Dr. Howland's Reports:
Left or Right?
On April 2, 2008, a website called Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History
added a section on the Tom Thomson drowning. It has hundreds of pages of
documents, letters, receipts, reports and more, including an interpretative essay I
was asked to contribute.
The website is intended for use by schools and universities across Canada in
teaching historical research. For me, it is an exhilarating experience to explore
because it includes many things I had never seen before -- chiefly correspondence
gathered in 1931 by Thomson biographer, Blodwen Davies. They are collected at the
website from the Library and Archives of Canada, MG30 D38 Blodwen Davies fond,
Her 1935 book, A Study of Tom Thomson, is remarkably short on detail. She
certainly was not interested in writing a scholarly and definitive book from which
future biographers would have no choice but to cite. Nonetheless, she was a
prodigious researcher. And among her papers on the new website are two that are
the subject of this essay.
By letter dated June 5, 1931, Ms. Davies obtained from T. E. McKee, crown attorney
and clerk of peace, what he described as a copy of evidence given by Dr. G.W.
Howland on July 17, 1917, at the inquest into Tom Thomson's drowning in
Algonquin Provincial Park's Canoe Lake nine days earlier. Dr. Goldwin W. Howland,
M.D., was a vacationing professor of neurology at the University of Toronto.
On Monday, July 16, he was staying at Taylor Statten's cottage on Little Wapomeo
Island, a few hundred yards from the Mowat Lodge dock from which Tom Thomson
set-off on a Sunday afternoon fishing trip on Sunday, July 8. He saw something out
on the water in the shallow bay across from Hayhurst Point and shouted to two
guides passing in a canoe to investigate. George Rowe and Lawrie Dickson,
Thomson friends, paddled over. They recognized Thomson's clothing. Rowe and
Dickson towed the body three hundred yards over to Big Wapomeo Island, where
they secured it to weathered Jack Pine roots in shallow, rocky water, where it was
partly shaded by over-hanging branches.
Eventually, the next day, the Provincial coroner being delayed, Dr. Howland examined
the body, it was embalmed and buried in the little Mowat Cemetery. When the
coroner, Dr. Arthur E. Ranney, M.D., finally arrived a few hours later, Dr. Howland's
testimony was the chief evidence upon which the inquest verdict of death by
accidental drowning was reached. The only record of any evidence received by Dr.
Ranney available today is what Ms. Davies obtained in 1931. Whatever other reports
Dr. Ranney may have made, if any, are lost. I am convinced there was nothing else.
Park Ranger Mark Robinson also made an official report, according to his daily
journal. It, too, has never been found. So, the record of Dr. Howland's testimony has
heightened significance. The copy send to Ms. Davies by Mr. McKee is as follows:
Dr. G. W. Howland qualified medical practitioner of Toronto, Ont., Sworn, Said: (Sgd.) Gordon W. Howland,
I saw body of man floating in Canoe Lake Monday, July 16th, at about 10
A. M. and notified Mr. George Rowe a resident who removed body to shore.
On 17th Tuesday, I examined boyd and found it to be that of a man aged
about 40 years in advanced stage of decomposition, face abdomen and
limbs swollen, blisters on limbs, was a bruise on right temple size of 4” long,
no other sign of external marks visible on body, air issuing from mouth,
some bleeding from right ear, cause of death drowning.
M. R. N.A.C.P.
Ms. Davies also corresponded with Tom's older, George Thomson, in 1931. In a
letter dated just three days later she received another copy of Dr. Howland's
statement from him. How George obtained it might be explained in part by a letter
written by brother-in-law Tom Harkness, executor of Tom’s estate, to Dr. James
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."
Possibly, Mr. Harkness did make some inquiries and obtained, among other things,
Dr. Howland's statement. More likely, however, as I will try to explain, George may
have obtained a statement himself directly on July 18-19 when he obtained a death
certificate and necessary burial documents from Dr. Howland. In any event, in his
June 8, 1931, letter to Ms. Davies, here is what George Thomson says:
"I am adding a copy of the coroner’s finding at the inquest which we hold in
his own handwriting:
July 17. 1917
“Body of Tom Thomson, artist, found floating in Canoe lake, July 16. 1917.
Certified to be the person named by Mark Robinson, Park Ranger. Body
clothed in grey lumberman’s shirt, khaki trowsers and canvas shoes. Head
shows marked swelling of face, decomposition has set in, air issuing from
mouth. Head has a bruise over left temple as if produced by falling on rock.
Examination of body shows no bruises, body greatly swollen, blisters on
limbs, putrefaction setting in on surface. There are no signs of any external
force having caused death, and there is no doubt but that death occurred
G. W. Howland
538 Spadina Av.
The differences between these two statements are just remarkable. In footnote 2 of
Chapter 15 of Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring, I commented on a
transcription of the signed statement Ms. Davies received from the Crown Attorney
with a cover letter dated June 5, 1931, but did not fully reproduce in her book.
I questioned a reproduction of that statement Judge William T. Little included in
his book, The Tom Thomson Mystery. I pointed out that Dr. Howland's name was
Goldwin, that he signed other documents in the case using initials for his first and
middle name, that he was a MB (bachelor of medicine) and a member of the NRCP
(Royal College of Physicians of the United Kingdom).
Evidently, it was Mr. McKee or his transcriptionist who is responsible for getting
wrong Dr. Howland's first name and medical credentials. (Also, a medical doctor
would not mis-write or mis-spell the word body.) More puzzling to me, however, are
all the other differences between these two statements -- especially that they raise
again the recurring inconsistency among witnesses over the location -- left or right --
of the bruise to Thomson's temple and whether there was bleeding from an ear.
The only conclusions I can draw are that the first of these two statements was not
an original handwritten by Dr. Howland. Obviously, the McKee version is a second-
hand copy. It also appears to me that Dr. Howland is as much responsible as
anyone for confusion over the bruise to Thomson's head. How else to reconcile the
important distinctions between these two statements?
I don't believe that either Mr. McKee, his transcriptionist or George could have mis-
read from handwriting "left" or "right." It is clear that they had copies of different
statements and reasonably believed they were completely authentic and accurate. I
have remarked before that I thought a medical doctor would not have confused
reporting a wound on the "left" or "right" temple of a patient or corpse. The medical
standard would put the wound from the victim's perspective. Do I now think it likely
that Dr. Howland could be an exception?
In earlier writing on this, I said it appeared doubtful Judge Little could have been
working from the original or an exact photographic copy of Dr. Howland's statement
because of the erroneous signature line he reported. I was both right and wrong. He
could only have relied the transcription prepared by the Crown Attorney he found
among the papers of Ms. Davies, where the errors originated, raising a question
about how and when Judge Little's obtained access to them.
Miss Davies died in 1966 and her neighbor, Pat McClelland, donated her papers
to Trent University in 1968. Judge Little did not credit either Miss Davies, Pat
McClelland or Trent University but adopted her papers for himself, an unworthy and
dishonest appropriation of the hard work and research she had done in the 1930s
before anyone else showed any interest in the true story of Thomson's death.
I have tried to reconcile differences in the historical record of Thomson death with
provable facts. I researched as much I could about the historical context of events
that last spring, train schedules, prohibition, steel caskets, embalming, availability of
telephone and telegraph service and much more -- reconciling it with the historical
record of where and when and how the various characters moved, what they did and
how they communicated with each other.
I can reach no other conclusion than that Dr. Howland himself personally wrote
the originals of these two different statements -- one delivered to Dr. Ranney and the
other delivered to George Thomson -- neither of which apparently has survived. Both
were evidently dated July 17 by Dr. Howland, which is troubling because its difficult
to believe that George Thomson had returned to the Park by July 17.
How Dr. Howland confused left and right might have been what to him was an
unimportant detail -- the body was dead with a badly blood-stained forehead --
common among deep lake drowning victims -- which was not important to causing
his death. In examining the body for signs of foul play, Dr. Howland was doing what
he asked to do as a vacationing physician, wanting to enjoy a few days away from
Toronto at a comfortable cottage on a remote island of Canoe Lake in Algonquin
He was only asked to report the medical condition of the body and signs of foul
play but not the cause of Thomson's drowning. He performed no autopsy. He
reported only his observations. What he was not asked to decide was whether the
death was an accident or murder or suicide. He said only that the cause of death
was drowning and not the result of violence, a fact neatly overlooked by other
researchers and writers. Dr. Howland was not, however, asked to and did not
explain how or why Thomson drowned.
Dr. Ranney had the legal duty to determine the cause of Thomson's drowning.
From what I know from my historical research today, Dr. Ranney reached his official
conclusion that the death was accidental drowning from the preponderance of the
evidence between the disputed testimony of Shannon Fraser and his wife, Annie,
who testified to letters between Tom and Winnifred Trainor of her demands for Tom
marriage, which offended and outraged the Mowat community, and that of all the
others, who were there, including Winnie's father.
More than likely Fraser produced or told Dr. Ranney of letters between Winnie
and Tom regarding their intimate relationship. From that, Dr. Ranney refused to
conclude that Thomson committed suicide by drowning. His conclusion was less a
refusal to stigmatize Tom death as suicide than it was a refusal to stigmatize
Winnifred Trainor as an unwed mother pregnant with his child, the real tragedy of