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In the research and writing of Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring, the
story of Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson’s drowning in Algonquin
Provincial Park’s Canoe Lake IN 1917, his older brother George Thomson
emerged for me as a particularly remarkable man, who played a pivotal role in
shaping how the wider family of Canada came to embrace artist, woodsman
and guide, Tom Thomson, as brother, colleague and discoverer of the nation’s
spirit.

George moved from rural Ontario to urban Seattle as a young man, married and
suffered the death by diabetes of his wife shortly after the birth of their son.
George was a very successful businessman and educator, graduated from law
school, moved across country to New York and Connecticut to study painting and
certainly knew more about his younger brother and what happened than anyone
else because he made two trips to Canoe Lake following the drowning.  Before
saying anything more, I should provide some necessary background.

Tom paddled away from the Mowat Lodge dock at 12:50 p.m., July 8, 1917. Little
more than two hours later, Martin H. Blecher, Jr., and his sister, passed his
overturned canoe southeast of Little Wapomeo Island. When Thomson failed to
return by July 10, Park Superintendent George W. Bartlett ordered a wide-ranging
search and Mowat Lodge owner Shannon Fraser sent a telegram to the
Thomson family in Owen Sound, which read: “Tom’s canoe found upside down.
No trace of Tom since Sunday.”   

George was visiting and the family called upon him to immediately depart for
Canoe Lake. He arrived on July 12 and returned to Owen Sound on July 14, the
search for his brother appearing hopeless. When Tom Thomson’s body was
found southeast of Little Wapomeo Island on July 16, Fraser dispatched another
telegram to the family. George arranged
with Winnifred Trainor for an undertaker
from Huntsville to meet him there to prepare the body for shipment home in a
c
opper-lined casket, which could be soldered shut. In the meantime, Canoe
Lake residents buried the body in the Mowat Cemetery and a coroner conducted
an inquest into the drowning. When George arrived on July 18, he directed the
body’s late night exhumation by the undertaker. George departed with Tom’s
casket on an evening train, July 19.
It was re-buried in the Leith Cemetery the
next day
.

Yet, when Judge William Little t
alked with George several times about Tom's
story for his 1970 book,
The Tom Thomson Mystery, Little came away persuaded
that George
had never discussed the details of Tom’s death with anyone during
his first trip from July 12 to 14 at Canoe Lake and that George made only one trip
there, never returning to bring the body home on July 18 and 19. What George
evidently persuaded Judge Little to write is completely debunked by all of the
direct and circumstantial evidence.

Hanging over those interviews was Judge Little’s digging up of Tom’s Mowat
Cemetery grave site with three friends in 1956, where they found a body. This
sensational discovery raised a serious possibility that George Thomson was
duped by the undertaker into taking an empty casket home. Doubts remained
despite the conclusion of forensic experts that the body found was not that of
Tom Thomson but instead, a younger, shorter, native American. Certainly, Judge
Little pressed George to agree to an official opening of the Thomson family plot
at the Leith Cemetery.            

In February 1957, when he sai
d he conducted his first interview with George,
Judge Little was a reform school superintendent. By 197
0, when his book was
published he was a Judge of the Provincial Court (Family Division) of York
County, Ontario, a position for which formal admission to the practice of law was
not required. Sherrill Grace observes in her book,
Inventing Tom Thomson,
“Little . . . knows very well how to marshal the evidence and he begins his case
with the mystery of Thomson’s death and the premise of foul play.”

George, too, was legally traine
d, having graduated in 1901 with the first law school class offered at the Un
iversity of Washington in Seattle. There is no evidence he ever actually practi
ced law. However, in Seattle he managed a very successful business school fr
om 1892 to 1906 when he moved to New York City and later New Haven, where
he studied painting and worked as a
club manager and bookkeeper. In 1926, he
returned home to Owen Sound where he came to be revered, teaching and
painting landscapes.

I struggled to understand how these two men could have gotten the story so
wrong until I realized that it was Judge Little’s belief that Thomson’s body was
never removed from Canoe Lake, his zeal to exhume the casket in Leith and
George’s fear it was empty that resulted in the erroneous story told in
The Tom
Thomson Mystery.
George must have used all of his skills as an advocate for his
brother and himself during these interviews to convince Judge Little that he knew
nothing about the drowning or the exhumation.  Why?

Because George Thomson faced humiliation and disgrace among his family
and friends if he acknowledged his personal knowledge of events surrounding
the drowning and his role in the Canoe Lake exhumation if the government
ordered disinterment of the Leith grave site and his brother’s body was missing.  
That makes sense only if George had never identified the body exhumed at
Canoe Lake and the family never opened the casket at Owen Sound. Part of
Judge Little’s thinking on what George Thomson told him is suggested,
perhaps, by a passage in his book:

“The mystery of Tom Thomson’s death and the location of his final resting place
resembled a great jig-saw puzzle. It had taken over twenty-five years to collect the
pieces with the assistance of friends, co-workers and associates throughout the
North, particularly those closely connected with Canoe Lake. Now the many
pieces seemed to fit into place to reveal a clearer picture of what had taken place
during those final days after Tom disappeared on his ill-fated fishing expedition.”

Sorting through what George Thomson could and should have known and what
he said and did was probably was more difficult for Judge Little than it was for
me. In writing his book, Judge Little was trying to put together the results of his
investigation of historical facts, records and interviews for a story in which he
was a key player and witness. I think, therefore, that his judgment was clouded.  
Here are two of many examples from Judge Little’s book.

George Thomson’s first visit to Canoe Lake gets scant mention by Judge Little.
He describes George arrival on the July 12 evening train. “After discussing his
brother’s disappearance with Mark [Robinson], who met him at the station,
George examined his brother’s canoe and talked with guides and residents of
the area,” Little said. That’s all he writes about what George learned. Later, he
adds a brief mention of his departure. “On July 14, George Thomson, in
preparation for departure on the
evening train, gathered up a number of Tom’s
sketches
that were among his few belongings.” (Emphasis added.) Several
details here are noteworthy.         

Judge Little,  wrongly, be
lieved that there were only two trains passing Canoe
Lake each day – a westbound morning train and an eastbound evening train.   I
discuss this further in footnote 6 to Chapter 3 of
Algonquin Elegy.  Yet, Judge
Little wrote that George Thomson, who he, again,  wrongly, believed lived in New
York City,
inexplicably arrived on the eastbound evening train. I have remarked in
other essays about Judge Little’s tampering with the historical record. He was
very careful to make sure George’s arrival and departure matched up with his
theory of what happened.  Judge Little accepted George’s story that he arrived on
an eastbound evening train without questioning him further or asking from
where he was coming.

This is all
the more perplexing because Mark Robinson’s journal for July 14 notes: “Mr. Tho
mpson left for his home this
morning.” (Emphasis added.)  When reproducin
g Robinson’s journal as Appendix Nine to his book, Judge Little changed this ent
ry to say: “George Thomson left on the
evening train.”  He did so, believing
that George was going home to New York City.   Furthermore, on July 19,
Robinson noted: “Mr. Churchill undertaker of Huntsville, Ont., arrived last night an
d to
ok up the body of Tom Thomson artist under direction of Mr. Geo Thompson of C
onn. U.S.A. The body went out on
evening train to Owen Sound to be buried in
the family plot. “(Emphasis added.). In Appendix Nine,  Little also re-wrote t
his excerpt to say: “Mr. Churchill, undertaker, from Huntsville arrived last n
ight (8
P.M.) and took up the body, upon the direction of George Thomson. The body
went out on the evening train to Owen
Sound. [In all probability it was the
morning train – westbound -- as the evening train was eastbound. W.T.L.]  
(Emphasis added.)

In addition, Appendix Three of Judge Little’s book is an edited transcript of
remarks made by Mark Robinson about Tom Thomson in October, 1953. In it,
Robinson says that he found about 40 of Tom’s sketches in Trainor’s cottage on
July 16. Judge Little certainly knew enough, therefore, to question George further
about any sketches gathered up on July 14.  

Following Judge Little’s discovery of a body in Tom’s grave site, newspapers
interviewed the undertaker, then seventy-three old Franklin W. Churchill, who told
an outrageously muddled story of being instructed to exhume the body by
Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies, who was only nine years old in 1917. “I
transferred the remains into a metal box, which I could seal,” Churchill was
quoted as saying by the Regina
Leader-Post on October 12, 1956. “The empty
coffin and rough-box were put back into the grave and the grave was filled again.
We placed the metal box with the body in a coffin and shipped it to Owen Sound,
as Miss Davies had requested.
One of Mr. Thomson’s brothers accompanied the
coffin on the train to Owen Sound
.” (Emphasis added.)

Judge Little pummels Churchill without mercy over the next three pages,
completely demolishing everything Churchill said, including his recollection that
one of Tom’s brothers accompanied the coffin away from Canoe Lake, which
ought to have, instead, raised a red flag of caution. Nonetheless, Judge Little
then puts his prize witness on the stand.

“George Thomson told me in 1956, that he had instructed the Huntsville
undertaker, Mr. Churchill, to exhume the body of his brother and ship the closed
casket to Owen Sound,” Judge Little said. “George Thomson explained to me
that his instructions respecting the transfer of the body had been wired from his
home, which at that time was in New York City.”

What Judge Little did is to make a series of crucial mis-judgments, completely
disbelieving Churchill while accepting everything George said. First, it is
apparent that Judge Little never asked George Thomson how he learned that the
body had been found. Second, had he asked, he might have also questioned
how George knew the body had already been buried. Third, unexplained by
Judge Little is how George located Churchill. Fourth, Judge Little had the
evidence of Mark Robinson’s journal which noted that George Thomson was
living in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1917. Fifth, Thomson’s obituary in the
Owen
Sound Times
on July 20, 1917, reported that George Thomson was
accompanying the body from Canoe Lake. Why, therefore, did Judge Little accept
wholesale the truthfulness of what he says George Thomson told him?     

Many years ago, in a legal brief for a case involving personal property taxation of
a cable television company, I directly accused a witness of lying  about the
company’s accounting methods – a subject about which the difference between
lying and telling the truth is unusually murky. Company lawyers were
understandably outraged and I learned a hard lesson in the aftermath.  When
deciding on the truthfulness of a witness such as George Thomson, a lawyer or
a judge must first put himself into George’s shoes to see things from his point of
view. It seems to me that Judge Little never did so in considering what George
said.

I so admired and identified with George Thomson that doing so was easy for me
and I think that my judgments, therefore, withstand close scrutiny. While I believe
that George would admit only that he intentionally steered Judge Little to
erroneous conclusions Little reached himself, George never would agree with
what I say in
Algonquin Elegy about what he knew and thought about Tom’s
drowning. My friend, Roy MacGregor, a Tom Thomson expert and national
columnist for the
Globe & Mail  has reminded me time and again, “Exactly what
happened will never be known, and in many ways this has become the true
beauty of the Tom Thomson story.”
George Thomson --
Distinguished Witness