Nailing Down an Earlier
The grave in Algonquin Park's Mowat Cemetery dug up by Judge William T. Little and his
three friends on the weekend before Canadian Thanksgiving, October 8, 1956, contained
a few pieces of rotted wood remnants, a few nails, some casket hardware made of brass-
plated lead and the skeletal remains of a human body.
Judge Little convinced himself the skeletal remains belonged to Tom Thomson and his
1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, tried to convince everyone else. He argued that
the undertaker hired two days after Thomson’s burial in 1917 to exhume the body from its
wooden casket in the Mowat Cemetery had not done so but, instead, for reasons Judge
Little never even tried to explain, shipped the copper-lined casket for re-burial by the
family in Owen Sound filled with sand.
The undertaker, Franklin W. Churchill of Huntsville, indignantly insisted that he had
removed the body and also re-buried the original wooden casket when he finished. By
digging up the Mowat Cemetery in search of the wooden casket, Judge Little told his
friends they could prove or disprove Churchill’s story. The trouble was Thomson’s grave
was never marked and there may have been other unmarked and forgotten burials in the
Those nails are an invaluable clue to ending the controversy propelled by Judge Little
over the place of burial of Canada's greatest landscape artist, who drowned in Algonquin
Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917 because the square nails among them are
unmistakable evidence that Judge Little wrongly dug-up an earlier unmarked grave from
1897 and not Thomson burial in 1917.
A forensic report prepared by Dr. Noble Sharpe, M.D., for the Ontario Provincial Police
following Judge Little’s discovery, concluded that the skeletal remains were not Thomson
but belonged to a ten-year younger and two to four-inch shorter man, likely having at least
some native Indian ancestry. Judge Little was confounded and inexplicably demanded
that the family permit exhumation of the artist’s grave in the picturesque Leith Cemetery, a
few miles east of downtown Owen Sound.
The Thomson family has ever since refused and rightly so because, first, nobody ever
offered any plausible explanation for believing that Churchill did not properly exhume the
body and re-bury the empty casket. Second, it is far more likely that Judge Little dug-up an
unmarked and forgotten grave despite the bizarre insistence of otherwise reasonable
people that Churchill could not possibly have finished exhuming the body the evening of
July 18, 1917.
So, for example, Roy MacGregor’s new book, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of
Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, argues that Judge Little did, indeed, find
the skeletal remains of Tom Thomson but they were misidentified by Dr. Sharpe, who
otherwise made little effort to determine from its wood remnants, nails and hardware,
when the casket was constructed. MacGregor’s book does even ask the question.
Proving an earlier burial is made difficult by the fact that Mowat Cemetery never was an
official cemetery for which anyone kept a record of burials and neither did the Ontario
government’s death registration system. So, there was nowhere to look for records of
unmarked graves in the Mowat Cemetery. Searching among Ontario’s death records for
persons who might have been buried in the Mowat Cemetery because they either lived or
worked in the vicinity seemed like an impossibly difficult task. That was true before the
digitization of those records for online search software. Recently, the highly-regarded
website, ancestry.com added those death records to its enormous database for easy
search . Among them I found a death record supporting the possibility of an 1897 burial in
the Mowat Cemetery described more fully in another essay here called Antoine
Chouinard – An Earlier Mowat Burial.
Having done so focused my attention on those few parts of Dr, Sharpe’s forensic report
dated October 30, 1956 regarding the casket and hardware found to see if it was more
consistent with an 1897 or 1917 burial. Here is everything said by Dr. Sharpe about the
wood remnants and casket hardware he examined:
“The wood appears to be a coffin with canvas and a rough box. Only rotted piece remain .
. . . Only fragments of the canvas covering were found.
"The wooden fragments were identified as oak and cedar. The wood in the handles was
hardwood, likely maple. In one fragment the canvas was on the inside of the coffin. Nails
– only a few rusted pieces – were round. Square nails went out about 1900. But square
nail were used in the handles. These handles may have been old stock. The metal in the
handles and plates is lead. Infra-red photography of the plates shows only the words “At
The tricky task of this essay is to examine the historical details of this evidence regarding
the types of wood and nails and hardware found with the human body discovered by
Judge Little that some people believed should not have still been there in the Mowat
Cemetery, asking whether these details might be evidence supporting an earlier burial in
A specific description is available regarding the casket in which Tom Thomson was
buried on October 17, 1917, because his family was upset by the undertaker’s bill they
were later asked to pay. Robert H. Flavelle, the undertaker who provided the casket,
brought it with him from Kearney, where he was a furniture dealer who also sold caskets.
He specifically identified the casket in an exchange of correspondence with the Thomson
“As for the casket the buyer asked for the best I had, choosing the $75 one rather than
$50 or $60,” Flavelle wrote to Thomas J. Harkness, Thomson’s brother-in-law, who the
family named as executor of the estate. “For the benefit of your competent undertaker the
casket number is 619C panel.”
Flavelle’s description points to the existence in 1917 of a casket manufacturer with which
all undertakers in the area west of Algonquin Park would be familiar. The manufacturer
would have had a catalog that proudly displayed their line of caskets, including the 619c
panel. There would have been several 619 models with and without panel. To what
feature of the casket does “panel” refer?
"The lid was probably either fully removable or hinged and it may have had a panel that
could be removed separately from the lid, so that the full casket lid did not have to be
removed or opened," explained historical archaeologist Alexandra D. Bybee, MA, RPA,
principal investigator at Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc., with main offices in Lexington,
Kentucky. I imagine Thomson's odor was unpleasant, considering how long his body
was in the water (regardless of embalming), and use of a casket with a lid that did not
have to be opened was probably quite appropriate."
Judge Little said they first found the casket’s lower end. The top, he said, had collapsed.
The four men who did the digging – including the complete removal of a 20-foot spruce
tree growing over the center of the casket – probably committed additional damage.
Certainly, nothing said by Judge Little or Dr. Sharpe points to their doing the delicate work
demanded of them to find and preserve evidence of such a panel in the grave found in the
The fact that Dr. Sharpe did not follow-up by making a search of casket catalogs in 1956
when it might have easier than today is not surprising. First, he may not have had Flavelle’
s specific description of the casket and, if he did, Dr. Sharpe may have decided from his
observations at the grave and examination of the fragmentary wood remnants that it
would be impossible to compare what he had with the 619C panel if he could have found
such a catalog.
Rare is the library or anyone else that kept for later historical research such catalogs. I
did find a list of about 100 university libraries that have collections, including those of two
Ontario casket manufacturers -- the 1871 catalog of Ives & Allen Company of Montreal
and the 1906 catalog of Dominion Manufacturers, Limited, on Toronto. A resourceful and
diligent researcher today might yet find a catalog complete with a pen-and-ink drawing of
the 619C panel casket.
On the other hand, the casket’s hardware might be a more fruitful avenue of historical
research since the decorative handles and plates made of lead and plated in brass were
mass produced by a metal foundry, which supplied them to many different casket and
furniture manufacturers. They, too, published catalogs and there are photographs of at
least one piece of the casket hardware found 1956 -- a two-and-a-half inch long,
decorative, hollow lead, brass-plated, un-threaded casket handle end cap. Is it possible
to determine if it was produced as early as 1897?
Miss Bybee said that the metallurgy and engineering technology needed was more than
sufficient by 1897 to produce such casket hardware and casket industry handle designs
had not changed by 1917. “Unfortunately, there was little distinction between handle types
from the 1880s through at least the 1920s,” she said.
Evidence that both square and round nails were used in constructing the casket and
attaching its hardware is exquisitely frustrating because if only one type had been found it
would neatly confirm one or other possibility for the date of the burial found by Judge Little
in the Mowat Cemetery because as Dr. Sharpe pointed out that in his report, by 1900 the
first coils of steel round wire were being produced and machines were designed to
automatically produce from them wire nails.
The use of square nails in attaching hardware is certainly some persuasive evidence
that the casket found was more likely constructed before 1900 and not as late as 1917.
Moreover, Dr. Sharpe's observation that the they may have been part of an old stock of
casket hardware makes sense at a burial held in 1897 when round nail obviously were
only beginning to be used.
Flavelle was no more than a part-time undertaker whose bill for services to the
Thomson estate described him as a "dealer in hardware, stoves, tinware, wallpaper"
hardly would have kept more than a few caskets on hand to chose from for Thomson's
burial. All of them would have been relatively new, when neither he nor his casket
manufacturer no longer had any old stock of square nailed casket hardware.
His services had been requested not by Thomson's family but rather by Mowat Lodge
owner Shannon Fraser as strongly suggested in a letter from Thomson's girlfriend,
Winnifred Trainor to the estate administrator. Thomson had spent his last spring staying
at a second-floor room in the Mowat Lodge.
Flavelle said, "the buyer asked for the best I had, choosing the $75 one rather than $50
or $60." Given the circumstances and the times, it is inconceivable that Flavelle thumbed
through his catalog and ordered a custom-built 612C panel casket delivered to him by the
manufacturer and took delivery in Kearney before boarding the train for Thomson's burial.
Finally, in addition, only conclusive historical evidence that round nails were not yet
unavailable to Ontario casket manufacturers by 1897 would completely exclude the
possibility that Judge Little mistakenly dug-up the earlier burial some Canoe Lake
residents told a freelance newspaper reporter in 1956 they had heard about over the
There were only two marked graves in Mowat Cemetery when Thomson was buried
there in 1917. The earliest occurred on May 25, 1897. James Watson, a worker the
Gilmour Lumber Company sawmill in the village of Mowat, then populated by as many as
700 people, was killed and buried in a Mowat Cemetery grave his friends marked with a
chiseled headstone. In 1915, the remains of an eight-year old boy who died of diphtheria,
Alexander Hayhurst were buried there, too. His grave is marked a simple headstone.
The Globe and 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. The
article ended as follows:
“Some residents think the body may be that of an unidentified lumberjack who worked for
the Gilmour firm many years ago.”
Gilmour Lumber operated at Canoe Lake for just a few years from about 1893 to 1900.
The last sentence of the article continued:
“Mrs. Jean Chittendon said she had been told there are several unmarked graves
adjacent to those of Hayhurst and Watson.”
Jean Chittendon was a daughter of the Hayhurst family, which once owned the cottage
on Canoe Lake north of the Tom Thomson Memorial Cairn erected at Hayhurst Point in
1917, according to lake resident expert Gaye I. Clemson, who wrote Algonquin Voices -
Selected Stories of Canoe Lake Women. Nobody could have had more reliable
information regarding unmarked burials in the Mowat Cemetery than a member of the
Mark Robinson was interviewed by Alex Edmison at Canoe Lake in 1952. He was asked
if he knew anything about the cemetery.
"Yes, that cemetery was set aside by the mill people chiefly and the Presbyterian
missionary that was stationed at Mowat. They had that little cemetery set aside as a burial
place," he said. "There was a lot of infants buried there of which there doesn't seem to be
any record at all, and Watson, a man by the name of Watson is the first recorded burial
there. . . . Well, the first burial that I anything to do with was the Hayhurst boy who died with
diptheria and they would not let us remove the -- take the body out of the Park. We buried
the boy over there. There's a tombstone there marking the place of his burial. And then
there was Tom Thomson."
Among the duties of the Ontario government registrar, J. A. Diversey, (the handwriting is
barely decipherable) in 1897 was to make an annual report of deaths for the Division of
Murchison, District of Nippissing. On December 31, 1897, Diversey recorded five deaths,
one of whom was a Canoe Lake resident named Antoine Chouinard. The entry he made
reports Mr. Chouinard was born in Trenton in 1855. Gilmour Lumber was headquartered
in Trenton, Ontario.
The death registration says that he was a saw mill employee killed by accidental injury
on September 25, 1897, four months after Watson died.
Dr. Sharpe noted in his report: “The wooden fence around an adjacent grave showed
pickets rotted at the ground level so a wooden marker could have disappeared from this
grave. I saw no stone marker for this grave.”
Ontario death records in 1897 did not record the place of burial. Mr. Chouinard died four
months after Watson had been buried in the Mowat Cemetery.
Dr. Sharpe also said: “The coffin appears to be too expensive for an Indian or casual
worker such as a lumberjack.”
Miss Alex Bybee disagreed.
“This was not necessarily true for the early twentieth century,” she said. “There was not a
huge difference in cost between a plain, undecorated coffin and one with moderate
embellishments such plates and handles.”
Mr. Chouinard is recorded in the 1871 Canadian Census as an 18-year old laborer
living with his parents, Antoine Chouinard, a shoemaker, his mother and six brothers and
sisters living in the West Hasting area of the Village of Trenton. By 1881, Mr. Chouinard
was married to his wife, Emelia, and they had three children. He was described as a 25-
year-old laborer. (The age discrepancy of a few years is common in old census records.)
Further genealogical research regarding Mr. Chouinard’s ancestry as a French-
Canadian with a common surname complicating the task is more likely than not to find
useful information because the Algonquin and other native Indian tribes of Canada
mingled much more considerably with its French than its English settlers.
Mr. Chouinard died under the medical care of a rural physician, Dr. H. H. Hawley,
M.D., who had to travel by railroad to reach Canoe Lake. If it was Mr. Chouinard's grave
mistakenly dug-up by Judge Little, he died with a round, three-quarter inch hole in the left
temple of his skull following a serious accident in the Gilmour Lumber sawmill.