In Chapter 17 of Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring, I called
"Notebook: Little Falsehoods," I demonstrate that William T. Little altered
historical evidence and manufactured facts crucial to the theory of his 1970
book, The Tom Thomson Mystery. In this essay, I will point out a few more little
falsehoods I have found centered in Chapter 11 of his book, which describes
the arrival of Tom Thomson’s casket in Owen Sound and its burial in the Leith
cemetery on July 21, 1917.
Chapter 11 of Little’s book consists of three short pages. He begins by
saying that the steel casket arrived at the Canadian National Railway Station on
Thursday afternoon, July 19, where Mr. George Thomson and the local
undertaker met the train. Elsewhere among these essays, we reproduced a
copy of Thomson’s obituary from the Owen Sound Times, published on Friday,
July 20, which said that “[t]he body, accompanied by Mr. George Thomson, is
expected in Owen Sound at noon on Friday.”
First, I should note in passing that Owen Sound was not served by the
Canadian National Railway in 1917. Passenger train service there was
provided by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Second, Little knew for a fact that the casket was not loaded onto a
westbound train at Canoe Lake, served there by the Grant Truck Railway, until
the evening of July 19 because he reproduced an excerpt of Park Ranger Mark
Robinson’s daily journal as Appendix Nine of his book saying so.
On July 19, Robinson noted: “Mr. Churchill undertaker of Huntsville, Ont.,
arrived last night and took up the body of Tom Thomson artist under direction of
Mr. Geo Thompson of Conn. U.S.A. The body went out on evening train to Owen
Sound to be buried in the family plot.” (Emphasis added.)
Little re-wrote the excerpt to say: “Mr. Churchill, undertaker, from Huntsville
arrived last night (8 P.M.) and took up the body, upon the direction of George
Thomson. The body went out on the evening train to Owen. [In all probability it
was the morning train – westbound – as the evening train was eastbound. W.T.
L.] (Emphasis added.)
What’s important here may not be apparent to most readers of his book
because the changes Little made to Robinson's diary allowed him to tell a
consistent story. He did so only because Little’s theory of what happened
would have collapsed if George Thomson had directed his brother exhumation
at Canoe Lake and accompanied the casket to Owen Sound.
What’s difficult for me to reconcile is all of the clear and convincing evidence
for what actually happened in Owen Sound with what else Little wrote in
Chapter 11 and in footnote 78, which says:
“George Thomson (deceased) of Owen Sound, Ontario, in discussion with
the author Feb. 1957 and subsequently in 1962, categorically denied ever
having accompanied the body from Canoe Lake or ever having viewed the body
Algonquin Elegy established conclusively that George Thomson arrived at
Canoe Lake on June 18, and directed, if not personally participated in the
exhumation, accompanied the body, and arrived back in Owen Sound on late
Friday afternoon, July 20.
Instead, Little wrote that the casket was placed in an Owen Sound funeral
parlor on early Thursday afternoon, July 19, where he said:
“Relatives and friends visited the funeral home during the course of the next
two days. George, and other members of the family, spent many hours in the
funeral home talking quietly with friends who were shocked and sorrowful at
the untimely death.
. . . .
“The burial service was a simple one conducted by a Minister of the Knox
United Church before a multitude of close friends and family. The funeral
cortege extended for several blocks as its made its way through the town of
Owen Sound to the family plot in the little country churchyard at Leith, which was
within view of the old Thomson farm.”
The funeral home visitation and church service attended by a multitude of
friends and family appears is a complete and utter fabrication. Who told Little
that George spent many hours talking with friends at the funeral home and the
Knox United Church over two days and that the procession from Church to
grave site stretched several blocks? He cites nobody but the implication is
clear that his witness was George Thomson.
Much to the contrary, the Owen Sound Times on Friday, July 20, said the
family planned a sitting in their home on Friday evening, a private funeral and
burial in the Leith cemetery on Saturday.
Underlining his bizarre theory that Tom’s body was never exhumed, he wrote:
“Few of the actual circumstances of the exhumation and Tom’s death were
known by his friends or even by the family. George Thomson, in several
interviews many years later, related that he never did have a chance to discuss
the strange details of death or exhumation with anyone at Canoe Lake until
long after his brother’s burial.”
If that’s so, Little was badly duped. It defies belief that George, who visited
Canoe Lake twice after his brother’s drowning, never discussed anything about
the drowning or exhumation with anyone there. George first departed Owen
Sound on July 10 or 11, arriving at Canoe Lake on Thursday, July 12, according
to Robinson’s journal. He stayed for two days, returning to Owen Sound on
Saturday morning, July 14.
After the body was recovered, George again departed for Canoe Lake on
Tuesday, July 17, arriving the next day. He departed on the evening train of July
What is, perhaps, critical to understanding what George Thomson may or
may not have said to Little is that these interviews occurred only after Little and
three friends dug up Tom’s grave site at Canoe Lake in 1956 and found a body
in what appeared to be Thomson’s casket. Little’s discovery raised grave
doubts about the exhumation. Moreover, Little and others were pressing for the
copper-lined casket buried in Leith to be disinterred. Imagine George’s
embarrassment if it was found to be empty.
Finally, Little made two mistakes regarding a notation made in Church
records regarding Thomson’s death. First, he misleads his readers by quoting
from an entry he said was made in Knox Church records by Rev. A.D. Cornett, M.
A., B.D., Minister. He writes:
“The church records contain the following notation:
Knox United Church
Owen Sound, Ontario
Thomson, Thomas (Artist)
Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park
July 8, 1917
Age 39 years – born August 1877
Buried at Leith, Ontario – July 21, 1917
“Talented and with many friends and no enemies, a mystery.”
(Snd.) Rev. A.D. Cornett
Residence: 228 Ninth St. W.
What is wrong about this are two details I had not discovered until recently.
First, The Knox Church was a Presbyterian congregation in 1917 and did not
join the United Church of Canada until it was formed by the merger of the
Presbyterian Church of Canada and the Methodist Church of Canada together
with the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec years later. So, from
what was Little reading when he transcribed this entry? If it was the actual
record, as he implies, Little would not have made this error.
Second, in his book, Canoe Lake Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and Other
Mysteries, S. Bernard Shaw says the minister who made by the entry was
actually the Rev. P. T. Pilkey. Jim Poling, Sr., also attributed the entry to Rev.
Pilkey in his book, Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the
Famous Canadian Painter. (Unfortunately, I relied on Little’s fake reproduction
of the notation. Polings bibliography cites both books.)
Both Shaw and Poling apparently drew their information from a July 20, 1931
letter send by Rev. A.D. Cornett to early Thomson biographer Blodwen Davies.
Rev. Cornett reported the entry to her as signed by Rev. Pilkey. Evidently, Little
was relying on Ms. Davies, too. However, I find Little's error especially offensive
not only because of the erroneous signature but he also got many other minor
details wrong. The entry as described to Ms. Davies by Rev. Cornett was as
Thomson, Thomas (Artist).
Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park
July 8th 1917
Age – 39 years – born Aug. 1877
Buried at Leith, Ont. – July 21st 1917
“Talented and with many friends, and no enemies, a mystery”
In addition, Little's footnote 45 on page 170 of his book attributes not Davies but
Rev. A.V. Cornett and he gets the middle initial wrong, too. It is an obvious fake
intentionally reproduced in such a way as to lend authenticity to his book. While
other researchers may downplay what Little did here, it is clear and convincing
evidence of Little's cynical methods. Elsewhere in his book he committed the
worst sin a biographer can make -- he fabricated evidence to suit his case.
Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring , is as accurate to historical
detail as I could make it but it is not a biography. I certainly do fictionalize certain
scenes by way of presenting a courtroom-type argument, trying to reach
conclusions beyond reasonable doubt about Tom Thomson's tragedy from all
the available direct and circumstantial historical evidence.
However, I explained exactly what I was going to do fully and honestly in the first
three pages of the book called "Kristian's Notebook: Final Entry." Judge William
T. Little, however, does not. His book deserves the scorn of everyone seeking
the true story of Tom Thomson, an artist who sought truth and beauty.
A Few More Little