlier described as a tall, athletic-
appearing man, over six feet in height but it raised no troublesome questions about how he
failed to guard the crime scene and lost important evidence. Creating such big lies, however,
cannot stand the test of time because of the details leaving flaws that get overlooked in the
telling even by the best of liars.
Of course, in the few months following publication of his book, none of the panelists asked
Judge Little during his October 1970 appearance on CBC's popular Front Page Challenge to
explain the irreconcilable discrepancies between the dates in his book and those in Dr.
And Dr. Ebbs died in 1990 before anyone who knew enough to question him about Judge
Little's different story of how the large tree was removed or how it was Dr. Ebbs recalled
being brought a small box with a few bones of the human foot when Judge Little's book said
it was a left tibia that Dr. Ebbs stood and measured against his own leg.(Corporal Rodger's
report said it was "foot bones and the fibula.")
I further believe that Judge Little left the grave open almost twenty-four hours, probably from
early Sunday evening until his friends returned with Dr. Ebbs on late Monday afternoon,
during which time Mr. Matthews and at least some other curiosity seekers arrived, taking
souvenirs of the casket hardware and an old blue woolen sock holding the DNA of its owner
that today might be scientifically analyzed.
Judge Little and his friends caused who knows what damage to the skeletal remains when
they jumped in and out of the grave and dug around on their hands and knees like the
privileged boys some of them once were who's parents sent them to Taylor's Statten's
camps on Canoe Lake every summer.
Finally, there is, indeed, a footnote missing in Canadian art history.