On May 14, 1917, Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson entered a note in his daily
journal that will be the subject of this essay on the people and events surrounding the
drowning of Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson in the Park’s Canoe Lake a few
weeks later on July 8, 1917.
     “Martin Blecher, Jr., left this morning for St. Louis. I am of the opinion he is a German
     Such an accusation in wartime should not lightly have been made. Nonetheless, I
never found anything further indicating why Robinson was suspicious or that he or
anyone else ever further investigated the twenty-six year old, strongly-built but short man,
who claimed to be a private detective employed by the William J. Burns International
Detective Agency in Buffalo, New York.
     If so, his career was short-lived. The 1910 U.S. Census described him as an
assistant with a newspaper. He is missing from 1920 Census records. In 1930, he was
unemployed and living in his mother's home in Buffalo, New York. Blecher, apparently,
spent most of his relatively short life sponging off his father's retail furniture store wealth.
Blecher occasionally worked around Canoe Lake fixing boats and small engines when
he was sober. Otherwise, he was a drunken lout, boastful, gruff, loud and opinionated
but certainly not a German spy.  
     While doing research in preparation for my book tour the summer of 2006 in Ontario
Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring, I found a scholarly essay by
Peter Webb of the University of Ottawa, “Martin Blecher: Tom Thomson’s Murderer or
Victim of Wartime Prejudice,” in a 2004 collection titled
Refractions of Germany in
Canadian Literature and Culture
(Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York). Webb received his
PhD in English with a specialization in Canadian Studies in 2004. His twelve-page essay
does not attempt to offer a conclusive answer to speculation that Blecher killed Tom
Thomson. Instead, he discusses the evidence critically and provides a vivid picture of
wartime prejudice against Germans in Canada at the time of Thomson’s death.
     “Blecher was a recluse, an alcoholic, and may have been quarrelsome on occasion
but he was also helpful and hospitable in times of crisis,” Webb writes. “Many of his
neighbors in the remote village of Mowat, Ontario, feared him, but it is probable that the
fear was exacerbated by his German background at a time when the spectre of German
sabotage and espionage loomed large in wartime Canada.”
Algonquin Elegy, I reached the same conclusion – that the Blecher murder theory
grew out the prejudice of war. The Canadian Army Corps enjoyed its greatest victory of
World War I, the final capture of Vimy Ridge in France on April 9, 1917, where Robinson
had earlier fought and been wounded. On the 10,602 Canadian casualties there, 3,598
died during years of brutal trench warfare. The final Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge
marked a turning point in the country’s march toward nationhood.
     Martin H. Blecher was born in Buffalo, New York, on July 11, 1891 to German
immigrants, Martin H. Blecher, Sr., and Louisa Blecher. They also had a daughter,
Bessie, born in 1887. Martin, Sr., ran a successful furniture business on Buffalo’s
predominantly German East Side. According to a brief essay by Gaye I. Clemson in her
Algonquin Voices: Selected Stories of Canoe Lake Women, Martin, Sr., retired in
1909 and bought a white-washed, two-story, wood-framed cottage with green trim near
the Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. There were several other buildings
and a boathouse.
     “The family would arrive each year early in the spring and stay late into the fall,” Ms.
Clemson said. “After the onset of World War I, there was in Canada a tremendous
amount of ill will directed at those of German heritage. The Blechers were also American
and, for many Canadians, Americans were always suspect. As a result, they were treated
with a great deal of suspicion. . . .At one point there was even some talk on the lake that
Blecher Jr., was a German spy. There is of course no evidence to prove this assertion,
but it is an urban legend that has been passed down ever since. Matters were not helped
with the death of Tom Thomson in 1917.”
     Webb points out that The War Measures Act, passed by the Canadian government in
1914, revoked many basic rights of Germans and other enemy aliens. Germans were
required to register their whereabouts at one of many regional offices and needed
special permission to cross international boundaries. German-Canadians were denied
the right to vote and the right to bear arms.  “Such widespread restrictions were
particularly insulting considering that, at the time, Germans comprised Canada’s third
largest ethnic group,” Webb writes. “Inevitably, government-sanctioned prejudice, echoed
by propagandist newspaper stories against the evils of ‘Prussianism’ influenced the
opinions of the general public.”
     For example, on June 9, 1912, Berlin, Ontario, officially became a city and was
considered to be the capital of Canada's German population. With the outbreak of the
First World War in 1914, came anti-German sentiment and an internal conflict ensued as
the city was forced to confront its cultural distinctiveness. There was pressure for the city
to change its name from Berlin, and in 1916, following much debate and controversy, the
name was changed to Kitchener, after the British field marshal Lord Horatio Herbert
Kitchener, who was Secretary of State for War until his death June 9, 1916 in the mine
sinking of HMS Hampshire.
     Robinson’s journal entry of May 14, 1917, regarding Blecher was followed up by just
three others.
    The next one he made a few days later on May 18, 1917. “Martin Blecher, Jr., returned
today to Canoe Lake via Renfrew.” Unless his earlier note referred to Mount St. Louis,
Ontario, these geographic references are difficult to reconcile. Moreover, Mount St. Louis
is southwest of the Park and Renfrew is far across Ontario, southeast of the Park.
    On June 30, 1917, Robinson noted that he visited trains at Canoe Lake “and looked
over three barrels of beer (2.5%) for Martin Blecher. Passed it as okay. It being for
personal use.”
    The last entry he made noted that Blecher went home to Buffalo on November 14,
    Nothing in Robinson’s journal indicates anything which fueled his speculation that
Blecher was a German spy reporting on military troop or supply movements by train
through the Park. Ms. Clemson, however, provides one possible clue.
    “His boat, called ‘Putt-Putt,’ would be heard going past Mowat every morning at dawn
to meet the train, a common entertainment for many locals,” she writes. Among
Robinson’s many duties was to meet all regularly-scheduled trains stopping at the
Canoe Lake and Joe Lake Stations each day. He may have noticed that Blecher was
doing the same thing. However, as many as 120 trains passed through these stations
each day during the height of the war, carrying soldiers, wheat, war materials and other
     Webb traces the beginning of published murder rumors to a newspaper article by
Kenneth Wells, “Art and Artists” published by the
Toronto Telegram on February 3, 1934,
and Blodwen Davies’s 1935 book,  
A Study of Tom Thomson. “Neither Wells nor Davies
mentions Blecher by name, but it is clear from Davies’s paper that since 1930 her
suspicions had focused on Martin Blecher, Jr.,” he writes. “Her chief source of
information was the man who had led the investigation in 1917 – Mark Robinson.”
     Robinson wrote to her on March 23, 1930, in reply to a request for information about
Thomson. Robinson’s lengthy letter is republished as Appendix Five to Judge William T.
Little’s 1970 book,
The Tom Thomson Mystery. Robinson suggested, “You Might
interview Martin and Bessie Blecher, but again be careful, they Possibly Know more
about Tom’s sad end that any other Person.”  Robinson also responded to an undated
questionnaire in which Ms. Davies appears to be fishing for evidence against Blecher,
according to Wells.  Judge Little seized upon these and other entirely unattributed
evidence of an argument between Blecher and Thomson the night before his
disappearance during a drinking party at George Rowe’s cabin, attended by several other
     “Little alleges that Blecher was an openly pro-German jingoist during the First World
War, and that his beliefs triggered consternation between him and Thomson, whose
views fell somewhere between British patriotism and pacifism,” Well writes, concluding
that “[p]ortrayls of Blecher typically emphasize his suspicious or violent qualities while
ignoring his more positive one. The result is a distortion of the archival evidence through
a lens of prejudice and myth, which serves an embellished historical narrative – at the
cost of accuracy.”
     In preparing his essay, Webb interviewed Bob Crook, who he said owned the former
Blecher property at Canoe Lake. Webb notes that Crook told him speculations still
abound that Blecher was a rival for the affection of Winnifred Trainor, a neighbor of
Blecher’s in 1917 -- actually two doors away.
Algonquin Elegy highlights this more
closely, suggesting that Judge Little spiced-up his story with such gossip, clearly
intending to add  romantic jealousy to Thomson’s patriotism as points of contention
between them so that Thomson’s antagonism toward the German-American could be
seen as embodying his nation’s fierce, independent spirit highlighted by a Canadian
     Little’s means of doing so reminded me and, I think, Dr. Sherrill Grace, PhD, who
wrote a review of Thomson literature in 2004,
Inventing Tom Thomson, of the purple
prose used by Ms.  Davies in 1935. Ms. Davies raised her suspicions of murder against
Blecher, who she never named, by asking three rhetorical questions:

“Who met Tom Thomson on that stretch of grey lake, screened from all, that July

Who was it struck him a blow across the right temple – and was it done with the thin edge
of a paddle blade? – that sent the blood spurting from his ear?

Who watched him crumble up and topple over the side of the canoe and sink slowly out
of sight without a struggle?”

Little, who knew that Blecher died in 1938 of a heart attack, more freely used this same
dramatic technique in accusing him of Tom Thomson’s murder:

“Did Martin Blecher resent Tom’s visits to Winnie Trainor, just next door to him, during
those summer evenings?

Did Tom resent Martin’s presence so close to Miss Trainor?

Had anything ever been said between them, or had the resentment lain beneath the
surface, awaiting the inevitable final provocation?"

The manner in which Judge Little built his case against Blecher is deeply troubling to me
because its not only semi-plagiarism but he relied on without ever mentioning
Robinson's ridiculous suspicions and he resorted to narrative maneuvers, rhetorical
questions, innuendos and  subtle bigotry. This was highly unworthy of his professional
standing, especially because he did his dirty work with the smug satisfaction of a judge
with his foot pressed firmly on the scales of justice knowing that the inevitable final
verdict any reader would reach was “Guilty.”  
    George Thomson visited Canoe Lake on July 12 to 14 and again on July 18 and 19,
following his brother’s drowning on July 8, 1917. He certainly spoke with all Canoe Lake
residents who attended the drinking party at which Blecher and Thomson allegedly
argued. His version of what they told him hardly supports any murder theory. Recounting
what George reported to the family, youngest brother, Fraser, told the
Toronto Telegram
in an October 12, 1956, interview:    
     “I know that there had been ill will between a German … and my brother. Tom had
been trying to enlist and the German said something to him. There was a quarrel. Then
Tom was found dead soon afterwards. Who knows what happened. His death will
always be a mystery.”
     Webb never remarks directly on Mark Robinson belief that Martin H. Blecher, Jr., was
a German spy or why nothing ever seems to have been done to investigate more fully his
suspicions. “Mark Robinson . . .incorporated some of his beliefs . . . into campfire stories
he told at nearby Camp Ahmek,” Webb said. “Thomson’s romanticized image as a
woodsman-painter was contrasted with Blecher’s image as a shifty, vaguely threatening
German. The dichotomy parallels wartime Canadian newspaper headlines in which
idealized Canadian soldiers were pitted against the treacherous ‘Hun’.”
Martin H. Blecher, Jr.
-- German Spy?